Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Injecting drug use and the right to health in Sweden

The International Harm Reduction Association's new HR2 Harm Reduction & Human Rights programme, in conjunction with the Swedish drug users union, has today published a report examining the issues around the state's response to the growing health problems (specifically blood borne diseases) relating to injecting drug use in Sweden, and the inadequate provision of harm reduction services for Sweden's growing population of drug injectors.

The report has been produced as a shadow submission to the Swedish Government's own report to the UN Committee on Economic Cultural and Social Rights. States that have ratified the Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social rights are required to periodically submit reports to the Committee, which acts as an independent body overseeing adherence to the convention (similar bodies exist for all UN treaties).

The IHRA report background intro notes that:

This report examines Sweden’s obligations under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It reviews the failure of Sweden to provide comprehensive harm reduction programmes, such as needle exchange, for people who use injecting drugs. The failure to provide such essential preventative health interventions places people who inject drugs at unnecessary and avoidable risk of HIV and hepatitis C infection, and therefore reflects a failure of the State party to respect, protect and fulfil the right to the highest attainable standard of health for this most vulnerable and marginalised population.

Sweden has one of the best domestic human rights records in the world, and in the area of economic, social and cultural rights stands above most countries in terms of life expectancy, standard of living, education and healthcare. However, there are sections of Swedish society that do not enjoy this high level of human rights protection. Some communities, like the Saami and Roma, are increasingly recognised in Swedish human rights policy as suffering from marginalisation and discrimination. Others, such as people who use illegal drugs, also experience the effects stigma and discrimination, yet this goes largely unrecognised. One illustration of this is the fact that injecting drug use and related harms such as HIV and hepatitis C infection are entirely omitted from the State’s report to the Committee, as are any references to measures taken to address drug use and reduce drug-related harms.

In 2006, Professor Paul Hunt, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, undertook a mission to Sweden. While praising the overall state of human rights, the Special Rapporteur stated that there was no room for complacency and highlighted the specific situation of people who use drugs. Professor Hunt was critical of the poor provision of harm reduction services, especially needle exchange, despite international evidence of the effectiveness of these measures in preventing HIV and hepatitis C transmission among injecting drug users (IDUs). The Special Rapporteur visited a needle exchange programme in Malmö, one of only two in the country, and confirmed that harm reduction “enhances the realization of the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health, for intravenous drug users”. He recommended that Sweden adopt, as a matter of priority, comprehensive harm reduction services throughout the country.

Swedish drug policy is fascinating. Behind the veneer of a highly developed social welfare system and operating within wider policy paradigm of public health pragmatism is a somewhat incongruous dogmatic and moralistic view of drug use. It has resulted in a zero tolerance approach to drugs and drug users involving harshly enforced prohibition and a general disdain for harm reduction principles and practice (see this recent article in Druglink magazine for more discussion) .

The IHRA report notes that (page 6):

Sweden follows a strict law enforcement approach to drug use, rather than the health-based approach utilised in many other countries. Harsh sentences are imposed, including penalties for drug use itself. Indeed, Sweden is one of the few countries in the world to impose prison sentences for the use (rather than the possession) of drugs. Coercive testing and treatment are also utilised.

It has been found by Sweden’s own National Council for Crime Prevention that “based on available information on trends in drug misuse there are no clear indications that criminalisation and an increased severity of punishment has had a deterrent effect on the drug habits of young people or that new recruitment to drug misuse has been halted”. As noted above, the number of people injecting drugs in Sweden has continued to grow despite the country’s harsh law enforcement responses.

Evidence from other parts of the world has shown that harsh criminal sanctions are counter-productive to HIV prevention efforts among injecting drug users, as they are less likely to engage with the relevant health programmes for fear of identifying themselves.
read the full report here (pdf)
includes references left out of the above quotes

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Parliamentary non-Answer on classification from the Drugs Minister

The following PQ was tabled by Paul Flynn MP at the suggestion of Transform:

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what research her Department has (a) commissioned and (b) evaluated on the effect of reclassifying drugs on their production, supply and use.

A huge political and media ballyhoo is made about drug classification, especially when a previously unclassified drug is classified (e.g. GHB, Ketamine and fresh magic mushrooms recently) or has its classification increased (Methamphetamine this year) or decreased (Cannabis in 2004).

Obviously, looking beyond all the rhetoric and political posturing, it would be useful to know whether these changes have any meaningful impact on on key indicators of policy success/failure (as was highlighted in some detail last years Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into the Classification System). Unfortunately we don't know, and we have no systematic review or useful published information provided by the Home Office that might arguably constitute a meaningful 'evaluation' of these much-hyped policy shifts.

So it seemed like a reasonable and simple question.

The following answer from the Minister responsible, Vernon Coaker, appeared on Hansard on October the 25th:

The Home Department undertakes and evaluates several surveys in order to monitor levels of illegal drug production, supply and use. These are not predicated on the ABC classification system but where they are drug specific, any changes are closely monitored following a drug's reclassification. Relevant published research is also routinely considered.

The record is available here on the excellent TheWorkForYou website (what Hansard online should look like). TheyWorkForYou also offer an opportunity to comment on all statements form parliamentarians, and vote on whether Parliamentary Answers do, in your view, answer the questions posed (get voting!)

In this case it's a typically uninformative and evasive answer from Coaker, in line with most of the pronouncements from the Home Office when they are challenged to produce evidence to support their drug policy decisions (See, for example: Drugs minister gives a masterclass in drug policy spin and evasion and Classification and Deterrence - where's the evidence? )

There is a useful online response to Coaker's non-answer contributed to TheyWorkForYou by Shan Morgain, which I reproduce below with thanks:
"An evasive answer.

The question was 'what research her Department has (a) commissioned and (b) evaluated.'

In reply we are told that the Department undertakes and evaluates 'several surveys.' No specific names of or links to surveys are given, and the comment is a general statement on normal practice, which does not state whether any surveys have actually been done on this issue. So all we are given is a vague statement that work is being done; but for some reason we are not to be told what it is.

