Sunday, September 30, 2007

how different media jumped on a celebrity drug non-story

I spotted these revealingly contrasting headlines (one after another) in the Daliy Dose drug news round up today:

Drug is a problem, Michael admits

Pop singer George Michael has admitted his marijuana use can be "a problem" and said he is "constantly trying" to smoke less of the drug [BBC, UK]

Drugs aren't a problem, says George Michael
The singer talks about his heavy use of marijuana, but says he is lucky enough to have the income to support the habit: 'Do I wish I could use it less? Sure, but is it a problem in my life? No,' [Observer, UK]

For the record, I listened to the Desert Island Discs show (BBC radio 4) that both of the above are reporting on, and Micheal said lots of interesting and revealing things about his life, his music, childhood, politics and sexuality. As well as playing some nice music. Sad really, that some fairly innocuous - and clearly open to rather broad interpretation- comments about his cannabis use are still what gets the headline writers all in a tizzy.

Nice one Jim, and thanks to the ever brilliant

Thursday, September 27, 2007

lessons from the 25 year US War on Drugs and its impact on American society


The Sentencing Project has released a new report that examines the burden of the "war on drugs" on the criminal justice system and American communities. "A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society" assesses the strategy of combating drug abuse primarily with enhanced punishments at the expense of investments in treatment and prevention.

The report documents how the drug war has produced a record expansion of prison and jail systems and highlights additional indicators of the war's impact on the criminal justice system and communities....

The report [available here] also provides policy recommendations that can help effectively reinvest government resources in community safety by encouraging comprehensive drug treatment and prevention strategies to address drug addiction.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Brown on cannabis - it gets worse

On Monday the blog considered the fact that Gordon Brown was blithely steamrollering over the drug strategy consultation process by making announcements about his intentions before bothering to hear the views of the public or experts in the drug field. Views requested by his own Government.

"we are about to make changes in the cannabis law"

Specifically, the issue of views on cannabis classification have been added to the consultation document, although apparently this came late in the document's drafting process in response to the born-again tabloid canna-panic and various opportunistic Tory pronouncements calling for a move from C back to B.

Now there is something wierd about all this even before Gordon enters the picture. Drug classification is a strictly technical matter that, at least in theory, considers a range of social and health harms associated with a given drug as a way of determining if it should be A, B or C. There are all sorts of things wrong with this system (as discussed in detail here) even if it worked properly (which it clearly doesn't as the Science and Technology committee concluded in some detail after a lengthy and in depth inquiry last year). However, the system of determining drug classifications as is remains very clearly the remit of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and its Technical Committees, as established under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. After years of criticism the ACMD has finally revealed its new drug harms 'matrix' by which it will in future be making these classification decisions, as published in the Lancet earlier this year (and discussed on this blog here).

Never before has their been a even a small public consultation on a specific drug classification change, its simply not a decision for the public (although anyone is, of course, free to make representations to the Committee and/or now attend meetings). It is unprecedented, and evidently has nothing to do with the technical drug harm classification evaluations undertaken by the eminently capable ACMD technical committee, and everything to do with party politics. The ACMD has now done two such detailed cannabis evaluations (2001, 2004), both supporting the committee's long held view that Class C is the appropriate place for cannabis to be in terms of relative harms.

Now just to remind those who may have been misled by some shoddy reporting or opposition party /Daily Mail wittering:
  • Class C does not mean 'legal' (you can still get 2 years in prison for possession or a whopping 14 years - the same as for class B - for supply)
  • it does not mean 'decriminalised' (only that there is presumption against arrest for possession in most circumstances - which there was, de-facto, under class B anyway)
  • It certainly does not that it is 'safe' (read the ACMD reports detailing potential risks and harms).
Class C means only that it is relatively less risky than drugs in class B, like amphetamines, or class A like heroin and cocaine, as assessed by the ACMD and their fancy harm matrix thingy. It's a daft and grotesquely malfunctioning system but at least its conceptually easy to grasp for anyone with half a brain. To be fair to the Government they have been very clear about this in all their public pronouncements.

The late-doors cut and pasting of cannabis re-classification (or re-re-classification) into the consultation process, and the apparent negation/bypassing of long established structures for making classification decisions that this represents, is transparently political positioning on the part of the Government and the Home Office. Rational policy making, and intelligent debate based on evidence has once again been sidelined by populist drug war politics.....

