Friday, November 02, 2007

Lords savage drug strategy consultation, and debate prohibition

Monday's Lords drugs debate provided some overdue parliamentary critique of the Government's woefully inadequate drug strategy consultation, as well as providing a forum for an all too rare debate on prohibition and legalisation/regulation. Apologies for the length of this post, but there was a lot of good material to cover.

The debate begins with Lord Bassam, representing the Government, reading a pre-prepared speech of rose tinted Home Office propaganda, heavy on the familiar mix of meaningless process success and statistical sleight of hand, amongst which we learn that:

"extraordinary progress has been made in delivering this strategy, with challenging targets often exceeded or achieved early."

"we have seen a sustained reduction in drug use and the harms caused by illegal drugs"
Transform have challenged many of these claims, here on the blog (see for example: Drugs minister gives a masterclass in drug policy spin and evasion and how to spin drug prevalence data: a beginners guide) and in recent briefings prepared for the consultation (Transform's Submission to ‘Drugs: Our Community, Your Say' (Drug Strategy Consultation Paper 2007 and Drug policy 1997-2007 - The evidence un-spun)

Evidently we are not alone in this critique, as Lord Mancroft opens the response to the Home Office minister. Discussing the consultation document:
"it contains no concrete strategic proposals of any sort, and merely invites readers to agree with the details of the plan. There is a bit of fine tuning here and there, but, to tell the honest truth, there is nothing of any substance. Indeed, the foreword by the Home Secretary could quite easily be interchanged with the forewords written by the previous three authors of drug strategies—David Blunkett, Jack Straw and Michael Howard. I looked them up and read them; they are almost the same."
Lord Mancroft then continues, pointing out that (a 'truly appalling figure') that the percentage of people leaving treatment drug free has fallen, and that drug deaths have increased (contrary to government claims)

"It is unarguable, however, that by any measure—overall drug use, drug-related crime, drug-related deaths, level of drug seizures, cocaine use, or whatever—the UK has the worst drug problem in Europe by a long measure and the second worst in the world after the United States. If the Home Secretary, as she writes in her foreword,

"draws confidence from this progress",

she and I have very different ideas of what constitutes progress."

Moving on to a broader critique of the failings of prohibition, Mancroft poses a question to the Minister:
"I would like the Minister to explain, when he comes to answer this debate, why the Government think that it is better for my kids or anyone else's kids to buy drugs at an artificially inflated price—probably paid for by crime—of unknown strength and purity, which increases the risk of overdose, from criminals who are often armed and dangerous. The Minister could also tell us why the Government think that it is a good idea to follow a policy that benefits only criminals, international drug dealers and the Taliban."
concluding thus;

"Yes, we can and should improve the quality and quantity of treatment and education. Yes, we must develop evidence-based prevention programmes. Yes, we can criticise the current system as too wasteful and too bureaucratic, with too many targets and too much central control. We can legitimately level those criticisms at all areas of government. But these issues are on the periphery. There is only one point to make. This drug strategy has not worked and cannot work. That is not because any Home Secretary is weaker or tougher than the last; it is because you cannot address health and social problems using the criminal justice system as your main weapon. We cannot devote the necessary resources to reducing the demand for drugs when we are pouring money into the criminal justice system at home and a mad foreign policy abroad, simply to deal with the unintended consequences of a policy designed 30 years ago to prevent drug use by restricting supply.

In other words, government policy has created a free-for-all in drugs, where only criminals benefit and the whole community—young people in particular—suffers as a consequence. Nothing in the current proposals leads one to conclude that this Government either understand this or have the courage to address it."

The next speech comes from the cross bencher Lord Cobbold. He picks up on similar themes to Lord Mancroft observing that:

"The [consultation] paper deals with all the issues on which there is general agreement: the importance of harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation, education for the young on the dangers to health and the need to reduce re-offending. However, the problem is not in the areas where there is agreement but in those where there is disagreement, and the most important of these is the issue of prohibition. The consultation paper contains no rehearsal of the arguments for and against the present policy of prohibition; indeed, it seems to be a taboo subject.