We are then told 'where they are drug specific, any changes are closely monitored following a drug's reclassification.' Again this is just a vague statement that monitoring is done, as a general rule. Nothing is said on whether monitoring is actually taking place, who is doing it, how, and when the results are due.

The lack of information given here is a matter of grave concern in response to an MP's enquiry. Transparency is nonexistent here; Vernon Croaker is wasting Parliamentary time and resources on empty words.

Both MP and the public that he and Croaker serve, are being treated with paternalistic condescension, as if we are children not yet mature enough to be allowed a clear answer to an adult question.

Can we please have an informative answer to the question giving specifics on what research is being undertaken into the effects of changing drugs' classification? An honest answer would give the names of those in charge of the research, their sampling methods, and the date results will be available."

Further info:

Transform briefing on drug classification

Blog entry on the recent Lancet paper on drug classification

Note: I have an article on the classification system appearing in the next issue of Drugs and Alcohol Today

Friday, October 26, 2007

SHOCK : non-hysterical cannabis story makes headlines

'Cannabis use down since legal change', the Guardian reports today on its front page. And its true, at least if you believe the British Crime Survey. The report also knocks holes in a number of other recently hyped skunk-cannabis panics perpetuated by various tabloids and the Independent on Sunday (with its road-back-from-Damascus re-conversion to the wisdom of mass criminlisation of young people as the sensible policy response).

The Guardian report, in a welcome break from much of the reefer madness of the last year, highlights the fact that trends in reported cannabis use amongst 16-24 year olds (including frequent users), and 16 to 59 year olds, have declined steadily in recent years.

Of course, the BCS is not without its methodological flaws; it is generally acknowledged to under-estimate total use because it is a household survey and consequently misses out on certain groups – students, and those with no fixed address - with generally higher levels of use. That said, it is at least consistent in its methodology so there is no reason to think the general trends it describes are not for real.

There are, however, a couple of further observations that today's broadsheet coverage miss out on. Firstly, overall prevalence of use is not an especially useful measure of overall harm related to use. If patterns of more intense or risky use are increasing it is quite possible that falling use could be associated with increasing harm. Similarly rising prevalence could potentially be associated with decreasing harm in the opposite scenario – you just don't know without some more detailed research on using behaviours. Some research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (also published this week) shows how heavy use can cause real problems, but also highlights the links between such patterns of problem use and social deprivation.

Secondly, the fact remains that the BCS prevalence data shows the downward trend in reported cannabis use predates the reclassification from B to C in 2004, in fact beginning around 2001/2. This rather undermines the suggestion of the Guardian headline that the reclassification might in some way be a factor in falling use, just as many others have suggested it is a factor in rising use (see this blog post from January about a Daily Mail story that reported how 'the "softly softly" approach is contributing to a huge rise in cannabis use.' )

Both of these observations point to a more important analysis: that classification of cannabis appears irrelevant to either overall levels of use, or levels of problematic use. As Transform has long argued patterns of use are determined predominantly by a complex interplay of social, economic and cultural variables, there is no evidence to suggest changing classification has a meaningful impact on deterrence, and enforcement and drug policy more generally can -at best- only have a marginal impact on levels of use. There may well be an increase in problematic cannabis use occurring, but it remains hard to quantify and whatever its true scale the appropriate response should be always be public health led rather than based on an criminalisation /enforcement approach already tried for three decades with demonstrably disastrous outcomes. If, as the research suggests, the key determinants of problematic drug use are related to social deprivation then any long term response must focus on addressing these underlying social causes.

Classification seems to have become a symbolic talisman in the ongoing culture wars, dominating political discourse over the past five years in a fashion that grossly overstates its relevance in practical terms. Should cannabis be B or C has somehow, ridiculously, come to represent an ideological position, namely whether someone is 'pro' or 'anti' drugs. Support C and you are part of a sinister Soros-funded conspiracy to legalise drugs and make crack available in school tuck shops, support B and you are a tireless warrior in the crusade to create a drug free world. Meanwhile in the real world classification remains almost entirely irrelevant to young people, dealers, and indeed the police, who still have the flexibility to enforce the laws regards cannabis as they see fit.

Correction 02.11.07:

In the original posting of this blog I claimed that:

In more than twenty cannabis panic features in the IOS since March the BCS figures have never been mentioned.

This claim is incorrect, as I have subsequently spotted that in this article from July 29th 07: The great cannabis debate: 50 top experts confirm mental health risk it is noted that:

The number of 16- to 24-year-olds who smoked cannabis in 2006 has fallen by a quarter since 1998 – the last time the Government published its drug strategy. And among 11- to 15-year-olds cannabis use is also down: 10 per cent of pupils had smoked cannabis last year, down from 13 per cent in 2003, 2002 and 2001.

So even though the figures aren't sourced (the first being from the BCS and the second from the DoH schools survey - both not without flaws), I retract the specific claim, with apologies to the Independent on Sunday.

That said, I don't retract or apologise for Transform blog critiques of all the other skewed, misleading and sensationalist reporting of this issue since March, or the shortsighted editorial analysis and comment that has accompanied it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

FPTV: The War over the War on Drugs

Last month, as reported on the blog, the influential Foreign Policy magazine ran a cover story on drug legalisation by Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance. You can read the full article here and a follow on debate where he is challenged by skeptics (the latter, annoyingly still behind a subscription pay-wall)

Foreign Policy magazine have subsequently produced a series of online videos in which Nadelmann is interviewed, alongside a prohibitionist counterpoint from David Murray, chief scientist at the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. As it is public domain on You Tube, the videos are posted below, in four parts of around 5 minutes each . The FPTV link is here .

Part I: Who's Winning the Drug War?
"We are making major progress," argues Murray, adding, "We and the rest of the civilized world has made this decision: This must be fought." But the drug war is "a long, slow, devastating failure" that is as bad as Vietnam and Iraq, Nadelmann counters.

