Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New look blog - whaddya think?

There's still a few little tweaks to happen but we are nearly there. Comments welcome - post them below or email Thanks to Ben, Rob and Alex for help with the blog makeover.

FYI - The little buttons below each post, that say DIGG, DEL.ICO.OUS, and REDDIT allow you to clock any given blog entry at one the three biggest social bookmark sites (we may add a couple more at some point)

You will need to register at each but this only requires you to input a user name and password (no personal info required) and takes about two seconds. These sites then rank stories/blogs according to how many times they are bookmarked, providing user-interest driven content to their visitors, and bringing in more readers to interesting or quality blogs. It would be great if you can show your support for the blog by making the (minimal) effort to bookmark pages youve found interesting - and that you think others might also.

cheers - The Transform blog team

Does James Bond support legalisation?

I recently watched the film Layer Cake, a Matthew Vaughn directed movie from 2004, starring Daniel Craig. It's a 3-star convoluted story about backstabbing drug dealers.

What's really interesting though is the opening sequence (the first two minutes) that shows Craig walking through a pharmacists talking about how one day all drugs will be legal; but for now prohibition creates the opportunity for crims to make billions. Take a look at the video below. It's a legalisation monologue with the highest production values we're ever likely to see. Note the FCUK logo on the bottles of cocaine. The executive producer of the movie is Stephen Marks - Founder/Chairman of French Connection. Interesting product placement...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Drugs are illegal, and that's the right way to have them."

Irish boadcasting legend Gay Byrne, long time presenter of the late late show, has become one of a growing number of Irish public figures questioining the war on drugs.

According to this Irish Times report he told an Irish radio station he was coming round to the view that illegal drugs should be legalised because attempts to deal with the problem through law enforcement had "demonstrably failed". His position gained support from Labour Councillor Aodhan O Riordain, deputy majyor of Dublin who agreed that a new approach to drugs was needed, commenting that;

"Drugs are a continuing cancer which have a devastating effect on communities throughout my electoral area of the North Inner City, throughout Dublin and indeed throughout the country.

"However it is becoming clear to me that we as a society need to start a new debate on the problem as we are clearly losing the war on drugs,"

This eminently reasonable position was met by Noel Ahern, the minister of state responsible for drug strategy with the following intellectual tour-de-force:

"Drugs are illegal, and that's the right way to have them. Any talk about liberalising drugs is irresponsible."

Ahern seems to have overlooked the fact that many drugs aren’t illegal, including some old Irish favorites including alcohol and tobacco. There are ofcourse a range of regulatory models that exist for the production and supply of recreationally and medically used drugs.

Also we can steer clear of talk of 'liberalising' and still have a very useful debate about the best way to tackle problems arising from drug use and misuse. We can talk about how best to control drug markets through legal regulation, how to remove power from the drug dealers and gangsters, invest in public health and improve the wellbeing of society.

In short - take a rational and scienctific look at the evidence and try and come up with a better policy - nothing irresponsible about that - infact its what drug ministers should be doing. Just saying: 'drugs are illegal and thats the right way to have them' hardly constitutes a devastating point by point rebuttal of the drug war's many critics.

For more information on control through regulation please read our document ‘After the War on Drugs: Options for Control

Monday, February 26, 2007

Yet another leaked government report critiques prohibition/calls for regulation

A report by Marie Woolf in the The Independent on Sunday reveals that the Government has been giving far more attention to progressive drug policy than they would like to let on. The IOS story, titled: ‘Heroin on the NHS and a document too hot to handle’ (unfortunately the story is not available online without subscription) has a pretty juicy scoop in the form of a ‘restricted’ Home Office brief intended for the eyes of Tony Blair, which they have managed to get hold of.

Some statements cited from the document include:

"There is mounting evidence of the impossibility of winning the war against drugs supply.""The Home Office should consider wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS"
A system of controlled availability of drugs would allow the Government to exert a much greater degree of influence over the way in which substances are used than is currently possible."
“there is a strong argument that prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs. One option for the future would be to regulate drugs differently, through either over-the-counter sales, licensed sales or doctor's prescription.’
These quotes are certainly striking, coming as they do from a Government that has steadfastly refused to even contemplate public debate on such matters. 'Dynamite' as Woolf describes them.

Perhaps the most interesting and encouraging thing about it is that it makes the most explicit high level call yet for the control and regulation of drugs, and specifically critiques the failure of 'prohibition'. It uses language that will appear spookily familiar to readers of Transform’s 'After the War on Drugs -Options for Control' report – linked in the margin to the right. It certainly supports Transform's position that, well, 'prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs' and our campaign to 'regulate drugs differently', specifically the 'controlled availability of drugs'.

The question now is how long can the Government ignore the mountainous evidence and calls (including repeatedly from its own advisors and civil servants) for a more rational approach to drug policy? Take one specific example – an expansion of heroin prescribing: there have been at least five major reports land on the Prime Minister’s desk in 8 years arguing for a such a roll out:

1. The 1999 Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 Police Foundation This made a detailed analysis of current policy failings and made recommendations for a number rational reforms, including the reclassification of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD, and a focus of spending on health rather than punitive enforcement. This independent report was roundly rejected by the Government on the day of publication – although many of its recommendations have subsequently been adopted. It called for more heroin prescribing.(Transform made a written submission)

2. The 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee Report: The Governments Drug Policy: Is it working? Powerful critique of supply side prohibition and detailed consideration of various options for reform including recommending more heroin prescribing. (Transform gave written and oral evidence and are quoted in the final report – which included a call for a Government debate on 'legalisation' at 'UN level'). All substantive recommendations were ignored.