The media are in one of their cyclical reefer madness frenzies (as documented on this blog here, here, here etc.) and the Tories, the Government's only realistic political threat at this point, are making hay wheeling out all the old school drug war moralising about sending out messages, accusing the Government of being 'soft on drugs', and vocally calling for reclassification back to B (notably without providing a shred of evidence or even argument as to how this would be a good idea or bring about any useful outcomes).

So, as discussed previously, the Government have once again kicked the issue off the political agenda as the next election looms by referring the issue back the ACMD for the third time in 6 years. Observant drug policy watchers will note that this is EXACTLY what happened before the last election: A few reports about cannabis related harms emerged (as they have done on a regular basis for all drugs for the last 100 years or so, because scientists sensibly like to research understand these things), then they were massively hyped and misrepresented by lazy journalists and opposition drug warriors. The then Home Secretary Charles Clarke didn't want it to become a big election issue so lobbed it back to the ACMD. Just to reinforce the sense of de ja vu, Clarke (like Brown) did this very publicly, with the then unprecedented release of his letter to the ACMD along with a press release (the whole saga is detailed and discussed here in Transform's submission to the second ACMD cannabis inquiry in as many years).

Needless to say many in the ACMD were, to put it politely, less than delighted to be having to trawl through the same stuff for the second time in two years, and unsurprisingly they came to the exact same conclusion they had before, and doubtless they will again.

So to Gordon Brown, who in his first breath as PM announces that (with nothing to do with media canna-panic scaremongering, the Tories, or the imminent election HONEST) he is going to refer cannabis back to the ACMD yet again. But this around time he is so concerned, and keen to publicly demonstrate this concern, that re-reclassification is also inappropriately squonked into the public drug strategy consultation document. BUT, unlike the previous (but one) Home Secretary, Gordon has gazumped both the ACMD and the consultation process long before either have reported. He has publicly claimed:
'I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about'.
Worse than this, we now learn (sorry for missing it at the time) that on September the 6th he said:
"We have made changes, for example, in casinos, we are about to make changes in the cannabis law, we are about to make a review happen in 24 hour drinking, all these things, it’s by listening to people, by hearing what they say”.
(Gordon Brown with Ed Balls at the 1st Citizens’ Jury in Bristol being interviewed by BBC Political editor Nick Robinson - unfortunately no longer available on the BBC media player)

So that's pretty unambiguous then: The decision is already made. The contempt he has shown for the consultation process and the ACMD review process makes something of a mockery of the bit about 'listening to people' and 'hearing what they have to say'. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens when the ACMD repeat their support for a Class C classification against Brown's wishes. Last time around there were threats of mass resignations if the committee was over-ruled for transparently political reasons - something that has never before happened. Brown has potentially made some considerable trouble for himself - and we must hope the the Committee can hold its nerve.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that cannabis is still just a political football for the major parties to kick between each other, but there is something profoundly depressing about the way this saga has has unfolded and exposed the shamelessness of the political process and the shallowness of the ever more ludicrous claims that drug policy is evidence based. Moreover the cannabis classification issue continues to dominate political discourse on drugs in a way that it is almost entirely negative.

It prevents discussion of more substantive problems relating to problematic use of illegal heroin and crack (and their international consequences), it wrongly conflates a scientific debate about drug harms with the debate about prohibition and legalisation/regulation, and it suggests that classification of a drug has some meaningful impact on the level of the drugs use and related social and health harms, which it demonstrably does not.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gordon Brown on Drugs: friend of the mafia, enemy of pragmatism

Gordon Brown has made his first big party speech as PM and has well and truly nailed his colours to the mast regards drug law reform. In a seemingly unambiguous statement he has said, amongst other comments, that:

“drugs are never going to be decriminalised.”
We’ll come to this implications of this statement in a moment but first I think it is important to point out that the Government is in the midst of a major ten-year drug-strategy policy review and consultation process (closing on October 19th), what it claims to be the 'biggest ever public policy consultation' in its history. Now maybe I misunderstand the meaning of the words ‘consultation’ and ‘policy review’, indeed, maybe the Government should have waited a few weeks until their consultation on how to do consultations had finished and reported before undertaking the biggest one ever. That said I’m absolutely positive that a key rule is that you don’t decide on policy – and announce it publicly - before the consultation has even taken place.

Gordon has now done this twice and we should all find it profoundly troubling.

