Drug Discrimination Time Line



1952 The cancer advisory committee of the UK’s Department of Health told Richard Doll, the scientist who showed nicotine was carcinogenic: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1466699,00.html

You shouldn't frighten people into thinking that smoking might be dangerous.


1955 The World Health Organisation’s The Physical and Mental Effects of Cannabis:
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Under the influence of cannabis, the danger of committing unpremeditated murder is very great; it can happen in cold blood, without any reason or motive, unexpectedly, without any preceding quarrel; often the murderer does not even know the victim, and simply kills for pleasure.


1968 UK’s Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence: Wootton Report


Para 61: All in all, it is impossible to make out a firm case against cannabis as being potentially a greater personal or social danger than alcohol. What can be said is that alcohol, with all its problems, is in some sense the "devil we know"; cannabis, in Western society, is still an unknown quantity.

Para 63: To make a comparative evaluation between cannabis and other drugs is to venture on highly subjective territory. The history of the assessments that have been given to different drugs is a warning against any dogmatic judgment.

Para 66: All we would wish to say is that the gradations of danger between consuming tea and coffee at one end of the scale and injecting heroin intravenously at the other, may not be permanently those which we now ascribe to particular drugs.


1970 UK Home Secretary: Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/runciman/pf3.htm Chapter 3, para 1

In 1970 James Callahan, then Home Secretary, explained to Parliament the aim of drug classification under the new Misuse of Drugs Act (Hansard, March 25th 1970, Vol 798, col 1453):

The object here is to make, so far as possible, a more sensible differentiation between drugs. It will divide them according to their accepted dangers and harmfulness in the light of current knowledge and it will provide for changes to be made in the classification in the light of new scientific knowledge.


1993 World Health Organisation’s 28th Expert Committee on Drug Dependence:


3.2.4 Public health approaches to all psychoactive drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are increasingly being viewed in a common frame.

3.3.1 The strengthened network of transportation has also facilitated migration. … While in itself migration has not been an important mechanism for drug transportation, it has contributed to the increased contact between cultures with very different norms and understandings of psychoactive drug use.

4.1 [p.15] The social consequences of drug use are largely determined by social and environmental factors, such as the legal status of the drug. The possibility of imprisonment or other penalties only arises where a pattern of purchase or use is defined as illegal. The legal status of the drug will also affect the pattern and mode of administration, with illegality tending to push a drug into more concentrated forms and its use into mote life-threatening modes of administration.

5.1.2 …the Committee discussed the advisability of prohibiting under the international conventions plant products containing psychoactive substances that are traditionally used by indigenous populations. … However, the Committee felt that the social problems resulting from the prohibition of these products under the international controls might outweigh the health benefits. Several instances were cited in which prohibition of drugs with traditional patterns of use had caused unforeseen problems. The Committee suggested that, if regulatory control of these products was considered appropriate, a national control system might be used to regulate the market, such as many countries use for alcohol. …the Committee recommended that WHO should consider … making recommendations concerning international control provisions.

5.6 The structure of public opinion about drugs often undermines the effectiveness of rational drug control policies. For example, the widespread acceptability of cigarette smoking in almost all societies has made tobacco smoking a familiar and companionable behaviour, and one that can be fitted into almost all routine daily activities. In many societies, drinking has also become established as a socially acceptable behaviour, often associated with other activities, and so familiar that it may not even be noticed. … Conversely, a lack of knowledge about illicit drugs can contribute to excessive public concern and lead to ill-considered policy-making.

8. [p.31]: Government policies may also be inconsistent – the promotion of alcohol and tobacco may be unrestricted while the use of drugs that have less serious consequences may be illegal.

A rational drug control policy is an essential tool for fostering health promotion, irrespective of the legal status of individual drugs, and the absence of such a policy will result in considerable public health costs.

9.1.1. …[WHO has an] integrated approach to the problems presented by the use of tobacco and the harmful use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs, and [the Committee] recommended that prevention and treatment services should, wherever possible, be concerned with the harm produced by all these drugs.

9.1.3. Attention must be paid not only to illicit drugs, but also to alcohol and tobacco, medicinal psychoactive drugs and volatile solvents to ensure a reduction in health problems due to illicit drug use will not be offset by an increase in problems due to the use of other drugs.