3. The Strategy Unit report (Phases 1 & 2). In 2003 the Number 10 Strategy Unit was commissioned to produce what was initially described as ‘a scoping exercise' on illegal drugs. What emerged in Phase 1 of the reporting process, titled ‘Understanding the Issues’, was a thorough and clinical analysis by some of the best policy minds in the UK - of the counterproductive effects of national and global drug law enforcement. In December of 2003, Phase 2 of the report ‘Diagnosis and Recommendations' was produced. It later became known as ‘the Birt ' report' and its existence was made public, again by Marie Woolf in the Independent. Phase 1's critique of supply side interventions was sidelined, and Birt recommended an intensification of demand-side measures aimed at ‘gripping high harm causing users (HHCUs)’ in coerced treatment, in order to reduce property crime associated with fundraising to support a habit. This later culminated in the clauses in the new Drugs Act 2005 that mandate (with criminal sanctions including imprisonment) drug testing on arrest for certain trigger offences and mandatory treatment if positive. However – it also called for an expansion of heroin prescribing:

"In principle, there is a strong rationale for a more widespread use of heroin prescription in the treatment system
  • around 260,000 heroin users have serious habits which are predominantly funded through crime
  • it is better to draw those users into an environment where they can inject safely
  • where they can be persuaded to move down the pathway towards abstinence
  • it is also better to provide heroin freely to those users than to have them commit crime to buy it." (p.58)
4. The 2007 memo written by David Bennett, the head of the No 10 policy directorate, which according to the Sunday Times, 'outlines the prime minister’s “emerging ideas” for his last months in office which he hopes will be so far advanced when his successor takes over that Brown will have to follow them.' It includes the following idea: ‘Prescribing addictive drugs in a bid to help tackle drug-related crime.’

- Transform have blogged this article here.

5. and finally this newly revealed 2004 Final Report of the Crime Reduction Review detailed in the Heroin on the NHS and a document too hot to handle’ article.

So, just to recap: That's major reports in 1999 (Police Foundation) 2002 (Home Affairs Select Committee) 2003 (No 10 Strategy Unit) 2004 (Home Office crime reduction review), and 2007 (No 10 Policy Directorate) all telling the Prime Minister that expanding heroin prescribing is a good idea. This is not to mention the stream of senior police, documentaries and editorials making the same call, or the fact that Transform and numerous other NGO's in the drugs field have been calling for this for many years.So it was rejected (in the short term) as an idea, but it’s a relief to know that at least these things are being discussed (even if they don't want us to know). Who knows, one of these days we may even actually see an expansion of heroin prescribing, something the long since departed Blunkett promised back in 2002 – 5 years ago. Certainly no one will be able to claim it’s a big surprise when it finally happens.

See also: Has the heroin prescribing debate reached tipping point?

Another law professional speaks out for legalisation

QC Donald Finlay speaking on talk107 radio doesn’t just call for legalisation of cannabis, he also mentions the need to consider control through regulation of other drugs. He believes in a holistic approach, advocating the provision of ‘resources and the facilities to help people get off the addictions, or at least control the addictions, that have been foisted upon them.

He joins an ever-growing list of supporters from the Criminal Justice professions.

Friday, February 23, 2007

US Drugs Tsar gets a frosty reception in Canada

The US Drugs Tsar is currently on tour in Canada, part of his ongoing mission to export and entrench the disastrous 'War on Drugs' around the world, whilst simultaneously condemning and undermining moves toward such dangerous concepts as 'harm reduction'.

Canada has little or nothing to learn from the US' beyond how not to do it. This was made abundently clear at a press cnference organised by the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy which included the following line up of top-draw speakers:

*Larry W. Campbell, Senator, former Mayor of Vancouver, former RCMP Drug Squad member, and former Chief Coroner of British Columbia.
*Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organisation in the US promoting alternatives to the war on drugs, former Princeton University professor and author of several books and articles on policing, crime control and drug policy
*Professor Line Beauchesne, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa, the author of several books on drug policy, and co-founder, Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.
*Dr David Marsh, former preseident of the Canadian Society for Addiction Medicine

hosted by: Eugene Oscapella, Ottawa lawyer, co-founder, Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, and lecturer on drug policy in the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa.

The press conference has been filmed and posted on youtube. The first installment, featuring Ethan Nadleman and Eugene Oscapella can be viewed below (the quality isn't going to win any awards but it perfectly watchable):

to see the following sections click:

Part 2 - Eugene Oscapella & Senator Larry Campbell
Part 3 - Eugene Oscapella & Line Beauchesne

Part 4: Eugene Oscapella & Dr. David Marsh
Part 5: Q&A from reporters
Part 6: Q&A continued
Part 7: Q&A continued

The following article by Ethan Nadleman, summing up a lot of these sentiments, appeared in the Ottawa Citizen:

Canada must not follow the U.S. on drug policy

Ethan Nadelmann
Citizen Special

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The U.S. drug czar, John Walters, is in Ottawa today, trying his best to put a positive spin on one of the greatest disasters in U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Part of his agenda is to persuade Canada to follow in U.S. footsteps, which can only happen if Canadians ignore science, compassion, health and human rights.

The United States ranks first in the world in per-capita incarceration, with roughly five per cent of the earth's population but 25 per cent of the total incarcerated population. Russia and China simply can't keep up. Among the 2.2 million people behind bars today in the United States, roughly half a million are locked up for drug-law violations, and hundreds of thousands more for other "drug-related" offences. The U.S. "war on drugs" costs at least $40 billion U.S. a year in direct costs, and tens of billions more in indirect costs.

It's all useful information for Canadians to keep in mind when being encouraged to further toughen their drug laws to bring them in line with those of the United States.

What's most remarkable about U.S. drug policy is the way it endures despite persistent evidence that it is ineffective, costly and counterproductive. One report after another -- by the U.S. General Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences, independent agencies and even the Bush administration itself -- consistently fault federal drug-control programs for failing to achieve their objectives.

But funding nonetheless persists. The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance
Education) program, which relies on police to "educate" young people about drugs, keeps being funded despite an impressive run of studies demonstrating no effect on adolescent drug use. Ditto for the government's border interdiction and anti-drug ad campaigns, and its funding of federal-state anti-drug task forces, and much else.

