I read in the Daily Mail yesterday that there is some sort of legal challenge being made 'in the High Court' to the ACPO guidelines, drawn up after cannabis was reclassified, clarifying that there should be a 'presumption against arrest' for possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Quite what this court action involves isn’t made clear by the Daily Mail report, by James Slack, but then a lot is left unclear by the story generally.
But before I tear into the Daily Mail report, a few words on the key protagonist. It is none other than the Reverend George Hargreaves, a 'senior church figure' and 'advisor to the Metropolitan Police' who is apparently 'backed by a £30,000 fighting fund'. Hargreaves is a Pentecostal minister with a particular brand of Christian politics that includes being strongly anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research and anti-euthanasia. He has also stood in various elections for various constituencies; for the 'Scottish Christian Party, Proclaiming Christ's Lordship' for the Scottish Parliament in 2006, the UK Parliament in 2005 for 'Operation Christian Vote' (and a by-election in 2004 - getting a handsome 90 votes), and the European Parliament in 2004. Way back in 1997 he contested Walthanstow for the Referendum party. It turns out that he has funded some of his political aspirations with a small fortune made from his former career as a pop song writer, apparently raking in £10,000 a month in royalties from penning the epic 80's disco smash and gay club classic 'So Macho', performed by the legendary popstrel, Sinitta. You know the one:
"I don't want no seven stone weakling nor a boy who thinks he's a girl
I'm after a hunk of a guy, and experienced man of the world
There ain't no way that I'll make do,
with anything less than I'm used to
If I have a man tonight he's gotta be right right right
So macho he's gotta be so macho
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on
He's gotta have big blue eyes, be able to satisfy
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on
I'm tired of taking the lead
I want a man who will dominate me
Someone who will love and protect me and take care of my every need
Now I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you
I am in need of a man oooh
I am in need of a man a man a man a man a man
I had the pleasure of debating cannabis reclassification and related policing issues with Hargreaves on Talk Sport Radio yesterday morning, on the awful John Gaunt show. The No1 pop smash writing Reverend seemed like a perfectly nice chap, even if we didn’t really see eye to eye on the drugs issue. He admits to being a 'hedonistic sinner' and 'jack the lad' in his pre-Reverend days. However, he doesn't seem to have a very forgiving attitude to the young sinners in his flock. He wants them arrested and prosecuted for their cannabis related wickedness, not let off with a caution, a policy which, according to the Mail, he claims has 'led to a surge in youths smoking strong skunk cannabis that was turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.' ' He is quoted saying:
'This guidance must be reversed. The only way to crackdown on the problem is to return to arresting and prosecuting people carrying even small amount of cannabis.'
No evidence is given by him in the report that reclassification, or the ACPO guidelines, have led to any kind of 'surge' in use. The Mail report also fails to mention that the two key official surveys of cannabis use, provided by the British Crime Survey and the DoH (flawed as they may be) suggest that cannabis use has remained unchanged or has actually fallen marginally since 2004. I’m not making the case for or against the reclassification policy here (you can read the Transform briefings on the subject here and here) , but Hargreaves and the Mail clearly are, and they have got their facts wrong:
Trends in cannabis use among people aged 16 to 24 years
Percentage reporting use:
--------In past year----In past month
Source: Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2004/05 British Crime Survey.
Home Office Statistical Bulletin.
I’m also not a doctor and I try and avoid getting dragged into the debate about cannabis and mental health. But what the various reports (from ACMD and other expert bodies) suggest is that, on the schizophrenia link specifically, it only effects a very small percentage of users, and that the published research shows that the link is ambiguous – whether cannabis use is causative or merely unmasks existing conditions is not clear. It's obviously not a completely safe drug, there's no such thing, and clearly no drug is risk free, but ‘turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.’ is not precision science, it is emotive scaremongering silliness.
From here the story goes into a bit of a nosedive:
“Earlier this week, the pastor blamed skunk for the mindless murder of Nyembo-Ya-Muteba by a gang of thugs.”
Is there any evidence to suggest this is true? Is there any evidence to suggest that cannabis was a factor? Should the Mail report unsupported hear-say before the police have investigated and made a statement, let alone charged or prosecuted anyone? Who knows what drugs any of the murderer or murderers had consumed. Maybe they were drunk; maybe they'd been sniffing bostik, maybe they were just murderous 'thugs'. I have no idea – and nor does Mr Hargreaves, or for that matter the Daily Mail.
Even if, hypothetically, the murderer/murderers turn out to have been stoned out of their minds, this still would not allow Hargreaves to link the murder to reclassification, or the enforcement of the new law (which he does even more overtly in yet another unambiguously titled Mail report: 'Cannabis downgrading blamed for psychotic killer gangs by vicar' ). Millions of people used cannabis before the changes, people have always been getting murdered - to suggest there is a causal link with a minor tweak in policing policy is completely spurious. There are some very real issues with young people misusing cannabis and it is no doubt sometimes a factor in antisocial behaviour, but Hargreaves' claims here have an air of hijacking a tragedy to further his own misplaced political objectives. The Mail apparently has no problem with this, not that its is the first time they have been guilty of dubious hype and nonsense reporting on the cannabis issue.
Anyway, we then hear from a regular Mail pundit on drugs issues, Mary Brett, neither a doctor, nor apparently, a statistician:
'What are the police waiting for? Since they talked about downgrading cannabis, admissions to mental health units have increased by forty per cent.'
A totally bizarre and unsupported claim for which no reference is given. She goes on:
'There has also been an increase in the number of users, despite the Government's denials, and there is also the awful violence.'
What increase? And this isn't about Government 'denials' - it’s specifically survey data from published and long established surveys that provide detailed notes on their methodologies. And precisely what violence is she talking about? Where does this stuff come from and why does the Mail publish it unchallenged? What evidence is there that cannabis use is a significant (or even insignificant) cause of murder or violence, or that reclassification has had any impact on levels of use or violence? I’m one of the most boring drug policy nerds on the planet and I’ve never seen any. What I have seen, however, was a recent detailed report by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee report which concluded that:
"We have found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government's classification policy, and have criticised the Government for failing to meet its commitments to evidence based policy making in this area."
Finally we learn from the Mail that:
"The Met's report declared the soft policy a 'success.' In an astonishing admission, it said letting-off more than 30,000 drug takers with a warning was good for 'police/public relations.' By not bothering to arrest the criminals, officers were having a 'positive effect in reducing friction between young people and the police.'
Why is this astonishing? Why is this an 'admission'? It’s just a statement of fact. It's just the police being honest and suggesting that it's a good thing for police relations that 30,000 more young people are not being branded with the stigma of criminality for something no worse than you or I having a few drinks down the boozer. I’m mystified why the Mail are having a go at the police anyway – they are just doing their job enforcing the laws handed down from Parliament, as they see appropriate with the limited resources they have – it has always been thus.
I despair reading this sort of thing, both the bonkers comments and the shoddy reporting. Drug policy is an important issue for debate - this really doesn’t help anyone. How about James Slack doing some accurate objective reporting and quoting a balance of opinions? To quote the 'So Macho' Reverend:
"I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you"