Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee
Drug classification: making a hash of it?
HC 1031, July 31st 2006



Note: The Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee is a cross-party group of MPs (Members of Parliament) who advise Parliament.



Purpose and conclusions of the inquiry:

107. In this case study, which forms part of our broader inquiry into how the Government handles scientific advice, risk and evidence, we examined the role that scientific advice and evidence have played in the classification of illegal drugs. The classification system purports to rank drugs on the basis of harm associated with their misuse but we have found glaring anomalies in the classification system as it stands and a wide consensus that the current system is not fit for purpose.


Summary, p.3:

        We have identified significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs and a regrettable lack of consistency in the rationale used to make classification decisions.

        We have concluded that the current classification system is not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a more scientifically based scale of harm.


Background to the original purpose of UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act – based on prior legislation and UN drug Conventions but intended to evolve with new evidence from an independent scientific committee, the ACMD:

6. The United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and its attempts to establish a Convention on Psychotropic Substances (eventually ratified in 1971) formed an important backdrop to the UK’s efforts to rationalise its legislation in this area. James Callaghan, the then Home Secretary, told Parliament in 1970 that in developing the ABC classification system the Government had used the UN Single Convention and guidance provided by the World Health Organisation to place drugs “in the order in which we think they should be classified of harmfulness and danger”.7 Even at that early stage, the Government said that drugs would be classified “according to the accepted dangers and harmfulness in light of current knowledge”, with provision “for changes to be made in […] the light of scientific knowledge”.

7. The Misuse of Drugs Act did not specify why particular drugs were placed in Class A, B or C but did create an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to keep the classification of drugs under review. …Various drugs which were not originally regulated under the Act have also become classified—ketamine, gamma-hydroxy butyrate (GHB) and steroids have all been placed in Class C.


Legitimate aim or purpose of classification:

78 The stated purpose of the classification system is to classify harmfulness so that the penalties for possession and trafficking are proportionate to the harm associated with a particular drug.


Failure to achieve legitimate aim:

Classification system used for an improper purpose:

Summary, p.3: we have expressed concern at the Government’s proclivity for using the classification system as a means of ‘sending out signals’ to potential users and society at large—it is at odds with the stated objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm.

Classification ranking is arbitrary and disproportionate to objective evidence of harmfulness:

96 a paper authored by experts including Professor Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee, which we have seen in draft form, found no statistically significant correlation between the Class of a drug and its harm score. … the paper asserted that “The current classification system has evolved in an unsystematic way from somewhat arbitrary foundations with seemingly little scientific basis”.195 The paper also found that the boundaries between the Classes were entirely arbitrary.

106. One of the most striking findings highlighted in the paper drafted by Professor Nutt and his colleagues was the fact that, on the basis of their assessment of harm, tobacco and alcohol would be ranked as more harmful than LSD and ecstasy (both Class A drugs). The Runciman report also stated that, on the basis of harm, “alcohol would be classed as B bordering on A, while cigarettes would probably be in the borderline between B and C”.


Recommend a 'consistent policy':

Recommendation 23: We recommend that a consistent policy be developed as part of the forthcoming review of the classification system.


Sentencing & HRA implications:

80. The penalties associated with classification can have serious consequences for users in terms of sentencing.



Appendix 14, A rational scale for assessing the risks of drugs of potential misuse, submitted by the ACMD, is the “paper authored by experts including Professor Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee”.

        The current classification system has evolved in an unsystematic way from somewhat arbitrary foundations with seemingly little scientific basis.

        The correlation between MDAct classification and harm rating was not statistically significant.

        Alcohol [and] tobacco … were ranked as more harmful than LSD.

        Our findings raise questions about the validity of the current MDAct classification, despite the fact that this is nominally based on an assessment of risk to users and society. This is especially true in relation to psychedelic type drugs. They also emphasise that the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the MDAct is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary.

        Our findings reveal no clear distinction between socially accepted and illicit substances.