Part II: The Drug War's Price Tag
How much does the war on drugs cost each year? Nadelmann, who estimates that the tab for the global war on drugs runs as high as $100 billion annually, says the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy is "playing with numbers."

Part III: Can Harm Reduction Work?
These controversial programs could amount to "sustaining people in their continued drug use," Murray contends. Nadelmann likens this argument to saying, "If somebody shoots drugs, better off to let them die."

Part IV: A Legalization Scenario
"The problem isn't the law, Murray says. "The problem is the drug." Nadelmann slams Murray's office as "analogous to the Ministry of Information in the old Stalinist Soviet Union in terms of accuracy and truthfulness."

Drugs prohibition is a 'policy of mass destruction' and the consultation document is a 'dodgy dossier'


Drugs prohibition is a “policy of mass destruction” and the consultation document is a “dodgy dossier”

News release
No Embargo

Date: Monday 22 October 2007

The Government's consultation on the last ten years of its drug strategy and its future, finished last week (Friday 19 October). As part of its submission Transform uses correspondence from officials, previously not in the public domain, to illustrate the Government's knowledge that its support for drugs prohibition creates significant harms. The submission can be read here (pdf)

The submission demonstrates how the Government:

  • manipulated the entire consultation to close down genuine debate on drug policy
  • set the framework in such a way as to have determined the outcome before the consultation had even finished
  • ignored ten years of constant criticism of its drug policy
  • hid internal reports critical of prohibition
  • treats criticism of drug policy with disdain and contempt
  • refuses to evaluate prohibition
  • is a hostage to US inspired geopolitical forces
  • uses drug policy for electioneering

This is despite the fact that the Government admits that prohibition itself is a significant cause of harm. In a letter to Transform's Director Danny Kushlick in Oct 2005, Foreign Office Minister of State the Rt Dr Hon Kim Howells MP wrote:

“Prohibition of course gives rise to illicit trafficking and use and a range of problems associated with those.”

And in a letter to Dr John Marks from the Home Office Direct Communications Unit in September 2007, they admitted that:

“…it is likely that there would be a reduction in acquisitive crime, if drugs were legalised…”

The implication of which is that the Government admits that prohibition creates acquisitive crime. Home Office estimates suggest that crime costs associated with prohibited drugs are about £15 billion a year.

The letter to Dr Marks goes on to say:

“The Government is aware of the arguments for legalising controlled drugs in a regulated way and has concluded that the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits.”

These deliberations on cost benefit analysis have never been made public and, suggest that “arguments” have taken precedence over evidence.

Transform's submission concludes that political parties will not engage in genuine debate and that it is up to individuals from every walk of life to challenge drug policy spin and debate the issue in their workplaces, professional bodies and social circles to avoid another ten years of self inflicted disaster.

Danny Kushlick, Transform Director, said:

“The consultation should have been a thoroughgoing review of the policy making process and the impact that policy has in the everyday world. In the event, it turned out to be a sham. The consultation document is another dodgy dossier. It contained no proposals, breaking one of the fundamental rules for consultations. The document was the most blatant propaganda we have yet seen to support ten more years of prohibition. During the process Gordon Brown announced that cannabis law would be changed and that drugs will never be decriminalised. Lastly, the Government targets were announced, predetermining that the entire framework for future policy development would be unchanged.

“We have an enormous amount of evidence now to show that the Government is in full possession of the facts that the policy of prohibition of currently illegal drugs is the significant driver for harms associated with their production, supply and use. Prohibition is a policy of mass destruction, from Afghanistan and Colombia to London and Liverpool. Transform's submission contains extracts from previously unreleased correspondence from the Foreign Office and the Home Office demonstrating that both departments admit that prohibition causes great harms but that neither are willing to contemplate change. This intransigence is despicable, given the level of chaos and misery associated with the illegal drug market. The correspondence quoted above demonstrates that Government drug policy is explicitly based upon claims to have won an “argument”, rather than evidence. Whilst Government uses primary school debating society rhetoric to decide its drug policy, huge swathes of the global population die or live in misery and degradation as a result.

“In the absence of political parties' willingness to enter into genuine debate, it falls to institutions and individuals outside of government to throw down the gauntlet. Significantly the press has played an enormously valuable role in raising a debate where Westminster has obstinately refused. We believe that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future, until the counterproductive forces of prohibition bring the criminal justice system to its knees and the general public is in possession of the facts and analysis to see through the propaganda that the Government uses to support the status quo.”


Notes for Editors

Transform's submission to the consultation

The letter from the Rt Hon Kim Howells MP can be seen here

The letter to Dr John Marks can be seen here

Transform launches our latest publication ‘After the war on drugs – Tools for the debate' at Portcullis House on Wednesday 24 October. For an invite please email or call 0117 941 5810

‘Drug Policy Unspun: Overwhelming failure' is a briefing produced by Transform to counter the propaganda in the Government's consultation document. It can be seen here

Monday, October 22, 2007

Observer: Drugs strategy debate 'is a sham'


There was an interesting piece in yesterdays Observer newspaper, in which Transform loomed large. The item drew together three separate but related stories; The publication of the report by the Chief Constable of North Wales calling for the legalisation and regulation of drugs; the ending of the drug strategy consultation period and Transform's criticisms of the consultation and review process; and Transform's new publication 'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate' which has its official launch at a Parliamentary reception later this week.

It is a welcome plug for the report and will add pressure on the Government to undertake a more meaningful review of the evidence of the last ten years than the rather preposterous piece of window dressing that we were given in the consultation document. Also look out at the end for a new entry in the all-time top ten stupid Home Office comments on drug policy, wherein we learn that legalisation of drugs can't proceed because it would be against the law. Doh!

Observer: Drugs strategy debate 'is a sham'

Think-tank says prohibition has failed and wants talks on legalisation as Home Office defends ban

Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
Sunday October 21, 2007
The Observer

The government's consultation on a new 10-year drugs strategy is a 'sham', according to one of Britain's leading think-tanks on narcotics, which warns that the current policy is fuelling a crime epidemic.