Prohibition was expected to rid the world of drugs by now. It has manifestly failed, and the Government cannot possibly argue that it has been a success."
Then, following a more detailed consideration of the Government's weak and infrequent arguments against moves towards either decriminalisation or legalisation and regulation he notes:
"In his speech to the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago, Gordon Brown said that he would be sending out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised. Note the word "never". This statement is distinctly depressing and amounts to an open-ended licence to the criminal gangs that control the trade. We can only express the hope that Gordon Brown can be persuaded to change his mind and, as part of the 10-year policy review, at the very least support an open, independent, international inquiry into the pros and cons of legalisation and regulation versus prohibition."
Both Lords Mancroft and Cobbold have been long time supporters of Transform's position, and indeed attended the parliamentary launch of Transform's new publication 'After the War on Drugs, Options for Control' , very much designed for precisely this sort of intellectual engagement. The next speaker was Lords Richard, with whom we have not had previous contact, but who resumed the mauling of the consultation;
"I am disappointed with the Government's consultation paper. It asked a large number of questions, all on the periphery of the argument, and failed to ask the really important ones"
He gives a similarly blunt assessment of Lord Bassams rather absurdly rosy view of the past ten years:
"On any view of the matter, the Government's drugs policy has transparently failed"
he continues:

"I recommend that noble Lords look at the document issued by the North Wales Police Authority in response to the consultation paper we are considering today. Its view is clear, and interesting not only for what it says but whence it comes: that that police authority should urge the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its replacement with a "misuse of substances" Act based on a new "hierarchy of harm" that would also include alcohol and nicotine. It also advocates that the police authority should seek affiliation with the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which is campaigning for the repeal of prohibition and its replacement with a legal system of regulation and control. These are bold recommendations, coming from a police authority.

I have not come to any conclusions easily or quickly. If the drug strategy were working, then it would clearly be much better that it should be allowed to work successfully. But it is not working successfully, and we must now accept the reality of its failure and start asking ourselves what alternative policies we could substitute which might be more successful. I am not in a firm position to suggest many such policies. My inclination now is much the same as that expressed recently by the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, in somewhat bold phrases:

"If people are addicted to heroin, give them heroin. I'm not suggesting you sell it at newsagents, but if you were to offer it to addicts in a medically controlled setting, there would be no criminal market".

That argument seems to me to be unanswerable."

Nice to see Transform getting a nod. The baton is then picked up by Lord Ramsbotham former chief inspector of prisons, who is good enough to quote extensively from Transform's consultation critique (Describing Transform as 'not just a back-street organisation' - thanks for that David -'it is extremely serious, involving a number of people coming together to discuss the problem, which they have done for many years' ). On the consultation he concludes:

Finally, my conclusion that prohibition has been excluded is derived from the fact that it is not mentioned in this consultation document at all; nor is legalisation or prescription. It assumes that this policy, which has been pursued and has failed, is to go on. I therefore do not believe that this consultation document is a worthy one on which a future strategy should be based. Too much of the evidence is suspect. Most particularly, I do not believe that all the things that have been proven to work, even though they cost money, have been included. I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lord Cobbold that a commission, rather than a consultation document that does not include proposals, is needed to go into not only the aspects which the Government choose to include but all the aspects that are known to people, including the problems of the prohibition, legalisation and prescription of drugs. The latter must have a role because, as sure as anything, what is happening now is failing, and we as a country cannot afford to go on allowing that to happen."
The debate then shifts more towards treatment provision with some useful contributions from Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe and Lord Adebewole (also director of leading treatment agency, Turning Point). Lord Jay then returns to the issue of drug supply considering the Senlis proposal to license Afghan opium production for medical use (and idea that Transform have actually been critical of), before concluding:
"None of this is easy but, to say the least, it is not obvious that the present policy of prohibition is working or will work in the future. Surely the Government now need to look, perhaps via a commission, as some other noble Lords this evening have proposed, with international partners and with a genuinely open mind at alternative approaches to supply, in particular in relation to the opium production in Afghanistan."
Another surprise was when Lord Errol enters the ring, opening with:

"I want to start with the old saying that laws seldom prevent what they seek to forbid. The real problem is the politicians' public posturing to try to get headlines that they are being tough on things, without thinking of the effect. That means that changes can be very tricky, because I can imagine the newspaper headlines screaming out the moment someone wants to take one of the more sensible approaches that have been recommended by several noble Lords, including the noble LordsBlogger: Transform Drug Policy Foundation: Media Blog - Create Post, Lord Cobbold and Lord Mancroft."
later noting:
"I am very much in favour of decriminalisation."
After a couple of other less interesting speeches, mostly repeating ground already covered, Lord Bassam returns to the stage for the unenviable task of defending the Government position. Inevitably he falls back on repeating his initial assertions, flim-flam and meaningless platitudes. On the prohibition debate he responds, I suggest rather hollowly:
"I think that most legalisers would acknowledge—they appeared in the confines of this debate—the harmfulness of many currently controlled drugs. Some called for an evidence-based approach to the law relating to the prohibition of such drugs in the hope of a move towards a regulated supply of those drugs. Although we understand that point of view, we as a Government have to make a judgment on what is best for public health. Central to our thinking is our responsibility for protecting the health and welfare of the British public. We have taken the position that prohibition is the best means to do that and we have been unequivocal in our stance of having no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs for recreational purposes."
At this point he in interrupted and gives way to Lord Mancroft:
"The noble Lord has said, "This is the Government's position and the Government are not going to budge from it". Fine, I understand that, but can he answer a very simple question: why?"
Among the reasons given in reponse are:
"we believe that our policy is not only right but evidence-based and that we are making progress"

"Legalisation is not open to us in view of our international obligations."

"There is no effective cost-benefit analysis of such a policy, if one could be made."

and more specifically:

"The impact of legalisation on levels of consumption globally is key to any meaningful cost-benefit analysis. Without accurate figures for this, it is impossible to ascribe meaningful figures to the likely public and individual health cost or properly to assess the impact on productivity and industry or on the level of industrial or traffic accidents. Such fundamental difficulties call into question whether the task is an appropriate use of research funding. The impact of drugs on health is the only legitimate reason for control, and there is overwhelming evidence that the widespread use of these drugs worldwide results in enormous social harm and economic costs associated with that use. That includes the many thousands of drug-related deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C through injecting drugs, and the mental health disorders associated with the use of drugs."
Now this is starting to get interesting. Whilst self evidently true that you can't measure the outcomes of policies that have not been tried there is a great deal of speculative but informed cost benefit analysis that can be done by comparing outcomes from different responses to illegal drugs in different countries, in different states within countries, as well as comparing outcomes from illegal and legal drugs (some drugs are illegal in some places and not others for example). We have over a hundred years of lessons learnt from our experience of legally regulating 1000s of drugs - its not quite the leap in the dark the Government like to portray it as.

It is also worth noting that the suggestion that we can't move towards any form of legalisation because its illegal under UN law is bizarre and quite wrong (as discussed in chapter 5 of 'Tools for the debate' see p.55). If a law is unjust and ineffective the Government should challenge it in whatever arena required; UN conventions can be withdrawn from, recast and redrafted if and when the political will exists. Notably, decriminalisation of personal use, as has de-facto happened in numerous countries across Europe and beyond , is quite possible within the UN conventions.

The point on drug harms and drug deaths is also disingenuous. Prohibition demonstrably fails to reduce drug harms, rather it actively increases them, with blood borne diseases amongst injectors being the most visible and tragic manifestation of this. No one has ever contracted HIV from injecting of legal pharmaceutical drugs with clean needles in a clinical supervised setting. I repeat - not one. Bloood borne diseases amongst injectors are entirely the result of prohibition, a policy that, moreover, arguably helped fuel the explosion in injecting drug culture in the first instance.

Bassam makes the familair argument (again see 'Tools for the debate' chapter 5, page 47) that use of drugs, and therefore harm, would rise under a legal regime - citing tobacco as an example. Its not a good example as far as it goes - whilst use of almost all illegal drugs has risen consistently (with some small fluctuations) in the modern prohinitionist era since the 60s, smoking has fallen equally consistently over the same time period. the fall in smoking rates has been in response to effective public health education and sensible regulatory controls not a heavy handed enforcement approach.

Interestingly, Bassam make some concessions:
"We acknowledge that there are apparent benefits to an alternative system to prohibition, such as taxation, quality control and a reduction on the pressures on the criminal justice system"
before adding:
"but in our view these are outweighed by the costs to the physical and mental health of individuals and society that result from dependence on, and addiction to, what are mind-altering drugs."
finally he says something that perhaps we can all agree on:
"Many of the problems related to drugs are underpinned by poverty, unemployment and the erosion of family and community life. They are not created simply by prohibition."

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