Drug-policy reformers in the United States have been cheered by Canada's willingness -- at least until now -- to look to Europe rather than the United States for drug-control models. When HIV/AIDS started spreading a generation ago among people who inject drugs, both Europe and Canada were quick to implement needle exchanges and other harm-reduction programs, even as the United States opted instead to allow hundreds of thousands to become infected and die needlessly.

Heroin-prescription trials are now underway in Montreal and Vancouver, trying to determine whether what worked so well in Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands and other countries can also work in Canada. The same is true of supervised injection sites, which have proven effective in reducing fatal overdoses, transmission of infectious diseases and drug-related nuisance. And most recently, Vancouver's mayor, Sam Sullivan, has broken new ground by proposing that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts be prescribed legal substitutes.

But I wonder whether Canada just can't help following in U.S. footsteps. DARE survives in Canada too, notwithstanding evidence of its lack of efficacy. Almost three quarters of Canadian federal drug-strategy spending is for law-enforcement initiatives, few of which demonstrate any success in reducing drug problems. "While harm-reduction interventions supported through the drug strategy are being held to an extraordinary standard of proof," the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Dr. Julio Montaner, recently observed, "those receiving the greatest proportion of funding remain under-evaluated or have already proven to be ineffective."

The survival of Vancouver's supervised-injection facility is currently at risk, for reasons having everything to do with politics and nothing with science or health, while federal drug-enforcement authorities know that all they need to do to preserve funding is make arrests and avoid scandal.

What matters most to U.S. drug czar John Walters, though, is cannabis, which he occasionally, and absurdly, describes as the most dangerous of all drugs. Seventy per cent of Americans say cannabis should be legal for medical purposes, and one study after another points to its efficacy and safety as a medicine. A similar percentage also think personal possession of marijuana should be decriminalized (i.e., resulting in fines rather than arrest and incarceration) and 40 per cent say it should be taxed, controlled and regulated, more or less like alcohol.

But Mr. Walters will have none of it. He travels the country, railing against cannabis and urging schools to drug test all students, without cause -- and without any scientific evidence that testing will work. And when he visits or talks about Canada, it's typically to complain -- erroneously -- that Canada is a major supplier of marijuana for the U.S., never mind the fact that Americans now produce most of the marijuana consumed in the United States.

Canada needs to lead, not follow, the United States when it comes to dealing sensibly with drugs. Mr. Walters's Canadian hosts today should remind him of the 2002 report of the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin.

It's probably the best, most comprehensive, most evidence-based report on drug policy produced by any government in the past 30 years. And its recommendations are all about dealing with drugs as if politics were an afterthought, and all that mattered were reducing the harms associated with both drug use and failed drug policies. Imagine that.

The Blog is having a makeover

The blog had its 10,000th visit today (over 17,000 page views). Not bad given its barely 6 months old and is serving a niche field (policy and law reform) within a niche field (drugs). It is now getting over 2000 visits a month.

(February isnt over yet...)

We may move it from its current basic blogger-template into something altogether jazzier at some point fairly soon, but in the mean time we figured it was due a bit of a makeover. This may a take a few days to get right, so expect a few changes and possible glitches while we get to grips with some new software, and try to make it all look nice and work properly.

I hope you like the changes and THANKS for your ongoing support. Please help us by linking the blog on your site/blog/publications/tatoo etc, and keep on posting comments and sending in interesting material for us to blog. You can also add the blog to news feeds easily - if you need help with any of this let us know.

At some point in the next week we will be adding buttons to the template that allow you to clock blog entries that you rate highly at social bookmarking sites such as Digg, Technorati and so on (these are sites that have user generated sets of links to interesting stuff on the web - the more people that link a certain page, the higher its profile - hey, its web2.0 man). So if you like the blog - let other people know about it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pervez Musharraf Backs Purchase of Afghan Opium

This interview with the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, is from Prospect magazine's March edition. Musharraf is open to ideas which seek to solve the convergent problems of Al Qaeda/Taliban and the Afghan poppy crop, which at least part funds the Taliban. "Buying the crop is an idea one could explore. Pakistan doesn't have the money for it. We would need money from the US or the UN," he says.

The idea is something of a non-starter for the same reason eradication and alternative devlopment are - demand for illicit opium would remain; production would just expand elsewhere - whether in Afghanistan, other Central Asian states, or somewhere else in the world (the balloon effect). The same idea was actually suggested by the UK drugs Tsar Keith Hellawell some years back, and a variation of it is being promoted by the Senlis Council (to license the opium for medical use).

Even if not feasible it does at least represent engagement of key stake holders with policy alternatives, and is arguably progress from that of the Americans who according to the article would be "unlikely to back an official common agricultural policy-style purchase" and seem hell bent on eradication, despite the decades of failure for similar efforts to eradicate coca cultivation in Colombia.

The wider theatre in which Musharraf must operate is tidily examined in this interview with the conclusion that the West must concentrate on diplomacy and practical solutions rather than simply gunning for more war and wasted efforts at opium eradication.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why being a crack dealer is the worst job in America

This is a interesting lecture by Steve Levitt (author of the Freakenomics) about the economic realities of drug dealing during the worst phase of the US crack epidemic in the 1990s. 20 mins - click to view.

apologies for the car ad in the title sequence

Monday, February 19, 2007

Has the heroin prescribing debate reached a tipping point?

The Independent today reports that the president of ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers), Ken Jones, has joined the long list of senior police and public figures calling for heroin (diamorphine) to be prescribed to 'addicts'.

Before considering this potentially significant development it is worth commenting on the Independent's front page which is, in the pursuit of an attention grabbing headline, both misleading and factually incorrect. Firstly, what's with the spoon and powder? Prescribed heroin is provided in liquid form in little glass ampoules, like these:

There is no spoon. And secondly - Heroin is already available on the NHS. It is already given to addicts in the UK (although only about 3-400) , by the NHS, and actually has been since the first world war. It is also given to women during child birth, and extensively used in palliative care and other pain control, including once for me when I had my appendix out. So an interesting 'scoop' for the Independent but slap on the wrist for the stupid sensationalist tabloid front page. I am just about willing to forgive them, however, because today they have also run another in a line of excellent op-eds from Johann Hari on the futility of prohibition which is available on his own website so you can actually read it here - which I strongly recommend you do.