Firstly, he has let it be known he wants cannabis was to be re-re-classified, rather than merely referred to the ACMD (as he had previously announced). This is odd since the ACMD, the expert body appointed by the Government specifically to advise on nominally non-political technical matters like drug harm rankings, haven’t even begun to look at this again, let alone report back to the PM. Also odd since the (endlessly tedious) issue of cannabis reclassification was specifically added to the drug strategy consultation. Yes, the one that hasn’t closed yet and isn’t due to report its findings till next year.

Now, with today's announcement, for the second time in his short PM-ship, Brown has done it again. He has ruled out an entire swathe of policy options regarding drug law reforms something that rather goes against the 'discussing the options' spirit of a 'consultation and review' . Now, whilst admittedly contentious, the reform position is held by a significant proportion of the public and the drugs field, as well as intellectual, media, academic, political, and religious opinion. Other countries have moved in this direction with considerable success yet, apparently un-bothered by rational evaluation of evidence, Brown has not only ruled out such a move in the short or medium term, he has effectively closed down the debate FOR ALL TIME.

Now I understand Brown wants to make a high-principles political splash, and that their may be an election looming, but these announcements are frankly offensive to all the 1000s of NGOs and members of the public who have, or still are, diligently contributing their thoughts and suggestions to the drug strategy consultation process. This remains true regardless of their opinions on classification or decriminalisation: there is a serious process problem here.

As we have said, and will be saying again more vocally in the coming weeks, the drug strategy consultation is horribly flawed in its design, content and implementation, and if we are being honest, a completely fraudulent waste of time. But couldn’t they at least maintain some vague semblance of it being meaningful, or that they might have not already decided what the next drug policy was going to look like (i.e. – EXACTLY like the last one)?

There is something alarmingly arrogant and contemptuous of your 'stakeholders' about saying you are going to listen to their views, and then decreeing entire arenas of debate are closed down forever and announcing policy decisions, before even listening to their answers.

From a pragmatic perspective the decriminalisation announcement also seems a peculiar one for Brown to have singled out in his maiden speech, and has the unmistakable whiff of political positioning (not wanting to be out-DailyMailed by tough-on drugs Tories) , combined with ill-informed moral grandstanding. The rest of the speech is about things he is going to do - not stuff he wont even engage with. All very strange. Consider some of the other things he said in the speech:

"I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes"
As Transform have argued in detail for years: prohibition directly fuels vast amounts of crime at all levels, something not even the Home Office or the previous prime minister's own advisers dispute.

"I stand for a Britain that supports as first class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families"

We all remember that biblical saying: "suffer the little children to come unto me." No Bible I have ever read says: "bring just some of the children."

Odd then that he makes such play of supporting a law that criminalises around half of all young people and a third of the adult population, including those who elected his party to power. Now that’s gratitude. Not casual criminality either, a cheeky fine or warning for example. No, if Gordon's apparent re-re-classification plan comes to fruition, cannabis possession will return to its status of incurring a prosecution, a criminal record, and a potential 7 year jail term - for about 6.2 million people in the UK if the Lancet is to be believed (including half the cabinet).

A criminal record: just what the socially excluded and marginalised young people of Britain need to help them get on in life.

I must say, I despise the hypocrisy of those who cite the bible for self-righteous political brownie points, and in the same breath are happy to indiscriminately condemn millions to the stigma of criminality and punishment for a consenting personal choice, that happens to offend their personal morality (especially given that only some drugs, for no logical reason, are deemed illegal, whilst others, equally or more harmful, remain legal…see below).

Mass criminalisation of young people, how very Christian.

"To punish the evil of drug pushers who poison our children: I want the tough new powers that have already closed over one thousand crack houses in some areas of the country to be used in all areas of the country"

Ridiculous and shameless drug war posturing. Crack use has risen consistently and dramatically throughout his Government's tenure, as well he knows, and crack is cheaper and more available than ever before. No mention of the fact that cocaine use has doubled amongst young people under Labour, or that we now top the European consumption leagues. This is classic drug war spin and misdirection (something that has characterised the entire 10 year strategy and positively infests the consultation document)

