In attacking the ABC classification system for controlled drugs, as it has in its report subtitled Making a Hash of It?, the Commons select committee on science and technology has shot a sitting duck. The shortcomings of an arrangement that dates back to James Callaghan's spell as home secretary have long been evident, and in recent years the classifications have sunk from disrepute into ridicule.
Only in Whitehall could magic mushrooms, responsible for one death between 1993 and 2000, occupy the same category as heroin, which was responsible for 5,737 deaths in the same period. Only in Whitehall could chewing coca leaves also rank alongside injecting heroin, a notion which begs the question why Bolivians are not keeling over and dying en masse. And surely only in Whitehall could a drug be moved from one class to another, as was the case with "crystal meth", primarily on the grounds that it was being talked about in the papers and on television.
The terminal judgement on the uselessness or worse of the ABC system was probably delivered by the expert witness who informed the committee: "We do not even know if the public see that if a drug is in class A, is that more of a deterrent or is it actually an attraction." If you are an 18-year-old who has just got straight As in your A-levels, in other words, you might be forgiven for thinking that only a class A drug would do for the celebrations.
The committee was more than critical of this; it was contemptuous and vituperative. Rightly so, on the whole: much - including many human lives - is at stake here, and an indefensible shambles has been tolerated for far too long. Yet ministers and their advisers are entitled to some sympathy, for this is a matter that brings out the worst not only in politicians, but also in the media, which have an important role, and in the general public.
The whole apparatus would not be necessary, after all, if large numbers of ordinary people did not insist on putting poisonous substances into their bodies. From that choice flows all the other ill-effects of the drug abuse world - family breakdown, social corrosion, crime and the rest. And people do this not only at considerable expense, but despite the danger of prosecution and even imprisonment. Perfectly legal poisons are available in the form of alcohol and tobacco but no, these are not enough.
The point is not merely facetious. In tackling the drug problem, ministers are wrestling with the irrational. They are also wrestling with something that constantly changes: new drugs come along; old drugs take on new characteristics and medical science occasionally changes its mind about the threats that are posed. Yet ministers know that every time they change a classification in the ABC grid there are consequences which bear no relation to objective scientific or social judgements- moving cannabis from the B to the C class, for example, caused hysteria in some quarters, confusion in others, and may since have proved a mistake on the scientific merits. No wonder they hesitate.
Both the public and the media need to grow up when it comes to controlled drugs. This is at least as much a matter of individual responsibility as it is of public policy, so we must educate ourselves and our children and we must exercise cool and informed judgement. Hysteria will not do: greeting an alteration to the classification system as a "tacit endorsement" of this or that drug, for example, paralyses efforts to prevent abuse and promote understanding.
This presupposes that the system itself is credible, and here the select committee is right: the government needs to start again. More important than the report's findings on the flawed character of the ABC system is what it reveals of the flawed character of the entire process by which the government is advised on these matters. No one seems to have given this any thought, in fact, since Callaghan, and the result has been muddle, weakness and a collapse of credibility. Ministers must create a system that has authority and delivers information the public can trust.
If they treat us as adults, there is a better chance we will behave as adults.
How Mexico can avert a crisis
It was with good reason that the first foreign leader invited for an audience with the new American president in 2001 was Mexico's Vicente Fox. Few countries are as strategically important to the United States as its large neighbour to the south. While the world's attention is focused on the horrors of Lebanon, it is worth recalling that Mexico is in the midst of a dangerous political paralysis.
Day after day, crowds have occupied the centre of Mexico City. They are protesting at the results of the presidential elections of 2 July which - in a spirit of probity of which the US can be proud - gave Felipe Calderón, candidate of the centre-right ruling party, the slenderest of victories. His rival and former mayor of the capital, Andrés Manuel ópez Obrador, has cried foul and urged his followers to take to the streets. So far, the rallies have been peaceful.
Obrador is no Hugo Chávez. He is a moderate, but still too leftist for US tastes. It is in Washington's interests to prevent him from taking power. Yet an outbreak of violence and instability on its porous southern border would be worse still.
Mexico has a poor track record in transferring power peacefully and democratically. Indeed, it has done so only once in the past 70 years. Its electoral tribunal has until 6 September to decide whether to order a recount, a fresh vote or let the result stand. The first option, if observed by outside monitors, would be a compromise that both sides should accept.