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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 14:20 GMT
Drugs or tobacco: Which is worse?
Mark Easton
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

The politics of drugs is often seen as a battle between the prohibitionists and the liberalisers. But after two years study and reflection, the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs calls for a quite different approach - a strategy based on reducing harm.

The report makes the point that, as with alcohol, the majority of those who use illegal drugs do so without causing significant harm to themselves or others.

The commission report makes it clear that while there are many instances of relatively harmless drug use, "there is no such thing as risk-free use of either drugs or alcohol - or tobacco come to that."

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The conclusion is that we need to have the same approach to drugs like alcohol and tobacco as we do with those drugs which, often by an accident of history, are illegal.

Instead of a classification of drugs which is "crude, ineffective, riddled with anomalies and open to political manipulation", there should be an index of substance-related harms - physical, social and economic.

Drugs policy outcomes should be judged in terms of harms reduced rather than drugs seized or offenders prosecuted, the commission says.

'A more enlightened attitude'

So what would such a policy actually look like on the ground?

The commission shies away from defining its "harm index", but it does spend some time assessing the harms caused by different drugs.

Heroin is "the most physically dangerous of drugs", says the commission.

However, it points out that "even heroin use can sometimes be kept within bounds."

It quotes a report from a team at Glasgow Caledonian University in 2005 which followed 126 long-term heroin users and revealed that more than half were in a stable relationship, a third had children and most had settled accommodation and were in employment or further education.

More people are harmed by alcohol and tobacco than by currently illegal drugs
RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs

The report assesses other drugs too.

It says: "Many adult cannabis users work out for themselves precisely when, where, how much and how often they use cannabis so that it does not dislocate their daily routines.

"Cocaine use too can be controlled within a secure social setting.

"Where the lives of cocaine users begin to come apart, the problem may in the end be found to be with their daily lives rather than with the cocaine."

A cool response

The commission recommends that the use of criminal sanctions should be confined to the punishment of those offences connected with drugs that cause the most harm.

But the report does not say whether that means the authorities turning a blind eye to heroin or cocaine users whose habit is "controlled".

Like many earnest and well-researched reports before it, the commission report calls for a more enlightened attitude towards drug use.

"More people are harmed by alcohol and tobacco than by currently illegal drugs.

"More people are killed every year by sniffing glue than by snorting cocaine. Very many more people are killed in traffic accidents than by drug overdoses," the commission says.

"It is necessary to be aware of the physical and psychological harms that individual drugs can inflict, but also to keep these harms, and our reaction to them, in proportion."

However, politicians are giving the report a cool response. All parties know the huge electoral damage that can follow any suggestion that they are "going soft" on drugs.


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