And to encourage local police to use new powers to confiscate drug profits, more of the confiscated funds will go direct to the police and local communities.
Laughable rubbish. It is the policy of prohibition which gifts the lucrative drug market to gangsters in the first place. The Government have hosed literally billions every year enforcing it and billions more each year attempting to deal with the chaos it creates. Meanwhile they pull in a couple of million a year in recovered assets. It’s a total joke to proclaim asset recovery as a central pillar of current or future policy.
To prevent addiction: we will extend drug education and expand drug treatment and we will send out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised.
Your own appointed expert advisers say drug education/prevention has been almost completely ineffectual, and recent announcements have been clear that drug treatment budgets are going to be scaled back. As for the decriminalisation announcement – well this appears to be a classic case of misappropriating the criminal justice system to send out public health messages – something it is not designed for doing and when it has been tried has been a counterproductive failure, as 40 years of a growing drug problem under prohibition demonstrate rather clearly to those with eyes/minds open.
So yes we will strengthen the police. Yes we will strengthen our laws. But preventing crime for me also means all of us as a community setting boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour - with clear penalties for stepping over the line.
OK. That seems sensible enough, in theory.
Boundaries that reflect the words I was taught when I was young - words upon which we all know strong communities are founded: discipline, respect, responsibility
A bit school-teachery but fair enough, you are the Prime Minister I suppose

Binge drinking and underage drinking that disrupt neighbourhoods are unacceptable.

OK fine – but how come you make a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable drug use regards alcohol, but resort to the blunderbuss of indiscriminate blanket criminalisation for other drugs, Hmm? Why the moral absolutism for some drugs , but not others? (Reminds me of this.)

To punish: let me tell the shops that repeatedly sell alcohol to those who are under age - we will take your licences away.

Hang on. Why not give these ‘the evil of drug pushers who poison our children’ a walloping great big criminal record as well? Not being very consistent with your message about 'discipline respect and responsibility' now are you?
To prevent: councils should use new powers to ban alcohol in trouble spots and I call on the industry to do more to advertise the dangers of teenage drinking.
I'm forced to point out that your Government's record on alcohol advertising is a total disgrace.

So nothing new, and perhaps nothing we shouldn’t have expected, but there was brief moment when I thought that, just maybe, a new drug strategy and a new PM might herald some genuine reflection and even a reasoned debate on policy options (especially following on from an old drug strategy/PM combo that was such a complete disaster). This was particularly the case given that Brown comes from the Treasury and might have been expected to look more pragmatically at how spending on drug enforcement relates to policy outcomes.

Apparently not. Move along now, nothing has changed: if Gordon gets his way the mafia will remain in charge of the multi billion pound trade in illegal drugs.


Friday, September 21, 2007

How enforcing prohibition creates street crime

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have made a compelling case that drug prohibition and backwards welfare rules increase criminal activity.

A team led by Kora DeBeck and Thomas Kerr surveyed injection drug users in the Vancouver area. They asked, "If you didn't need the money to pay for your drug use, are there any sources of income in the last 30 days that you would eliminate?"

In that study, 62 percent of sex workers and 41 percent of drug dealers said that they would cease their criminal activities if they did not need the extra income for drugs.

It may seem obvious that streetwalkers don't like their jobs. However, a scientific study like this is exactly the sort of evidence that is necessary to change public policy. The researchers were able to eloquently use their findings to highlight the shortcomings of Canadian laws and social services. That critique, and the results of their survey, will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence .

DeBeck and Kerr began with a simple argument; seizures and arrests by law enforcement agencies raise drug prices. This makes it hard for serious addicts to afford their habits without resorting to prostitution, drug dealing, panhandling, binning, and other illegal activities.

By disrupting drug markets and increasing risks involved in producing and distributing illegal substances, prohibition-based drug enforcement policies play a role in inflating drug prices, which in turn induces active IDU (injection drug users) with high intensity addictions to engage in prohibited income generating behavior to finance their drug use. While the ultimate objective of inducing high drug prices is to deter drug use, this analysis and a growing body of research indicates that the unintended consequences of these enforcement-based policies produce significant harm for drug using individuals and broader society.

Here is the biggest policy dilemma: people that receive financial assistance from the government will lose their support if they earn more than a minuscule amount from legitimate sources. This standard, intended to keep checks out of the hands of people that don't need them, may also strongly discourage the rightful recipients from pursuing normal work. Since there are no records of the illegal transactions, the drug dealers and sex workers can have their cake and eat it too.

Furthermore, the current structure of social assistance in Canada is such that recipients will lose their income benefits if they begin to earn above $400 per month through legitimate work, leaving this population with limited income generating options beyond resorting to prohibited sources.

