Monday, April 30, 2007

Cannabis potency update: IOS digs in, ONDCP ‘fess up

This Sunday saw yet another less-than-completely-balanced cannabis story from Jonathan Owen in the Independent. Head-lined Cannabis harms mental health, scientists warn it features one line interviews with experts at an upcoming conference about how cannabis affects the brain (see guidelines for drug-panic media coverage here). Dr Zerin Atakan is quoted saying "There is a disturbance of the area governing thoughts and emotions and this seems to be related to temporary psychotic symptoms suffered by some of the people that took part." This is interesting in that one of the criticisms of some ‘cannabis causes psychosis’ coverage is that psychosis is never defined (Stedman's Medical Dictionary defines psychosis as "a severe mental disorder, with or without organic damage, characterized by derangement of personality and loss of contact with reality and causing deterioration of normal social functioning.") and also that it is rarely identified as a fairly common temporary symptom of (over) intoxication, rather than a long term mental health issue for most users.

Interestingly the Independent also omits to mention that Dr Zerin Atakan supports legalisation and regulation of cannabis:

"I personally believe it should be legalised so it is tightly regulated and it says on the packet how much THC is in it. At the moment it is worse because people think it is legalised and there is confusion and it is in the hands of the dealers. That is not a good situation."

This notion – that dangerous drugs need to be properly regulated (rather than be left in the hands of criminal profiteers) to minimise the harm they cause still seems to be an alien one to the IOS. That said, following a rather curt email about journalistic integrity, I did manage to have a similar small Transform quote belatedly tapped onto the end of last weeks Cannabis-is-really-bad-for-you item:

But drug reform organisation Transform says that legalisation of cannabis is the way forward. A spokesman said: "It is precisely because drugs are dangerous that they need to be appropriately regulated rather than be left in the hands of criminal profiteers."

Before moving onto far more interesting developments Stateside I'd just like to quote one laughable sentence from the latest self-congratulatory Owen piece.

“All this comes as a ferocious debate continues over the mental health risks of skunk - a potent new form of the drug - first reported in this newspaper last month.”

Now correct me if I’m wrong but I’m fairly sure the mental-health skunk story had been reported before last month.

(The BBC online also cover this conference event in a piece which could almost have been titled psychoactive drug in 'affects brain' shock. )


Still on the cannabis potency news, if you can bear it, there was an interesting development this week in the States, itself home to a series of marijuana potency panics over the past few decades. It all has some rather eerie echos of the UK experience as chronicled here in recent weeks. As reported on the stop the drug war blog:

"After years of claiming that marijuana is 25-30 times stronger than it used to be, ONDCP [that's the Office of National Drug Control Policy] admitted that marijuana potency has merely doubled’

"Today, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released the latest analysis from the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project which revealed that levels of THC—the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—have reached the highest-ever levels since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970's. According to the latest data on marijuana samples analyzed to date, the average amount of THC in seized samples has reached 8.5 percent. This compares to an average of just under 4 percent reported in 1983 and represents more than a doubling in the potency of the drug since that time".

Seizure Specimen Potency Trend

Source: Univ of Mississippi Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project, Report 95, Jan 9 2007

Potency of All Tested Cannabis Specimens

Source: Univ of Mississippi Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project, Report 95, Jan 9 2007

They compare this new data to 2002 comments from US Drug Tsar John Walters' statement

"The THC of today's sinsemilla averages 14 percent and ranges as high as 30 percent.

Even stronger stuff is on the way. The point is that the potency of available marijuana has not merely "doubled," but increased as much as 30 times."

The blog notes that;

“It's curious that ONDCP and NIDA are so proud to announce that they've been wildly exaggerating marijuana potency for many years. Apparently, they see value in finally legitimizing their claims that pot is getting stronger, even if doing so raises the question of what the hell they've been talking about all this time.”

“Yet a doubling of marijuana potency hardly compliments the ONDCP's ongoing effort to eradicate the stuff from the planet. Nor does it bear any relationship to the intoxication levels experienced by users, who titrate their doses to achieve the desired effect regardless of potency.”

As has been argued in the various recent blogs on the IOS cannabis potency panic –the almost exact same story is true in the UK; average cannabis potency has risen over the past three decades, but nowhere near as dramatically as the Drugs-Tsar-esq '25 times stronger' scare headlines that have appeared in the IOS recently.

previous blog coverage:

How the Independent on Sunday got it horribly wrong on Cannabis

The Independent's born-again war on drugs: Round Two

Independent on Sunday and cannabis - on it goes

A GOLDEN GUIDE to Hallucinogenic Plants

Uber-blog Boing Boing has flagged up the existence of a Golden Guide written in 1976 by pioneering Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Apparently the orginal US published Golden Guides 'were a fantastic series of profusely-illustrated educational books for elementary and high-school age students. Usually about nature or science, the books were most popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and are now collectables, depending on the title'. The Schultes Guide, however, is about hallucinogenic plants.

Whilst original copies of the book are now changing hands for $100's, students can now freely access the reference tome which has been lovingly scanned and made available in its entirety on the Erowid drug information site.

Back-cover blurb
"What are hallucinogenic plants? How do they affect mind and body? Who uses them - and why? This unique Golden Guide surveys the role of psychoactive plants in primitive and civilized societies from early times to the present. The first nontechnical guide to both the cultural significance and physiological effects of hallucinogens, HALLUCINOGENIC PLANTS will fascinate general readers and students of anthropology and history as well as botanists and other specialists. All of the wild and cultivated species considered are illustrated in brilliant full color. "

From the Introduction:

Hallucinogenic plants have been used by man for thousands of years, probably since he began gathering plants for food. The hallucinogens have continued to receive the attention of civilized man through the ages. Recently, we have gone through a period during which sophisticated Western society has "discovered" hallucinogens, and some sectors of that society have taken up, for one reason or another, the use of such plants. This trend may be destined to continue.

It is, therefore, important for us to learn as much as we can about hallucinogenic plants. A great body of scientific literature has been published about their uses and their effects, but the information is often locked away in technical journals. The interested layman has a right to sound information on which to base his opinions. This book has been written partly to provide that kind of information.

No matter whether we believe that men's intake of hallucinogens in primitive or sophisticated societies constitutes use, misuse, or abuse, hallucinogenic plants have undeniably played an extensive role in human culture and probably shall continue to do so. It follows that a clear understanding of these physically and socially potent agents should be a part of man's general education.

The anatomy of a drug panic

On Friday the Guardian ran a news article that came perilously close to the classic ‘new killer drug’ panic stories we are more used to seeing in the tabloids. It’s a hackneyed old journalist trick when reporting drug stories that risk bening a bit dull or are maybe too complicated for an 800 worder. The basic things to remember to do are:

  • Pre-decide your narrative arc: e.g. deadly new drug must be banned
  • (rotten) Cherry-pick all the worst sounding, most scarey bits of information from the source material
  • Especially look for facts that involve suffering, rape, and death (preferably of teenaged girls)
  • Ignore context, more positive/ambiguous harm assessments, and key facts if they don’t suit the drama of your ‘new killer drug’ story
  • Come up with a suitably high impact headline, preferably including one of the following ‘crazed’, ‘rapist’ , ‘kill’ or ‘death’
  • Try and mention that the drug can be bought...ON THE INTERNET!!