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the only UK organisation of its kind to advise the United Nations on such issues, will this week publish a new report claiming the current strategy has failed. The report, 'After the War on Drugs: Tools for the Debate', claims there is an urgent need for full consultation on allowing the controlled supply of illegal drugs. 'It is clear our drug policy cannot continue down the same failed path forever,' the report states. 'Prohibition's failure is now widely understood and acknowledged among key stakeholders in the debate... the political benefits of pursuing prohibition are now waning and the political costs of its continuation are becoming unsustainable.'

The report claims that drug prohibition has allowed organised crime to control the market and criminalised millions of users, putting a huge strain on the justice system. The Home Office estimates that half of all property crime is linked to fundraising to buy illegal drugs. The police claim that drug markets are the main driver of the UK's burgeoning gun culture. Official figures released last week showed that drug offences recorded by police had risen 14 per cent in April to June of this year, compared with the same period in 2006.

Politicians claim tough anti-drugs laws send clear signals to society. But Transform points to a Home Office survey, commissioned in 2000, which showed the social and economic costs of heroin and cocaine use were between £10.1 and £17.4 billion - the bulk of which were costs to the victims of drug-related crime.

'Over the course of 10 years, a series of different inquiry reports into UK drugs policy all say the same thing: the policy is malfunctioning,' said Steve Rolles, the report's author. 'They've all been blithely ignored by the government, which insists it is making progess.'

Last week, North Wales Police chief constable Richard Brunstrom said he would 'campaign hard' for drugs such as heroin to be legalised. Previously he has said that drugs laws are out of date and that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be replaced by a new 'Substance Misuse Act'.

Transform claims the consultation process, which finished on Friday, was designed to stifle debate on drugs policy. 'The consultation process has been a sham,' Rolles said. 'It hasn't highlighted any policies to consult on. It's becoming very clear the next 10-year strategy is going to be identical to the last one. The whole idea that there is going to be a radical change is just not the case.'

The think-tank has taken the unusual step of writing to the Better Regulation Executive, set up to ensure government runs smoothly, to complain that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is already making policy before the consultation process had finished.

The Prime Minister signalled earlier this year that the government would reclassify cannabis. He also recently insisted the government would never decriminalise drugs, something Transform argues makes a mockery of the consultation process.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: 'We have undertaken an open consultation and we welcome constructive ideas and views on how we can continue to reduce drug harm. However, the government is emphatically opposed to the legalisation of drugs which would increase drug-related harm and break both international and domestic law.'

Friday, October 19, 2007

Transform in the Guardian's 'comment is free'

Progress prohibited

The government's drug policy over the last decade has comprehensively failed, delivering the exact opposite of its primary aims.

Danny Kushlick

October 18, 2007 2:30 PM

It comes as no surprise that some drug treatment is being administered in an unethical manner, or that government is hyping claims of success for drug treatment. The entire edifice of government drug policy is unethical. It is based upon the lie that criminalisation reduces crime, when, in fact, it creates it. According to its own figures, government-enforced prohibition has resulted in crime costs of over £100bn in the last decade. Prohibition is bound to result in thefts and robberies that arise from the high cost of maintaining an illegal heroin or crack cocaine habit. Rather than the health needs of patients, drug treatment is based on the government's obsession with reducing crime, crime that is created by the official policy of prohibition in the first instance.

As we enter the closing stages of the government's 1998 10-year drug strategy, we had hoped there would be a meaningful review and consultation process, but the document that accompanies the consultation process (which closes on Friday) has spun pernicious failure as overwhelming success. The simple fact is that the UK drug strategy has failed to reduce drug use or drug supply. Class A drug use by young people is at its highest ever level and is the highest in Europe. The use of heroin and cocaine, the drugs identified by the government as causing the most harm, have seen a dramatic rise in use over the last 10 years. At the same time, illegal drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. The strategy has delivered the exact opposite of its primary aims.

Yet the government, preoccupied with partisan law-and-order posturing, remains committed to a drug policy that maximises the harms associated with drug use, that criminalises the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community, that grants a multibillion-pound monopoly in dangerous drugs to gangsters and that dramatically increases the crime harms suffered by our communities. A genuine consultation process would have enabled a meaningful debate to take place on real policy alternatives to the catastrophic failure of prohibition while an honest review of the last 10 years would have provided the empirical basis for that analysis and debate. Tragically, we have had neither. The fact that the government has chosen to spurn meaningful engagement with any new ideas, and put propaganda in place of a real review, can only perpetuate the failures of the past decade.

Guardian Online version, with comments and debate below

DHA publishes drugs strategy consultation submission

The DHA today published its submission to the Government's deeply flawed consultation process. The submission can be read in full here (pdf format) (html format). Below is the accompanying covering letter.

Dear Sir/Madam

Please find enclosed/attached the submission from the Drugs and Health Alliance (DHA) to the Drug Strategy Consultation Paper 2007, Drugs: Our Community, Your Say.

The Drugs and Health Alliance (DHA) is a group of organisations and individuals who support an evidence-based, public health-led approach to dealing with illegal drugs. The consensus statement, to which all the member organisations have signed up to, is available on the DHA website: (please refer to this website for further information and a regularly updated list of member organisations).

The DHA was established in 2006/07 in part to encourage constructive input into the drug strategy review process and related consultation. As stated in the DHA consensus statement, it is our view that problems with UK drug policy ‘are perpetuated by the Government's failure to conduct an evidence based review of the progress of the UK drug strategy and its failure to consult with informed public opinion’. The DHA represents one such body of opinion.

We sincerely believed that the review and consultation process would be a genuine opportunity for open dialogue with key stakeholders, that the successes and failures of the last 10 years would be objectively reviewed, and that actual change in both the focus of policy and decision making infrastructure was a real possibility. This belief was the spur for the formation of the DHA. We have been disappointed to see that the process so far has not met any of these expectations and we have outlined our specific concerns in introduction to our submission.