ACMD Chairman’s oral evidence to Science & Technology Committee, 15 February 2006, HC 900-i:

Q127 Chairman: Bearing in mind that alcohol probably kills directly or indirectly about 32,000 people a year, tobacco 130,000 people a year, and those deaths are far in excess of all the deaths caused by the use of all illicit drugs, why is your committee not enabled to look at tobacco and alcohol as well as all the other substances?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins [ACMD]: I think the idea that we would control tobacco and alcohol in the form of the Misuse of Drugs Act (which would thereby render them illegal in terms of possession or supply) - the Americans tried this in Prohibition days in the 1930s, and it was a disaster and just encouraged crime, and quite clearly it is not a practicable proposition.
Q128 Chairman: But, Professor Rawlins, that is exactly what has happened in terms of the drugs classification system. It is exactly what happened with the prohibition of alcohol in the States.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I would not disagree with that.

Q166 Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: What we have to do though is realise that over the last 30 years the use of drugs has dramatically increased in this country, and that the criminal justice system has not prevented that in any way.


ACMD Chairman and Government minister’s oral evidence before Science & Technology Committee, 22 November 2006, uncorrected, HC 65

Q68 Professor Sir Michael Rawlins [ACMD]: It seems to be a principle of British justice that the penalty fits the crime. The more severe the crime and the more nasty stuff you are purveying then you go to prison for longer periods of time. That seems to be a perfectly reasonable approach to justice and I had always believed it to be the approach underpinning the classification system; the nastier the drug the longer you go to jail if you start trading in it.
Chairman: Nastier means the degree of harm to the individual and to society?
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Exactly.
Q70 Chairman: Which is why we sell alcohol in every supermarket!
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: It would be a very brave Home Secretary who declared alcohol a controlled substance.
Q73 Adam Afriyie:
With the harm caused by alcohol and arguably tobacco, in my view looking at the scales, they should be rated far higher than LSD and ecstasy. Where do you think it would be positioned on the table?
Mr Coaker [Government minister]: First of all, there is a distinction between illegal and legal drugs, as I know you are aware, and what we have got is a classification system that ranks illegal drugs. What we also have alongside that is issues with respect to substances which are legal, as alcohol and tobacco are, and that we know cause harm, particularly with the misuse of alcohol. The misuse of alcohol is a serious problem. I have seen what people have said as to where it should be placed. I think somebody was recommending somewhere on the border of A and B. I do not know whether that is the appropriate place for it but I stress again, Adam, it is the misuse of alcohol and we do have significant policies in government to try to tackle a problem which we know is a very real one.
Q74 Adam Afriyie: Okay, but do you think it might be helpful in the Government's aim to tackle the misuse of alcohol and perhaps even the use of tobacco, to educate people by including it in that table of harm so they can see very clearly where they fit as mind-altering drugs?
Mr Coaker: If you have retained the classification of illegal drugs, as we have done, I do not think you could put it in that categorisation. What we are doing ---
Q75 Adam Afriyie: --- But that is based on the harm to individuals and society and surely you can place alcohol within that table?
Mr Coaker: The judgment that we have made is a distinction between legal and illegal drugs, but what we have also recognised, however, is that you have got a classification system dealing with illegal drugs, then we have got legal substances - and again there is no division between us on this - and we know where alcohol is abused there is a real issue. We know that we need to tackle that. We have an alcohol harm reduction strategy which we are looking at, and we are working with the industry, working with education, working with health, working with all other government departments to try to tackle that.
Q76 Adam Afriyie: The only short point I would make and ask for a comment on is why does the Government feel the need to withhold that information, if you like, as to the harm to individuals and to society of legal drugs like alcohol? Why is that not in the table? Would that not help to educate people to see the impact that these substances have on society?
Mr Coaker: We are not trying to withhold information about the harm that the misuse of alcohol does. We know the misuse of alcohol is extremely harmful. There has been a lot of publicity about it, the information is out there, there have been a lot of debates in Parliament and so on about all of that. What I am saying is that we would not put it in a classification system at the current time where we rank illegal drugs.