1994 United States Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies for Understanding and Preventing Substance Abuse and Addiction.


P.13: Box 1-3: Drugs and Discrimination. In America, tensions between the majority and various minorities often hinge on concerns raised by drug use. The groups change over time and place, but the dividing issues remain remarkably similar. Those in power decide which drugs are legal and how rules should be enforced. Minorities charge that unfair policies result from prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

1850, Boston: Impoverished Irish Immigrants brought the tradition of drinking whiskey with them. In American cities, people often blamed whiskey for neighborhood quarrels. In the mid-19th century, clashes with Irish Immigrants occurred so often that police vans came to be known by the term “paddy wagons”.

1880, San Francisco: Fear of immigrant Chinese often focused on their recreational use of opium. In 1875, San Francisco outlawed opium smoking which most residents associated exclusively with the Chinese. This citywide ban became nationwide

in 1909.

1882, Ohio: German immigrants’ beer drinking often brought Germans into conflict with temperance advocates. Cincinnati’s lively German community gathered at beer gardens on Sundays to sing, dance, drink, and argue politics. In 1882, Ohio’s governor denounced Germans as “Sabbath breakers, criminals, and free thinkers”.

1930s, Colorado, New Mexico: The Southwest welcomed Mexican migrants during labor shortages but during the Depression, anxiety over competition for jobs shifted to wildly exaggerated fears of the effects of marijuana use customary among Mexicans.

To placate fears, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which prohibited recreational use of the drug.


1995, The World Health Organisation’s A Comparative Appraisal of the Health and Psychological Consequences of Alcohol, Cannabis, Nicotine and Opiate Use:


Unlike alcohol, cannabis does not produce cirrhosis for example. Moreover, in developed societies cannabis appears to play little role in injuries caused by violence, as does alcohol, although recently concern has been expressed in some developing countries that cannabis may be used to fortify criminal offenders. Unlike tobacco, all the evidence suggests that the proportion of cannabis smokers who become daily smokers is substantially less than the proportion of tobacco smokers who do so.


1997 United Nations World Drug Report, The Regulation - Legalization debate, p.198:

The discussion of regulation has inevitably brought alcohol and tobacco into the heart of the debate and highlighted an apparent inconsistency whereby use of some dependence creating drugs is legal and of others is illegal. The cultural and historical justifications offered for this separation may not be credible to the principal targets of today’s anti-drug messages – the young. If it is accepted that education and prevention are the most effective, long-term strategies against drug abuse, then planning a drug control regime for the next century should tackle this problem and its implications for both the developing and the developed world.


2000, The World Health Organisation’s Child & Adolescent Health webpage:


Tobacco is the most widely distributed and commonly used drug in the world today. More deaths are due to tobacco than to any other drug.


2000 UK’s Police Foundation: Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Runciman Report)


21 Such evidence as there is suggests that the health and other social costs attributable to illicit drugs are small compared with the health and social costs of alcohol and tobacco. A recent French study has estimated that 6% of the costs of responding to social problems caused by drugs are attributable to illicit drugs as compared with 40% to tobacco and 54% to alcohol.

23 We consulted the members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Substance Misuse about the relative harmfulness of controlled drugs. …their replies showed a high degree of consensus over the ranking of drugs by harmfulness. No-one disputes the position of heroin and cocaine at the top of the list. Methadone, amphetamines, barbiturates and temazepam when used intravenously are, in the consensus view of those whom we consulted, in the top seven (as is alcohol). Ecstasy, LSD, steroids and cannabis come in the last five (below tobacco). Buprenorphine, codeine and benzodiazepines other than temazepam are in-between.

34 Given the ranking that alcohol and tobacco have in the order of dangerous drugs, it is an obvious question why they and drugs controlled under the MDA should not be treated similarly: either alcohol and tobacco should be added to the appropriate Classes under the MDA or drugs that are no more dangerous than they should be treated as alcohol and tobacco are now treated. We resist this argument. In the first place, it is simply a fact that the use of alcohol and tobacco is so widespread and familiar that an attempt to prohibit their supply by law would lead to widespread resentment and law-breaking (as happened with the Prohibition experiment in the United States from 1920-33. Conversely, the present law against the drugs controlled by the MDA enjoys widespread public acceptance, with the exception of certain aspects of its operation against cannabis.

