Monday, November 27, 2006

Drug policy debating bonanza in the Times

The Times has embraced the recent flurry of drug policy stories with more enthusiasm than any of its broadsheet rivals. The ‘paper of record’ ran a pretty decent leader on the prohibition / legalisation debate, highly critical of the obvious failings of prohibition (it doesn’t work, it causes crime etc) and at least reasonably sympathetic to the ‘legalisation lobby’.

The leader, however, cautions that:

“It is tempting to hope that legalisation might cut out much of this violence and crime, by removing most of the profit margin from the drugs barons. However, while the legalisation lobby makes a persuasive case, there is a lack of clarity about how exactly its ideas would work in practice. If harm reduction is the aim, can one be sure that harm reduction would really be achieved? Reducing prices might remove incentives for criminals to supply the market. But would it not also result in an increase in addicts, because drugs would be even more easily available more cheaply? Would the act of legalising in itself send a powerful signal that Parliament is condoning drug taking? And might regulated companies acting above-board not be even more effective at marketing these substances than the drugs barons have been, with their access to more conventional methods of advertising? And if half of all beds for drug treatment are empty, as we report today, is the Government really doing all it can to treat addicts successfully?”

Most of these concerns are perfectly reasonable – and if these are the only obstacles to real reforms then the future is indeed looking bright. Transform are working hard with our colleagues in the UK and around the world to show how legal regulation of drug markets can ‘work in practice’, including how drug production and supply, specifically marketing can be appropriately controlled – far more effectively than with the completely deregulated criminal markets we have today. A detailed report on exactly this is due for pulication in 2007. To read discussion on the impact of policy changes on prevalence (beyond prohibitions transparent failure to reduce it), and the idea of using criminal law enforcement as a way of 'sending out messages', take a look at Transform’s report ‘After the war on drugs – Options for control’ which has a chapter addressing these very concerns. The leader’s final point about treatment beds is a bit randomly tacked on the end and has nothing to do with the legal status of drugs.

In an attempt at balance perhaps, the Times has also run a piece from a prohibitionist advocate, Patrick West, who is very against prescribing heroin to addicts - he want them locked up: it is unambiguously titled ‘The best treatment for heroin addicts? Arrest them’ . It’s a pretty sorry attempt at a counter-argument, more of a reactionary rant really, full of factual howlers and ill thought out arguments. He kicks off with saying Brian Paddick called for cannabis 'legalisation' in Brixton – Er, no he didn’t, he called for a shift in enforcement resources to more dangerous drugs, and non arrest for minor cannabis possession offences - which has now become national policy and cannabis use has fallen.

He then goes for the nonsensical old chestnut that:

Those who seek to legalise narcotics cry “the war on drugs has been lost”. One might as well also argue that “the war on murder has been lost” or that “the war on rape, theft, fraud, larceny and pyromania has been lost”. Like drug abuse, these are malaises that will always be with us, and no sane person believes they will ever be totally abolished.

You begin to think you’re listening to someone from Nixon’s 1970's ‘war on drugs’ when he starts talking about ‘narcotics’, and then out comes the old ‘why not legalise murder’ argument just to confirm it for you. The response to this simplistic and shortsighted argument is that murder is a so-called ‘crime’ in the classical sense because it harms others, whereas consenting adult drug use clearly is not.

Deftly avoiding such tricky distinctions we then hear West’s solution to the problem: “the most caring and the practical thing to do would be to prosecute and imprison users — to stop their habit.”


Not content with advocating what we have already been doing, with disastrous consequences, for over 40 years, he is apparently completely ignorant of the fact that there are more drugs inside prison walls than there are outside. This is of course mainly because ‘caring’ and ‘practical’ views like his have led to prisons overflowing with drug addicts and drug dealers.

We are then confidently informed that: “Contrary to the media myth perpetuated by movies such as Trainspotting, the typical heroin addict is as likely to be a sensitive, fragile, middle-class graduate as an aggressive, working-class misfit from the roughest of council estates,” which is just incorrect. There are indeed heroin users form all social strata, but all the research, undisputed by anyone I’ve encountered before (see for example the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report – ‘Drugs and the Environment’) shows very clearly that problematic use is most concentrated in socially deprived communities.

His obvious confusion about addiction then takes a further nosedive into the ridiculous with the comment that: ‘Most people develop a life-debilitating heroin problem because they know that the arm of the law won’t seize them if they do.‘ which makes so little sense and is so far from reality that it hardly warrants a response. For the record the recent Science and Technology Committee inquiry was unable to find any evidence at all that the classification system was any kind of deterrence (in particular to problematic use of Class A drugs) and when challenged, the Government was unable to produce any resarch– not a single piece – to show any different.

