Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Talks in Scotland

The Scottish Herald here describes the campaigning by Jack Cole, spokesperson for the American based organisation Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in Scotland. Cole was invited by the chairman of the Strathclyde Police Federation who has noted that an ever increasing number of his members are calling for a root and branch reform of existing drug policy. This has elicited a restrained and even at times encouraging response from Tom Wood, the chair of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams. He very tentatively praised the police for their "courage" in inviting someone with such "radical" thoughts. However in the language of officialese "courage" often actually means foolhardiness. It's therefore hard to to reach a firm conclusion as to the real official response to Jack Cole's campaign. Nevertheless it's encouraging that LEAP are on the campaign trail in the UK.

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.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Everyone is talking about heroin and cocaine again

It’s been a busy old week for drugs stories. First Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, starts a media firestorm with his comments in favour of heroin prescribing, and then a report from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction starts another one, when it reports that the UK has Europe’s highest cocaine consumption.

No bad thing – both these stories have fuelled important and in many ways positive debate, firstly about heroin prescribing and secondly about the striking failure of UK drug policy regards cocaine. Neither actually ‘news’ as such but we can’t complain, even if some of the coverage doesn’t reflect particularly well on some of the media outlets.

Heroin prescribing is nothing new, and nor is senior police calling for it. Former Chief Constable Francis Wilkinson wrote a book about it and got almost identical headlines more than five years ago, whilst North Wale’s serving Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom has been saying the same thing, and getting the same headlines for years. There are plenty of others. The more annoying thing about this weeks reporting is that, in the quest for a juicy headline, it has suggested that heroin somehow needs to be legalised or that prescribing it is a new idea. Obviously heroin has been a legal licensed medicine since it was invented over a century ago, has been prescribed to addicts as far back as the first world war, and still is.

And its not even as if the Government needs that much persuading – David Blunkett announced an expansion of the existing heroin prescribing service back in 2002, and the Government authorised a number of pilot Swiss-style prescribing drop in centers ages ago, which have been operating over the last few years. The Times tried to make this non news into a scoop under the headline ‘Hardened addicts given free heroin in secret NHS trial’ – when clearly it was neither secret nor a new idea. They also note in a facts section at the end titled ‘ the price of addiction’:

£15,000 a year needed to fund an addiction
£45,000 The cost of the crimes committed each year by a heroin addict

This 45K figure was very naughty: rich heroin users don’t have to commit any crime to support their habits, and nor do those on prescriptions.

For some decent information on Heroin prescribing there was a useful review of the evidence from around the world produced recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and there is a good essay by Dr Ben Goldacre from 1998 that has recently re-emerged online that’s well worth a look.

As for the cocaine story, this was just a rehash of the ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ news that journalists, with quite amazing regularity, wheel out each year when the annual reports are published by the British Crime Survey and EMCDDA that just confirm what they said last year. In the intervening months we can usually rely on sporadic ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ stories hung on either a ‘celeb/model takes cocaine shock’ exposé, or the investigative journalist (with nothing better to do) favorite ‘cocaine traces found in bar/ school/ parliament/ convent /*insert unlikely place* toilets’. Broadsheet journalists in particular love the ‘cocaine shock’ stories because it gives them a chance to sneak some celebrity tat into their news pages, basically offering a free ticket to hurtle down market and appeal to Heat readers - The Independent on Sunday’s non-news cover story last Sunday being a case in point.

Still, at least the media arent talking about cannabis for a change, and these stories do give critics of the UK Drug Strategy – that in 1998 pledged to reduce the use and availability of Class A drugs by 50% by 2008 – a great opportunity to point out that it is doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to (ie cocaine is cheaper, more available and loads of people are using it) despite the billions of pounds still being thrown at it. Assuming Gordon Brown is the next PM – you have to hope he’s paying attention.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The one reason I will miss Milton Firedman

A nice opinion piece in today's Independent from Johann Hari - a long time advoicate of drug law reform andsupporter of Transform (you can read his archive of drug articles here)

Normally we would just post a link but since he rang up to check a few facts in the piece, I hope he wont mind us posting the complete article. For the record Transform doesnt have a view on Milton's political position beyond the drugs issue, but he did once send us a very nice letter offering his support.

