Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BMJ attempts to tackle the drug law reform debate

The British Medical Journal, which along with the Lancet, is arguably the UK's most prestige medical journal, has this week run two articles in its regular Head to Head section, titled 'Should drugs be decriminalised' (with a cover teaser titled: 'Should street drugs be decriminalised'). The two articles, printed on facing pages, were produced by Dr Kailash Chand, a General practitioner arguing the 'Yes' position, and Joseph A Califano from the The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University arguing the 'No' position. Chand approached Transform for some help with some of his references, which we provided, and we also offered some editorial suggestions on his draft, some of which he heeded, some not. Transform do get a mention which was very welcome and we are also referenced several times by Chand. I'm not a fan of these polarised debate pieces if the truth be told (see this extract from Transform's 'Tools for the debate' publication for more discussion of this) but seeing the debate in such a prominent journal isn't to be sniffed at.

So how did they do?

Chand's 'yes' piece is somewhere between OK and good, but lacks a certain sophistication I would have liked to see in a BMJ article, and I can't help thinking it would have been better if Transform had been approached for it in the first place. That said, compared to the stinker that Califano has produced Chand's piece starts to look like a Pulitzer prize winner.

Regular blog readers may recall that Califano produced an article for the Financial Times in August defending the prohibitionist position (in response to two pro-law reform articles in the FT by Willem Buiter and Mathew Engel). His article was given a pretty solid kicking in the FT 'Economist's forum', an invite only forum for the 'world's top economists' that I somehow managed to blag my way into and join in the fun tearing his rather ridiculous rant to shreds.
(see blogs: FT legalisation debate hots up, and Prohibitionist rant trashed in FT economists forum).

He has apparently learnt from this experience, moderating his rhetoric somewhat and fine tuning some of his more dubious facts, but is still a long way from redeeming his article that remains riven with factual inaccuracies and sleight of hand, intellectual flaws and conceptual weakness. If he is really the best that the prohibitionist establishment can put forward to defend their position then the debate may be nearer to its end game than any of us had imagined. Truly, it is rather pathetic to behold.

I have submitted a fairly detailed rebuttal to Califano on the BMJ rapid response page which they have been good enough to publish, and there are several other interesting responses including one from Ian Oliver that is so bizarre it needs to be read to be believed. There are also responses to Chand's piece, to which I have also contributed, more in response to to his doubters (some of whom see fit to make some unpleasant insinuations about Transform) than to his original piece.

It's a massive issue for the British medical establishment and I would have hoped for something a little more sophisticated from the BMJ than yet another rather tired and unproductive prohibitionist/legaliser clash, but, especially with the follow on debate online, its all for the good I suspect. At least they are talking about it.

And the rapid response section is still open to submissions if you have something fresh to chip in.

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