No doubt there were some cross faces at the Home Office this morning. Its very own drugs tsar has rubbished the existing classification system for illegal substances, saying that alcohol and tobacco are far more harmful than many drugs.
Professor David Nutt should know, being the chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. He’s already had one run in with the boss, the former home secretary Jacqui Smith, after comparing the dangers of ecstasy to horse riding.
What Nutt’s comments do, and why we should welcome them, is re-open a considered and evidence-based enquiry into how harmful different drugs are and whether the classification system is working – which, he believes, it isn’t.
If we want to fight drug use (and we do), we need to do away with this dodgy ammunition.
The stated purpose of classifying drugs is the deterrent effect. The punishments are intended to be proportionate to the harm caused.
So, in theory, you should have thought twice about smoking a joint when cannabis was reclassified from a Class C to a Class B substance, because overnight it became more harmful, and the penalties more serious.
Yet, as Nutt has said before, there is no solid evidence to show that classification has any deterrent effect whatsoever.
What we need, and what Nutt proposes, is a new ranking system which brings the harm caused by both legal and illegal substances into line. Alcohol would come fifth, after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco would be ninth, before cannabis, LSD and ecstasy.
The need for an up-to-date system is grossly overdue. The classification of ecstasy, for example, is based on research from over thirty years ago, and lands it in the same category as heroin.
Whether Nutt has a pro drug agenda or not, as has been suggested, his idea does not seem likely to encourage drug taking. A credible and scientifically sound ranking system for all stimulants is not going to persuade new users – usually teenagers – to get stuck in. After all, where’s the fun in hanging out of your bedroom window to smoke something tamer than the glass of wine your parents are supping downstairs in the kitchen?
It isn’t just the government Nutt is rubbing up the wrong way. By emphasizing the dangers of alcohol, he returns to a fact so many contented middle class binge drinkers try to bury under skewed justifications – consistent heavy drinking is far worse for you than one night on ecstasy.
The problem is that those writing the drugs policy can’t get away from the moral suspicion that all illegal drugs are inherently worse for you than anything legal.
Sophie Morris is a freelance journalist