The one reason I will miss Milton Friedman
Johann Hari, The Independent, 23 Nov 2006
He offered the most devastating slap-downs of the “war on drugs” ever written

Even in death, the right misses the point. Milton Friedman – the Messiah of Monetarism, saviour of small-state conservatism – is about to be buried, but his mourners have conspicuously failed to laud his one great argument.

In the past week, his conservative obituarists have concentrated on the slew of issues he got wrong, lathering praise on his demonstrably false belief that a limp, slashed-back state delivers greater social mobility and a broader middle class than a mixed social democratic economy. Just compare Sweden to Texas to test that one – or look at the collapse in Latin American growth since Friedmanomics forced out Keynesianism. Yet on one issue, Friedman applied the forensic brilliance of his brain to a deserving purpose. Over forty years, he offered the most devastating slap-downs of the “war on drugs” ever written.

Friedman was a child when alcohol was criminalised in America. The Prohibitionist crusade to banish the “demon rum” and dry out the United States lasted until he was in his twenties. The lessons lasted his lifetime. He saw that even when you use force – the police and army – to try to physically prevent people from using a popular intoxicant, you don’t actually reduce its use very much. “I wasn't very old and was not much of a drinker but there was no difficulty in finding speakeasies,” he explained. The most generous estimate is that alcohol consumption fell by a fifth initially, and then rose to pre-prohibition levels as people discovered surreptitious channels for a mouthful of moonshine.

But while prohibition didn’t succeed in the fantasies of its fans that it would “end alcoholism”, it did succeed gloriously in one respect. It handed a massive, popular industry to armed criminal gangs, who succeeded to ramp up the murder rate up by 78 percent and make a mockery of the rule of law. “We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, of the gang wars...” Friedman wrote. “Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse - for both the addict and the rest of us.”

Friedman saw – way ahead of almost any other commentator – how prohibiting cannabis, cocaine and heroin would spawn a thousand Capones. He warned, “Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.” The old Chicago gangster famously gunned down six of his alcohol-hawking competitors on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. But in the age of drug prohibition, there are equivalent dealer shoot-outs every minute of the day in South Central Los Angeles – and Hackney, and Bogata, and Kabul. People without recourse to the law will protect their property with hard ammunition. Late in his life, Friedman calculated that 10,000 people were dying every year in the US alone as a direct result of these killings, equivalent to more than three September 11ths. Most were bystanders caught in the cross-fire.

And by globalising this Puritan war on drugs, the US government has globalised this gangsterism. Friedman warned that the war on drugs has “undermined the very foundations of Colombian society” and “condemned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Colombians to violent death.” I have just returned from Mexico, which is rapidly Colombianizing, with whole areas controlled by dealers who bribe or out-gun the police force and terrorize the local population. The same thing is happening on a huge scale in Afghanistan. “By what right do we destroy other people’s countries just because we cannot enforce our own laws?” Friedman asked.

But armed gangsters are not the only species of crime generated by prohibition. In his careful, methodical style, Friedman proved that criminalising drugs causes an explosion in muggings and burglary, making us all victims of this war at some time in our lives. How? A kilo of heroin passes through six different dealers in the supply chain before it reaches the veins of a Londoner. Each link in the chain demands a fat fee for risking jail. This means heroin costs 3000 percent more than it would in a legal, risk-free market – and a heroin addict must steal 3000 percent more to buy it. 3000 percent more grannies mugged, 3000 percent more homes burgled.

That’s why so many police officers are now coming out in favour of unpicking hardline prohibition and prescribing heroin to addicts, with Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, joining the queue yesterday. They know from the experience in Switzerland – an ultra-conservative country that now nonetheless prescribes heroin – that it a silver bullet (or syringe?), bringing crime rates crashing down.

This does not mean Friedman was in favour of drugs. One of the biggest problem with the legalization brand is that it is still contaminated by the legacy of idiots like Timothy O’Leary, who though drugs use was an active good, an act of liberation. (Go visit a heroin addict in rehab and tell them how liberated they are). By contrast, Friedman thought (rightly) that heavy drug use – whether it was alcoholism, cannabis-addiction or junkiedom – was a human disaster. He once told Bill Bennett, Bush Snr’s drugs tsar, “You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favour are a major source of the evils you deplore.”