At the end of their report, the scholars offered several more ways to keep problematic dependent users out of trouble: increase the availability of low-end jobs, make heroin available by prescription, and offer methadone or stimulant substitutes for free.

One method of trying to reduce engagement in prohibited income generation among drug user populations with severe addictions is to expand their economic opportunities. This would involve supporting the development of legitimate means of earning income through various low threshold employment opportunities and skill building measures. A recent intervention designed to economically empower drug addicted sex trade workers to develop alternative legitimate sources of income has been shown to have a positive influence on reducing involvement in the sex trade industry. Alternatively, policy makers could intervene by providing addiction prescription and substitution therapies to individuals with markers of serious addiction to decrease their reliance on, and subsequent need to purchase, street drugs. This could be achieved in part through heroin prescription programs and by expanding substitution therapies including methadone maintenance.

this is an edited version of guest article on Respectacle by Aaron Rowe

Thursday, September 20, 2007

NZ drug warrior pwned by Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax

The story of new stimulant drug BZP in New Zealand has been a fascinating insight into the clash between public-health pragmatism and drug war politics. After a brief flirtation with efforts to sensibly license and control BZP production and sale, the rabid drug war ideologues have mounted their moral high horses and organised an evidence-free cavalry charge, winning the day for blinkered ignorance.

How informed are these ban-mongers? Well, not very. And here's the proof. (warning: *incoming pwnage*)

One of the chief cheerleaders for bringing BZP within the ineffectual clutches criminal law is New Zealand National Party politician (and former Play School presenter) Jaqui Dean. New Zealand blogger Micheal Earley (and friends) thought they'd see how much Dean really knew about drugs by deploying the Di-hydrogen Monoxide hoax - seeing if he could get her to call for the prohibition on water on the basis that it was a dangerous drug.

First, a brief bit of background:

The particular interest for drug law reformers was that in New Zealand BZP had been placed in a new Class D (appended to the UK-like ABC drug-harm / penalty hierarchy, or US style I-IV drug sheduling system) which allowed it to be legally manufactured and sold under license. The general idea was that it was considered a low risk drug (specifically: relatively safer than other comparable illegal stimulants - 8 million doses consumed in NZ with no deaths) and that bringing it within the existing ABC system of criminal penalties would increase overall harm, both to users and to wider society. The new Class D, established specifically to deal with BZP, offered a regulatory option for control - a sensible mid point between total prohibition and unregulated free markets (something UK ministers know all about).

Unfortunately Dean and her fellow drug warriors, sniffing out an opportunity for some old-school drug war posturing and opposition point scoring, look to have successfully pushed for the drug to get well and truly prohibited after all. Excellent. Now all the kids can go running back to those lovely crystal meth dealers.

Enter blogger Micheal Earley (with accomplices Ben Smith and Will Seal) who contacted Dean suggesting ...

As a strong advocate for the health and wellbeing of the young people of New Zealand, and a firm supporter of your action to ban BZP, I also call for you to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide. In many cases of drug/party pill overdoses reported in New Zealand and overseas, Dihydrogen Monoxide is considered to be one of the contributing factors, and as such, should be classed in the Misuse of Drugs Act. I look forward to your reply and ask you to take strong action.
That anybody is able to obtain ten lites of something as potentially dangerous as di-hydrogen monoxide, legally, is proof that the current government is doing nothing to solve this binge culture and that in fact the statistics have got worse as the years go by.

The DiHydrogen Honoxide hoax, is described on its very own Wikipedia page (which Jaqui Dean's in-depth research failed to uncover) thus:
Dihydrogen monoxide (shortened to DHMO) is a scientific name for water that is relatively unknown to most of the public, used in hoaxes that illustrate how the lack of scientific knowledge and an exaggerated analysis can lead to misplaced fears. "Di" meaning two, and "Mono" meaning single, describes how water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom The hoax involves listing strictly negative effects of water, such as erosion or drowning, attributing them to "dihydrogen monoxide", and then asking individuals to help control the seemingly dangerous substance.

It was apparently created by Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen and Matthew Kaufman, housemates while attending UC Santa Cruz in 1989, revised by Craig Jackson in 1994, and brought to widespread public attention in 1997 when Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student, gathered petitions to ban "DHMO" as the basis of his science project, titled "How Gullible Are We?"

