Recently the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published a report in The Lancet ranking twenty popular recreational drugs based on the harm caused to the both user and others around them. The drugs were judged individually on sixteen total harm criteria covering physical, psychological, and social harm. The categories were then weighted by importance (likelihood to cause death is worth more points than likelihood to cause family problems, harm to society is worse than harm to the individual, etc.) The results ended up ranking alcohol as the most harmful by far (72/100), followed by a close battle between heroin and crack cocaine (55 and 54/100, respectively), then methamphetamine at the #4 spot (32/100) and trailing off from there down to hallucinogenic mushrooms at #20 with 6/100.

These results should be unsurprising to anyone who has read any similar reports in the past. They also line up quite well with the arguments often made in favor of loosening or eliminating existing drug laws (the "alcohol is legal, why isn't this?" argument). Unfortunately they have almost no association with the rankings used in modern drug laws almost anywhere in the world. In the majority of the world alcohol and tobacco are legal and often sold directly by or under the close watch of the government, yet in the name of "reducing harm" the majority if not all of the rest of the drugs on this list are not only illegal but also carry stiff penalties for mere possession.

Of course the logical thing to do when science indicates policy is wrong is to amend policy, right? After all, the UK has a scientific board involved with their drug policy, unlike the USA where the DEA is free to basically set policy as they see fit (fox watching the henhouse, anyone?). Nope, of course when a government is shown to be wrong by its scientists, the first thing they do is fire them, then change the law so they're not needed, and finally go entirely in the opposite direction and not only remove the requirement that harm be demonstrated but instead assume any newly discovered recreational drugs should be restricted until they are determined to be OK by unspecified criteria.

It seems another country is following America's lead of ignoring scientific evidence for political gain: When the scientists don't come up with the answers you want, don't change your ideas, just get rid of the scientists.

I don't get it. Why is it so hard to get a government to admit that when compared to legal recreational drugs many illegal ones are less harmful, sometimes to a significant extent?

Here are my thoughts on how to structure sane drug laws:

  • NEVER criminalize personal drug possession. All this does is give criminal records to those who are in most cases otherwise productive members of society and restrict those who may have real problems from getting help for fear of persecution and/or prosecution.
  • Base ALL policy on science and science alone. Media and politician fueled fear rarely makes for accurate policy, so standards should be set and then followed without special treatment for any substances.
  • Regulate the drugs you do allow, but only as necessary to ensure quality and safety
  • Revisit all policies regularly. New studies bring new evidence to light all the time and sometimes changes will be needed.

On top of that, something I believe applies to all laws rather than just drug policy, is to have goals for the law based on testable criteria. If after a certain time the goals have not been met, maybe it's time for another look. Is the goal still worthwhile? How close did this policy come to meeting the goal? If it came close, can it be tweaked? If it missed by a lot or made things worse, what's a different approach?

Current policy is sold to us as reducing harm to society and cutting back on crime, when in reality it's wasting billions in enforcement and correctional resources, ruining lives, and fueling an enormously profitable black market which funds almost all levels of crime. Science and policy are at odds and two of the most powerful countries in the world are working to keep it that way. We need to keep pressure on our politicians to resolve this.