Politics and science in classifying the dangers of drugs

Robin Room & Dan I. Lubman
Evidence Based Mental Health
November 2010

ebmh-11-2010There is a long history of psychoactive substances being regarded as dangerous and subsequently being banned or forbidden. Often the bans were introduced on substances new and unfamiliar to a society, which were viewed as more dangerous than substances which were well known and enculturated. With industrialisation and the globalisation brought by European empires, the growing availability of psychoactive substances was increasingly seen as a problem in the 1800s, setting off social and policy reactions – what we know as the temperance movement against alcohol,
and initial UK legislation limiting the sale of ‘poisons’.

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All psychoactive substances have some degree of risk of harm associated with their use, but there are great differences in the immediacy and extent
of the risks posed. The risks may be short term, in the immediate event of use (such as the risk of overdose or harms associated with intoxication), or much longer term, as for carcinogenic effects or effects on family relationships.

Once it is accepted that it is the state’s business to be interfering at all with a free market in drugs (and there is still much debate in political circles about this, particularly in relation to licit substances), there is a good argument for government ‘nudging’ people’s choices about psychoactive substances, as a popular policy book puts it.

Indeed, there is a very good case for nudging them differentially in terms of the degree of risk involved in a particular behaviour. However in doing so, the community must be honest about all psychoactive substances (whether licit or illicit) and must allow classification systems to be evidence informed, otherwise the  credibility of such approaches will be constantly challenged and undermined.