Here are some highlights for the Guardian piece in bold, with commentary. And theres some discussion afterwards.

Warning on legal dance drug that experts say can kill

· Health Loophole in law allows BZP to be sold as 'fertiliser'
· Report urges EU to consider imposing ban

Rupert Neate
Friday April 27, 2007
The Guardian

A dance drug described as "legal ecstasy" faces a possible Europe-wide ban after a report catalogued a number of deaths and serious injuries linked to the stimulant.

As we shall see ‘linked to’ in no way translates to ‘caused by’

Two people have died after taking the drug with ecstasy and it has been found during postmortems on two road accident victims in Britain.

Some key details missing here. The EMCDDA source document being cited notes that:

“In both cases BZP was quantified in blood and urine samples, but a number of other psychoactive substances were also found e.g. cannabinoids, cocaine, ephedrine, MDMA, ketamine, amphetamine, diltiazem and ethanol. Therefore, it could be assumed with a high level of certainty that the possible role of BZP in these cases was negligible”

and that

“In New Zealand, it has been argued (Candor Trust – road safety group) that party pills enhance driving and are, in fact, ‘saving lives’ because they provide a legal and safer alternative to controlled stimulants such as methamphetamine.”

Medical experts warn that benzylpiperazine (BZP) can cause convulsions, anxiety, abnormal heart rates, stomach pain and even death through over-stimulation of chemical pathways in the brain.

All drugs can have side potential effects – read the tiny print on that folded up bit paper in any over the counter or presciption medicine (In case of slow news day: list them in a headline for a ready made scare story on your product of choice). Paracetamol for example can kill, and unlike BZP actually has. I could equally unbalancedly have quoted the EMCDDA report saying BZP “is reported to produce arousal, euphoria, wakefulness, improved vigilance and feeling of wellbeing” (presumably the reason why people take it) and then not mentioned the negative/toxic side effects.

It can also be legally imported into Britain from foreign websites, mostly operating from New Zealand, where it is a multimillion-dollar industry and 20% of the population have taken the drug, which is sold under names such as Pep Twisted, Legal E, Nemesis and Euphoria.


Reported deaths in New Zealand from scary new killer drug that 20% of population have tried, with approx 8 million doses consumed : zero

If the assessment, which will be released in June, finds the drug to be dangerous it could be banned throughout the European Union. If the drug is not banned by the EU, the Home Office could add BZP to the list of substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Its very unclear what is meant by ‘dangerous’ here. All active drugs have risks and all drug are 'dangerous’ to some degree, indeed most 'can kill' if you try hard enough. But not all drugs are banned, most are strictly regulated to manage and minimize the dangers.

[the Lancet paper] describes the case of an 18-year-old who bought tablets from a dealer in a nightclub thinking they were ecstasy or amphetamines. She collapsed after taking five of them and appeared to have a seizure lasting 10 minutes. When she arrived at hospital her pupils were dilated, her heart was racing and her body temperature and blood pressure had plummeted. She was treated in hospital with tranquillisers and within 12 hours had recovered and was discharged.

The single case described in the Lancet is of a teenager who had unknowingly taken BZP, and furthermore had taken a substantial overdose. So technically this was an accidental 'overdose’ resulting from a ‘poisoning’, and in no way characteristic of informed BZP users who are capable, indeed likely, to exhibit rational overdose-avoiding behaviour if appropriate advice on dosage etc is given at point of sale or on the packaging. Note also that 12 hours later she was fine and went home apparently fully alive.

The Lancet also does not use the term ‘plummeted’ with regards blood pressure and body temperature opting for the less dramatic ‘she was apyrexial (35·9°C).’ (normal body temperature is 37) and reporting ‘a blood pressure of 150/51 mm Hg’. Whilst the systolic figure of 51 is low , 150 systolic pressure is technically in the ‘high blood pressure’ category (>140) if I remember my O'level biology correctly.

The paper says that standard medical tests may not pick up BZP, and warns it is potentially life-threatening.

Test don't pick it up because it is a new drug and not tested for yet. The Lancet quotes a 2005 New Zealand study of 80 BZP related emergency room admissions noting that ‘Three patients had potentially life-threatening recurrent seizures’. I took a look at the referenced paper, and it mentions that of the 80 admissions ‘Two displayed airway compromise and metabolic derangements that were potentially fatal.’ In the study the average patient experiencing adverse effects had taken 4.5 pills (a toxic overdose) and the majority were teenagers.

One of the report's authors, John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's hospital in London, told the Guardian: "We have no real idea how widespread the use of this drug is, as it is rarely reported. But it is quite clear it should be a controlled drug."

BZP is a controlled drug. As described earlier in the article it is controlled under the medicine act and is now illegal to sell. I assume he isn’t referring to it being ‘controlled’ by gangsters and criminal profiteers as are other drugs ‘controlled’ under the Misuse of Drugs Act’.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs discussed the legal status of BZP in November but no action was taken.

It was a preliminary review to see whether more action was required. They agreed to look at the issue in more detail.

Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons science and technology select committee, said: "BZP gives the government the perfect chance to play new drugs with a straight bat. They should look into the harm they cause and give drug users proper information about the drug. It is then up to the criminal justice system to decide how illegal the drug should be based on criminality."

Despite the rather confusing last sentence, Phil is onto something here. The Government does indeed have the opportunity to choose the regulatory and legal framework for this substance that would minimize its potential harms. Unmentioned in the article is the fact that in new Zealand the Government established a new class D (appended to the UK-like A,B,C system) that allowed the drug to be sold under licensed conditions including:

- Where the drug can be sold (e.g. not near schools)
- Age of purchaser controls
- In what doses, strengths and quantities it can be sold (based on a risk assessment)
- How the product must be packaged
- How the product must be stored, and how much can be stored in each location What
- Information must be given to the customer at the point of sale (including information about possible interactions with other drugs and medication)

Interesting information that might have been useful for Guardian readers

The European report lists a series of deaths and serious injuries linked to the drug, including a 23-year-old Swiss woman who took BZP together with ecstasy and drank more than 10 litres of water. She died of hyponatraemia, or water poisoning.

So again 'linked', not 'caused by'. The best (worst) example the author can find is clearly a water toxicity death, not a toxic BZP death. The most thorough review of the drug has was produced by the New Zealand Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (the equivalent of our ACMD), which goes unmentioned in the Guardian coverage. Commenting on this particular death the EACD notes that: “No linkage with the BZP was made and the death displayed all the characteristics of an ecstasy related death” adding that “Other than this one case, no other fatalities are known of, therefore BZP's known potential to cause death is low , or as yet unknown”

Originally designed as a cattle wormer, the drug is considered so dangerous by US authorities that it is classified as schedule one, the same category as heroin.

Schedule 1 is also the same catagory as - less scary drug - cannabis, indeed the US sheduling system is arguably even more riven with anomalies and bad science than our own. According to the EACD review, the DEA decision to put BZP in schedule 1 was in part based on the same water toxicity death, mentioned above, (the one with which ‘no linkage with the BZP was made’).