We make this submission despite these concerns in the hope that the relevant policy makers will give due consideration to its contents. We also hope our concerns about the flawed review and consultation process can be responded to accordingly, by delaying the new strategy publication and instigating a process in line with what everyone in the drugs field had hoped for and expected (regardless of their policy positions).

We aim to continue with the process of engagement and would welcome the opportunity for DHA representatives to meet with relevant officials and ministers to present our ideas for achieving a more just and effective 10 year strategy that puts public health and harm reduction at the heart of policy development and implementation.

Yours faithfully, on behalf of the Drugs and Health Alliance members

Thursday, October 18, 2007

BBC's 'Moral Maze' tackles drug law reform

Following on from Chief Inspector Brunstrom's report last week the BBC's long running series the Moral Maze tackeled the moral issues around illicit drug use and specifically the laws that criminalise it.

You can listen to the broadcast (45 minutes) here (requires media player)

From the Moral Maze Webpage:

The Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom is notable for his enthusiastic prosecution of speeding motorists. This week he's turned his attention to the problem of drugs. You might expect a police officer with his credentials to be calling for tougher action; after all it's estimated in Britain that drugs and the crime related to their use, cost £16 billion pounds a year. But no. Mr Brunstrom wants drugs to be legalised. The war on drugs has been lost, he says and it's time to come up with a more radical solution.

When you look at the figures he might have a point. Despite all the money spent on prohibition, the worldwide narcotics business is worth $177 billion dollars a year. Only the oil industry beats it. But, illegal narcotics kill hundreds of people in Britain every year and inflict a life of misery on many thousands more.

In the face of all the human suffering that drug-taking causes, is it immoral to just admit defeat? Melanie Phillips, Ian Hargreaves, Claire Fox and Professor Jules Pretty cross-examine the experts.

Developing and implementing more effective policy responses to problematic drug use doesn't seem like defeat to me, more like progress. It only appears so when it is couched in the context of misplaced 'drug war' rhetoric, but there you go.

The program is a good one as far as media drug debates go because of the high caliber of the participants and the fact that enough time is given to explore some of the issues in more depth than much sound-bite media allows.

In response to Brunstrom's arguments Mel P does her familiar righteous indignation, bolstered with her own curious take on facts. She claims, wrongly, that countries with harsher enforcement have lower drug problems (there is no clear correlation) , and also somehing about how three quarters of children mudered in the US being 'because of cocaine'. Brunstrom can only respond to Phillips unique personal understanding of factual reality by noting she is wrong and moving on.

Phillips gets so worked up by Jamie Whyte (arguing a libertarian position) that Micheal Burke has to intervene. Whyte dares to suggest that some drug use may actually be beneficial (on a cost benefit analysis to the user) thereby challenging one of the central pillars of the moral objection to legalisation; that all drug use is intrinsically unacceptable. Whyte also suggests that there is a moral equivalence between consensual adult risk taking behaviours that involve illegal drugs and consensual risk taking adult behaviours that involve dangerous sports, like mountaineering, or indeed legal drugs, like alcohol. It's a controversial position to put forward, and whilst it riles Phillips and others, it's interesting that none of the panelists make a worthy counter-argument.

Old Transform sparring partner, and occasional blog poster David Raynes also makes an appearance but doesn't contribute a great deal as his position is essentially the same as that of Melanie Phillips. He clearly had one point he wanted to make about the writings John Stewart Mill and fails to engage usefully when challenged beyond that.

A bereaved mother also appears but whilst relating her own personal tragedy (her son died of an overdose) she is unable to grasp the point made to her by Claire Fox (who supports the Brunstrom view) that moral positions and cultural norms that are firmly opposed to drug use could be developed outside of a prohibitionist framework.

All interesting stuff and a welcome contribution to the debate. If you want to weigh in with your own views there is a BBC online discussion forum here. Currently the views expressed are almost all pro-reform. Come on prohibitionists - where are you? Its hard to have a debate without someone to argue against.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

U.S encourages drug offenders to choose the army instead of college

A new short film on youtube produced by US based Students for Sensible Drug Policy highlights one of the more distressing outcomes of the when the US war on drugs collides with education policy and a crisis in military recruitment. The Military has changed its rules to make it easier for drug offenders to enlist... whilst the aid elimination penalty of the Higher Education Act denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. That's right, the federal government thinks drug users don't belong in college, but has no problem sending them to fight in foreign wars.

thanks to SSDP and

Monday, October 15, 2007

North Wales Police Authority endorse call for the legalisation and regulation of drugs

Transform Drug Policy Foundation news release
15th October 07
no Embargo

North Wales Police Authority endorse call for the legalisation and regulation of drugs

North Wales Police Authority have endorsed a report from the North Wales Chief Constable that calls for the repeal of drugs prohibition and its replacement with an effective system of legal regulation and control for all drugs.

The report, which argues that the current system is ‘unworkable and immoral’, has had its three first recommendations endorsed by the Police Authority today:

2.1 That the Authority submits a response to the current Home Office consultation on drugs strategy.

2.2 That the Authority submits a response to the forthcoming Welsh Assembly Government consultation on the all Wales substance misuse strategy.

2.3 That the Authority urges the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its replacement with a Misuse of Substances Act, based upon a new ‘hierarchy of harm’ that includes alcohol and nicotine.

The fourth recommendation; for the Police Authority to affiliate to Transform, is pending discussions between the Authority and Transform:

2.4 That the Authority seeks affiliation to Transform Drug Policy Foundation which campaigns for the repeal for prohibition and its replacement with a legal system of regulation and control.

Transform director Danny Kushlick said

“It is hugely significant that the call for a legal regulation and control of drugs has now been publicly supported by the North Wales police authority, and they are to be congratulated in taking a bold stand in this urgent and vital debate. There are many high profile individuals who support this position but this sort of institutional support really puts the debate centre stage. We hope to see other police authorities following their lead and we look forward to the Police Authority affiliating to Transform in the near future.