Mr Newmark: That is only for historical reasons. The fact is that both alcohol and tobacco alter people's mental functioning. If we are trying to educate the public as to the harm of drugs that are illegal, then I do think there is some sort of relativism in order to be honest with the public with respect to alcohol and tobacco. That is not something we are saying you should do but it is something that should be considered. Again, for historic reasons we have said that marijuana is illegal and yet we know of many young people who take marijuana and who say it is no more harmful to them in terms of altering their mental functioning than two glasses of alcohol of some form. I think it is important if we are going to be honest with the public that we do tabulate it. We could have one column that says "illegal" and one that says "legal". The fact is just because for historic reasons we have decided marijuana is illegal and alcohol and tobacco are legal does not alter the fact that both actually alter people's mental functioning, and I think that is the important message we need to get across to people.
Q77 Chairman: Do you agree with that?
Mr Coaker: First of all, marijuana - and I know you are not saying this, Brooks, but just to be clear about this - will stay a legal drug. I know that you were not suggesting that it should not be. Just to repeat the point, I think the important message is about the harm that the misuse of alcohol does. That is the message that we need to get out there. That is the message that we are trying to do. I am not sure to put that in a list with illegal drugs is the most appropriate way to do that. There is an issue about ensuring that everyone is aware of the harm that misuse of alcohol causes.
Q78 Dr Turner: I think the point, Vernon, is not so much that anyone is suggesting that tobacco or alcohol should be made illegal but that it should be pointed out that were they illegal drugs this is where we would put them on a scale of harm.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Can I come in here. In another life I live every day with the problem of alcohol and tobacco, which cause more misery and suffering than the whole of the misuse of drugs together. Collectively it causes about 150,000 premature deaths every year. Our response to that has to be very different to the response to the substance misuse issue. It is a massive problem, it causes, as I said, untold misery, and our reaction to it has to be predominantly a public health one. There are limits to what the law can do. Everybody knows that too much alcohol is bad for you, everybody knows that. Kids are also taught at school about the harm caused by tobacco. What is very disturbing is the fact that the early use of tobacco and alcohol by kids is probably the main gateway to substance misuse later on, and I think we really do need as a society to recognise the importance of tobacco and alcohol in relationship to kids and do more in schools. However,, frankly, putting it into the classification system I just do not think is going to get us anywhere. We have got to focus our effort on what will really, really work.
Q79 Mr Newmark: This goes back to my point, therefore if you are trying educate children - and I agree as someone who is a non-smoker and non-drinker myself - as to why drugs are bad (and I agree with Vernon's statement that that does not mean that we should make anything legal that is illegal) we must show young children in particular, if we are saying marijuana or LSD or anything else kids take is bad, in the exact same table that alcohol and tobacco are just as bad or relatively as bad as the other drugs on the table. That is part of the education process. If you are saying one is a public health issue because for historic reasons we have said alcohol and tobacco are perfectly okay but for other reasons we have said dropping LSD and smoking marijuana is not, I think it is very misleading to the public, and in particular to young people, and I think it shows that we are being hypocritical.
Mr Coaker: The only point I would make, just to repeat, is we have got a classification system for illegal drugs; we have got legal substances, alcohol and tobacco, which we try and regulate through other means such as through public health messages.
Q80 Mr Newmark: In terms of its impact on society ---
Mr Coaker: And we try to address that in different ways through public health messages that we put out and through education.
Q81 Dr Turner: I think the point is that you cannot necessarily put them into totally distinct categories because if you talk to anyone who drinks a bit and certainly anyone that smokes, nine times out of ten they will say, "I do not do drugs", but of course they do.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Coffee, tea, the whole lot; we all do drugs.
Dr Turner: Tobacco is a lethal drug. All I am suggesting is that you draw the parallels and you use this as part of your public education to the effect that alcohol and tobacco are examples of potentially very harmful or even lethal drugs.
Mr Newmark: And addictive.
Dr Turner: Which are as harmful if not more harmful than many Class A illegal drugs. I think that sends out a very powerful message if you link the two.