Friedman proved, for example, that prohibition changes the way people use drugs, making many people use stronger, more dangerous variants than they would in a legal market. During alcohol prohibition, moonshine eclipsed beer; during drug prohibition, crack is eclipsing coke. He called his rule explaining this curious historical fact “the Iron Law of Prohibition”: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated the substance will become.

Why? If you run a bootleg bar in Prohibition-era Chicago and you are going to make a gallon of alcoholic drink, you could make a gallon of beer, which one person can drink and constitutes one sale – or you can make a gallon of pucheen, which is so strong it takes thirty people to drink it and constitutes thirty sales. Prohibition encourages you produce and provide the stronger, more harmful drink. If you are a drug dealer in Hackney, you can use the kilo of cocaine you own to sell to casual coke users who will snort it and come back a month later – or you can microwave it into crack, which is far more addictive, and you will have your customer coming back for more in a few hours. Prohibition encourages you to produce and provide the more harmful drug.

For Friedman, the solution was stark: take drugs back from criminals and hand them to doctors, pharmacists, and off-licenses. Legalize. Chronic drug use will be a problem whatever we do, but adding a vast layer of criminality, making the drugs more toxic, and squandering £20bn on enforcing prohibition that could be spent on prescription and rehab, only exacerbates the problem. “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts,” he said. “But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”

Some people imagine that after drug prohibition ends, drug use will become rampant, with Chigwell housewives shooting up next to the chintzy ironing board. No historical analogy is perfect, but with one of his extraordinary dense statistical analyses, Friedman showed that the fears at the end of alcohol prohibition – that everyone would be glugging gin the moment they could freely buy it – proved to be false. In fact, alcohol use went back to pre-Prohibition levels, and has been falling since, with a brief spike in the Second World War. He also showed that the vast majority of criminals who had bartered in alcohol did not simply move into another form of crime, but went legit when the temptations of such a profitable criminal market disappeared.

Today, an end to drug prohibition seems like a distant fantasy. But in 1924, even as vociferous a wet as Clarence Darrow was in despair, writing that it would require “a political revolution” to legalize alcohol in the US. Within a decade, it was done. We are approaching a tipping-point in the drugs debate, when failure becomes undeniable. As we wait, I can still hear Milton Friedman in one of his last interviews: “In the meantime, should we allow the killing to go on in the ghettos? 10,000 additional murders a year? In the meantime, should we continue to destroy Colombia and Afghanistan?”

POSTSCRIPT: You can send comments on this article for publication in the Indie to letters -at- or j.hari -at -

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Does ANYONE know about clause 2 of the Drugs Act being axed?

The New Statesman's Human Rights Q&A column by their legal expert Sadakat Kadri (a barrister from Doughty Chambers) comments this week on a question put to him about cannabis law enforcement:

"Every now and then, I start to panic that the police are about to smash my door down. It’s weird, since they never have, but if they did, hypothetically, and happened to find some cannabis, what would it mean? The drug laws always seem to be changing. It’s doing my head in."

Kadri's response is sensible stuff, but unfortunately he has missed a recent update on Clause 2 (concerning possession/intent to supply thresholds) of the recent Drugs Act 2005, leading to a mistake in his answer. He states that:

"The Drugs Act 2005 stipulates that if someone is caught with more than a certain amount of cannabis, juries must find him or her guilty of intending to supply it - a crime punishable by 14 years imprisonment. The threshold remains undecided, but John Reid is reportedly thinking of setting it at five grams. Clearer heads may yet prevail, but a fifth of an ounce will otherwise become conclusive proof of dealing. Your fears, though somewhat delusionary, therefore have a basis in reality, and it would be prudent to minimise the weight of cannabis in your possession at any given time."

Whilst the advice about minimising the amount you are in possession of makes sense, this has always been the case and isn’t affected by the Drugs Act 2005 since the situation regarding the thresholds (Clause 2 of the Act) has actually changed again recently when the clause was quietly shelved back on the 13th of October.

The Drugs Act 2005 does contain the thresholds clause, but as Khalid points out, the quantities that would move a possession offence to an intent to supply offence, controversially, weren’t specified at the time of its passing into law). There was an external consultation convened on these thresholds in March 2006, nearly a year AFTER the law was passed. In response to the consultation pretty much everyone asked said that the idea of thresholds was stupid in theory, and unenforceable in practice.