Demonstrating the familiar rationality-free drug warrior dedication to ridding the world of evil (sounding) drugs, Dean took the bait, writing to NZ Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton:

his reply was concise and humiliatingly to the point:

Laughably enough the National Party had previously mocked a NZ Green Party politician caught out by the same hoax.

Many will be aware that this is but the latest installment in a long and distinguished history of drug-war pomposity mocking highjinkery. Lest we forget the immortal Brass Eye drug panic special, featuring David Amess MP describing the terrifying 'bisturbile cranabolic amphetamoid' ... 'made up psychoactive chemical' CAKE:

Of course it's all to easy to laugh at how easily certain tough talking politicians can be lured into making fools of themselves over the drugs issue. But this isn't a joke: these people perpetuate disastrous policies creating havoc and suffering across the globe. It would be more funny if it weren't so tragic. The moral of this story? Drug war politics is all about populist posturing and opportunism. It has nothing, zero, absolutely zip, to do with with science or rational evidence-based policy making.

thanks to Micheal Earley and

more on the UK BZP 'panic' here and Transform's detailed 2006 BZP/piperazine briefing is here.

IDPC website relaunches

note: apologies for the quiet spell on the blog. I've been nurturing my Yeti-like carbon footprint with a long overdue holiday in Spain followed by a conference in Portugal. Normal service will resume next week...

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) has this week launched a re-vamped website which offers much clearer access and archiving of its extensive collection of reports and briefings on international drug policy and related issues. The documents come from the IDPC itself - mostly focusing on the upcoming UN drug strategy review process, IDPC members, and some other organisations where relevant.

Whilst the issue of prohibition / legal regulation is not actively engaged the material available provides excellent critique and analysis drug policy around the world, and offers useful discussion of short to medium term reform.

Transform is not a member of IDPC

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Guardian: article on Afghanistan from Transform

Below is the printed version of the today's response column in the Guardian, which I'm pleased to say, I wrote. It has been heavily edited and lost some clarity I think, so I will post the unedited version in discussion just for the record. The article is also in the Guardian's Comment is free section so please feel free to add comments there (as well as here).

Medical use of Afghanistan's opium won't solve the problem

Prescribed heroin for long-term addicts would be a better way of reducing the drug trade, says Steve Rolles

Thursday September 6, 2007
The Guardian

This week's alarming UN reports on the Afghan opium crop, showing that it now accounts for over 93% of global illicit production, prompted much debate. A Guardian leader (The drugs don't work, August 27) acknowledged the futility of eradication efforts, but gave qualified support to the Senlis Council plan to pilot the licensing of Afghan opium production for medical use.

Superficially, the idea has great appeal, potentially helping Afghanistan toward political stability and filling the apparent shortfall in medical opiates. Yet the Senlis vision is both ill-conceived and impractical.

As other experts identified in another article (Eradication or legalisation?, August 29) the plan faces a raft of political and practical problems relating to Afghanistan's chaotic status as a failed state and war zone. Furthermore the medical opiates "shortage" is primarily related to bureaucratic and licensing issues for UN drug agencies leading to underuse of existing stocks, rather than a shortage of raw opium. Flooding an already saturated market would potentially cause precisely the supply/demand imbalance that the UN control system was designed to prevent.

Simon Jenkins (Britain is stoned at home and sold out in Helmand, August 29) identifies the core problem common to all of the solutions being widely discussed: where such huge demand and profit opportunities exist, criminal profiteers will always find a way to supply. The only real solution is reducing domestic demand for the illicit product.

The government has spent billions trying achieve this through supply-side enforcement and coerced treatment. And yet UK heroin use rose from 1997 to 2001 before stabilising at its current historic high. The alternative, one that can collapse the Afghan opium market and largely eliminate illicit supply, is to repeal the global prohibition on non-medical production, supply and use. In the short term this process can begin by dramatically expanding the prescribing of heroin in a clinical setting to the UK's long-term addicts. This does not require "legalisation", merely an expansion of existing legal frameworks. Longer-term falls in problematic use can only be achieved by addressing the underlying causes rooted in social deprivation.

Such a move has the support of numerous senior police and policy makers, and a long international track record of success on key public-health and criminal-justice measures. The only obstacle is political cowardice in confronting the failure of a US-inspired "war on drugs".

