Pubdate: Sun, 28 Oct 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: David Leppard


THE government's top advisers on drugs are considering relaxing the law on 
ecstasy, the rave drug used by an estimated 2m young people.

A key member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the statutory 
body set up to advise ministers on drugs policy, says there are grounds for 
downgrading ecstasy from a class A drug to class B.

Such a move would halve the maximum sentence for conviction in a 
magistrates' court for possession to three months.

Roger Howard, an advisory council member who runs Drugscope, Britain's 
leading drug charity and a centre of expertise on narcotics, said the 
council had seen new evidence suggesting the ecstasy law could be relaxed. 
"We have reached no conclusions, but this [evidence] lends support to the 
view that some drugs have not been appropriately classified, and that's not 
just cannabis," he said.

Ecstasy kills about 10 people a year, but members of the council say it is 
not addictive and not as harmful as other class A drugs, such as heroin and 
crack cocaine.

Although David Blunkett, the home secretary, said last week that he 
believed ecstasy should remain class A after his move to downgrade 
cannabis, the committee has a strong influence on government thinking.

Blunkett proposed relaxing cannabis laws so that possession would no longer 
be an arrestable offence, making it easier for police to target hard drugs 
such as heroin and crack cocaine. He said this would be done only if "the 
advisory committee see fit".

In an unreported statement to MPs, which shows the value he places on the 
council's views, Blunkett made it clear that he would go ahead with the 
cannabis proposal only "if the advisory committee see fit to do so". It 
emerged last night that chief constables had called for ecstasy to be 
downgraded in evidence submitted for the Runciman report on drugs two years 
ago. It was also reported that Tom Watson, a Labour member of the home 
affairs select committee, has written to its chairman calling for it to 
concentrate on the laws regarding ecstasy in its drugs inquiry.

The Home Office last week said there were no plans to relax the law on 
ecstasy. But critics point out that only two months ago Downing Street was 
saying the same about cannabis.

This weekend anti-drugs campaigners opposed any relaxation on cannabis or 
ecstasy. Paul Betts, a former police inspector whose daughter Leah died 
after taking ecstasy at her 18th birthday party six years ago, said the 
move would go against medical evidence that suggested the drug created 
suicidal tendencies in half its users and contributed to heart attacks and 

"This is deplorable," he said. "I saw Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam [then drugs 
minister] in February last year with my wife and I was told face-to-face 
that there was no way this government was going to go soft on drugs or 

Betts said ministers were effectively sacrificing the health of young 
people to cut policing costs. "This man [Blunkett] hasn't got a clue about 
how the drug culture operates. The majority of young people do not realise 
the dangers.

"As far as I'm concerned this government has ceased putting people first 
and is now more concerned about money than it is about anything else. The 
cheap option is to turn round and say: oh well, we'll leave it to the 
people. If they use it, so what? We will reclassify it."

Sir Michael Rawlins, the advisory council's chairman and professor of 
clinical pharmacology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, said it was 
too early for him to comment on its views.

More than 80 people have died after taking ecstasy in Britain. Studies 
suggest that 500,000 people take the drug every weekend and that 15% of 
people aged between 16 to 24 have tried the drug. Only 1% of those over 35 
had experimented.

The consensus among medical experts is that ecstasy does not lead to 
addiction and there are no specific withdrawal symptoms. But when combined 
with dancing for long periods in a hot place, such as a nightclub, users 
can risk dehydration, which may be fatal. Research on long-term users 
suggests it may cause brain damage and mental illness as well as liver and 
kidney problems in later life.
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