March 24, 2007 Just how dangerous are recreational drugs and what’s the most effective way to classify drugs as the basis for law enforcement? With the technologies for creating new substances now well ahead of the law’s ability to even recognise them, it’s clearly time for a new way of doing things. Last year, the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee tabled a report entitled Drug classification: making a hash of it? which concluded that the current UK classification of drugs into A, B and C classes should be replaced with a new system more closely reflecting the harm they cause. One of the most striking findings of the report was that based on the committee’s assessment of harm, tobacco and alcohol (in red on the chart) would be ranked as more harmful than cannabis, LSD and ecstasy. The 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". Now a leading researcher on substance misuse has expressed concern that the proposed classification regime is too limited in its approach to serve as a basis for changes in the law.
Dr Philip Murphy, a reader in Psychology at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk has co-authored almost 30 scientific papers on the use of ecstasy and its effects. “Whilst not disputing that alcohol related harm is seriously under-estimated in western societies, this analysis of the relative dangers of alcohol and ecstasy seriously under-estimates the problems associated with ecstasy,” said Dr Murphy.
“Over the past 10 years a large body of scientific literature has developed from research centres around the world showing the damage ecstasy can do to the brain, and the deficits in memory and other intellectual processes which can be associated with its use."
“On the basis of the newspaper reports, it appears that the psychiatrists consulted regarding drug related dangers for this proposed classification system were asked only to rate drugs on the basis of potential for physical harm, addiction, and social harm. It is possible, therefore, that damage to psychological functions was overlooked.
“The reporting also suggests an estimate of ten ecstasy related deaths per year. However, research into drug related deaths revealed 202 ecstasy related deaths between August 1996 and April 2002, for example. This equates to an average of more than one death every fortnight, which is surely not inconsiderable although, admittedly, lower than the rate of alcohol related deaths.”
As well as highlighting the need to consider the psychological impact of substances such as ecstasy when developing a ranking system, Dr Murphy also advises caution when revising the system of drug classifications.
“Whilst current drug laws are not perfect, the debate over their revision has to include consideration of what would be likely to happen if currently prohibited drugs had their restrictions removed and consequently became used more frequently and by a larger number of people,” he added.
“In the case of ecstasy it would be possible to predict a greater prevalence of damage to psychological processes and a higher number of fatalities.”