Now back to the actual news.

Unfortunately the Independent isn't available on line after the day of publication (boo-hiss) so here's a link to the same story in the Telegraph. Jones is quoted saying (to the Independent) :

“I was a drugs officer and we have to be realistic. There is a hardcore minority who are not in any way, shape or form anxious to come off drugs. They think 'I am going to go out there and steal, rob burgle and get the money to buy it. We are we going to do - say 'Ok, we are going to try an contain this by normal criminal justice methods’ and fail, or are we going to look at doing something different? Start being a bit more innovative. It is about looking at things in a different way without turning away completely from the current position.”

All good solid thinking, albeit nothing new (slightly oddly, whilst calling for the legal supply of a currently illegal drug for non-medical use he also says "I am not in any shape or form a legaliser" but we will let that semantic conundrum pass). Ken Jones follows a string of senior police who have said the same thing, including Howard Roberts (Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire), Richard Brunstrom (Chief Constable of North Wales), Tom Lloyd (former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire), Francis Wilkinson (former Chief Constable of Gwent) and ofcourse the late Eddie Ellison (former head of the Met drugs squad). There are many more, some on the record, most still choosing to remain shtum.

We should listen to them. They have been courageous to risk public opproborium by speaking their minds on what remains a highly contentious issue. They undoubtedly know what they are talking about having seen - first hand - the abject failure of using the criminal justice system to try and address a serious and growing public health problem amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Since heroin prescribing was restricted to few specialist doctors needing a Home Office license in 1967 (since when GP's cannot prescribe heroin as the Telegraph coverage mistakenly claims) the number of heroin users has risen from around 15,000 to around 300,000. Hardly a triumph for a policy aiming to reduce use and ultimately create a drug free society.

Moreover, as the Prime Minsiters own report from the No.10 strategy unit shows in gratuitous detail, the inflated costs of illegal street heroin (due to its non-availability through legal channels) combined with its generally low income problem-user base has led to over 50% of property crime being committed to raise cash to feed an illegal habit.

As discussed on the blog last month the idea of expanding heroin prescribing has been on the table in Government circles for years with very little movement. Everyone in Government knows it's a good idea because they have mountains of evidence from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and even the UK telling them so. But since when has evidence of effectiveness had much to do with UK drug policy? Maybe Ken Jones will be the tipping point. Even if they are incapable of doing rational cost benefit analysis in cash terms maybe they can do one with politics. As the crisis in the criminal justice system and prisons continues to spiral out of control, you have to wonder whether the fear of any political costs of expanding heroin prescribing will soon be outweighed by the fear of the political costs of inaction,

On the cash front, one of the hurdles to more heroin prescribing (and the preference for methadone) is that it is widely seen as prohibitively expensive. The figure of £12,000 a year is the one usually quoted, and is roughly correct at today's UK prices, although it will vary from client to client. The Daily Mail covering the Ken Jones story today has somehow turned this into £15,000 a year in the print edition, but then uses the £12,000 figure in its online coverage. Indeed the print edition is full of all manner of classic Daily Mail drug-stat silliness, calculating, for example, that 'making heroin available free to all the country's 200,000 addicts would cost £3 billion.' In the online version the number of addicts is up to 320,000, which is the Home office estimate and probably more realistic. Either way they really don't like the idea of spending money on 'junkies' - apparently oblivious of the far greater cost to every one of leaving them in hands of the illegal market (£16 billion a year in crime costs) or putting them in prison (35K a year each).

In reality heroin prescribing is not going to be the answer for all of the UK problem users, it being just one potential option from a range of possible interventions, decisions that should rightly be being made by agreement between doctor and patient, rather than know-nothing politicians. In the short to medium term at least prescribing is likely to be most useful for the hard core of around 20-30,000 long term relapsing users, who are responsible for the vast majority of drug related offending, and who have failed on other programs. These are the High Harm Causing Users (HHCUs) identified in the Prime Minister's strategy unit report and it is similar criteria to these that have been applied with great success in prescribing regimes in Switzerland and Holland.

Furthermore the cost of diamorphine in the UK is artificially inflated by a huge margin due to the monopoly control of the UK opiates market by Macfarland Smith ltd, investigated as far back as 1989 by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. This monopoly over-pricing recently led to an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading and then a rather lame report from the DTI which concluded that there was a problem, that they would keep an eye on, but not much else. The upshot of this rarely mentioned scandal is that diamorphine is a whopping six times as expensive in the UK as it is in Holland. Yes, that's a 600% difference - for the exact same pharmaceutical product.

So in true Daily Mail style here's a quick back of the matchbox calculation with the revised 'real world' costs. 20,000 users at £2000 each a year = £40 million. That's without subtracting the cost of prescribing methadone to many of them as we already do. So not quite £3 billion then. But if this £40million made a dent, even a smallish one, in the £16 billion a year in crime that the Home Office estimates is the crime costs to society from fundraising-to-buy-heroin, then it would still be a veritable bargain.

For those who aren't simply hard nosed politicians totting up the pounds or political pros and cons, evidence of heroin prescribing from the 'real world' also shows that:

  • numerous lives would be saved from avoiding dirty street drugs, overdoses and blood borne diseases (The UK consistently has the highest level of drug deaths in Europe)
  • users lives would be stabilised and they would be far more likely to get into treatment and rehabilitation (because they are in more regular contact with services)
  • the number of new young recruits into problematic use would fall dramatically (in Holland the average age of problem heroin users is 40 and rsing, in the UK it is mid-20's and falling)
  • street dealing, drug litter and social nuisance would all fall (re: Zurich, Vancouver)
  • some degree of pressure on the ballooning prison population would be removed (thanks to the massive resulting fall in offending)

Anyway you look at it, its a winner. Small wonder increasing numbers of big names in criminal justice are coming out in favour. Now, what about those big hitters over at the BMA... or even the NTA.....?