It should also be noted that the DEA scheduling decision was based on an error in assessing the drugs potency (overestimating it by 20,000%): The DEA initially claimed that:

“BZP acts as a stimulant in humans and produces euphoria and cardiovascular changes including increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure. BZP is about 20 times more potent than amphetamine in producing these effects. However, in subjects with a history of amphetamine dependence , BZP was found to be about 10 times more potent than amphetamine. ” [ref]

The DEA then produced a revised BZP profile in 2004 stating:

“BZP acts as a stimulant in humans and produces euphoria and cardiovascular effects, namely increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure. BZP is about 10 to 20 times less potent than amphetamine in producing these effects .”[ref]

The EMCDDA report also notes that BZP is one tenth the potency of amphetamines. Again unmentioned in the Guardian story.

The report also gives anecdotal evidence that BZP was used in an alleged drug-induced rape case in Britain.

A single piece of scary but unsubstantiated annecdata. The EMCDDA report says the following:

“there has been an alleged drug facilitated sexual assault case in which BZP and 1-(4-methoxyphenyl) piperazine (pMeOPP) were detected in a urine sample. The concerned individual declared to have taken pills called ‘PEP Love’”……. And that “No further details about the case are available.”

So it was an unspecified and alleged ‘sexual assault’, not specified as a ‘rape’, and the wording suggests the user took the pills voluntarily, and there are no further details, about the nature of the assault, whether charges were brought, or whether other drugs (including alcohol) might have been involved.

The authors of the report are concerned that many of the injuries caused by the stimulant may go unreported because it is not routinely tested for and clubbers are unlikely to tell doctors they have taken it.

This is a problem for all illegal or quasi-legal drugs

But despite several raids by the agency and police, including the seizure of 64,900 tablets from a car in London, online shops are still selling thousands of pills a day.


Finally this quote from a user at the end:

"But I would imagine the legal status and its availability is the main reason people take it."

Morphs into this more dramatic, almost viz-like, pull quote,

'Its legal status is a big reason for people taking it'

helping to back up what the author's apparently pre-decided narrative: this is a killer drug which should be banned.

Just to be clear about this. BZP use has risks, and given its relative newness on the party scene these risks are relatively poorly understood. However, there have been a number of published studies, and governmental reviews that describe what is known thus far. Almost any drug can kill if misused, but BZP, whilst being linked to a number of deaths, does not appear to be linked by way of direct toxic fatality – even following overdose – to any of them. It is evidently possible, but hasn't happened yet. Drug death stats are a minefield at the best of times, but given that BZP has been consumed by significant numbers of people (probably millions) over a number of years, this would suggest to me that compared to similarly placed drugs including ecstasy and amphetamines, it may be at least comparatively less risky.

From a harm minimisation perspective this raises important issues. If people are substituting BZP use for more dangerous illegal drugs, the net effect may be reduced harm (including the harm of a drug conviction). The fact that BZP appears to be fairly dose specific - with unpleasant side effects kicking in at a level only marginally higher than the active dose, (according to the EACD report; at 2.5 times the average dose) as well as following attempts to re-dose as effects ware off - may actually have a self limiting effect on use of the drug: it doesn’t appear to lend itself to patterns of binge use or problematic dependent use. If users are educated about the dangers and have clear safety and dose information available at point of sale or on the packaging potential harms can be reduced further.

Journalists find justification (and a self-congratulatory follow up story) when ‘clampdowns’ are announced in the wake of a decent media drug panic. But if the drug is brought within the Misuse of Drugs Act as this piece seems to be suggesting users may either return to potentially more dangerous drugs, or be buying BZP of unknown strength and purity with no safety information from a harm maximising illegal marketplace. Overdosing teenagers turning up in emergency rooms would seem more likely in this scenario. Bad reporting of drug stories can end up harming people by politicising descisions and making rational evidence-based public health interventions more difficult and less likely.

There are other options of-course. Whilst unregulated sales of the past are clearly unacceptable, the drug could be strictly regulated for sale from licensed vendors, with age of purchaser controls, in plain packaging, with appropriate safety information and warnings, and in units of known dosage – enabling users to make informed decisions and minimise risks. Something like this has, as mentioned, been tried in New Zealand with the class D idea. Maybe the Guardian should be covering that too – and its not like they are unaware of it. The author of this piece contacted me a couple of weeks ago, we had a long chat about all the points raised above, and he had read Transform’s briefing on piperzines produced last year, which discusses all this in detail. Unfortunately, the only detail he uses is in the Guardian online blog item on the same story where he references a scary stat about DRUGS ON THE INTERNET!! from the briefing.

I rate the Guardian. People take it seriously and much of the misinformation in this news piece will probably be cropping up in future coverage - (just watch out for more ridiculous references to date rape, car accidents, death, 'worming tablets' and 'fertiliser').

For the Guardian this was all very.....dissapointing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

When heroin hit the streets of Bootle

Julian Buchanan, Professor of Criminal Justice, (NEWI) has written a short but insightful account of the dawning of the UKs heroin problem in Merseyside and how the responses of the probabtion services rapidly evolved from consistently failing and over simplistic abstinence based programs into a more pragmatic multi-disciplinary bottom up approach base on harm/risk reduction. The article also highlights the role of social depravation in the emergence of problematic drug use. The article is from the 'moments in probation' series on the Community Justice Portal website.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The War on Lemsip

The war on drugs is what Donald Rumsfeld would describe as 'multi-theatre warfare,' a battle being fought on numerous fronts. As well as the serious action in the Andes, Central Asia and our own crime-riven inner cities, there are a series of mini-skirmishes that should not be overlooked. On the Transform blog we've recently seen the war on hemp gummi-bears and the war on wheelie-bins, but it seems a new a new front could be opening in the endless struggle against the scourge of drugs:

be afraid
Health Minister Caroline Flint in response to a PQ from Mark Todd MP, said this:

There has been increasing concern from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) that pseudoephedrine and ephedrine can be extracted from over the counter (OTC) remedies relatively easily and used in the manufacture of methylamphetamine. Methylamphetamine was reclassified on 18 January 2007 by the Home Office as a Class A controlled drug, based on the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).
Although the prevalence of misuse of methylamphetamine is believed to be currently low in the United Kingdom, ACPO are receiving increasing levels of intelligence about the prevalence of methylamphetamine. If methylamphetamine did secure a hold in the UK, the consequences would undoubtedly be very serious. The international experience shows that misuse can spread rapidly when certain conditions prevail and the advice of UK enforcement authorities is that most of these conditions now prevail in the UK.
In January 2007 the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) considered the evidence of a risk to public health from OTC availability of the precursors to methylamphetamine, pseudoephedrine and ephedrine. The evidence to date centres on advice from ACPO and SOCA that the availability of methylamphetamine is increasing, evidenced in part by the increase in the number of illicit laboratories manufacturing methylamphetamine found by the police in the UK. The police have identified in specific cases that multiple packs of particular pharmacy pseudoephedrine containing products had been purchased and used in the illicit manufacture of methylamphetamine. They have also identified that, in part, these packs were obtained from numerous pharmacies to obtain adequate quantities for manufacturing.
The CHM recommended that changing the legal status of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine together with restricting the pack size was necessary to protect public health in the UK and that a consultation exercise should be conducted on these proposals. Ministers accepted this advice and a full public consultation exercise commenced on 7 March 2007 and can be accessed via the MHRA's website at:
It's interesting that the media (including the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the BBC) have all jumped on this story today, when almost the exact same answer was given by Home Office minister Vernon Coaker to a question by Brian Iddon MP on March 21st, but went unreported.