While undoubtedly useful in stimulating debate, the Senlis proposal is now casting a shadow over more thoughtful and cautious policy work being undertaken by other drug-policy NGOs. There may be a place for smaller-scale licensing of Afghan opium at some point in the future. But there is a danger that an overhyped but ultimately doomed "legalisation" plan is potentially undermining a reform movement struggling to promote a more nuanced exploration of realistic models for regulated drug production and supply that includes non-medical use.

· Steve Rolles is the Transform Drug Policy Foundation's information officer

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Legal challenges to broken Govt promises on classification review

Casey Hardison has been discussed on this blog before (here and here). He is currently serving 20 years for the manufacture of LSD, and whatever your view of his actions, there must be questions asked about a sentence - for producing psychoactive drugs to be used only by consenting adults who wanted them - that is substantially longer than most murderers and rapists.

Casey has been keeping himself busy in his legal battles, both in attempts to win his freedom, and also to challenge the illogic and injustice that underpins our drug laws. He has been supported from outside the prison gates by a group of legal experts and supporters, the unsung heroes of drug law reform. Transform has been keeping track of Casey's activities through phone calls from Casey in prison and from updates from the supporters. Most recently, August the 31st, involved a high court hearing for a judicial review of the Government's decision to abandon the promised review and consultation on the ABC drug classification system. The report from one of Casey's supporters is posted below (Transform also has the hearings Court submissions in print, available on request).

Casey is also soon to be having a High Court hearing for a judicial review of the drug strategy consultation process (again he will be appearing by video link from Swaleside prison), Casey and and friends have also made a submission to the Better Regulation Executive online consultation on conflicting regulations which you can read here. The Government response is due in 3 weeks. Some of this stuff may seem a little dense and legalese - but stick with it. This is important stuff. We will keep you posted.

report on the August 31st hearing:

Hi Steve.

Yes, the oral hearing went well apart from failing! Of course Casey will appeal, as usual.

It failed on a technicality: Casey had not sufficiently proved that Government had actually promised a classification review because he only provided one reference from Hansard (Jan 19 06). Case law says you can't get a 'legitimate expectation' from what may have been a passing comment in Parliament. BUT Casey had referred to Coaker's evidence to the SciTech Committee where Coaker said the draft consultation document was at the Home Office. Casey had told the court previously that he had tried to obtain that document but had been refused. So the Judge should have known that the Jan 19 statement was not a passing comment but a genuine promise. Casey did show that everyone else believed it was a promise, eg the Sci Tech Committee, but this is not legally sufficient. He now has extra evidence from Lords Hansard but this may not be admissible on appeal since its Casey's fault he didn't present it earlier.

Casey also believes the Judge assessed the type of legitimate expectation wrongly - I'll have to read the court transcript and case law to fully understand what this one's about.

The Judge was very impressed with Casey's concise summary and criticised the Government's side for irrelevance. Importantly the Judge does appear to have confirmed for the first time that the MDA does affect property rights - relevant to Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR. The Judge also fully understood the equal treatment argument and corrected the Government's side when they suggested Casey was calling for prohibition of alcohol and tobacco by including them in the MDA.

All in all we were very pleased with the result. And the Drugs Strategy consultation JR should have a better chance of success. Casey is hoping to get professional representation for that - he realises that he can't know all the technicalities like the one that scuppered the oral hearing.

When I see the transcript I'll be able confirm or amend the above.

all the best

Home Office refuses to release strategy evaluation research

As part of Transform's work on the new drug strategy and the current consultation process, we thought it would be useful to know as much possible about the old strategy, basically what research the Government had done to evaluate its effectiveness on various criteria. So on the 2nd of August we put in a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office with some nice and easy to answer questions about this.

Last week we received our reply. If I can keep you in suspense for a moment about the actual answer, the Home Office letter usefully summarizes the seven requests we made as follows:

  1. supply you with a copy of any unpublished research that the Home Office has undertaken or commissioned to inform its current review of the Government's Drug Strategy;

  2. supply you with details of all unpublished research undertaken or commissioned by the Home office since 1997, including research that was not completed or is still not completed, into the effectiveness and/or efficiency of the Government's Drug Strategy in preventing drug use and drug harms;

  3. supply you with details of all unpublished research undertaken or commissioned by the Home office since 1997, including research that was not completed or still is to be completed, into the effectiveness and/or efficiency of the the Government's Drug strategy in reducing drug-related offending;

