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Figure 1

Mean harm scores for 20 substances

Classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act, where appropriate, is shown by the colour of each bar.

Figure 2

Correlation between mean scores from the independent experts and the specialist addiction psychiatrists

1=heroin. 2=cocaine. 3=alcohol. 4=barbiturates. 5=amphetamine. 6=methadone. 7=benzodiazepines. 8=solvents. 9=buprenorphine. 10=tobacco. 11=ecstasy. 12=cannabis. 13=LSD. 14=steroids.


Drug misuse and abuse are major health problems. Harmful drugs are regulated according to classification systems that purport to relate to the harms and risks of each drug. However, the methodology and processes underlying classification systems are generally neither specified nor transparent, which reduces confidence in their accuracy and undermines health education messages. We developed and explored the feasibility of the use of a nine-category matrix of harm, with an expert delphic procedure, to assess the harms of a range of illicit drugs in an evidence-based fashion. We also included five legal drugs of misuse (alcohol, khat, solvents, alkyl nitrites, and tobacco) and one that has since been classified (ketamine) for reference. The process proved practicable, and yielded roughly similar scores and rankings of drug harm when used by two separate groups of experts. The ranking of drugs produced by our assessment of harm differed from those used by current regulatory systems. Our methodology offers a systematic framework and process that could be used by national and international regulatory bodies to assess the harm of current and future drugs of abuse.

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