The final section of his piece reveals that he has relatives that have died from heroin overdoses – a tragedy that has apparently prevented him from viewing the issue with any sort of rational objectivity. He slams advocates of pragmatic responses as ‘cold and callous’ (worse still: sociology students) before concluding with ‘the best way to prevent people illegally taking heroin is to prosecute those who do.’ Well Patrick, we’ve been doing exactly that since 1971, during which time the prisons have filled up with heroin addicts (the UK has Europe’s highest prison population), heroin use has risen from around 15,000 problem users, to around 300,000 (we have the highest level of drug use in Europe) and heroin users are dying in large numbers (we have the highest level of drug deaths in Europe), not to mention committing over half of all UK property crime. More of the same? Maybe, just maybe we should think about trying something different.

Now OK, perhaps I’m biased, but there was another opinion piece in the Sunday Times by Simon Jenkins, that argued the complete opposite to the West piece – it was titled ‘The really tough way to control drugs is to license them’. Ill leave you to decide for yourselves, but were I coming to this issue afresh and read both articles I suspect I would find the Jenkin’s take on this issue substantially more persuasive.

This is a live debate and reformers are winning it hands down.


daksya said...

The most disturbing aspect about debating drug policy is that views like those of West are taken seriously enough to merit space in reputed newspapers. But it's not surprising given that surveys show that most of the public receive their drug education from media and entertainment sources, who have been prodded by the government to be a prong in the drug war, hence making them partisan, and subverting the basic purpose of the Fourth Estate. It also presents a catch-22: any media source attempting a more balanced perspective will get pounced on. Basically, debating prohibition is like playing in quicksand.

chrisbx515 said...

You say at the end of this that reformers are winning the debate. I realy hope so! However last week when radio 5 live were debating the issue there was totaly biased, moraly judgemental, uninformed rubbish beamed out accross the radio waves. How can we expect real change when the vast majority of the public still listen and belive the prohibitionists deceptions?

stevehm said...

I need to correct your point about drugs in prison. It's true there are drugs in prison but it's just not true that there are more drugs inside than out. In some prisons, in some parts of England, Wales and Scotland there are a fair amount of drugs but prisons are certainly not awash with heroin. In Scotland Canabis use in prison is on a slow, steady increase, heroin on a slow, steady decline and only small amounts are brought into the system, certainly not the amount portrayed in the press and in this article. I agree with you on every other point. And I'll stop commenting now because it'll turn into a surreal rant against the press.

Anonymous said...

So Mr West has lost relatives through drug use. How many have lost relatives through overdose of a legal drug which can be purchased in the local supermarket for pennies - Paracetamol.......

ally said...

Mr West is not the only one who has lost relatives through drugs. How many people I wonder, have lost relatives through use of a legal drug which is readily available for pennies in the local supermarket, and has, in fact, caused miore deaths than all the illegal drugs put together - Paracetamol!

Peter @ Eden Lodge said...

Those who believe the price of drugs will go down should they ever be legalised, have either forgotten or are unaware of the history of cocaine, which up until the early 1900's was a legal drug both in Europe and America.

Following considerable praise for cocaine from such prominent people as Sigmund Freud,who claimed it as a cure for morphine and alcohol addiction, the chief general surgeon of the American Army, and various other medical authorities, who described it as an elixer and cure all, the demand for the drug soared followed by the legal drug dealers, (pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers) increasing their prices by some 500 per cent.

The epidemic of addiction and crime and degradation that followed the widespread use of what was then a legal drug is well documented for those who care to know the truth.

Much of the crime was attributed to those who desperate to feed their addiction, stole, robbed and cheated, and entered into both male and female prostitution in order to get the necessary funds to feed their habit. Sound familiar?

Such were the problems attributed to this widespread use of cocaine it was outlawed in the early 1900's.

If those who are advocating for the legalisation of drugs believe that this will bring the price down, history clearly shows they are mistaken; however a very likely scenario is that the criminals will take advantage of the situation by importing inferior product and undercutting the 'legal price'

I am not going to attempt to pass comment on the wisdom, or otherwise of using cocaine, but the only way that its use would become relatively crime free, is by making it available on the NHS; given the huge cost of doing that, together with the fact that the NHS is unable to cope with its present committements and budgets, to the extent that people suffering from intractable diseases are denied drugs that might alleviate their condition, one would be hard pressed to justify the expenditure of public money on what after all is frequently described by those in favour of legalisation, as a'lifestyle' or a recreational drug.

Steve R said...

Cocaine can be regulated by the state in any way they see fit. This can obviously include price controls. Cocaine itself isnt expensive to produce. Govenment would have to balance the need to deter use by increasing price and deter illegal markets by keeping it sufficiently low. Obviously this is not easy - but at least they are in a position to intervene with legal markets to find the balance that cresates the least overall harm on public health and crime indicators. At present they have abdicated all control to ilegal dealers and the mafia.

people use drugs - we have a choice oer how they are produced and supplied.