E certainly doesn’t stand for ‘evidence’

The UK government’s insistence on classing Ecstasy alongside heroin exposes the limits to its ‘evidence-based’ approach.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics

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On Wednesday, the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that Ecstasy be downgraded from Class A (where it holds hands with heroin and crack) to Class B (where it would rub shoulders with cannabis and amphetamines).

To anyone who’s been to high school in the past 10 years, this seems a perfectly rational proposal; for all the posters of Leah Betts on the walls, no one you actually knew ever appeared to suffer anything worse than an aggressive case of melancholy on a Tuesday, much less die. But the UK home secretary, Jacqui ‘Funny Bunny’ Smith, is poised to kick the ACMD’s report down a disused alley and carry on fixing penalties for Ecstasy-related possession and dealing at up to seven years and life respectively.

Hysteria over reclassification reached a fever pitch earlier this week, when the government’s chief drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, claimed that taking Ecstasy is about as dangerous as ‘Equasy’ – a condition he has made up to describe horse-riding. The number of deaths caused by the drug annually, Nutt asserts, is roughly equivalent to the number of those killed or injured riding. Furthermore, by adding hunting to the equation, Equine Addiction Syndrome also leads to ‘gatherings of users that often are associated with these groups engaging in violent conduct… Based on these harms it seems likely that the ACMD would recommend control under the Misuse of Drugs Act, perhaps as a Class A drug, given that [horse-riding] appears more harmful than Ecstasy.’

Despite the Daily Mail riding roughshod over him for daring to write this kind of thing in a medical journal, Professor Nutt was given an unexpected pat on the back in the House of Lords. On Tuesday, Lord Benjamin Mancroft announced that he had taken all the drugs he could get his hands on when he was young and had ended up addicted to heroin. The drugs did him some damage, he claimed, but far worse was the broken collarbone, four smashed ribs and a punctured lung he’d suffered through falls from horses.

To me, Professor Nutt’s shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude to pills was reminiscent of Noel Gallagher, who told BBC radio in 1997 that ‘as soon as people realise that the majority of people in this country take drugs, then the better off we’ll all be. It’s not like a scandalous sensation or anything like that… taking drugs is like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning.’ Both the expert and the Oasis frontman are demonstrating what most people under the age of 25 already know – that taking both Ecstasy and cannabis is commonplace and widespread among our generation, and getting hysterical about it is pointless.

Cannabis busts are still greeted by the tabloids like an ADHD sufferer on E-numbers. Despite the home secretary herself having admitted to being part of a generation where smoking pot was practically a rite of passage, Richard and Judy’s daughter was roasted only this week for being pictured with a bong at a party. The human Flipper, Michael ‘Reefer’ Phelps, was also caught with his hand on the toke last month, and was promptly dropped by one of his sponsors, Kellogg’s (no more Rice Krispies for the naughty Olympian), while USA Swimming suspended him for three months.

Sports-wise, no one is suggesting that Phelps would have had a performance-enhancing advantage from cannabis. (The race is off and Phelps sits at the edge of the pool: ‘Dude, this is, like, really wet. I think I’ll just, like, float.’) Despite his gold-medal winning ways, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to start smoking pot just because Phelps does, and even if they did, why the drama? As far as I can tell, the criminalisation of cannabis now rests on its links to mental health conditions, like schizophrenia. Even then, however, it has not been shown to cause mental illness but allegedly to exacerbate it in people who are already predisposed. As such, one pundit has claimed, cannabis and mental breakdowns have a relationship similar to petrol and car crashes. It is striking that the government’s much-advertised commitment to ‘evidence-based policy’ goes out of the window when it comes to drugs.

Perhaps the whole debate on the reclassification is overloaded with significance. Whatever letter of the alphabet Ecstasy comes in at, it’s unlikely to put off ravers from getting high.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said don’t celebrate drugs, decriminalise them. Rob Johnston criticised Labour’s schizo drug policy. Neil Davenport called cannabis the political class’ drug of choice. He also asked why everyone loves ‘Dopey’ David Cameron. Jamie Douglass looked at Charles Clarke’s bad trip and drug use in schools. Josie Appleton looked at how morality is being injected into the drugs debate. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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