Postscript: I had an interesting clash with George Galloway on his TalkSport radio show on this issue on Monday night. You can listen to it here (click on the link and it should open in windows media player - or similar. im afraid theres about 10 minutes of guff before the action starts). I found it odd that Galloway, someone who you would assume to be anti-war generally, and specifically anti US imperialism, aswell as a defender of the marginalised peoples of the world, was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war on drugs, unable to see beyond his rigid moral view that drugs were bad and therefore should be banned. He had no understanding of harm reduction, the economic realities of illicit production or the long term failure of drug interdiction. Still I gave him a good run for his money, and hopefully some food for thought.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mo Mowlam: "Better drugs laws will cut gun crime"

Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) former MP and cabinet minister from 1997-2001, responsible for the Government's drugs policy from 1999-2001, was a long time supporter of drug policy and law reform. After she left the Government she went public with her views, as well as her support for Transform. In the quote below her comments seem particularly relevant to current discussions about gun crime.

“The film Some Like It Hot has a scene when one Chicago gang is gunned down by another. The film is a comedy, drawing humour from the absurdity of the years of prohibition in the US, when alcohol was made illegal. Of course this did not stop drinking, it merely pushed it underground. The bar was replaced with the speakeasy. The legitimate supplier of booze was replaced by the gangster. A whole new criminal element was added to society that not only corroded the drink business, but also brought intimidation, violence and corruption into previously clean activities, for example in the rise of protection rackets. Today we laugh at films that portray that era, while ignoring the reality of such a situation existing and growing within our own society.

Drugs in this country are almost more freely available than alcohol: their supply is not constrained by licensing laws, large numbers of people smoke marijuana, particularly teenagers and young people, and a lot also take ecstasy and cocaine. They are not criminals; they are people you know. They are people who are likely to be sitting next to you at work, or living in your homes. But all these people are being brought into almost daily contact with organised crime. Isn't this a most foolish situation?

Please can we begin to hear some good sense from No 10 and the Home Office, and let's start looking at how drugs can be legalised and our society can be decriminalised. Let's recognise reality and start to reduce the numbers who are cluttering up our prisons. Let's start selling drugs through outlets such as off-licences, where the likelihood of dealing with someone holding a gun is virtually zero, unlike the street traders of today. Let's admit that we are getting it wrong, by allowing our fear and prejudice against certain drugs to drive us to pursue wrongheaded policies which only produce damaging social results. “

from “Better drugs laws will cut gun crime -
Let's recognise reality and start selling the stuff at off-licences”

The Guardian 09.01.03

For more quotes from politicians and public figures on drug law reform visit the Transform reform quotes archive

Science vs Faith in policy making

I came across these rather brilliant juxtaposed flow charts today and thought it was rather appropriate to drug policy thinking, the reformers verses the defenders of the status quo.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pakistani paper critiques prohibition

I was fascinated to see an article titled CONTROVERSY the economics of alcohol prohibition in the Pakistani paper, the Daily Times. Apparently the issue has been discussed recently in the Pakistani parliament.

The article is by an economist called Nadeem Ul Haque who describes how :

'Economic theory argues that curtailing an economic activity for which there is demand will lead to ‘underground’ sources of supply for that demand. But driving economic activity underground has consequences; among other things, it allows criminals to collect large rents who engender corruption and criminalize the society. The government not only loses revenue because of prohibition, it also diverts resources from other more productive activities to deal with the crime that has resulted from the prohibition. The prohibition also means that government loses control of the prohibited market and cannot tax it or set standards for it. Most importantly, economic theory suggests that prohibition will fail in its intended objectives.

Research has vindicated the economic theory to show that prohibition in the US failed on all counts.'

He then describes that failure before concluding:

'Subsequent serious research has informed us of the true costs and benefits of prohibition. Based on this research Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman even argued for the legalisation of all drugs. Perhaps we in Pakistan too should be informed by serious research!'

It is perhaps not suprising that in a country with strict Islamic laws and moral codes (as well as a huge and mostly unreported heroin problem), it takes an economist to broach an issue such as this. Economists tend to have a more cost/benefit-anlaysis led pragmatism that allows a more rational and objective analysis, one rarely seen in the polarised and invariably futile moral and ideological debate that dominates the discourse when it is left to politicians and religious leaders.

Cameron sends out the right message to young people

David Cameron’s admission that he smoked cannabis as a teenager puts him in the forty percent of the population who have too. Not much of a story there then, except that he’s the leader of the Tory party. And apart from the media no one gives a fig.

The interesting thing about this is the way that illegal drug use has become normalised to the extent that the Tory party leader can admit to toking in his youth and it doesn’t affect his career prospects. This tolerance of behaviour that would previously have been seen as too deviant for him to continue, should be seen as a prelude to progressive policy reform and ultimately legalisation and regulation.

His statement of remorse in the Telegraph is a little less easy to stomach. ‘It's against the law, it's wrong.’ He is reported saying. Is that because it’s against the law David? Or is it wrong like smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol is wrong?

The fact that he was on a tour of Sweden at the time may have something to do with it. The Swedes have the toughest drug laws in Europe and were probably threatening to string him up if he didn’t publicly state what a huge mistake he’d made.

Added to which Cameron supported a call for the UK government to debate legalisation of drugsat UN level when he sat on the Home Affairs Select Committee as a backbencher:

I hope it isn't headlines that made him change his tune....

After all that an unintended consequence of his admission is the likelihood that many young people may now stop smoking in order to distance themselves from fickle senior politicians. Sales of Converse sneakers took a nosedive after Cameron was pictured wearing them. The same happened apparently to 501s after Tony Blair was filmed sporting the once cool apparel.