Anyway, as ever there's a pointlessness about this latest proposed drug crack down, rather like the efforts of one over-enthusiastic US drug warrior who has been trying to restrict access to baking soda because it is used to make crack.

Ephedrine is widely available online , marketed as a stimulant (sometimes as a 'legal high' in the club/party scene) or 'diet aid' as it is apparently also a appetite suppressant. One of its isomers is pseudoephedrine which is a decongestant that appears in loads of cold remedies and decongestants like sudafed. Whilst cold remedies certainly have been used to manufacture meth, it is widely reported in the Russian federation for example, it is almost always going to be a small-scale user-led enterprise, with larger scale production avoiding all that messy syrup or annoying little sachets by using easily accessed bulk pharmaceutical supplies.

It is safe to say that restricting the availability of cold remedies will have absolutely no impact on meth production. None. Zero. Even if products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine are moved behind the counter in pharmacists, or even made available only on prescription it is impossible to see how this will stop evil meth manufacturers getting there hands on it. Initially, unless it is brought within the Misuse of Drugs Act, it will still be available on the grey market for import or via online sales - as are many 'drugs' that hover in the rather confused quasi legal world of 'lifestyle drugs' like steroids, viagra and so on.

Quite aside from this rather laughable attempt to be seen to be 'doing something' with regard the threat of methamphetamine, it needs to be acknowledged that even if, further down the road, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are totally prohibited this still wouldn't make any significant difference to meth production. There are already loads of so-called precursor chemicals used in drug production that are prohibited by UK and international law, but that has evidently has not prevented their use, as demonstrated by the increasing supply and availability of heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, all of which are now cheaper and more available than ever before.

If the demand is there and the profits are there (and they clearly are), the drug manufacturers will always find a way, such is the reality of supply and demand within the totally unregulated market for illegal drugs. If precursors become harder to get, the price rises until it becomes worth someones while to smuggle them as well - the illicit precursors market follows exactly the same market rules as the drugs, and efforts to prevent there use have failed in a similar fashion. If production becomes problematic in one location it can always shift to another more conducive one, since international crime syndicates, illicit production and illicit profits have few geographical constraints.

This latest pitiful effort to prevent the much feared, but yet to materialise, meth apocalypse also suggests that despite all the tough talking bluster back in January, the Home Office is perhaps less than 100% confident that reclassifying meth to Class A will have the desired deterrent effect (as discussed on the blog here).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How to spin drug prevalence data: a beginners guide


Today sees the release of the annual drug use statistics bonanza that is the excitingly titled 'Statistics on drug misuse: England 2007'. For drug policy nerds the report is a treasure trove of information containing a detailed breakdown of prevalence data by age group, region, drug, and a range of other criteria. There is a veritable avalanche of data. This is both good: we need to know this detail because making policy is a complicated business that has to respond in different ways to different populations and patterns of use, and bad: because, if you were, just hypothetically, a politician or civil servant wanting to portray your drug policy in a positive light – you can easily hunt down and cherry pick some data to support your given position. The flip side of course is that if you were an opposition politician, newspaper journalist or crazed blogger wanting to paint a different picture, a less flattering one perhaps, it would be equally easy.

Here’s how it’s done. But lest we forget the backdrop to it all:

Policy maker's bizarre obsession with prevalence measures:
UK signs up to the UN-DPC's 1998 pledge for drug free world by 2008

Reductions in prevalence of drug use are the holy grail of UK drug policy with its rather strange ideological commitment to creating a 'drug free world'. Transform have argued that prevalence is only one of number of indicators for measuring drug policy success, and not an especially useful one at that (problematic use is evidently more useful for starters). But that is another issue, and since the Government have chosen prevalence as one of the key measures for judging the success of drug policy lets have a look. Regards targets the bar has been moved a number of occasions during the lifetime of the 10 year strategy drug strategy. At its launch in 98 the targets were to 'reduce the proportion of people under the age of 25 reporting the use of Class A drugs by 25% by March 2005, and to reduce the proportion of people under the age of 25 reporting the use of Class A drugs by 50% March 2008'. For the 2002 revised strategy these very specific numerical targets had been replaced with the more vague aspirations to 'Reduce the use of Class A drugs and the frequent use of any illicit drug among all young people under the age of 25, especially by the most vulnerable young people'.

Checking in on the Home Office drugs website facts page we see a range of the latest claims for success on various prevalence measures. Aside from the somewhat underwhelming headline:

Class A drug-use among young people is stable, with some significant reductions

There are a number of more specific claims:

  • the proportion reporting that they have ever taken any drug has fallen by 16%;

  • the proportion reporting that they have ever taken Class A drugs has fallen by 18%;

  • the proportion reporting the use of any drug in the past year has fallen by 21%;

  • the proportion reporting the use of class A drugs in the past year is stable; and

  • the proportion reporting the use of cannabis in the past year has fallen by 24%

It’s a bit confusing as it’s not immediately clear from the page what 'the proportion' is of, or since when these changes have occurred. Luckily I have in front of me the January Drug Strategy update leaflet containing the same claims, which it turns out relate to changes amongst 16-24 year olds since 1998 as reported in the British Crime Survey. There are two further claims of success, based on data from the Department of Health surveys of 11-15 year olds:

  • Use of any drug had decreased: 19% of pupils had taken drugs in 2005, compared to 21% in 2003.

  • Cannabis use had decreased: 12% of pupils had used cannabis in 2005, down from 13% in 2003, 2002 and 2001.

WOW: Impressive. With the exception of class A drug use (the drugs that cause the most harm, you remember; the ones the drug strategy set specific targets to reduce by 50% by next March) which has 'remained stable' (at the highest level in history and the highest amongst any European country), the drug strategy seems to be really delivering.

But let’s delve deep into the bowels of today's report, beyond the rose tinted exec summary and see what we can learn. One of the things you soon spot is that prevalence stats change depending on how you measure them, which populations you look at and also whether you are looking at use in the month, last year, or 'ever used'. You can also present percentages in different ways with quite startlingly different effects.

So from the top of the Home Office prevalence achievements list. From the report we learn that reported life time use of any drug amongst 16-24 year olds has fallen from 53.7 in 1998 to 45.1 in 2005/6. So that 16% fall is actually just over 8%, but it is 16% of the original 53.7 total. Clever.

Similarly, next on down the bullet list, that '18%' fall in reported lifetime use of class A's describes a fall from 20.5 to 16.9 . So that's actually a fall 3.6% (which is 18% of 20.5).

Simlarly, next, the 21% drop in reporting any drug used in past year, turns out to be a drop of 6.4% (31.8 to 25.2). And the 24% drop in last year cannabis use, actually 4.8% (26.2 to 21.4).

