Ranking drugs in Great Britain

If you haven’t been following recent developments in the UK, there’s been quite an upheaval and controversy over drug policy (the best coverage is at Transform Drug Policy Foundation blog).
Actual new and creative ideas are being discussed (although that is also causing backlash from the prohibitionists, who are attacking with renewed vigor).
And studies that actually trash entrenched thinking are not only being published, but reported in the media. In reporting the Lancet study published yesterday, the Associated Press and the Globe and Mail even shouted in the headline: Booze, smokes worse than some illegal drugs: study.

New ‹landmarkŠ research finds that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than some illegal drugs like marijuana or Ecstasy and should be classified as such in legal systems, according to a new British study. […]
Heroin and cocaine were ranked most dangerous, followed by barbiturates and street methadone. Alcohol was the fifth most harmful drug and tobacco the ninth most harmful. Cannabis came in 11th, and near the bottom of the list was Ecstasy.
According to existing British and U.S. drug policy, alcohol and tobacco are legal, while cannabis and Ecstasy are both illegal. Previous reports, including a study from a parliamentary committee last year, have questioned the scientific rationale for Britain’s drug classification system.

To me, the interesting thing here is the discussion — the fact that conventional wisdom about the relative dangers of drugs is being questioned — not the specific rankings. The methodology, though interesting, is subjective and can’t really control completely for the effects of a drug’s legal status.

Prof. Nutt and his colleagues used three factors to determine the harm associated with any drug: the physical harm to the user, the drug’s potential for addiction, and the impact on society of drug use. The researchers asked two groups of experts Ö psychiatrists specializing in addiction and legal or police officials with scientific or medical expertise Ö to assign scores to 20 different drugs, including heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, amphetamines and LSD.

Still, this is a great opportunity for dialogue, and even the U.S. press is carrying the story.
Update: Of course, the notion that illegal drugs can be less dangerous than legal drugs is not anything even remotely new, and is, in fact, a big yawn to drug policy reformers. However, it’s something that is still a bit of a surprise to many of those uneducated about drugs and drug policy.

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