Much has been written on the logic underlying the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The illegality which surrounds the sale and use of certain specified substances is based on assumptions about their dangerousness to the health of the user, particularly the likelihood that the user will become 'addicted', and the desire to protect society as a whole from these effects. Fears that drugs threaten to undermine Western society have been voiced, and serve as the justification for 'the war on drugs' on both sides of the Atlantic, and on a broader world scale. Such is the national and international concern about drugs that the involvement of the Taliban in the drug (opiate) trade has recently been used as an argument in support of the anti-terrorist bombing raids in Afghanistan. The assumption is that 'addiction' is, to varying and specifiable degrees, a property of the drugs and that consequently all steps have to be taken to eliminate the drug menace from our midst.
Due to accidents of history, certain other psychoactive substances and products do not fall into this pattern and are covered by legislation outwith the Misuse of Drugs Act, most notably alcohol and tobacco. It is worth noting however that there is little consensus over time, or in terms of geography, about what the most dangerous and least dangerous drugs are. Alcohol is forbidden in many middle-Eastern countries; on the other hand, there have been recent moves in the UK to reclassify cannabis—a substance described by the US Drugs Commissioner Harry Anslinger in the 1950s as one of the most dangerous and addictive substance known to mankind (Anslinger and Tomkins, 1953, pp. 21-22)—from Class B to Class C. On the other hand, two reports on smoking by the US Surgeon General (1982, 1988) saw nicotine reclassified from the status of a non-addictive drug in 1982 to being comparable in addictive potential to heroin and cocaine by the time of the second report in 1988 (p. 9). Meanwhile, strong
Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts, Second Edition Edited by D. Carson and R. Bull. © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
evidence shows that the number of individuals who experience health problems as a consequence of the use and misuse of legal drugs and pharmaceuticals outnumbers those who experience similar problems from the use and misuse of illegal drugs by an order of magnitude. It should be apparent from the outset, therefore, that the drug laws seek to defend a state of affairs based on a set of classifications which is not under laid by any formal or scientific logic, but whose basic structure is dictated by political and social forces, acting within historical, geographical and economic contexts.
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