October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The worldwide trade of illicit drugs is big business, affecting countries across the world; from production in Latin America and the Middle East, to consumption in Europe and the United States (and everywhere in between).

At home, the saga of our own, outdated, drug legislation continues. Last week the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) held their 80th anniversary event, where Prof. David Nutt continued his campaign for evidence based drug policy.

magic mushroom image
Magic mushrooms – should it be a Class A drug?

Despite there being major limitations in our understanding of the workings of the brain, the effects of drugs on the individual user have been widely studied. The harms to society, a cause championed by the CCJS, have also been identified and largely quantified.

A study published last year by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs showed that medically, alcohol is the 4th most harmful substance behind crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. If harm to others are also taken into account, the data shows that alcohol is by farthe most damaging  substance.

Our obsession with an outdated drug classification system has led us to the ludicrous position where we place one of the least harmful substances, magic mushrooms, in the highest class, supposedly reserved for the most harmful drugs. This misguided approach, with little regard for the evidence, is damaging for individuals who, in trying to avoid illicit drugs, will take the more harmful (for the individual and society), yet widely available, substances alcohol and tobacco.

Alcohol use is so pervasive in our society that the number of people harmed from alcohol use is ten times greater than those harmed by heroin. However, despite the West’s best efforts to curb the supply of and demand for drugs through our war on drugs, consumption and prices on the streets of the UK are left largely unchanged.

Our war on drugs have destroyed ancient cultures and their traditions. It criminalises those in developing countries whose livelihood depends upon producing the raw materials that end their life being snorted, smoked or injected on our streets. It criminalises people (mostly young) in the UK not significantly harming anyone, except perhaps themselves by taking illegal substances. And finally it bolsters the hegemony of the US Southern Command (a section of the US Military tasked with fighting a militarised war on drugs in Colombia) whilst providing an added boost to the USA’s military industrial complex.

Only last week Bolivian President Evo Morales was up against pressure from the US government to drop plans to change the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to decriminalise coca leaves, a key ingredient in the Aymara Indian’s cultural traditions. The worry for the United States is that once again allowing use of coca leaves will leave to an increase in the production of cocaine. However, it takes 200kg of coca leaves, combined with a variety of chemicals, to produce only 1kg of cocaine, leaving the USA’s concerns unfounded.

200kg of coca leaves makes 1kg of cocaine

Confounding the absurdity of this American policy, scientists have found that chewing coca leaves is not harmful to the health of the individual. The cultivation and use of coca could give the historically exploited Aymara Indian population an economic boost.

Back in the UK, the future does not look bright for scientific and evidence based drug policy. Under recent government proposals, ministers will not be obligated to seek advice from scientists when classifying drugs. The new legislation would no longer require the Home Secretary to appoint scientists to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the organisation that currently collects and scrutinises scientific evidence before proposing drug classification. A further change would allow the Home Secretary to place “temporary” controls on new substances.

Labour MP Paul Flynn perfectly summed up the changes: “Will [these changes] not result in the failing government drugs policy ending up being evidence-free and prejudice-rich?” We have a long struggle to establish scientific evidence as a basis for policy decisions. If we continue disregarding the vast amounts of evidence at our disposal when evaluating drug policy, we will continue to harm both users and producers, at home and abroad.