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    PENALTIES FOR ALL ILLEGAL DRUGS UNDER REVIEW

    The government's advisers are to review the system of classifying illegal
    drugs, an exercise which may pave the way for a further overhaul of the
    narcotics laws.

    They plan to review the harmful effects of all the substances governed by
    the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which seems sure to revive the debate about
    whether ecstasy should continue to rank with cocaine, crack, heroin, LSD and
    magic mushrooms.

    The relaxation of penalties on cannabis ,which takes effect on Thursday, is
    the first substantial change for 30 years.

    Sir Michael Rawlins, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of
    Drugs, which recommended the cannabis changes in the 1980s, said yesterday
    that it was time to consider whether to go further.

    He said his members were investigating new ways of measuring the relative
    harmfulness of all illegal drugs, which are at present classified as A, B
    and C, with A being judged the most harmful and attracting the biggest
    penalty for possession, up to seven years in prison.

    He said: "Quite clearly these things can't be locked into aspic for all
    time. If you are going down the route of having classification of drugs you
    do need to have an arrangement whereby they are reviewed from time to time."

    Sir Michael, professor of pharmacology at Newcastle University, insisted
    that he did not have a view on ecstasy, but said the council planned "a
    systematic trawl" through the rankings, which have been unchanged since the
    early 1970s.

    The council, established by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, divided drugs into
    the three categories. "The basis on which it did it nobody knows. The
    records do not explain why... The basis on which any of the things were
    classified is obscure from reading the minutes. They won't tell you."

    Any new system would try to bring "more objectivity into the whole process,"
    Sir Michael said. "There won't be anything out in a hurry. It will take a
    year or two before you see anything come around."

    He said "things may shift", but added: "I think it would be wholly unlikely
    that amphetamines [now class B] would be made class C, for example. But we
    must make sure these things don't get locked into a time warp."

    His remarks suggest that the system could face a far bigger shake-up than
    that envisaged by David Blunkett, the home secretary, when he decided the
    cannabis penalties could be changed.

    The council's remit is to "keep under review" drugs whose "misuse appears...
    capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social
    problem".

    It can make its own recommendations, as it did on cannabis, but home
    secretaries are not obliged to act on them. It suggested changing cannabis
    from class B to class C because the status was "disproportionate" in
    relation to both its inherent toxicity and that of other drugs, such as
    amphetamines, which attracted the same maximum penalty for possession of
    five years in jail.

    But it made it clear that cannabis was "still unquestionably harmful".

    Last night Mr Blunkett once again ruled out any change of status for ecstasy
    because, he said, it killed "unpredictably".

    The independent Police Foundation inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act in
    2000 recommended changing ecstasy's classification from class A to class B
    in the light of evidence it may be "several thousand times less dangerous
    than heroin" and not as addictive as other class A drugs.

    MPs on the Commons home affairs select committee made a similar plea last
    summer. Ecstasy's use is thought to have declined recently but Nick
    Stevenson of the magazine Mixmag recently said it was still "the number one
    drug of choice for clubbers".

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