I blogged a couple of weeks ago on the gap between the way in which the UK classifies drugs for legal purposes – and the available evidence on the harm they cause. The post followed a recommendation that ecstasy should be downgraded (from the scientists appointed by the government to give such advice) which was rejected out of hand by the government – and a chorus of other politicians.

I don’t normally return to posts this soon, but the March issue of Prospect magazine has an interesting take on the story. Elizabeth Pisani argues that users effectively internalise an assessment of the harm of drugs in their behaviour – and the police follow. There are a couple of  extracts from her article below the fold.

Elizabeth Pisani writes:

At the time [ecstasy came on the market in the late 70s] the drugs advisory council worried that ecstasy—Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA to its regulators, and simply “e” to its friends—would be the next LSD. The government slapped it in the class A category of drugs, along with heroin and cocaine… Consumers, on the other hand, found that it was nothing like LSD, heroin or crack. It doesn’t make the street turn into a spinning, multicoloured fairground as LSD can, it doesn’t make you zone out as smack will and it doesn’t make you want to thump someone, as crack so often does. The worst it does is make you hug a lot of strangers and dance for hours to really bad doof-doof music. Most of the 20 or so annual deaths attributed to ecstasy are caused by dehydration on the dance floor.

The science has caught up with what users have found out for themselves, and the police seem to have followed, Pisani suggests. It’s only the government which is out of step:

The drug advisory council’s review, commissioned by the government and published in February, found that, for the vast majority of users, ecstasy is neither addictive, nor does it cause permanent damage to the brain or any other organ. As long as it’s not mixed with other drugs, it doesn’t have much effect on driving—nothing like as much as a couple of pints. And at around £10 for three pills, almost everyone buys ecstasy with money that they’ve earned rather than stolen, so the crime factor is low too. … The police appear to have grasped this: 37 per cent of those booked for ecstasy possession are let off with a caution, compared to only 17 per cent for heroin. So consumers, police and scientists all seem to agree: ecstasy is a much more “do-able” drug than others in class A. But the government, in its infinite wisdom, knows better.

And of course there was a similar story about the downgrading of cannabis, in which Brian Paddick, as Commander in Lambeth, changed the policy – as a pilot scheme – on how his force dealt with possession of cannabis. The police then extended the trial scheme to other areas. The change in policing meant the law had to follow.

Thanks to Joe Ballantyne for the tip on Prospect.

Update 9 April 2009: The drugs activist group Transform has produced a report based on government and other official evidence arguing that the the benefit of de-criminalising drugs (legalising and regulating them) is between £4.5bln and £14 billion – compared to the current model. The report is a direct challenge to the prevailing Home Office assumption, stated last year:

‘The benefits of… [legalisation/regulation] – such as taxation, quality control and a reduction in the pressures on the criminal justice system – are far outweighed by the costs and for this reason, it is one that this Government will not pursue either domestically or internationally.”

There’s a news report here; Transform’s summary is on its blog, along with links to media and blog coverage, and to the full report. From a futures point of view it seems quite a smart attempt to push the legalisation issue slightly further towards the mainstream from the edge.