To anyone cunning enough to have scrutinised the Drugs Bill 2005 BEFORE it became law this was no surprise. Even though there was – outrageously - no official consultation on the clause before it became law, many experts had none the less advised that it was a very bad idea. Among those ignored were:

Drugscope (representing over 900 member organisations in the drugs field) and Turning Point (the UK 's leading treatment agency):

“We oppose Clause 2, Proof of intention to supply a controlled drug, and call for it to be removed.”

“In our view this is an unnecessary complication of the law and takes away court discretion.”

Release, the UK’s leading drug law advisory service, produced a similarly detailed briefing making many of the same points:

“We are fundamentally opposed to this provision which we consider to be unnecessary and unworkable”

The Law Society also provided a further detailed critique concluding:

“The presumption will therefore have little legitimate effect, but may allow miscarriages of justice to occur”

Transform also submitted its own detailed briefing produced for the Government consideration and parliamentary scrutiny of the Drugs Bill in early 2005, providing yet another detailed critique of clause 2.

Anyway, the consultation paper has now been published, and it’s a pretty good document as it goes, albeit arriving the wrong side of the law being enacted. The upshot of its analysis, lurking at the end of the report is a short statement to the effect that the clause is not being commenced because everyone said it was daft. So the thresholds will not be implemented after all.

The Government’s non-commencement this clause was met by almost total media silence, the only coverage I came across was a brief mention in the Guardian on the day it was published. This silence was largely due to some rather clever spin on the Government’s part (blogged on briefly here), which managed to distract attention away from the issue with an announcement about Methamphetamine being reclassified as Class A. So effective were the Governments efforts for this story to not be reported (because it makes them look like the policy was ill thought out and passed with undue haste – which it was) that not even the New Statesman’s ‘legal expert’ had heard about it, and if a top lawyer didn’t know what the law was, what hope is there for anyone else?

This media silence was in striking contrast to the huge kerfuffle that broke out when the proposed thresholds were initially announced, with tabloid headlines screaming about it being legal to carry 2000 spliffs worth of cannabis, ten wraps of cocaine, and so on.

There’s various lessons to be learnt from this sorry saga:

  1. That consultations on law changes are best undertaken BEFORE the law changes take place (You’ll excuse the gratuitous use of capitals again, but what seems so obvious to most, apparently isn’t so obvious in the Home Office). For the record Transform’s briefing on the flawed process by which this clause came to be enacted is here . Lessons have clearly not been learnt from the almost identical farrago with reforms to section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act a couple of years back.

  2. Policy and Law changes should not only be consulted on properly (as per the Government’s own guidelines on such changes), but they should also be subject to a proper Regulatory Impact Assessment (as per the Government’s own RIA guidelines), which this clause also mysteriously managed to avoid. Moreover, policy and law changes should pass into the law following proper Parliamentary scrutiny and debate, not as the result of party horse trading on Bills in the ‘wash-up week’ before a General Election, as was the case here.

  3. That the Government can’t be trusted to bring peoples attention to changes in policy that might put them in a bad light, but can be relied upon to trumpet ill-thought out knee-jerk policy changes on drugs if the tabloids are likely to report it as being ‘tough on drugs’ (note: it doesn’t matter if the law change actually ever occurs as long as the headlines are secured – see also: random drug testing and sniffer dogs in schools).

  4. That the media can’t be trusted to check through long nerdy Government documents and report on complex policy issues in an intelligent way, (even following up on stuff they have already run as headline news), especially when there are much sexier stories about scary sounding drugs like methamphetamine .

  5. And finally, given all of the above, it is down to you folks in the drugs field, boring enough to have read this far, to hold the Government and media to account when they are completely incompetent, or otherwise fail in their responsibilities, which is unfortunately quite often.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Australian Liberals call for drug crackdown

Australian newspaper The Age reports in an article titled ‘Liberals take hard line on ‘soft’ drugs’. (November 20, 2006) that:

Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said a Liberal government would take a tough line on drugs and seek to change the culture surrounding "recreational drugs", which he described as the scourge of our society.