If only he’d admit to smoking crack. We’d probably see it all but disappear from the UK…

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Police Want Government Rethink on Drugs

A senior policeman has called for drugs policy to be treated predominantly as a medical issue. In this article from the Guardian, the police force's assistant commissioner, John Yates, has backed a report which calls for a different approach to drug treatment so that drug treatment programmes are no longer aimed primarily at those who have committed crimes but rather at those ready to seek treatment. The report also argues for drugs to be classified according to the harm they produce rather than their perceived strength. This laudable effort is the result of commission chaired by the politics professor Anthony King and launched by the Royal Society of Arts, due for publication on March 8th.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ethics and drug policy

Ethics and drug policy

Alex Wodak

Psychiatry. Volume 6, Issue 2 , February 2007, Pages 59-62

Note from Transform: unfortunately, until journals are available free online as they should be - for the good of humanity, including, specifically, poor people (its $30 to read this paper in full) - we will have to make do with just this abstract, although I will ask Alex if I can post the full article on the Transform site. Still, the abstact gets across the points he is making very clearly and since most people only read the abstract anyway (I was a student once, I should know), take it away Alex:

During the 20th century, support for a deontological approach to illicit drugs grew steadily. As a deontological framework was invoked, how goals were accomplished was considered more important than what was achieved. Accordingly, global drug prohibition was considered right even though illicit drug production and consumption, deaths, disease, crime and official corruption increased steadily. In the last decades of the 20th century, consequentialist approaches to drugs began to receive increasing support. Drug policy was now considered morally right if it produced predominantly beneficial consequences. The advent of an HIV pandemic in the last quarter of the 20th century changed the nature of injecting drug use irrevocably, just as injecting drug use changed the course of the HIV epidemic. HIV spread among injecting drug users led to increased support for 'harm reduction'. The scientific debate about harm reduction, which is now over, has essentially been between consequentialists and their deontological critics. The paramount aim of harm reduction is to reduce the health, social and economic costs of drug use. Reducing drug consumption can be a means to this end. Harm reduction strategies have been recognized as being effective, safe and cost-effective for at least 15 years. The paramount need now is to overcome the conventional reliance on drug law enforcement, the major barrier to implementing harm reduction strategies in time and on sufficient scale. Because of the limited benefits, high costs and severe unintended negative consequences of global drug prohibition, increasing consideration is being given to possible alternative arrangements for drugs.

Dr. Alex Wodak,
Director, Alcohol and Drug Service,
St. Vincent's Hospital,
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2010,

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A tribute to Eddie Ellison

It was with great sadness we learnt that Eddie Ellison, a long time friend and Patron of Transform, had lost his battle with cancer on January 29th this year.

Our relationship with Eddie goes all the way back to the early days of Transform. He was one of our first supporters, becoming a powerful advocate for the organisation and for the cause of drug policy and law reform, his distinguished background in drug enforcement lending great credibility to both.

Eddie’s 30 years in the police, 23 of them in drug enforcement, gave him arguably more experience in the field than any other British detective. From his early days in the 70’s working to prevent drug smuggling with H M Customs at Heathrow airport, and combating major drug supply networks in London, he progressed to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector becoming operational commander of the Scotland Yard Central Drugs Squad, during which time he was awarded the UK Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. He later went on, as Detective Chief Superintendent, to head the Crime Policy Group of Specialist Operations Department, worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers review teams that restructured the Regional Crime Squads and Drug Wings and worked with the team that justified and created the National Criminal Intelligence Service. He was a police legend.

It is typical of his disarming honesty and sense of humour that in the biography on his website he noted:

“I should also admit being the detective who didn’t bring the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, back from Barbados, led the first London covert operation where the bad guys stole a large sum of money from the police (yes, I did get it back but it was a long twenty minutes!) and got disqualified for jointly entering a cannabis plant in the Scotland Yard Horticultural Society Show, category ‘Single Pot Plant’ - the judge insisted it was a vegetable!”

It was during his time working in drug enforcement that he, in his own words:

‘recognised the futility of relying solely on prohibition to lessen the effects of drug abuse on the community’.

Unlike many of his fellow police who shared his concerns, he had the courage to speak out against the system whilst still a serving officer, defending the organisation Release as far back as 1974 (he later became a trustee), and calling for the legalisation of cannabis in 1985.

When he retired in 1993 he became much more active in campaigning for drug law reform, bringing his wealth of experience to bear on the debate with an eloquence and authority it had not witnessed until then. He was undoubtedly a pioneer, going where others feared to tread. In doing so he prepared the ground for other reforming senior police that came after him, including Francis Wilkinson (former Chief Constable of Gwent), and Richard Brunstrom (serving Chief Constable of North Wales).

His campaigning blazed a trail that included groundbreaking opinion pieces in the Telegraph (Legalise Drugs Now: it’s the only answer 1993), the Daily Mail (I’m determined my children won’t get hooked – legalise 1998), the Independent (Law motivates criminal activity 1994), and the Guardian (Don’t be such a dope Mr Howard 1994), amongst countless others. He was also a regular fixture in broadcast media with appearances on programmes ranging from Kilroy, to Panorama, Newsnight, and Radio 4’s the Today programme (a more complete list here) . His brilliant insight and informed analysis undoubtedly helped persuade many key figures of the futility of prohibition and the need for reform, also contributing considerably to the evolution of Transform’s message over the years.

Eddie would often turn up unannounced at the Transform office ‘for a quick chat’ because he was ‘just passing through’, before staying for hours (occasionally all day) discussing politics and the intricacies of drug policy reform, and regaling us with astonishing stories from his time in the police.

As a loving father of two children he was always adamant that reform of the drug laws was essential to protect young people, and was always keen to restate his status as resolutely anti-drugs. He showed very clearly how a compassionate view towards problem drug users and a desire to reduce drug misuse and harm to wider society to the lowest possible level was entirely compatible with a pragmatic position on the failure of prohibition and the need for regulatory alternatives to be explored.

