Leading article: A clear-headed approach

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The Independent Online

The latest report from the House of Commons Science Select Committee does not mince its words in condemning the existing illegal drugs classification system used by the authorities. The system, it says, is based on "ad hockery and conservatism"and should be scrapped. The committee proposes to replace it with a wholly new scale that would rate substances purely on the basis of the health and social risks involved in taking them. It would remove the link to potential punishments under the law. And it would include legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco to give the public "a better sense of the relative harms involved" in drug consumption.

The report is not as comprehensive as it might have been. It sidesteps the question of legalisation and makes relatively little mention of issues such as the provision of addiction treatment, and the prevalence of the abuse of particular narcotics. It is essential for such wider social factors to be considered when determining how a society can best deal with the problem of drug taking.

But in fairness to the committee, it did not set out to discuss such themes. Its focus was the classification system itself. And the report is right to highlight that there are major problems with the present system of rating drugs. Over time it has come to reflect little more than the level of penalties offences such as possession and dealing can attract. This tells us nothing about how dangerous a drug actually is, something the committee's chart of the most damaging illegal drugs reveals. It is notable, for instance, that class-C ketamine is found to be more damaging than class-A ecstasy.

This raises a question mark over the very point of a grading scale.If one of its aims is to deter would be drug takers, the new system recommended by the committee would certainly make more sense. As things stand, the question of whether ecstasy is class A, B, or C is unlikely to be foremost in the mind of a young person experimenting with drugs. They will, most likely, make a decision based on how many of their peers are taking the drug. If they had access to an impartial scale, based wholly on the degree of harm a substance causes, they might well take more notice.

Another obvious benefit of the more scientific rating system is that it would be immune from cynical political grandstanding, of the sort we saw recently over the downgrading of cannabis. But this report is welcome primarily because it helps remove the question of drug abuse from the realm of myth and place it in the purview of science. We need a clear-headed debate about how to handle the phenomenon of illegal drug taking. Our present approach - and all the rhetoric that comes with it - owes more to fear than reason.

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