The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

United Kingdom


Drug policy in the UK is based on taking measures to reduce the supply and demand for drugs, and increasing the rates of recovery of those dependent on drugs.  A harm reducing approach to injecting drug users has ensured that the UK has one of the lowest rates of HIV in this at-risk population. Furthermore, there has been a significantly steady increase in numbers of people receiving drug addiction treatment in the last few years, following greater investment in treatment centres.

Yet drug policy in the UK suffers, as it is not evidence-based. Many current policies have not had sufficient information gathered for policy-makers to make an informed judgement as to their success or otherwise, or to evaluate whether alternative approaches might be more successful. A recent UK Drug Policy Commission report had a primary recommendation that drug policy should be more evidence-based, and is an excellent resource for those interested in the current status and reform capacity of UK Drug Policy.[1]

Nowhere is this lack of evidence-based thinking more obvious than in the antiquated ABC classification scheme for drugs, spuriously based on the harms associated with each drug. A 2007 Lancet report developed an empirical system for rating the harms of each drug in terms of harms to self and harms to society, and found little concordance between those drugs that are objectively most harmful and those with the highest classification.[2]

Particular disparities exist in the case of drugs like magic mushrooms or LSD, which are currently Class A (i.e. most harmful, along with crack and heroin) yet these drugs are non-addictive and of low-toxicity, and evidence exists that they may even have important therapeutic applications that are being stifled by current legislation (See The Beckley Foundation Scientific Programme). This can be contrasted with alcohol, which possesses far greater potential for abuse and carries more potential danger when done so – both due to it’s relatively high toxicity and danger to others in society from those inebriated.



The ABC classification of harms can even backfire, since many drugs are currently being made more harmful by their illegal status. Some examples include the high-THC cannabis that dominates the illegal market in the UK, and the low purity of street ‘ecstasy’ which often includes a myriad of other compounds besides or even instead of MDMA.

In June 2011, a YouGov survey asked, “In your opinion, how effective, if at all, is the current government’s approach to illegal drugs?”. Only 11% thought that it was very or fairly effective, while 53% thought it was ineffective.[3]

Not only does this often expose the user to a more dangerous substance (e.g. extra caffeine in MDMA will exacerbate the cardiac stress), but it also means that even a regular user can have no idea what effects or risk are carried with each dose of ecstasy. This problem becomes even more salient with the arrival of new ‘synthetic highs’. These compounds often have a chemical structure similar to amphetamine or MDMA, yet have never been tested – instead, unsuspecting users often become the test group for a drug which could be deadly.

[1] A Fresh Approach to Drugs: the final report of the UK Drug Policy Commission, Published 15 October 2012

[2]Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C., Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet. 2007 Mar 24;369(9566):1047-53.