"The message to the community is: we are not going to tolerate it any more. Drugs are dangerous, dabbling in drugs is dangerous, and young people need to get the message," he said. "We are not going to cope if we continue to simply put around the message that it's OK to dabble or it's OK to use recreational drugs — there is no such thing."

Along with these comments he calls for the old fall back of many a drug-warrior trying to sound tough; minimum sentences for drugs dealers - which have failed in every respect in the US except boosting prison numbers to unprecedented levels. He also calls for the banning of ‘large cigarette papers’ and bongs, a frankly laughable suggestion about as likely to stop cannabis consumption as banning pint glasses is to stop people drinking beer. Just picture 1000s of Aussie cannabis users looking at their stash and small cigarette papers in bafflement and despair. A prize-winningly idiotic addition to the prohibitionist armoury, already overflowing with them.

But enough of that silliness, there’s a couple of more important points worth making about his quote above. Firstly, whilst tough talk of ‘putting out messages’ will have a familiar ring to UK audiences, being exactly the sort of thing we would expect to hear from the John Reid or David Davis, we would probably not expect to hear such knee-jerk drug war clichés from the Liberal Democrats, who have historically been a bit more sophisticated on such issues. So it is curious to hear this sort of old-school populist gubbins about getting ‘tough’ on ‘scourges’ from a nominally liberal party, particularly one that has as it’s first belief:

“The inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives”

Secondly, it’s always interesting to contrast self-proclaimed anti-drug crusader's attitudes to ‘drugs’ and to alcohol (also of course, a drug). I have no idea about Ballieu’s position on alcohol, although he no doubt has a sup from time to time
Politicians in
Australia aren’t apparently shy of posing for the cameras with a glass or their favourite recreational drug, nor for that matter are UK politicians, even quite well known ones:

what message does this send out to the kids?

Yet in the UK with its rapidly growing problems of binge drinking liver cirrhosis amongst young people and Australia with its high profile problems of ‘grog’ amongst many deprived aboriginal communities, alcohol could much more appropriately be called a ‘scourge’. The contrast between public proclamations on legal and illegal drugs appears to be more to do with how the different political rhetoric received by the public and media rather than the fact one drug is somehow OK whilst others are thoroughly wicked and awful. This alarming lack of consistency is all about politics and nothing to do with evidence based public health policy making. See

You have to hope that Mr Baillieu’s intention that “$4 million would be spent teaching students about the dangers of cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines” is matched by a commitment to spending on students favourite drug – alcohol, which causes levels of harm that eclipse all illegal drugs combined. He might also want to include some info on the dangers of prohibition, and how a criminal record for consuming certain drugs could seriously damage the future career prospect of Australia’s brightest hopes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Piperazines - what to do with an emerging 'legal high'?

The piperazines are a 'family' of drugs with similar chemical structures. Some amongst this group of drugs are used medically (including famously, Viagra) and others, (currently unlicensed as medicines and also not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act) are in an as-yet unclassified legal wilderness and have found a market on the (annoyingly named) 'legal high' recreational drugs scene for their stimulant effect, similar to amphetamines or ecstasy, although of lower potency.

The emergence of such drugs has only recently grazed the media with some reporting in the Guardian and a recent edition of the New Scientist as well as some coverage in the dance music scene media.

Transform has produced a detailed briefing on these drugs, considering what the options might be for dealing with them without resorting to a heavy handed crackdown. Specifically this briefing looks at the experience in New Zealand where the drugs have been widely used for a number of years (without, reportedly, any significant public health harms) and where the government have opted to license the drug for sale under a new Class D classification - amended to to their existing ABC system similar to the UK's. The new 'Class D' acknowledges risk but puts in place a series of licensing criteria (age controls, packaging, dosage etc).

Whilst piperazines themselves are not a particular concern, this represents a very real step forward in drug policy thinking for the future - offering one of the worlds first new licensing systems for recreational drugs (not currently covered by the UN conventions). The UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will be considering this drug and the Class D concept in the near future and there exists a real possibility for a new and pragamatic 'third way' option to emerge in the UK, operating between absolute prohibition and the essentially unregulated 'legal highs' industry. It wouldn't be the answer to the problems of prohibition but would certainly be a step in the right direction and usefully help demonstrate how other drugs might be more effectively regulated in the future.