Are we dividing drugs into illegal and legal based on a rational classification system based on risk?
A British government committee says no:
The committee’s report recommends that drugs be ordered on “a more scientific scale, to give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved”. But Michael Gossop of King’s College London, UK, who studies drug use, is not sure that drugs can be easily ranked by the harm they cause. “There are lots of different aspects to ‘harm’,” he says. “It’s not clear that when you add them together you get a simple rating.”
In seeking to compile a league table of harm, the parliamentary committee took evidence from a previous report by the ACMD. As David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist at the University of Bristol, UK, who helped to compile that report, explains, a drug’s potential for harm was divided into three factors: physical harm to the individual drug-taker, the tendency of the drug to create dependence, and the social impact of the drug’s use.
Twenty drugs were rated in this system by psychiatrists, chemists and other experts. At the top came the class-A drugs heroin and cocaine. But ecstasy came near the bottom of the list. “We just have to accept that some drugs seen as class A, such as ecstasy and LSD, are not as dangerous as we thought,” says Nutt. Meanwhile, alcohol was placed fifth, and tobacco ninth. (Emphasis mine.)
I must admit that the present system choosing drug legality is not particularly rational. Cannabis is not physically addictive and has not been shown to have any greater lasting consequences than cigarettes or alcohol. Why is it illegal? Still, drugs like heroin — which from both personal experience with patients and considerable experimental evidence remove one’s capacity for to give informed consent — are illegal and should be.
What we need to get to is a system like this one — one that fully evaluates the long-term and short-term risks of drug use with experimental evidence. Then we can give people the freedom to use those drugs for which recreational use is reasonable and possible and prohibit them from using those drugs for which it is not. Systems like this would not deny that all drug use has lasting consequences, but it would still allow the loophole of personal freedom when personal freedom can reasonably be exercised without inevitable self-harm or harm to others.
UPDATE: Nick has a great deal of analysis and facts over at The Scientific Activist.