“The Government have tried their best to avoid this debate in the current drug strategy consultation and review process, not engaging with any policy alternatives despite the obvious failings of the current approach that the North Wales police highlight so clearly. The call from the North Wales Police Authority makes the continued evasion from meaningful debate impossible: the Government must now engage with the significant and growing body of mainstream opinion calling for pragmatic moves away from prohibition towards evidence based regulatory alternatives.£


Notes to editors

Read the full report from North Wales Chief constable Richard Brunstrom here

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Police drug debate catches fire

more to follow during the day....

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Drugs prohibition is 'unworkable and immoral' says Chief Constable

Press Release from Transform Drug Policy Foundation
10.30am October 10 2007
no embargo

Drugs prohibition is “unworkable and immoral” says Chief Constable

The Chief Constable of North Wales Police Richard Brunstorm, recommends in a report published today, that his Police Authority officially support his call for the legalisation and regulation of drugs, as part of their submission to the drug strategy consultation being conducted by the Government. He also recommends that they affiliate to Transform Drug Policy Foundation. The Authority meets on Monday 15 October to discuss the recommendations.

Danny Kushlick, Transform Director said:

"We are absolutely delighted at Mr Brunstrom’s paper. The Chief Constable has displayed great leadership and imagination in very publicly calling for a drug policy that replaces the evident failings of prohibition with a legal system of regulation and control for potentially dangerous drugs”.

“Mr Brunstrom’s call is less surprising when you consider that prohibition, and the illegal markets it creates, is the single largest cause of crime in the UK, generating £100 billion in crime costs alone over the last ten years. As a senior policeman he has witnessed first hand the counter productive effects of abdicating responsibility for this dangerous trade to unregulated and often violent criminals. His call for drug markets to be brought back within the sphere of Government control stands in enlightened contrast to the populist law and order posturing of our Prime Minister, who recently announced that ‘drugs are never going to be decriminalised’.”

“The current Government consultation on the drug strategy has inexplicably ruled out any discussion of alternatives to prohibition, despite the policy’s systematic failure over a number of decades. Mr Brunstrom’s paper puts these pragmatic alternatives firmly back on the table, where they should be, if a meaningful debate about ‘what works’ is to be entertained. It is to be hoped that the Police Authority support the Chief Constable’s recommendations and that other Police Authorities seriously examine the impact of enforcing prohibition. It signals the start of a renewed critique of prohibition, which Mr Brunstrom’s paper describes as ‘both unworkable and immoral’ and should force the Home Office and indeed Government to take the issue far more seriously than it has until now. An enormous amount of respect is due to the Chief Constable for supporting a ‘pragmatic and ethical’ policy, despite its taboo nature in front line party politics. Those that denounce him should be wary of relying on what Mr Brunstrom calls ‘moralistic dogma’.”

Notes for Editors:

The drugs paper was announced on the North Wales Police Blog:

The full paper is available in pdf here

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Council of Europe adopts convention on promoting public health in drug control

The Council of Europe, representing 47 member states and a population of over 800 million people, has adopted a convention on promoting public health policy in drug control. This move marks a very positive evolution in international drug policy thinking; away from the heavy handed enforcement focus of old school prohibition, towards an more evidence based public health focus for future pan-European policy. The full text is reproduced below.

Whilst the convention's power is essentially rhetorical, it is reassuring that the broad thrust of the convention has been supported by UK, Sweden and other traditionally more dogmatic / enforcent oreiented European states (although some compromise is evident - in terms of supporting enforcement e.g. point 11.8 - there's also a clear acknowledgement in the preamble that supply side efforts have been costly and ineffective and that a public health and harm reduction paradigm should be the focus of future policy).

The convention arrives at a timely moment in the evolution of both domestic and international drug policy with the UK and UN's ten year strategies being held up to scrutiny and a window of opportunity opening for new thinking to help shape the next ten year strategies. The convention is also a welcome endorsement for the Drugs and Health Alliance with which it shares many core principles.

For a European convention on promoting public health policy in drug control

Resolution 1576 (2007)1

1. Drug addiction is a complex biological, psychological and societal problem. Scientific research and practical experience have made it possible to broaden our knowledge of it. Increasingly, this improved knowledge allows the implementation of a drugs policy focused on preserving public health, for individual addicts and for society. Although many scientific questions concerning dependency remain unanswered, the aspects linked to public health, the effectiveness of prevention and of medical treatments and improved protection of society against the resulting health risks are now better known.

2. Since the late 1960s, considerations of public health have played an increasing role in pragmatic, evidenced-based drug policy-making in many member states of the Council of Europe. The right to health provides the cornerstone principle on which such considerations are based. This right is recognised in the Council of Europe acquis (Articles 11 and 13 of the Revised European Social Charter) as well as in numerous other international and regional human rights treaties. It grants every individual the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, defined by the World Health Organization as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.

3. A number of key public health responses to “problem drug use” have emerged in past decades, including substitution treatment, needle exchange programmes and psychosocial treatment. These measures have had a marked effect on the successful long-term rehabilitation of drug users and their reintegration into society. The resultant benefits have been felt by society as a whole, through reductions in the incidence of criminal behaviour, reduced costs for health and criminal justice systems, reduced risks of transmission of HIV and other blood-borne viruses, increased productivity and ultimately reduced drug use levels.

4. However, these responses have so far been employed only on a fragmentary basis across Europe. This is despite the fact that their utility and cost-effectiveness is now widely documented. According to estimates cited by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), for example, every dollar invested in opioid dependence treatment programmes may yield a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft alone. When savings related to health care are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1.

5. Moreover, recent world trends have provided additional proof of the abject failure of efforts to reduce the production and supply of drugs. The current illegal drugs market in Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of heroin, provides ample evidence of the ineffectiveness to address the drugs problem in a comprehensive manner. Despite six years of military action to restrict the poppy crops in the country, the United Nations have confirmed that poppy crop production in Afghanistan has increased by 60% for the year 2006-2007 compared to the previous year.

