Analysis: What’s going on with ecstasy?

The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is reviewing the classification of club-drug ecstasy. So, is there any chance of it becoming class B?

The short answer is no; absolutely none.

The government has never listened to the ACMD as avidly as it does the tabloid press, which remains ferociously committed to the war on drugs. ACMD advice – which takes in current scientific and social thinking on drug classification – usually errs on the side of liberalisation, but that particular course of action has no appeal to the government, which believes there are no votes to be gained by declassification but plenty to lose.

When Gordon Brown announced plans to review the declassification of cannabis (pushed through in a rare moment of political bravery by then home secretary David Blunkett) the ACMD reported that cannabis use had fallen since declassification to class C, and that the weight of scientific, expert and police opinion lay with keeping the drug at its current level. The government is pushing ahead with reclassification anyway.

In the case of ecstasy, the ACMD is influenced by a combination of two factors. Firstly, ecstasy is relatively harmless compared to other class A drugs, such as heroin and crack. Secondly, it is classified along with exactly those drugs, as class A.

A quarter of a million people take the drug every month, but there are only 50 deaths a year. Those deaths are often due to a violent allergic reaction in the kidneys, but can also occur due to dehydration. Experts worry that with so many people taking the drug, government attempts to claim it is as dangerous as heroin are seen for the falsities that they are. This, experts say, makes many young people ignore the government’s drug message altogether.

It’s an argument the ACMD has proved open to in the past. The committee generally takes a practical, harm-minimisation approach to these issues.

The government’s approach is dependent on the opinion of the tabloid press, who react to any declassification with outrage. The problem is partly demographic. Clubbers and drug takers are not big voters, but concerned Daily Mail-reading parents are. Add to that a genuinely held socially conservative attitude from a Scottish Presbyterian prime minister, evidenced by his reaction to cannabis and casinos, and you have a strong disincentive to declassification.

A future Conservative government, rather interestingly, might take a more liberal approach. David Cameron is known to favour declassification of the drug from class A to B, as well as sympathising with a more liberal approach to the drugs issue in general. Since becoming Tory leader, however, he’s spoken about it as little as possible. This is partly because most people assume he gobbled up several different drugs while in Eton and he doesn’t want to associate himself with the issue, even if questions over his student days have died down.

It’s also because the Conservatives fear middle-England even more than Labour does. Middle England isn’t made up of just voters. For the Tories it also constitutes a membership base. Fighting for ecstasy declassification as a Tory prime minister would involve provoking the ire of the tabloid press, causing a rift in your own party and potentially losing a barrel-load of votes all for zero political gain.

Britain would gain, of course, by having a more sensible drug policy based on scientific evidence and harm-minimisation, but that sort of good would only sway the bravest of prime ministers. Whether David Cameron turns out to be one of those is another question.

Ian Dunt