The Independent on Sunday have followed on last week's Cannabis panic front page splash with another front page splash. This time it is 'The Great Cannabis Debate'. Inside we get more news coverage revelling in the faux-controversy they have stirred up, scary brain scans showing how cannabis 'may' melt your brain, two opinion pieces; one by the head of the UN drug agencies Antonio Costa, another by child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans, and another leader defending their retraction of support for cannabis law reform (on the basis that it is more dangerous than they thought).
Jonathan Owen from the Independent on Sunday, who is apparently taking the lead on this latest salvo of cannabis coverage, rang me on Friday. He had read the Transform blog critique on last weekend's IOS cannabis 'apology' and wanted a response for this weeks 'Great Debate' follow up piece. This is what I sent in:
"The IOS makes the mistake of confusing their legitimate concern with the health impacts of cannabis misuse amongst a small group vulnerable young people, with support for the failed ideological policy of prohibition. Rather than supporting an evidence-led regulatory response based on public health and harm reduction principles, they advocate a policy that has not only failed to address the problems they describe (and has arguably created many of them), but also one that offers no prospect of sorting them out. The blanket criminalisation of millions of non-problematic occasional users that the IOS has now re-stated its support for, cannot be justified on the basis of a relatively tiny vulnerable population, especially of teenage heavy users, who have serious problems with the drug (even if this group has grown proportionally with the overall population of users over the last three decades). This is akin to prohibiting cars because of a small population of teenage joy-riders.
Cannabis use undoubtedly involves risk, as does all drug use, legal or illegal. But these risks have been well documented and well understood for generations. The debate around our response to cannabis use is not well served by hype and misrepresentation of statistics on potency, impact on mental health, or treatment and addiction – all of which last week’s IOS coverage was guilty of. This was scaremongering in the cause of an attention grabbing headline, very much in the pattern of many previous cannabis scares and precisely the sort of moral-panic the recent RSA report criticised for historically distorting policy priorities. The IOS also perpetuate the misunderstanding that the cause of cannabis law reform is predicated on the fact that cannabis is harmless. On the contrary – the exact opposite is true: Is precisely because drugs are dangerous that the need to be appropriately regulated and controlled by the State rather than be left in the hands unregulated criminal profiteers. This remains true however harmful a particular drug is shown to be.”
Whilst they have printed some similar-ish sensible comments from others in the follow up (in micro print, beneath the massive banner-headlined UN propaganda fest), they haven't included my comments in their 'great debate', which is mildly annoying since they actually asked for them.
Anyway, there's various things that jump out from the coverage deserving of some sort of response:
- Owen refers to 'outrage on pro-cannabis websites and blogs' in response to the IOS's cannapology. Read our blog post: it is not outraged and it is certainly not pro-cannabis, any more than advocates of drug policy and law reform generally are 'pro-drug'. They are pro effective evidence-based public health responses to the obvious failings of prohibition. As the late Eddie Ellison, former head of the met drugs squad and Transform Patron, liked to point out, being anti-drug is entirely compatible with a rational pragmatic position on drug law reform (see here and here). Pro drug / anti drug is a false binary that the IOS deploys as part of its own self justification: drugs are bad, we are anti them, we must be right. Once again, they totally miss the point.
- After last weeks 'drugs bad for you' scoop, the big scoop this week is that the UN agrees with them: 'The United Nations has issued an unprecedented warning to Britain about the growing threat to public health from potent new forms of cannabis, saying there is mounting evidence of "just how dangerous" the drug has become'. Actually this is in no way 'unprecedented', and to suggest so is just poor journalism. Costa, his predecessors, and the UN drug agencies saying exactly this, loudly and frequently, for years, especially since UK cannabis reclassification in 2004. Almost every comment in Antonio Costa's article is copy and pasted from these earlier statements.
- It is hardly surprising that Costa would say what he does. The UN drug agencies oversee the UN drug conventions to which most countries in the world are signatories. These conventions (1961, 1971 and 1988) enshrine the IOS's beloved criminal penalties for drug production, supply and use into domestic law of over 150 states. They are the legal foundation and ideological bedrock of global drug prohibition. So its hardly surprising that Costa has come out in support of the IOS 's born again war-on-drugs stance. Costa is like prohibition's end-of-level-boss, he is literally the last person on earth you would expect to get a balanced position on drug policy from. Its a bit like an IOS scoop that the Pope sensationally backed their new position on the virgin birth. Indeed, Peter Cohen, in an essay for the International Journal of Drug Policy, titled 'The drug prohibition church and the adventure of reformation', makes a telling comparison between prohibition and religious dogma:
Whatever the origin of the UN Drug Treaties, and whatever the official rhetoric about their functions, the best way to look at them now is as religious texts. They have acquired a patina of intrinsic and unquestioned value and they have attracted a clique of true believers and proselytes to promote them. They pursue a version of Humankind for whom abstinence from certain drugs is dogma in the same way as other religious texts might prohibit certain foods or activities. The UN drug treaties thus form the basis of the international Drug Prohibition Church. Belonging to that Church has become an independent source of security, and fighting the Church's enemies has become an automatic source of virtue
- Picking apart what Costa and prohibition's other high-level evangelists have to say has been done a million times. The UN drug agency's drug war propaganda is as tediously repetitive as it is economical with the truth. He repeats the myth that legalisation advocates claim cannabis is harmless, and blanket misrepresents all of the theory and practice of alternative policies to absolute prohibition as 'vague, laissez fare' or 'libertarian'. He uses a crackpot quote from a random online head-shop as a source of 'truth' regards the real dangers of cannabis, and has a charming line on not being swayed by 'misguided notions of tolerance'. Anything but tolerance!