6. Steps being taken in the European Union as part of the EU Drugs Strategy 2005-12 aim to achieve a high level of health protection by complementing EU member states’ action in preventing and reducing drug use and dependence and drug-related harm to health and society. In particular, the strategy places a high priority on improving access to a range of public health orientated responses that can reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with drug dependence. However, it is clear that special efforts need to be taken in relation to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where political and infrastructural obstacles have hindered the implementation of such responses. The escalating HIV/AIDS pandemic in these regions provides an added urgency to this imperative: 80% of HIV cases with a known route of transmission in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are due to injecting drug use.

7. The geographic sphere of influence of the Council of Europe makes it the ideal forum to undertake such efforts and send an unequivocal signal giving a framework to its member states to develop public health-orientated responses to problem drug use. In pursuit of this end, which has been emphasised by the Pompidou Group and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Parliamentary Assembly calls upon member states to work together to design a convention promoting public health policy in drug control. This convention should complement existing legal instruments in the areas of drug control, human rights and public health. It should consolidate scientific and medical knowledge in a framework document which may form the basis for the design of national drug strategies.

8. The Council of Europe convention should be predicated on the following three inter-related objectives to:

8.1. promote, as a fundamental human right, the right to health in the context of problem drug use;

8.2. clarify the scope of the right to health as it applies to problem drug use;

8.3. help identify good practices for the operation of the right to health as it applies to problem drug use, at the community, national and international levels.

9. In pursuit of these objectives, the convention, which should be complementary to the existing framework of national drug policies, should incorporate the following four elements:

9.1. prevention and education, including measures targeting the special needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups;

9.2. treatment, covering a range of treatment methods, including substitution treatment and needle exchange programmes, and incorporating a psychosocial component as integral to the various treatment methods;

9.3. rehabilitation and social reintegration, including treatment alternatives to imprisonment and labour market rehabilitation;

9.4. monitoring and evaluation, aimed at identifying best practices.

10. Insofar as many of the negative consequences of drug use are felt at local levels, the convention should also seek to reaffirm the principle of subsidiarity, by encouraging consideration of the ways that more local government agencies may act effectively. In this way, it is intended that health-driven drug policy responses be guided by scientific evidence as well as local conditions.

11. In order to promote the effective implementation of the convention, the Assembly calls on member states to:

11.1. extend the scope of drug demand reduction programmes, assess them and disseminate the best practices assessed;

11.2. improve access to prevention programmes in schools and make them more effective;

11.3. improve prevention methods and the detection of risk factors in certain target groups, especially young people, as well as the dissemination of these data to the professionals in order to implement early intervention programmes;

11.4. ensure that targeted treatment, re-education and social reintegration programmes are available and accessible. These programmes should incorporate tested psychosocial and pharmacological strategies, and include drug addicts not reached by existing services with particular attention being paid to specialised services for young people, and rehabilitation of drug addicts in the labour market;

11.5. develop further alternatives to imprisonment for addicts and the setting-up of prevention, treatment and reintegration services for prisoners;

11.6. improve access to harm reduction services and treatment and set up programmes preventing the propagation of the AIDS virus, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases and endeavour to reduce the number of drug-related deaths;

11.7. encourage research into the factors underlying dependency and such questions as the effects of certain drugs and effective health measures;

11.8. implement operational enforcement programmes in order to reduce the production of heroin, cocaine and cannabis, as well as synthetic drugs and trade in them, in particular by devising operational joint programmes, collecting intelligence on third countries involved in manufacturing and trading in such drugs, sharing best practice and exchanging information;

11.9. devise and implement measures targeted at money laundering and the seizure and re-use of financial products connected with drugs, in particular through exchanges of information and best practices;

11.10. encourage co-operation with international organisations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the EMCDDA, as well as with civil society and community groups from areas most affected by problem drug use;

11.11. encourage the creation, in national parliaments, of mechanisms and structures which promote public health responses to problem drug use in the national context, such as all-party parliamentary groups;

11.12. provide appropriate financial support.

1 Assembly debate on 3 October 2007 (33rd Sitting) (see Doc. 11344, report of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, rapporteur: Mr Flynn). Text adopted by the Assembly on 3 October 2007 (33rd Sitting).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Czech Republic moves towards decriminalisation

So whilst Gordon Brown rules out decriminalising possession of drugs (for ever), and states that he plans to reclassify cannabis before even waiting to hear from his own policy consultation process or the ACMD, the list of more enlightened countries moving in the opposite direction continues to grow...

Drug use debate lights up
By Eva Munková
The Prague Post (Czech Republic)
October 3rd, 2007

Lawmakers are considering lower penalties for small-scale recreational drug growers under a Criminal Code change that decriminalizes recreational drug use.

If the new Criminal Code passes, marijuana growers would face six months in jail if they produce more than an amount deemed to be for their own use. Anyone who makes drugs or possesses them in certain quantities can go to jail for one to five years if caught under the current law.The idea behind the amendment is to separate recreational drug users from “the black market,” says Justice Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Kuncová.

Police officers will still have the same abilities to arrest dealers if the new rules pass, Kuncová says, because the rules related to the criminal manufacture or sale of drugs are essentially unaltered by the code. Under the proposed new rules, penalties would be more lenient for
possession or cultivation of “light” drugs such as marijuana for individual use, but remain strict for possession or sale of hard drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin.

Possession, manufacture, transport or sale of both light and hard drugs would continue to be regarded as a criminal activity, with penalties of up to 15 years in jail if leading to injury or death. This is not the first time lawmakers have addressed the drug penalty issue.

Similar changes were suggested as part of a revised Criminal Code in 2005 under the government of former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, but legislators shot down the entire package. Lawmakers first made cultivation and possession of any amount of drugs a criminal offense in 1999, said Josef Radimecký, a former member of the government commission
that penned the original amendment.