35 The cases of alcohol and tobacco are in any case not the same. Smoking tobacco is widely regarded as a bad and dangerous habit. Many who smoke wish that they could stop and measures are taken to prevent smoking in public places, to limit advertising and so on. It is a reasonable social aim that the use of tobacco should eventually disappear, even though that aim cannot appropriately be pursued by legal prohibition. Alcohol is a more complicated case. Although it is a dangerous drug and causes enormous social costs and harm, it is also used by many people moderately and non-destructively. It is strictly the misuse of alcohol that needs to be prevented, and while the ways in which this can best be done may be debated, control under the MDA is not one of them.


2002 UK’s Home Affairs Committee: Government’s drugs policy – is it working?


9. At the outset it is important to keep a sense of proportion. Legal drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, are responsible for far greater damage both to individual health and to the social fabric in general than illegal ones.

10. Substance misuse is a continuum perhaps artificially divided into legal and illegal activity.

20. While around four million people use illicit drugs each year, most of those people do not appear to experience harm from their drug use, nor do they cause harm to others as a result of their habit.

69. Why are alcohol and tobacco not integrated into the drugs strategy?
(Rosemary Jenkins) We have to recognise that the two substances are somewhat different in that they have legal status rather than illegal status, which means that the way in which you approach them has to be very different. It is much more complicated than drugs because of the general view that it is legal and most people manage their alcohol in a perfectly legitimate and reasonable way. So any strategy has to take account of that societal attitude.


2004 UK’s Sentencing Guidelines Council: Overarching Principles: Seriousness


A. Statutory Provisions

1.4 A court is required to pass a sentence that is commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. The seriousness of an offence is determined by two main parameters; the culpability of the offender and the harm caused or risked being caused by the offence.

1.5 Section 143(1) Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides:

In considering the seriousness of any offence, the court must consider the offender’s culpability in committing the offence and any harm which the offence caused, was intended to cause or might foreseeably have caused.

1.14 Some conduct is criminalised purely by reference to public feeling or social mores.

In addition, public concern about the damage caused by some behaviour, both to individuals and to society as a whole, can influence public perception of the harm caused, for example, by the supply of prohibited drugs.


2006 UK’s Science and Technology Parliamentary Committee: Drug classification: making a hash of it?http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmsctech/1031/1031.pdf

·         Summary, para 5: the current classification system is not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a more scientifically based scale of harm.

·         Summary, para 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”.

·         Para 96: a paper authored by experts including Professor Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee”, found “no statistically significant correlation between the Class of a drug and its harm score” and that “the boundaries between the Classes were entirely arbitrary.

·         Para 105: the placing of drugs in particular categories is ultimately a political decision.

·         Para 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).

·         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”. It states:

·         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.


2006 UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs: Pathways to problems


1.13 At present, the legal framework for the regulation and control of drugs clearly distinguishes between drugs such as tobacco and alcohol…, drugs which are covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and drugs which are classed as medicines…. these distinctions are based on historical and cultural factors and lack a consistent and objective basis.

p.14, para 2: Although its terms of reference do not prevent it from doing so, the ACMD has not considered alcohol and tobacco other than tangentially. The scientific evidence is now clear that nicotine and alcohol have pharmacological actions similar to other psychoactive drugs. Both cause serious health and social problems and there is growing evidence of very strong links between the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. For the ACMD to neglect two of the most harmful psychoactive drugs simply because they have a different legal status no longer seems appropriate.

2006 UK Government reply to Science and Technology Committee: Drug classification: making a hash of it? http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm69/6941/6941.pdf

Rec 50:

·         the Government acknowledges that alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs

·         The distinction between legal and illegal substances is not unequivocally based on pharmacology, economic or risk benefit analysis. It is also based in large part on historical and cultural precedents. A classification system that applies to legal as well as illegal substances would be unacceptable to the vast majority of people who use, for example alcohol, responsibly and would conflict with deeply embedded historical tradition and tolerance of consumption of a number of substances that alter mental functioning (ranging from caffeine to alcohol and tobacco). Legal substances are therefore regulated through other means.