- We then get the utterly ridiculous: "People who drive under the influence of cannabis put others at risk. Would even the most ardent supporter of legalisation want to fly in an aircraft whose pilot used cannabis?" OK. Deep breath... Look, no one, literally no one calling for legal regulation and control of cannabis (or any other drug) is saying driving whilst competence is compromised by drug intoxication is OK or should also be legal. I'm also not aware of anyone ever suggesting that flying planes whilst stoned was acceptable. Decriminalising drug use does not give license for secondary offences committed whilst intoxicated - these will obviously remain criminal, as they should. To suggest different is pretty desperate, and from the rational reformers perspective actually quite offensive.
- The most egregious nonsense in the Costa piece is where he claims: "drug control works. More than a century of universally accepted restrictions on heroin and cocaine have prevented a pandemic. Global levels of drug addiction - think of the opium dens of the 19th century - have dropped dramatically in the past 100 years. In the past 10 years or so, they have remained stable. The drug problem is being contained and our societies are safer and healthier as a result." Seriously, what can you say to that? How can you argue against that sort of statement that crosses the boundary from shaky institutional propaganda into full-blown Orwellian 'ministry of drug truth' delusion. At this point, I could produce a torrent of graphs, from official government and even UN sources, exposing this statement to be the polar opposite of reality, but hopefully if you are reading this blog, in fact if you can read at all, graphs wont be necessary as you will appreciate that such claims for the success of drug control over the past century are a total joke. It would actually be quite funny - if this man wasn't in charge of global drug policy. If the IOS is relying on this sort of analysis to bolster its case they really have blown it. To find out more about the UN drug policy see this excellent page of TNI publications on international drug policy. See also the recent blog: UN INCB is 'obstacle' to HIV prevention and drug treatment programs
- The other prominent drug 'expert' the IOS pull in is none other than music / TV / airline /cola mogul Richard Branson. He talks about 'genetically engineered skunk' suggesting that skunk - the ill defined catch-all term for smelly indoor-grown cannabis - is in fact some sort of sinister new species of franken-pot. Actually it's no more 'genetically engineered' than any other farmed plant, flower or vegetable that has been bred to develop certain properties - i.e. everything in your fridge. Rosie Boycott on Radio Four's Today programme last week, despite elsewhere talking a lot of sense, got it even more wrong when she described 'skunk' as 'genetically modified', which is just flat out incorrect. Breeding plants is very different from inter-species DNA splicing. The worst thing about this is that both Branson and Boycott seem to be buying into the hype of the potency panic (explored in last weeks blog and also examined in this week's Guardian Bad Science column by Ben Goldacre). The Independent also seems to imply that Branson is backing their born-again prohibitionist stance when in fact he is not. He specifically only calls for a debate on the harms of cannabis, and also says that people with drug problems should get help on the NHS 'free from blame'.
To be honest I'm incredibly bored with the endless recycling of the cannabis debate, the endless retreading of exaggerated claims about the drug itself (either its dangers or its safety). If there is one small mercy in the IOS coverage it is that they spared us the dreaded 'gateway theory'. Most of all I'm bored of the myths, misrepresentations and misunderstandings about people who call for reform of a policy that has manifestly failed on each and everyone of its stated objectives to reduce supply, use or harm associated with the drug.
This has all been going on for literally decades now, in fact generations; bear in mind the original reefer madness film was made in 1936, several decades before the 'good old days' of the flower power era (as Costa calls it) when cannabis was apparently a nice harmless drug used by hippies.
This endless tail chasing has been fuelled by lazy journalists looking for an easy headline and populist politicians looking for a way to score points against opponents. Its just too easy: hype the danger then sound all righteous by coming up with a tough new way to fight it - evidence of effectiveness not required.
At some point we will have to get off this pointless merry-go-round. If nothing else the cannabis debate is a massive distraction from far more pressing issues in drug policy around heroin and cocaine in particular, and the catastrophic impact that those illegal markets have here as well as in Afghanistan, Colombia and elsewhere.
the Independent have changed their position from 10 years ago, and will probably change it again when they realise how the call for a war on pot really isn't the answer to the problems they identify, even if they were half as bad as the make out. Maybe the cycle-time for them changing their minds again will be a bit less than ten years. Maybe next time they will not confuse the debate about drug dangers with the debate about how to deal with them. You live in hope, but this week's spade work suggests they are determined to dig themselves into an ever deeper hole.
It was only last month that the IOS leader was arguing:
"It is true that there is a growing body of opinion that says some of the varieties of cannabis available today, in particular "skunk", are more dangerous than they were in the past. But this does not alter the fact that heavy-handed prohibition is failing."and
"There are strong signs that the public is far less one dimensional in its attitudes than parts of the media and the political establishment believe. Almost a third of adults in this country have taken some form of illegal drug. There is a growing awareness that present policies are not working."Just three weeks ago stablemate, the (daily) Indepedent with whom the Sunday version shares a website, had a leader about the RSA drugs report which argued that:
"Of course, the reason ministers are clinging on to the crude policy of prohibition is that there is still a wide-spread mindset in this country, stoked up by the populist press, that all drugs are "evil" and that, by extension, so are those that take them. The summersaults performed by ministers over the downgrading of cannabis demonstrate just how in thrall to this popular prejudice they remain. The RSA report argues that: "The evidence suggests that a majority of people who use drugs are able to use them without harming themselves or others. The harmless use of illegal drugs is thus possible, indeed common." One can already predict the shrieks of alarm that will emanate from the prohibitionist lobby at this eminently reasonable statement."
Weeks later another leader makes big play of unambiguously calling specifically for prohibition (its an absolutist position, there is only one kind and its always heavy handed), and also stating that the present policy is 'about right'. Its all a bit confused, why, its almost a bit...schizophrenic. Actually I don't really know what they're thinking, and to be honest, I don't think they do either.