“The professional public saw this as a step backward from the trend in the European Union, but the politicians saw it otherwise,” Radimecký said. But far from lowering the amount of marijuana found on the streets, the tougher approach seemed to make things worse, according to a government study on the effects of the new policy conducted one year later.

Small-scale cultivators with so-called wild plots on the edges of fields or forests, whose plants had a far lower THC content, turned to organized dealers, whose products were much stronger,” Radimecký says. “The result was a merger of the light and heavy drug markets.” Based on the study, lawmakers decided to separate drugs into “light” and “hard” categories, leading to proposed amendments.

In trying to lighten penalties for individual use of marijuana, the Czech Republic is joining a broader trend toward decriminalization across Western countries, including the United States.

“Thirty years ago, it was common to find people serving 10- to 25-year sentences for just the possession of a personal amount of marijuana,” said Keith Stroup, Legal Counsel of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), a U.S. marijuana advocacy group.

Not everyone is happy with the proposed changes, however. “When people start using light drugs, they gradually want to try new ones — to seek out new and different experiences,” said Petr Ministr, head of the local branch of Teen Challenge, an international faith-based organization that deals with addiction. “I am firmly convinced that there is a continuum.”

Stroup insists there is no such correlation in users moving from lighter drugs to heavier drugs over time. “When someone buys a bag of marijuana, the guy who’s selling it to him is taking a big felony risk. He’s got an incentive to sell him harder drugs that he makes a higher profit on,” Stroup says. “If you created a legal market for marijuana like you did for alcohol after the prohibition, we would separate it from this black market.”

Monday, October 01, 2007

Israel moves towards decriminalising drug posession

In stark contrast to the populist tough-on-drugs bidding war currently consuming UK policy thinking in the run up to the (probably) imminent election, over in Israel, a traditionally far more conservative country than here, the general inspector of the Israeli Police, Dudi Cohen, has announced that police will no longer arrest first-time drug users in an effort to refocus drug law enforcement. The move comes as Israeli police reported they made more than 16,000 drug possession arrests and more than 8,000 drug sales arrests last year. The move appears to have a similar motivation to some police calls for the de-prioritisation or de-penalisation of possession offences in the UK: they are a drain on resources that produce no tangible benefits.

Israeli drug use levels are generally in line with those of Europe and North America. According to the UN Office on Drug Control's 2007 World Drug Report, 8.5% of Israelis smoke marijuana in a given year, placing them just below the more pot-friendly European nations (Cyprus, 14.1%; Italy and Spain, 11.2%; Switzerland 9.6%), as well as the US (12.6%) and Canada (16.8%). But for cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and ecstasy, Israeli usage levels hover squarely in the Western middle, with prevalence rates around 1%.

The shift in enforcement will begin with a pilot program for juvenile offenders, police said. The announcement came days after a widely-viewed documentary critical of the futility of the drug war appeared on Israeli television.

Also similar to the now abandoned clause 2 of UK 2005 drugs Act, under the new Israeli policy, people caught with "personal use" quantities of illegal drugs for the first time will be documented, but not arrested. (The quantities idea was abandoned in the UK on the grounds of its impracticality). In Israel the quantities are proposed to be set as follows:

Cannabis (herbal)
15 grams
Cannabis (resin)
15 grams
Opium 2 grams
LSD 3 stamps
Ecstasy 3 pills
Cocaine 0.3 grams
Heroin 0.3 grams

Sounding very similar to much UK police rhetoric Cohen said: "We are not talking about the legalisation of drugs," ... "But we will focus on the dealers and not the consumers."

"The General Inspector prefers to dry up the swamp instead of killing the mosquitoes one at a time," elaborated a senior officer in Intelligence and Investigations, the department which Cohen leads. "The system's new attitude toward users won't affect the popular drug use trends. Traditionally, when we stopped a student we caught for a first-time offense, he'd be delayed, brought to the station in a police car and would wait to be dealt with until a police officer was available to process his case; he'd endure a long interrogation and finally we'd look for a responsible party to come bail him out. The result was almost an entire day of police work dedicated to a file that would almost never lead to an indictment."

That amounted to a "useless investment" of police time, the officer said. Prosecuting all those drug cases resulted in a flood of cases for prosecutors that clogged the courts and took years to resolve, he added. Besides, he said, first-time drug offenders could be scared enough by police contact alone to change their ways. For those who don't, there is always the criminal justice system. "For most of those caught for the first-time, any contact with the police creates fear, explained the officer. When it comes to someone who's not a first-time offender, but that this is his way of life, we will prosecute him to the full extent of the law because he might drive under the influence or steal to pay for his drug use."

While the Green Leaf Party, which seeks cannabis legalisation, welcomed the development, it was doubtful about the impact of the new policy and vowed to continue to work for an end to prohibition in the Jewish state.

"It is not clear to us that this will benefit marijuana users in any way, as once you've been stopped once, the second time they are free to arrest you," said Michelle Levine, a Green Leaf spokesperson. "They claim they are doing this to get the focus back on the distributors, though they've never focused on the distributors before. Furthermore, the police statement acknowledges that they will still interrogate first-time offenders when stopping them and recording their details for future interactions. That means they may ask them who their distributors are -- pressuring them to give names. The only difference at all is the first time a smoker is caught by the police with a small quantity, he will not actually be taken down to the station or charged, as is now the case," she said.

Green Leaf will continue to work for legalisation, said Levine. "The Green Leaf Party is very busy with many projects right now, as we're organizing the 2nd Joint Arab Israeli Conference for Marijuana Policy and Peace, but we will not let up on the police for wasting taxpayer money on the drug war and we will not let up on our elected officials while nonviolent patriotic citizens rot in jail for marijuana offenses."

The Israeli police, for their part, will continue to fight drug trafficking. A new unit for the Negev region will work to seal the Jordanian border, which police describe as the major drug terminal for heroin and hashish being trafficked from Afghanistan. Another unit patrolling the Lebanese border will be reformed to concentrate on blocking Lebanese hash, as well as Afghan heroin and South American cocaine.

Story from Drug War Chronicles (some small edits)