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Using the pharmacy retail model to examine perceptions and biases of a UK population sample towards regulation of specific psychoactive drugs

Cannabis in a grinder on a table with a joint and a bottle of whiskey


Edward James, Thomas L Robertshaw, Michael J Pascoe, Fiona M Chapman, Andrew D Westwell, Andrew P Smith


September 27, 2019


Contemporary research indicates that the legal classifications of cannabis (Schedule 2, Class B), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) (Schedule 1, Class A) and psilocybin (Schedule 1, Class A) in the United Kingdom are not entirely based on considerations of harm and therapeutic utility. The legal classifications of the substances discussed are typically determined by legislators such as Parliament and, therefore, may be a reflection of the views or perceived views of the general public.

Objective: The aim of the study was to provide an indication of the underlying psychology regarding the legislated sale of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, MDMA and psilocybin in pharmacies according to a UK general population sample.

Methods: A sample of 105 UK nationals was selected for the survey. Participants were asked questions on perceived relative harm of the five substances. After viewing contemporary information on reported relative harm and therapeutic applications, the participants were asked questions related to using the pharmacy retail model for the sale of the substances discussed. Participants who opposed the substances being sold primarily in pharmacies were asked to explain their rationale according to a predetermined list of options for each of the five drugs. Participants were also asked whether they consider it a human right to be legally permitted to consume the substances.

Results: The participants’ perceptions of relative harm (tobacco > MDMA > psilocybin > alcohol > cannabis) were not in agreement with the relative harm reported in the literature (alcohol > tobacco > cannabis > MDMA > psilocybin). Principal objections to the currently illicit substances being legally available in pharmacies include it sending the wrong message; it feels wrong; it is too dangerous; disliking the smell of cannabis; disapproval of the people; and not liking the idea of people using psychoactive drugs for entertainment or to have mystical/religious experiences. Overall, the participants determined that being legally permitted to consume the substances discussed is an issue of relevance to human rights. A majority of the male participants concluded that being legally permitted to consume alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and Psilocybe mushrooms is a human right in contrast to the majority of female participants who solely considered alcohol consumption to be a human right.

Conclusions: The data suggest that the legal classifications may not simply be based on considerations of harm. Misperceptions of the dangers, biases and non-health-related aversions likely contribute to the continuation of policies that do not reflect the state of scientific research.

This research was published in the Drug Science, Policy and Law Journal the definitive source of evidence-based information and comment for academics, scientists, policymakers, frontline workers and the general public on drugs and related issues

For open-access to the full report of this research, see below:

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