Will a New Study Force Changes in Drug Law?

AlterNet has published a well written reaction to the release of the British RSA drug policy report. The author has a clear bias but he is right that this offers a useful framework for discussion.

I question his near Utopian characterization of England–as this blog frequently posts, they’re having problems of their own.

While I agree that we need major changes in drug policy, he paints the shedules in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act as irrational (almost deliberately so). Those schedules are based on a combination of abuse potential and accepted medical utility–this may or may not be the best way to classify drugs, but it’s not all that irrational. It might be helpful to revisit the drug schedules, but the real problem seems to lie in penalties.

Finally, reform advocates who seek decriminalization seek to present the possibility of drug policy decisions as wholly rational and something akin to an accounting exercise. Considering the harms that drugs cause and ranking those harms is impossible to do objectively–this has to be a subjective exercise, and values will inevitably enter the equation.

After two years of research, this panel of experts and laypeople came to a number of conclusions so sensible and so obvious that it’s astonishing how consistently our elected leaders have avoided confronting them. In particular:

  • The notion of a drug-free society is “almost certainly a chimera. … People have always used substances to change the way they see the world and how they feel, and there is every reason to think they always will.” Therefore, “[t]he main aim of public policy should be to reduce the amount of harms that drugs cause.” A policy based on total prohibition “is bound to fail.”
  • The concept of “drugs” should include tobacco and alcohol. “Indeed, in their different ways, alcohol and tobacco cause far more harm than illegal drugs.” These substances should be brought into a unified regulatory framework “capable of treating substances according to the harm they cause.”
  • The heart of this new regulatory framework must be an index of substance-related harms. “The index should be based on the best available evidence and should be able to be modified in light of new evidence.”
  • We need a new way of evaluating the efficacy of drug policies. “In our view, the success of drugs policy should be measured not in terms of the amounts of drugs seized or in the number of dealers imprisoned, but in terms of the amount of harms reduced.”

As an example of the sort of harms index they envision, the RSA Commission points to an index developed by a pair of British scientists, David Nutt and Colin Blakemore, and published in a House of Commons report last year.

Based on scientific evaluations of physical harms (e.g., acute and chronic toxicity), likelihood of dependence, and social harms (including damage done to others, health care costs, etc.), Nutt and Blakemore ranked 20 different classes of drugs, both legal and illegal. Not surprisingly, heroin was at the top of the harm scale, followed by cocaine and barbiturates. Alcohol and tobacco were rated as significantly more harmful than marijuana and several other illegal substances.

While not specifically endorsing the Nutt/Blakemore index, the RSA Commission clearly considered these rankings a good example of what they have in mind, using them as a starting point for illustrations of how such an index might translate into law. Marijuana, they wrote, “should continue to be controlled. But its position on the harms index suggests that the form this control takes might have to correspond far more closely with the way in which alcohol and tobacco are regulated.”

Both the United States and Britain now have drug laws that rank drugs into a series of classifications. The problem — well, at least one problem — is that these classifications have little connection to what the science actually tells us about the dangers (or lack thereof) of different substances. Britain’s version, the commission noted, “is driven more by ‘moral panic’ than a practical desire to reduce harm. … It sends people to prison who should not be there. It forces people into treatment who do not need it (while, in effect, denying treatment to people who do need it).”

And Britain’s law is, on at least one key point, far more rational than the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The British classify marijuana in the lowest of three classes of illicit drugs — still illegal, but treated as less dangerous than cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Simple possession, without aggravating circumstances, is generally a “nonarrestable” offense.

Our CSA ranks marijuana in Schedule I, the worst class of drugs — considered not only to be at high risk of abuse but also to be unsafe for use even under medical supervision — along with heroin and LSD. Amazingly, cocaine and meth are in Schedule II — considered acceptable for use under medical supervision. That such a ranking is insane should not need to be stated.

There are plenty of specifics in the RSA report about which reasonable people can disagree. But the important thing is not what they say about any specific drug — and indeed, the report is careful not to advocate specific legal changes for particular drugs. What’s important is that it suggests a framework that’s far more rational than what now exists in the United States, Britain and most other countries: A reality-based approach rooted in sound science, focusing on how to reduce harm.