Lets be clear: they are not technically lying here, but I feel it's a bit sneaky in that it makes the reported falls in reported drug use (which the Home Office is welcome to celebrate) rather more dramatic sounding than they really are. When i was discussing this with a home affairs journalistrecently he laughed about 'the old percentages of percentages trick'. It rather reminds me of the time last March when the Times, under the ridiculously overdramatic front page headline 'Cocaine Floods the Playground' deployed the same trick to the extreme (but in the opposite direction) when they reported that "Use of the addictive drug by children doubles in a year". It turned out that this doubling – in Home Office statistics: 100% increase in cocaine use - was actually a rise from 1% to 2%. When examined a bit more closely, looking at the non rounded up data revealed the rise was actually from 1.4% to 1.9%. So with a quick wave of the statistical wand the 100% rise becomes a 0.5% rise (which could have been down to sampling error anyway). This particular statistical travesty was covered by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian’s unfailingly excellent Bad Science column here (and now a year has passed and he’s picked up an award for that particular effort I think it’s fair to take my credit for drawing his attention to the story in the first place *takes bow*)

Moving on. If we were to look at some of the other charts in the new publication it would be very easy to show a far less positive picture. Consider for example the equivalent tables from the BCS that look at the broader adult population, from ages 16-59. These show that reported lifetime use of every drug has gone up since 1996 (with the exception of tranquilisers and steroids which fell, and heroin which remained the same - but as we note later the BCS is rubbish at measuring heroin use). This is demonstrated below with the addition (thankyou photoshop) of some colour coded arrows. Look: cocaine use has gone up by 130%!! (well 4.2% anyway).

Personally I think that 'lifetime use' is a particularly un-useful prevalence indicator (although, as we've seen, the Home Office seem happy to chuck it around when it suits them), but actually the 16-59 tables for last year and last month use demonstrate very similar patterns. But you might argue, reasonably, that young people were the primary concern. In that case, to be really alarmist, I might draw your attention to this table based on surveys of drug use of 11-15 year olds (p.43) that I challenge any Home Office wonk to spin into looking even remotely positive:

Nowhere on the Home Office prevalence achievements have I seen the fact that:

The proportion of 11 year olds reporting ever using drugs has risen by 1400% since the start of the drug strategy.

Even though the way they measure this apparently changed in 2001 (with unpspecified effects) its not exactly cause to crack out the champagne is it. Now, returning to the Home Office achievements list again. That stat about pupils reported use of any drug dropping from 21% in 2003 to 19% in 2005. This table would suggest it is true...but not quite the whole story:

If you run from 1998, like they did with all those other stats, the proportion of pupils who have used drugs in the last year has actually increased by 8%, or using the Home Office website percentages technique: 80%. What they have done is compare the 2005 figure to the highest recorded one in the set – blatant cherry picking and potentially very misleading.

The final Home Office stat about cannabis use amongst pupils falling. Well that, I am pleased to say appears to be both correct and properly reported (albeit rounded up/down). In fact in 2006 cannabis use fell again to nearer 10%. Bravo - thats a result (perhaps they should consider reducing penalties on some other drugs?).

So what can we learn from all this.

That drug stats generally are a minefield to be approached with extreme caution, especially when translated through the prism of political spin or lazy journalism. They aren’t that accurate at the best of times – the BCS is perfectly open in conceding it is an underestimate of true drug use because it is a household survey it misses key marginalised populations (where problematic use of heroin for exapmple, is often highest) including those with no fixed address, as well other groups including students living in halls of residence. Add to that the changing statistical methodologies, and the yawning holes in the data collection (illegal activity is generally hard to measure) and the picture, despite the reems of tables, is actually very threadbare.

Still, there is sufficient data that it isn’t too hard to find figures or trends that, with a bit of massaging, show drug use is going up or down, depending on how you want to spin it. Various people, most obviously the custodians of the drug strategy, obviously want to present policy outcomes in best possible light so their ‘best of’ highlights should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. And to be fair, so should the opposition’s ‘worst of’ lowlights. Look for an independent academic review of the stats like this one, or read them yourself.

Patterns of drug use fluctuate up and down, apparently oblivious to the interventions of Government and enforcement agencies - it is increasingly clear that the key determinants of drug use and misuse (this new document fails to make this important distinction) are socio-economic and cultural ones.

Total Class A drug use appears stable because the fashions for ecstasy and LSD have moved on. But these according to most analyses are two of the least harmful Class A drugs - probably mis-classified by a couple of alphabetic increments. The two drugs the Government has repeatedly said it is most concerned about are heroin and cocaine, because they are responsible for the lion’s share of secondary crime harms – that £16 billion a year in crime costs the Home Office keep mentioning. This is where the real enforcement push has gone, but these are also the two drugs where policy has fared the worst: having risen steadily and dramatically in the case of cocaine, or in the case of heroin, risen up until 2001/2 and then stayed about the same since. There is no good way to spin this – a dramatic rise or stabilisation at a perilous and unprecedented high is NOT a policy success, especially when the key strategc goal of ten years ago – which literally billions of pounds has been thrown at - was a significant reduction. It really doesn’t matter how you dress it up. All the other ‘successes’, the marginal falls in ecstasy, amphetamine, LSD, cannabis use and so on, pale into insignificance next to this monumental disaster where it really matters.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Release celebrate their 40th birthday


This year Release celebrate 40 years of service at the cutting edge of drug policy campaigning and drug related legal service and information provision. Sebastian Saville, Release director, has written a fascinating retrospective about the organisations long history, from the turbulent 1960's through to the current problems with contemporary policy with the crime reduction agenda still relegating civil rights and public health to the back seat. The article Release: Needed then - needed now, is in drink and drug news and can be read in full here.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Drug warrior interrogates drug policy expert with unsurprising outcome

Once in a while you get to witness what happens when a prohibitionist ideologue and self appointed drug warrior clashes with qualified doctor, drug specialist and internationally renowned drug policy expert. One such incident happened earlier this April in the Australian Parliament when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, as part of its inquiry into ‘The impact of illicit drug use on families’ called Dr Alex Wodak to give evidence. The transcript has just appeared online. Wodak is the Director of drug and alcohol services at St Vincent’s hospital, has worked in the field for 25 years, has had over 230 published papers, helped establish the (Australian) National Alcohol and Drug Research Centre , sits on the board of the International Harm Reduction Association, and has been a consultant to the WHO, UNAIDS and the World Bank. He is also the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation .

Dr Alex Wodak

Wodak’s chief questioner is chair of the committee, Bronwyn Bishop. She puts on a display of almost unbelievable rudeness and venom, clearly having no interest in what her invited expert witness has to contribute, choosing instead to interrupt and talk over him, respond to his points with one word comments including ‘Disgusting’ and ‘Rubbish’, make ad hominem attacks on him and his colleagues and generally disgrace herself (even her fellow committee members are forced to reprimand her). Wodak, whatever you might think of his arguments, does himself great credit in maintaining his composure.

Bronwyn Bishop MP

It is a depressing example from the hardcore of evangelical drug warriors (who still, tragically, cast a long shadow over the international political discourse on drug policy) of the total lack of engagement in any form of meaningful debate with expert opinion that dares to differ from their own. As such the only value from the session is the intelligent comments elicited from Wodak and the schadenfreude of witnessing a rude and uninformed politician make a total fool of herself on the public record.

You can read the complete exchange in this pdf transcript. (The Wodak section is pages 88-110). Note: this transcript is an uncorrected proof .