"Each and every police officer has their own ranking of the relative seriousness of all criminal offences that is often based on their background experiences. However hard they try, their attitudes and behaviour are often affected by that assessment. I have never, and can never, see the drug user as a 'criminal'. I see them as, amongst other descriptions, a rebellious youth, a risk taking idiot, a seeker of relief, a lobbyist for independent thought and freedom, someone in need of guidance and help or a very real exasperation to parents and friends. But in as much as the drug use is concerned, not a criminal and therefore the criminal law cannot be the appropriate weapon to counter or deter a choice of use."

The last time I saw him was at the Summer 2006 Release ‘Drugs University’ conference where he was running a stall for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, (I was running one for Transform). LEAP is made up of 1000s of current and former law enforcement and criminal justice proffessionals who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies. Eddie sat on the advisory board of LEAP, and ran the UK section of this exciting new world-wide campaigning organisation, founded in 2002. He was handing out leaflets, debating, cajoling, and persuading; campaigning with as much enthusiasm and passion as ever, right up until the end of his life.

Eddie, we’ll miss you

Steve, Danny, and the Transform team.

We will be re-publishing a series of Eddie's interviews and articles on the blog over the next few weeks.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Catalan politician proposes legalising all drugs

The English-Language Spanish news site Typically Spanish this week reports on the public pronouncements from one of the growing list of senior European politicians openly calling for a pragmatic new approach to drug policy and law:

"The head of the Catalan government’s Interior Department, Joan Saura, has proposed legalising all forms of drugs as a way of fighting drug trafficking and its associated illnesses.

Speaking in an interview with the TV3 television station, the leader of the ICV party was asked if he supported legalising the consumption of cannabis: he responded, ‘All drugs should be made legal. It’s something I’ve always defended.’

He explained that legalisation does not mean being in favour of drug-taking itself, but that it should form part of a series of measures to put an end to drug trafficking. Saura added that partial prohibition is not the best way to dissuade people from taking drugs."

photo - EFE archives

For more quotes from politicans in favour of reform see the policy maker page in the Transform quote archive.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Forget the war on drugs. Here comes the WAR ON GUMMI BEARS!

A rather strange document finds its way to the Transform blog today. A pdf document purporting to come from the 6th Security Forces Squadron MacDill Air Force Base in the US of A, that is described as an 'SFOI Criminal Intelligence Bulletin' announces a new front in the drug war: wait for it ....HEMP GUMMI BEARS!

Yes, the war on candy has commenced with all guns blazing. The new threat includes a range of confectionary including lollipops, gum drops and the terrifying 'gummi bears'. Do not scoff - this story is a major scoop:

Its all a bit confusing actually. Firstly the document quotes a report that states :

“3.5.5. Studies have shown that products made with hemp seed and hemp seed oil may contain varying levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active ingredient of marijuana which is detectable under the Air Force Drug Testing Program. In order to ensure military readiness, the ingestion of products containing or products derived from hemp seed or hemp seed oil is prohibited. Failure to comply with the prohibition on the ingestion of products containing or products derived from hemp seed or hemp seed oil is a violation of Article 92, UCMJ.”

before on the next page noting that:

"A breakdown of the ingredients reveals a lot of sugar in the forms of glucose, dextrose, sugar, inverted sugar, and starches, along with different dyes for color and a "natural hemp flavor," presumably, hemp oil flavoring. There is no drug in the candy. The candy is imported from Switzerland and contains no THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana."

just to restate:

"There is no drug in the candy. The candy is imported from Switzerland and contains no THC"

Sounds like they should be sending in the Black Hawks to me.

Then, after stating that: "It is not recommended this information be openly shared with juveniles under the age of 18, since it could actually do more harm than good by raising curiosity levels", (always a danger with drug panics) the report then goes on to detail the products and their marketing in detail, with pages of big colour pictures of rather enticing looking faux-pot sweeties containing no drugs, but illegal (for the troops) none the less.

Joking aside, I'd have to agree that cannabis themed sweeties are pretty pathetic and if they are being marketed to children, which you would assume they probably are, then thats obviously not a good idea (there's even a 'Coalition Against Chronic Candy' believe it or not ). I seem to remember buying chocolate faux-cigarettes in sweet shops when i was little, which I believe have subsequently been removed from sale as they should be.

We are talking about an army base here though. I imagine its a threat they can probably deal with.

The document also includes various other innocuous looking hemp products, like energy bars, bread, crackers and so on, that dont trade on the drug associations atall - hard to see the objection there if they are also drug free, and by most accounts, quite yummy. 'Illegal' and 'prohibitied' suggest crime and punishment. Were I an elite US soldier I'd feel pretty sore if I got hauled up for a court-marshall over some drug-free green gummi bears. Especially given the reality of the drinking cuture in the forces, the fact that pilots are routinely given amphetamines to keep them perky on those long bombing missions, and the fact that Native American Indian servicemen are allowed to consume peyote cactus (containing mescaline) for ritual spiritual use. America's paranoia around cannabis apparently knows no bounds; Reefer madness is alive and well.

(OK so its a pretty dumb story of no real significance, but I just couldnt resist the headline.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Child drug vaccines: the worst idea ever

The Evening Standard reports yesterday that:

“Babies could be vaccinated with brain-altering chemicals to stop them getting hooked on drugs and cigarettes in later life”

According to the story:

Newborns would have jabs which could prevent addiction to cocaine, heroin or tobacco, under secret Downing Street plans.

Details of the extraordinary proposal to stop the annual £20 billion cost of drug misuse are in a leaked No 10 policy document.”

Very few details are given about the alleged document, who commissioned it, who wrote it, or whether it is being taken remotely seriously other than that it is “reportedly being considered by Tony Blair's working group on crime” (although they don’t tell us who reported this). One quote is given, apparently from the document:

"A young person could be immunised and the drugs would never reach or affect the brain. Drug-related crimes could be reduced if vaccines can be successfully developed to reduce the craving."

Given the record of the Evening Standard (and stablemate the Daily Mail who ran the exact same story) with lame drug coverage it’s difficult to know what to make of this report. But if there is even a modicum of truth in it, it is very depressing news indeed. In a world a drug war idiocy this would be a new low. Here’s why:

Drug vaccines don’t really work

The idea of drug vaccines has been around for ages, but years of research have yet produce the products that the child vaccine idea requires.

