Martin Barnes: If there ever was a 'war', we lost it

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The Independent Online

In January, a review of the drug classification system was promised, with a consultation paper "in the next few weeks". Yesterday's report must push the review higher up the "to do" list. The committee used "unfit for purpose", "dereliction of duty" and "lack of transparency" to describe the ABC classification system and the way the Government uses evidence to inform drug policy.

DrugScope welcomes most recommendations. It is no surprise that the status of ecstasy and magic mushrooms as Class A drugsis questioned. Nor that the committee found no evidence the Misuse of Drugs Act has a deterrent effect. In the early 1970s there were a few thousand heroin addicts, today there are more than 300,000 "problem" drug users and the age group most likely to use drugs was born after the Act.

However, it is easier to point to failings than to come up with solutions. We support a scale of harm including alcohol and tobacco but there would have to be a link with criminal penalties. A spectrum of relative harms does not address how criminal penalties should be applied.

The current system could be more responsive to emerging evidence of drug-related harms and, on paper, an ABC classification is as simple as, well, ABC. So why the criticism? In part, it has not lived up to the hype: there has been an over reliance on classification, but more fundamentally, the failings have been due to the political context. Politicians are nervous about drugs and changes in drugs policy. The reclassification of cannabis was a relatively minor change, but caused a firestorm. When the review was announced, the Home Office quickly denied suggestions that it could mean a reclassification of Ecstasy, which defeated the object.

The report attacked, we think unreasonably, the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs. But there are signs of optimism. The Government is reviewing its 10-year Drugs Strategy, David Cameron has called for a move away from "entrenched positions" on drugs, and there is an opportunity for something better than the "prohibition" versus "legalisation" debate and the traditional "tougher than you" political discourse. We can but hope.

Martin Barnes is chief executive of Drugscope