Below is copied Dr Wodak’s brilliant opening statement (after which the fireworks begin).

CHAIRWe have received quite a lengthy submission from you. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr WodakI would. Thank you very much. Mood-altering drugs have been used by people in virtually all countries throughout history. Anyone who believes that this entrenched pattern over thousands of years can be simply and suddenly ended by government fiat is naive in the extreme. From time to time, countries prohibit certain drugs. Alcohol was illegal in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Opium for eating was taxed and legal in Australia until 1906 and was then banned. Heroin was prohibited in Australia in 1953. Before 1953, heroin could be lawfully prescribed by doctors in Australia. There is no pharmacological or public health logic to the classification of some drugs as legal and others as illegal. These decisions about declaring different drugs in different countries to be illegal or legal at different times have all been arbitrary historical accidents more influenced by politics than logic or science.

While there is a strong demand for a drug, a source will always emerge. If there is no legal source, illegal sources will emerge. Suppliers of illegal drugs compensate for the risk of getting caught and punished by increasing the price of the drug. Higher prices increase the profits made. The higher the risk of getting caught and the more severe the punishment, the higher the price and the higher the profit. The higher the profit, the more people who are attracted to becoming drug traffickers and the greater the quantity of drugs available for sale. This is the Achilles heel of drug prohibition. What has often happened in drug prohibitions is that dangerous drugs were driven out by even more dangerous drugs. In Asia over the last half century, anti-opium policies have had pro-heroin effects. During alcohol prohibition in the United States, beer disappeared and was replaced by wine and spirits. In Australia in the last seven years, amphetamines have taken over during the heroin shortage.

Whatever we may think about drugs, they are markets with buyers and sellers just like real estate or ballpoint pens or any other commodity. Access Economics estimated in 1997 that the market for mood altering drugs in Australia was worth $29 billion a year. Drugs that we call illicit accounted in 1997 for $7 billion of that $29 billion total. These days, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, few are now brave enough to attempt to defy powerful market forces. Only North Korea, Cuba and drug war warriors still believe that they can ignore powerful market forces.

Everyone else knows that sooner or later it is inevitable that a heavy price will be paid for trying to ignore powerful market forces. Harm reduction, a widely and possibly often wilfully misunderstood term, is a simple concept. It means that we focus primarily on reducing the adverse consequences of drugs, such as deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The alternative to harm reduction is use reduction, as in the war against drugs. In use reduction, we focus primarily on reducing drug consumption, whatever the impact on deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The most important point about harm reduction is that the scientific debate about harm reduction is now over. Harm reduction is recognized widely to be effective, safe and cost effective.

Five Labor and three coalition governments, in Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory, adopted harm minimisation as our official national drug policy in April 1985. Every state and every territory government since then, whatever its political hue, has adopted and implemented harm minimisation. The current federal government, despite its public stance, sensibly but unfortunately discreetly, continues harm reduction in several forms, including a $10 million a year enhancement of state-territory needle syringe programs, generous funding to support HIV prevention among injecting drug users in Asia, vigorously carrying the torch for harm reduction in debates within the UN system and by diverting drug-using offenders from the criminal justice to the drug treatment system. Needle syringe programs in Australia from 1988 to 2000, according to a Commonwealth department of health commissioned study, by 2000 prevented 25,000 HIV infections and saved up to $7.7 billion, while by 2010 needle syringe programs will prevent 4½ thousand deaths from AIDS. If this committee wants to scrap harm reduction in this country, you will have to take personal responsibility for the HIV epidemic that Australia then has to have.

There is growing realisation that relying on drug law enforcement, Customs, police, courts and prisons to control illicit drugs in the last several decades has not worked, is not working and can never work. In the decades of global drug prohibition, drug production and consumption has soared around world. It is now a global $322 billion a year industry, of which 26 to 58 per cent may be profit. Drug problems have got worse and worse over the decades. Governments have spent more and more taxpayers’ money. This is a typically high-taxing, big government approach. Many fiscal conservatives, such as the Nobel prize winning economist Professor Milton Friedman, condemn these futile attempts to arrest and imprison our way out of our drug problems.

What we have to do is redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue, with funding for health and social interventions raised to the level enjoyed by drug law enforcement. Criticism of harm reduction and drug law reform may be clever politics in the short term, but the war against drugs has been an expensive way of making a bad problem worse. If drugs are treated primarily as a public health problem, as suggested recently by Justice Don Stewart, deaths, disease, crime and corruption will fall, and I expect that drug consumption will also fall once the huge profits of the industry are removed. In the current system, criminals and corrupt police control the drug market. Regulating this market mainly using public health measures is the least worst way of responding to these drugs.

There are two ways of responding to difficult problems in our community such as illicit drug use. One way is to stress the community’s condemnation of the rejected behaviour—in this case, the consumption of prohibited substances—but place less emphasis on the actual outcomes of the prohibition. The other way is to focus on reducing the harms of the rejected behaviour—in this case, time to reduce those deaths, disease, crime and corruption, investing in what science shows us works while respecting the human rights of all of our citizens, including those citizens who still choose to use prohibited drugs.

Harm reduction and drug law reform are steadily gathering national and international support. Support for zero tolerance and a war against drugs approach is steadily declining. What we need now is to find ways so that good policy can also be good politics.

Blog on a recent paper discussing drug policy and ethics by Dr Wodak


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ridiculous magic mushroom non-story makes 'news'

As part of the Transform blog's continuing quest for the worst drug journalism ever, I bring you this 'news' item I stumbled across in yesterday's Sun newspaper:

Tesco in 'magic' drug rap

SHOPPERS blasted Tesco last night for slapping stickers with the word “magic” — on MUSHROOMS. Once a legal alternative to LSD, magic mushrooms are now a Class A drug.
Yet the message “magic in pasta” appears on the supermarket giant’s 250g packets of closed cup mushrooms.
Customer Jenny Amphlett, of Stafford, said: “It seems completely frivolous.”Another shopper in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, said: “This is clearly a joke by someone in the marketing department. It is inappropriate to make light of such a serious subject.”
But a Tesco spokesman insisted: “There’s absolutely no sinister connection here whatsoever. It is simply a handy tip for customers on what dishes suit our vegetables.”
The comments from Jenny Amphlett of Stafford and annonymous of Sutton Coldfield are apparently the sum total of the 'blast' and 'rap'. 'Clearly a joke' , 'completely frivolous'... the comments seem more appropriate to the story generally than Mushroom sticker outrage...perhaps there has been some mistake? Still, it must have been a very slow news day for this piece of barrel-scraping drug war silliness to make the paper.

SCANDAL: Tesco in Sutton Coldfield

I then discovered the same story had been 'reported' in the Metro free paper that laughably reported how the incident had 'sparked' a 'drugs row'. We get to hear more of Jenney from Stafford, apparently at the epicentre of the 'drugs row' :

'I couldn't believe it when I saw it, and it worries me that Tesco is promoting or condoning drug use.
'It could be that someone in the product- marketing team is playing a prank – unless they were really naive enough not to be aware of magic mushrooms.
'Whatever the case, it seems completely inappropriate for a family supermarket like Tesco to associate itself with drugs.'
She added: 'There are so many people trying to overcome drug addictions and there are problems with young people getting into drugs, but here we have a store that is making fun of it.'
some magic mushrooms yesterday (nowhere near Tesco)

I am speechless. The story was then picked up by the Annanova news agency, and, remarkably, appears well on its way to becoming a MAJOR INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT, as this report Pakistan's Daily Times , and this South African news outlet demonstrate. Clearly a slow news day in Pakistan and South Africa too.