There are products that prevent certain drugs from working, like naltrexone which is brilliantly effective at blocking the effects of heroin, but this isn’t a vaccine that you can give to children. It has to be taken orally every day, or delivered in controlled doses from a subcutaneous or stomach implant. There’s also Antabuse which is given to alcoholics that makes them vomit if they drink alcohol, but again that’s an entirely different concept to a vaccine, and these things are taken as part of treatment programmes rather than as prophylactics.

The new(ish) cocaine ‘vaccine’ works more like a classical disease vaccine, developing antibodies that will bind to cocaine molecules in the blood and in theory preventing them crossing the blood brain boundary and getting the user high (something similar may be on the cards for nicotine). The BBC covered this story back in 2004, and you can read about the product TA-CD, produced by the company Xenova here. The research, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been funded by NIDA, and there are some fairly positive reports of outcomes when used for problematic relapsing cocaine users. There may be a limited place in the drug treatment for such products, but that is an awful long way from mass vaccination of babies (on whom is yet to be tested anyway).

I went to a Royal Society of Medicine conference focusing on cocaine a year or so back, and I asked a panel of the world’s top cocaine and addiction boffins what they thought of the cocaine vaccine idea. They raised several key objections. One was that it might potentially prevent some legitimate medicines from working, since cocaine and various related drugs (mostly ending in ‘caine’) are still used today, mostly in local anesthesia for dentistry and ophthalmology. Even though there is not yet a vaccine for heroin the same problems would apply if it is developed. Rendering opiates ineffective – the implication of vaccinating all children against heroin - would be potentially disasterous, given that opiates remain the most widely used, powerful, effective and safe pain killers in the doctor's armoury. Heroin (diamorphine) is often given to pregnant women in childbirth, and I was given it a few years back when I had my appendix out. I would be pretty annoyed if I had had to suffer agonizing post-operative pain because of being vaccinated against becoming a problematic drug using offender 26 years previously, a career path I honestly have no interest in.

More worryingly was the suggestion from the boffins that real problem users would potentially resort to taking massive doses to overwhelm the vaccine’s immune response and achieve the desired high, in doing so increasing consumption and toxic risks.

Giving drug vaccines to children is profoundly unethical

Most of the hysteria about vaccines is media fueled nonsense (witness the MMR/autism debacle for example), but there are potential risks involved whenever you give drugs to people, especially children and especially infants. Aside from the risk, and even if there was none, vaccines would still take you into the legal/ethical quagmire of informed consent, similar to the issues around random drug testing of children in schools.

There is also the more contentious issue of whether the state can impose private morality by denying people rights over their recreational choices and their own bodies. Does the state have the right to proscribe certain pleasures to consenting adults, if that is what they choose? Especially if such activities are decriminalised in the future as they inevitably will be. Would we mass-vaccinate against legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, not associated with offending to fund a habit? Would politicians be putting themselves forward for alcohol vaccinations?. Given that it would be impossible to know which children would become drug using offenders (you couldn’t, for example, just vaccinate poor people) you would have to vaccinate everybody regardless of whether they are the minority who go onto use illegal drugs, or the minority of them whose use becomes problematic. Like the drug laws generally, you would be penalising the majority for the sins, if you want to call them that, of a minority. Its a very different proposition to vaccinating against contagious diseases. Why shouldn’t I be able to enjoy a cup of coca tea because of a violent crack addict?.

Lots of very difficult to answer questions.

Even if vaccines worked it wouldn’t prevent problematic drug use, or offending

Vaccinating against a drug does not vaccinate against the desire for intoxication. If cocaine was no longer effective because of a population wide vaccine programme then the demand for stimulants would simply be met by other drugs, amphetamine perhaps or even, shock horror, methamphetamine. If people could no longer escape into opiates then we would inevitably see a huge rise in problem drinking and/or benzodiazepine and tranquiliser use. Maybe we could vaccinate against those to, but we couldn’t vaccinate against all 250 drugs scheduled under the UN drug conventions, and the 1000s of other prescription, over the counter drugs and unlicensed drugs that can be recreationally used and misused to varying degrees. Can we vaccinate against glue sniffing? The more you think about it the more of a ludicrous proposition it becomes. That said it is no less bonkers than the idea that eradicating certain plants from the world would stop people using drugs, even if it was possible, which it isn't.

Only a small proportion of drug users become problematic and end up offending as a result of their use. This offending is mostly to pay the over inflated price of illegal drugs, so if the main aim of a drug vaccine programme is to reduce crime, you would effectively using a pharmacological solution to solve a problem created by the policy of prohibition. There’s a much better ‘vaccination’ against prohibition and its called ‘legally regulated drug markets’ (patent pending).

The social, economic, and physiological factors that underlie problematic drug use and offending are many and complex. The idea that there is some pharmacological magic bullet that can sort it all out is absurd. These factors include social deprivation, mental illness, histories of abuse and being in care, having one or more drug dependent parent, poor education, lack of opportunity, homelessness, unemployment and so on. There are no vaccinations for any of these things as yet.

To be honest I don’t really buy this story, which I’m sure is either mistaken or spun into newsworthyness by the Standard/Mail. I don’t think that even our drug-war obsessed Government would give the child drug vaccines idea more than the most fleeting of consideration, it is so spectacularly impractical and stupid. Of course that doesn’t mean they won’t suggest it anyway regardless of whether think its a goer or not - to grab a few headlines and make it look as if they are doing something ‘tough’ to deal with the ‘drug menace’ (sniffer dogs and random drug testing in schools anyone?). I doubt it though.

If drug vaccines have any use at all it should be to provide a litmus test of policy makers and opinion formers; anyone who suggests vaccinating children against drugs as a genuine proposition for dealing with the drug problem immediately forfeits all intellectual credibility and should never be taken seriously again. Ever.