  4. supply you with a copy of any unpublished research undertaken or commissioned by the Home Office since 1997, including research that was not completed or still is to be completed, which examines the value for money of the Government's Drug Strategy;

  5. supply you with details of any unpublished research undertaken or commissioned by the Home Office since 1997, including research that was not completed or still is to be completed, into the effectiveness and/or efficiency of the Government's drug treatment programme;

  6. supply you with details of any unpublished research undertaken or commissioned by the Home Office since 1997, including research that was not completed or still is to be completed, into the effectiveness and/or efficiency of the Government's drug education/prevention strategy in reducing drug use and drug related harms amongst young people; and

  7. supply you with details of any unpublished options appraisals undertaken or commissioned by the Home office since 1997, including any that were not completed or are still to be completed, into the Government's Drug Strategy
All perfectly simple questions, most not even requesting copies of research, just details of what research has been done. Easy, we thought, this will take some junior staffer a few minutes to check the archives, check with the RDS and/or the relevant people who commission the research and presumably keep a record of it somewhere.

And after all, given that we are now half way through what the Government is describing as its biggest consultation ever, one that is undoubtedly costing millions, it seems entirely appropriate that all the relevant evaluation research is on the table, or at least known about. We aren't asking for CCTV from the Home Office toilets or plans for how to make nuclear weapons, just a list of research undertaken and copies of a few relevant studies (some of which we understand do exist - unpublished), to enable Transform and others to make a proper and informed response to the very important drug strategy consultation. So....

The response was that:
"We have estimated that the cost of answering your requests would exceed the £600 limit and we are therefore unable to comply with it"

It is usefully explained in the previous paragraph that:

....the Home Office is not obliged to comply with any information request where the prescribed costs of supplying you with the information exceed £600. The £600 limit applies to all central government departments and is based on work being carried out at a rate of £25 an hour, which equates to 3 1/2 days work per request.
Are we seriously to believe that the Home Office has so little clue about what research it has undertaken that it will take more than three and half days to get a simple list together, and fish out a couple of the relevant studies? To me this is barely credible, and smacks of obfuscation and delay. Presumably this recently introduced costs defence could be applied to almost any information request. Rather ridiculously the letter then goes on to inform us that:

"You should be aware that the costs in answering some of your requests [we are not told which] individually exceeded the cost limit of £600 but that we also aggregated the costs of complying as well as permitted by the Fees Regulations and that too exceeded the £600 limit."
Brilliant! So we can send them in separately and we will get the answers, or at least some of them? But no:
You may wish to consider refining your requests, particularly over the time period you have set. You should however be aware that if you break your requests down into a series of smaller requests , we might depending on the circumstances of the case, decline to answer if the aggregated costs of complying exceeds £600.
Have we stumbled into a George Orwell novel? What the Hell is going on?

We are essentially at a dead end, with the Home Office basically able to snub even the simplest of information requests with a completely non-transparent 'sorry - costs more than £600' get-out clause. We are now reduced to going through the laborious and almost certainly pointless appeals procedure that will no doubt drag on way beyond the close of the consultation period. They can spend bazillions on a flashy national consultation process but cannot be arsed to spend a couple of grand to let us know what they do about policy effectiveness.

Cynics, and I am one when it comes to Home office pronouncements on drug policy, would conclude one of the following:
  1. The Home Office haven't done any evaluation at all and are stonewalling because they are embarrassed that they know nothing; or

  2. The Home Office have done loads of unpublished evaluations but they are stonewalling because they are embarrassed about the fact that this research shows that their strategy (in contrast to the ludicrous spin in the consultation document) is a malfunctioning and counterproductive failure.
Personally I come down on number 2, based on the fact that we know there is unpublished research out there, combined with the almost universally critical analysis of the strategy from every serious policy review of the last 10 years, be it by the National Audit Office (treatment), the Public Accounts Committee (customs), The Home Affairs Select Committee (drug policy generally), the Science and Technology Select Committee (the classification system), The Prime Ministers Strategy Unit (drug policy generally) or numerous independent inquiries (UKDPC, RSA, Police Foundation etc) . All can be found here

For me, the idea of a 'consultation' involves open, honest and informed dialogue. The Home Office clearly does not share this view, and the drug strategy consultation is shaping up to be the shockingly bad, but perhaps fitting finale to a disastrous 10 years of drug-war madness.

more discussion of the drug strategy consultation here