On a vaguely similar note, here is another recent 'magic' confusion story from the US

UK Drug Policy Commission launches: new report on UK drug policy

The new UK Drug Policy Commission launches today. The new organisation:

'is an independent body set up to provide objective analysis of UK drug policy. The Commission aims to improve political, media and public understanding of drug policy issues and the options for achieving a rational and effective response to the problems caused by the supply of and demand for illegal drugs.'

The launch was marked with the publication of a review of UK drug policy independently commissioned from policy experts Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens. It demonstrates that:

"the United Kingdom has the highest level of problem drug use and the second highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe. Commissioned from international experts to inform UKDPC's work programme, the report brings together evidence on the effectiveness of drug policies throughout the UK.

The report finds that despite successive attempts by governments to control the demand for and supply of illegal drugs, drug policy appears to have had minimal impact on the overall level of use of illegal drugs in the UK. Other factors are seen as more important. However, as the report authors observe, drug policy is most successful in addressing the harms resulting from problem drug use, such as ill-health, death and crime."

You can read the executive summary here or the complete report here. Its findings may not come as a great surprise to those in the drugs field, covering similar ground to previous independent reviews of UK drug policy, most recently by the RSA. But it is a detailed and authoritative review that presents the most up to date available data in an objective and readable format, and will be a useful resource informing the debate over the future of policy (whilst not making specific policy recommendations).

It arrives during a particularly important window of opportunity as the UK's 10 year drug strategy ends and the process of designing a new - hopefully improved - one gets underway.

Media coverage:

Guardian: Between the lines - new drug strategies must reflect changing consumption patterns (Howard Parker)

BBC: Drug policy has 'limited impact'

Telegraph: Drug policies leave Britain bottom of table

Standard: Get tough policies fail in War against Drugs

Monday, April 16, 2007

Independent on Sunday and cannabis - on it goes

In March we posted two detailed blogs responding to the Independent on Sunday's two-week long canna-pology and retraction of support for their 1997 campaign for decriminalisation of the drug.

How the Independent on Sunday got it horribly wrong on Cannabis

The Independent's born-again war on drugs: Round Two

To summarise: the basis for their new stance was the new evidence they 'revealed' about the increased potency of cannabis today, and its terrible toll on the mental health of Britain's youth. The blogs highlighted how the claims they were making were bad science: exageration, cherry picking and good old fashioned lazy sensationalist journalism, and also how there new editorial position totally misunderstood the issue, confusing the debate around drug harms with the debate around policy responses to those harms. (look, just read them).

The IOS has argued itself into a corner. After making such a big deal of retracting their support for progressive law reform there is no way they can back down now without considerable embarrassment and humiliation (it would certainly prove a poser for the headline writers next time around, although they could arguably reuse the first 'Cannabis: an apology' ). On the other hand, to support their case for prohibition – on the basis of the dangers of cannabis – they now feel obliged to produce a constant stream of shock-horror cannabis coverage which, given that they have very clearly nailed their franken-pot colours to the mast, will inevitably be un-bothered by scientific or journalistic objectivity. And, surprise, surprise, this is exactly what we have seen over the last three of weeks. Here's a quick guided tour:

The April 1 edition saw a front page teaser apparently borrowed from their tabloid colleagues:

Skunk: my son turned into a monster

Inside we learn, from Jonathan Owen, that:

“Academics and doctors say potent skunk is the cause of soaring psychiatric problems in the young; pro-drug campaigners sniff anti-cannabis conspiracies and claim there is no proof of a link”.

I responded to the, now repeated, cheap 'pro-drug' name-calling in the Round Two blog, and despite extensively trawling the extensive blog/web coverage of the IOS canna-panic I haven't seen a single mention of 'conspiracies' anywhere. I believe the key accusation was the one made above regards bad science, reefer madness sensationalism, failure to grasp the realities of public health and drugs policy, and lazy journalism.

What then follows is a depressing and tragic anecdote about a teenager getting into serious problems with drugs – that is then illogically and, Im sorry to say, shamelessly used to bolster the IOS's new cannabis-users-must-be-criminlised editorial position. It's not a review of the published evidence on drug harms, its a single case, one that would probably be more appropriately published in Take-a-break magazine than the news section of a nominally serious Sunday paper.

The son who 'turned into a monster', we also learn, was smoking an eighth of 'skunk' a day from the age of 15. This skunk, apparently, 'can be up to 10 times stronger' than 'conventional cannabis' – down from 25 time stronger as reported on the initial skunk potency panic front page report from two weeks previously. By the time he was 18 he was dealing to fund his use of 'LSD, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy'. So not really a typical teenager then, even of the casual cannabis using variety – and hardly the basis for extrapolating the threat of cannabis to mental health across an entire population of young people.

  • Could it possibly be that there was more at play here than the occasional cannabis use that describes the vast majority of users?

  • Do we get any discussion of how the policy of prohibition - the criminal justice approach the IOS now supports - under which this sad tale unfolded, prevented it happening? (No. because it clearly didn't)

The same week we also had a classic bit of old-school reefer madness, also from Jonathan Owen, on cannabis and lung cancer, dressed up as news on the basis of some new un-referenced research apparently being published 'later this year' in New Zealand. Nowhere does Owen mention that almost all cannabis in the UK is smoked with tobacco, or the obvious fact that smoking anything will increase the risk of lung cancer because inhaling burnt stuff of any kind is clearly not good for your lungs. Nor does he mention, as you might hope for responsible reporting, that such lung damage risks can be avoided by users if they either use vaporisers, or consume cannabis by eating it, for example in cookies (I seem to recall the orginal 1997 IOS cannabis campaign providing a recipe). A quick search for 'cannabis lung cancer' on pubmed (the serachable archive of medical journals) may provide you with some more balanced information from peer reviewed academic journals. Something Owen apparently didn't bother with.

The following week, April 8th, Jonathan Owen, again, reports that 'Cannabis is wrecking lives, says public school head' . This rather odd piece of 'news' is based on an interview with Dr Anthony Seldon, the Head of 'leading public school' Wellington College. His Wikipedia entry informs us that he is known for his biographies of recent prime ministers, but he doesn't seem to have any qualifications as a medical doctor, statistician or drug policy expert. None the less we learn:

The decision to reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug was a mistake and should be reviewed, Dr Seldon, author of a biography of Tony Blair, said. He added: "The reclassification was unhelpful because it sent the signal that it is OK.

The change "emboldened" thousands of young people to try the drug, with many paying a high price, according to Dr Seldon. "What about all the children whose lives have been wrecked because they have developed psychoses or been unable to cope?" he said. "What about those who have died or reside in mental hospitals? Or the teachers who have had to endure apathetic or aggressive pupils high on dope? The message must be total prohibition."

