Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Monday, July 31, 2006

UK government advisors say alcohol is more harmful than LSD

I'm sure much will be made of today's report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - which recommends replacing the current system of classifying drugs based on the penalty for possession (Class A, B, or C) with a classification based on the harm that drugs do. As a result, current Class 'A' drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy suddenly become near the bottom of the scale, way behind legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco - and even behind cannabis. There's more about this here, including a link to the report itself. Saying that LSD is less harmful than alcohol is bound to cause a stink in certain circles, but ultimately if you look at the science, rather than the politics or media, it should be a fairly uncontroversial statement.

But what is interesting is the way the report doesn't hold back when attacking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). For example, see the following excerpt that looks at the recent law regarding magic mushrooms (p26 on), which I thought worthy of putting online for all to see. There's much more like this in the report - it's very interesting, well worth a read (see report for footnotes).


Magic mushrooms

54. Magic mushrooms contain psilocin and psilocybin, naturally-occurring compounds with hallucinogenic properties. Psilocin and psilocybin were designated Class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, apparently on account of their hallucinogenic properties. Psilocin is also listed under Schedule I, the highest level of prohibition, under the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971.94 Sir Michael Rawlins, Chairman of the ACMD, told us: “I have no idea what was going through the minds of the group who put it in Class A in 1970 and 1971 […]It is there because it is there”.95 The Home Office has admitted that it has never conducted any research into psilocin use and that there is “no clear evidence of a link between psilocin use and acquisitive or other crime”.96

55. In the past a legal loophole meant that fresh magic mushrooms were not treated as controlled drugs, providing that they had not been ‘prepared’ (i.e. dried, packaged, cooked etc.). Section 21 of the Drugs Act 2005, which came into force on 18 July 2005, makes it an offence to import, export, produce, supply and possess with intent to supply magic mushrooms in any form.97 Because the decision to place magic mushrooms in Class A was a clarification of the law rather than a reclassification decision, the Government was not obliged to seek the advice of the ACMD in the usual manner. Nevertheless, the Government told us that it “did write to the ACMD, and ask for its views on [its] proposals before the Drugs Bill was introduced”. 98 The ACMD endorsed the move, telling us: “in March 2004 the Technical Committee heard that, over recent years, there had been a substantial increase in the number of retail outlets selling ‘fresh’ magic mushrooms. In fact HM Customs and Excise estimated the importation of 8,000–16,000 kgs during 2004”.99 However, the ACMD did not conduct a full review of the evidence in arriving at its decision. The Government’s use of a clarification of the law to put fresh magic mushrooms in Class A contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and meant that the ACMD was not given the chance to consider the evidence properly before responding. We also note the admission by the Home Office Minister Paul Goggins that “the Home Office received no submissions in favour of the clarification of the law in respect of magic mushrooms prior to the Drugs Act 2005 being granted Royal Assent on seven April and four submissions against”.100

56. In fact, we encountered a widespread view that the Class A status of magic mushrooms does not reflect the harms associated with their misuse. The RAND report concluded that the Government’s decision “was not based on scientific evidence”, noting that “the positioning of them in Class A does not seem to reflect any scientific evidence that they are of equivalent harm to other Class A drugs”.101 The RAND report pointed out that “National Statistics show that for deaths in which drug poisoning (listed on the death certificate) was the underlying cause of death, between 1993 and 2000 there was one death from magic mushrooms and 5,737 from heroin” and that “The lethal dose for humans is about one’s own body weight in mushrooms”.102 Professor Blakemore was also of the view that “if one could look at all the evidence for harm available now, including social harms, one would say [the classification of magic mushrooms] is wrong”.103 The Government’s own ‘Talk to Frank’ drug information website states that “Magic Mushrooms are not addictive in any way”.104 The drugs charity Release told us that “There was little transparency as to the reasoning behind this policy”, describing it as “an unacceptable situation”.105 Paul Flynn MP was also of the view that “The policy appears to have been driven by something other than evidence” and warned that “other more dangerous mushrooms, not covered by the current law, could be substituted for those that are prohibited”.106 Recent press reports, and data from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), suggest that substitution with legal hallucinogens – including potentially lethal mushrooms of the Amanita family – is already happening.107,108

57. We were, therefore, surprised and disappointed to hear Sir Michael Rawlins, Chairman of the ACMD, tell us that “it was not a big issue” whether magic mushrooms were in the right Class. In Sir Michael’s view: “there are bigger, more important issues to worry about than whether fresh mushrooms join the rest of the other things in Class A”.109 The Chairman of the ACMD’s attitude towards the decision to place magic mushrooms in Class A indicates a degree of complacency that can only serve to damage the reputation of the Council. Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope and a member of the ACMD, did not share Sir Michael’s nonchalance. He told us that he was “not aware that the full council were asked to deliberate on this” and that “it was wrong for the Home Secretary to seek to enact [the change] in primary legislation without properly consulting the ACMD and giving it time to deliberate on it”.110 Mr Barnes was also of the view that “the evidence has indicated that [magic mushrooms are] in the wrong classification”.111 The ACMD should have spoken out against the Government’s proposal to place magic mushrooms in Class A. Its failure to do so has undermined its credibility and made it look as though it fully endorsed the Home Office’s decision, despite the striking lack of evidence to suggest that the Class A status of magic mushrooms was merited on the basis of the harm associated with their misuse.

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And if you're wondering, these are the top 20 harmful drugs, as decided by a team of independent researches looking at physical harm, dependency and social harm.

In reverse order...

20 Khat
19 Alky Nitrates
18 Ecstasy
17 GHB
16 Anabolic Steroids
15 Methylphenidate
14 LSD
13 4-MTA
12 Solvents
11 Cannabis
10 Buprenorphine
9 Tobacco
8 Amphetamine
7 Benzodiazephine
6 Ketamine
5 Alcohol
4 Street Methadone
3 Barbiturates
2 Cocaine
1 Heroin

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