Both the IOS and Dr Seldon seem unaware that over the last few years, including since the terrible signals sent out by reclassification, reported prevalence of cannabis use, the holy grail of Government drug policy targets, has actually fallen (according to the BCS):

Thanks to Clive Bates at Baconbutty

Could it be that, Government policy, classification, and levels of enforcement do infact have little or no impact on levels of cannabis use? This comparative study of drug use three very different cites would suggest so - but that sort of analysis is far too nuanced for the IOS's overt new drugs-can-be-dangerous-therefore-criminalise-the-sinners-who-use-them editorial line. And who can blame them? Why wrestle with all those pesky ambiguous research findings, that conflicting epidemiological evidence, and confusingly complex multi-variable socio-economic policy analysis when you have the clear cut certainty of an ideological drug war:

drugs are bad > BAN THEM!

Oh thank heavens for that - Its just so much easier for a hard pressed Sunday's writer. Once you're signed up, all you need do is wheel out lots of cherry picked information to hype the drug's dangers (there's plenty of it, and its pre-prepared), pull in a few drug-experts like businessman Richard Branson, political appointee Antonio Costa, and political biographer Anthony Seldon, add some emotionally charged 'annecdata' and BOSH! The paper practically writes itself.

If we were in any doubt where the IOS is going with all this we need only look at the latest edition which two more cannabis panic items, a stat-free prohibitionist rant from Seldon, and a 'loads of people take drugs' non-shock news story. For the record this makes a grand total of 17 news items and comment pieces on cannabis in 5 weeks, all except three either hyping the dangers of the drug or calling for its users to be punished, surely a UK record. The three are: in the first week - an opinion piece by Robin Murray that considers the dangers of cannbis but suggests legal status is irrelevant, a news piece that appears to contradict many of the IOS's arguments (the 'tobacco and alcohol..' one linked below on the lancet drug harms paper ) , and one lonesome pro-law reform piece by Rosie Boycott. Anyone for a debate?

Anthony Seldon: The effects of cannabis on vulnerable young minds can no longer be ignored

One-third of pupils have tried cannabis by the age of 15

Cannabis is wrecking lives, says public school head

Long-term cannabis use raises risk of lung cancer

Cannabis debate: 'I let my son have skunk. It ruined his life'

Antonio Maria Costa: Cannabis... call it anything but 'soft'

So how dangerous is skunk?

UN warns of cannabis dangers as it backs 'IoS' drugs 'apology'

Julie Lynn-Evans: Legalise the old stuff but make the new stuff a class A drug

Leading article: The cannabis debate

Tobacco and alcohol 'are more dangerous than LSD'

Skunk: How the 'safe' drug of choice for the hippy generation became a serious health hazard

Robin Murray: Teenage schizophrenia is the issue, not legality

Leading article: Cannabis: a retraction

Were we out of our minds? No, but then came skunk

Cannabis: An apology

Rosie Boycott: Skunk is dangerous. But I still believe in my campaign to decriminalise cannabis

The most recent opinion piece by the previous week's returning hero, Anthony Seldon, makes it all too clear. Within a few paragraphs we have heard that cannabis is 'sneakily and subtly toxic', is responsible for destroying lives, careers and triggering suicides, causing depression, psychoses and insanity, leads people to 'hard drugs' (its the gateway theory - noooooooooooooooooooo!), makes people 'boring', leads to 'apathy, self-centredness and a lack of engagement with others and the world at large', and is responsible for 'horrific acts of violence'.

Seldon then proposes three possible school responses to this 'sinister' drug:

1. Educating young people about the dangers of cannabis. Seems worth a try, but he describes this as the 'the least reliable' of the three methods. OK, its not had a great track record but that does seem a bit defeatist, for an educator and headmaster of a 'leading public school'.

2. Punishment. Yes! now we are getting somewhere. Bit of punishment: that'll learn'm. Seldon is unequivocal:

"I have never believed in giving children who bring drugs on to school premises a second chance. It means that, for some, to be "busted" for drugs is a badge of honour. This strong line might seem heartless, but it has saved many more pupils than it has damaged. Random drug testing and sniffer dogs are other devices. Nothing is ruled out in the interests of protecting those in my charge."

Anthony Seldon: 'No second chance'

Isn't that just brilliant? Despite official advice and ample evidence that excluding the most vulnerable and needy pupils 'in his charge' is counterproductive, he is resolutely determined not to give them a 'second chance'. Wellington is a Church of England faith school, according to their website:"The values of Christianity - upon which our whole society is built and continues to operate - are the foundation of Wellington and are immensely important to us as a school community, still providing the framework for our daily lives." Values of Christianity like....forgiveness perhaps?

3. 'teaching young people how to live'. Now, at last, a bit I can find some agreement with. Giving kids more attractive options than drug use: fine. Encouraging sensible/healthy lifestyle choices: excellent. "What is the point of schools if they do not help children to learn how to live their lives to the full, how to enjoy themselves and be happy, and how to live intelligently?". It gives the impression of being an outbreak of reasonableness, maybe I have misjudged Dr Seldon....

....But then we have the final insult:

Drugs are not intelligent living. Alcohol is part of intelligent life for many, and with older school children the art is to help them to realise that drink, properly used, can be a significant enhancement to life. With drugs, there is no half-way position. Everyone - government, the media and schools - needs to give the same message: "No."

Now if you will excuse my non-Christian language, but, what the hell? Alcohol apparently is not a 'drug' (er, it is), but rather it is part of 'intelligent life', in fact we need to teach 'school children' how it can be a 'significant enhancement to life'. Maybe they should hand out alco-pops at play-time, before the hurling the empty bottles at those nasty potheads as they are chased out the school by drug dogs? remember - 'nothing is ruled out'. Forgive me (if you can) but what on earth is he talking about?

'life enhancing' booze

It is amazing to me that he would round off this hopelessly emotive and unscientific anti-cannabis tirade with an exultation of alcohol - the drug at the centre of a growing youth epidemic of binge drinking and anti social behaviour, and the cause of 10-20000 premature deaths a year. And Seldon talks about cannabis reclassification sending out the 'wrong signals'.

Just think about this for a moment: How easy would it have been to produce almost the exact same article, but about the 'scourge' of alcohol. Read the article again - change 'cannabis'/'drugs'/'joints' to 'alcohol'/ 'drinking' etc. and you'll see what I mean. The millions of young people for whom the just say no message, dogs, testing, punishment, criminal records and and exclusions dont appear to work need accurate information about the dangers of all drugs and how to minimise the risks of their use.

The Seldon denoument strikes me as utterly bizarre. But this, perhaps, sums up the IOS's whole approach and there will be more to come so buckle up. The Independent on Sunday appear to be digging in for a long war.

For the record: I will be contacting the Independent to see if, in the interest of 'the great debate', they will run an opinion piece from Transform. I dont hold out much hope, since when they rang up and asked me for one a few weeks ago, they then didnt publish it. You can but try.

Some other interesting coverage of the IOS cannabis panic:

Bad science column in the Guardian: 'Reefer Badness' by (Medical) Dr Ben Goldacre

Cannabis - sorry about the apology by former prime-ministerial advisor, and former director of anti-smoking charity Ash, Clive Bates

Do 'Skunk' stats stink? from the George Mason University (Washington DC) statistical assessment service