Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the ACMD cannabis decision: stay in class C

I attended the ACMD cannabis classification hearings on February 5th. There were 23 speakers in all, representing opinion and expertise from a range of fields relevant to the issue (see the whole list here). There were speakers from mental heath charities (Rethink and Sane) , a range of speakers on cannabis potency, cannabis and mental health, cannabis and lung damage, cannabis and driving, cannabis policy and law, as well as parents of cannabis users. It was comprehensive to the point of tedium; I was there for the whole occasionally interesting but generally rather miserable day and if there is a condition called power point induced psychosis, I was in danger of suffering it by nightfall. It was also in the grisly Excel conference center in the middle of nowhere, a magnificent 25 tube stops from my house.


There was even more evidence heard away from the public eye the following day (apparently unpublished draft research not for public dissemination), and of course the ACMD itself represents a considerable body of expertise. On top of all this were the written submissions from the speakers, and many others besides, which constituted four terrifying inch-think black ring-bound volumes. The committee (of around forty) spent three days in session and were expected to have read through all the written submissions in advance. It didn’t strike me a trifling exercise.


By contrast, reading an account of the ACMD hearings by David Raynes, old Transform sparring partner, occasional blog contributer, and representative of the NDPA, you would be excused for thinking the entire event was some sort of illuminati style plot, staged by a corrupt committee whose mind was already made up, and that the ACMD chair was guilty of ‘loading the witnesses with legalisers’ as head of some sinister pro-pot conspiracy (as also espoused by Melanie Philips in the Spectator ) .

The reality is somewhat different. Of the 23 speakers I was the only speaker, as the representative of Transform, nominally advocating for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, but since this was not an issue on the agenda I only addressed it tangentially (although I did comment on the issue in Transform's written submission). I described what we see as the political context for the decision to revisit cannabis reclassification (for the third time in six years), and called for the ACMD to stay focused on a scientific review of cannabis harms and not get drawn by the partisan political gamesmanship and tabloid scaremongering. (If anyone wants my speech – let me know and ill send it to you, but it was essentially a distillation of the written submission, minus the stuff about legal regulation). My specific calls were that:

  • In the short term the ACMD maintain their long held position that cannabis should be a class C drug under the current system.

  • That the ACMD call for or undertake the long promised review of the intellectual and empirical basis for the drug classification system more broadly, and review its effectiveness on key policy indicators

  • That they complain about the process bywhich which the PM requested the ACMD review then made a series of clear statements on his intent to reclassify before the ACMD has reported

  • That the ACMD deliberations consider the specific harms created by prohibition and enforcement and the punitive criminal justice approoach more generally, and disentangle these from the harms created by drug use per se. Specifically; prohibition related crime, the mass criminalisation of young - often vulnerable - individuals, and the exacerbation of drug harms to users (when produced and supplied through illicit channels).

Proffessor Lenton from Australia, according to Rayne’s account a co-conspirator of mine in perverting proceedings (‘is Lenton a closet legaliser cloaked in fine words, hiding his real intentions?’), spoke about the impacts of the civil penalty scheme in Western Australia, contrasting its impacts with other states that maintain the more familiar criminal penalty approach to cannabis offenses. His clearly made conclusion: that there were no obvious benefits but measurable social costs to the criminal penalty approach, was fascinating but in no way a call for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis markets, or even a discussion of it. It usefully demonstrated how a return to arrest and prosecution for cannabis possession did not suggest the prospect of positive criminal justice or public health outcomes. Lenton advocated a public health approach based on effective targeted education and prevention. It all seemed pretty sensible and uncontroversial stuff, and he was the only speaker to get a round of applause.

Rayne's disappointingly condemns Lenton by association (with some people he apparently doesn’t like or agree with), and questions why he was a speaker at all. Perhaps it was because he is a respected professor, extensively published academic expert on the subject and leading thinker in the field who can bring some international perspective to the debate - which has become somewhat blinkered and parochial over here in the UK? Or maybe because he is Soros-funded pro-pot Aussie infiltrator hell bent on corrupting the youth of Britain? You tell me.

Some also felt it inappropriate that Transform were present, like the journalist from the IOS (representing Jonathan Owen) who asked me only one question, nothing to do with drug policy: why had Transform been given a platform? It seemed an odd question, but my answer was that we represented an important constituency in the debate (somewhere between 30 and 58% of the population support legalisation/regulation of cannabis if the IPSOS MORI speaker was to be believed) and the ACMD were just doing their job in representing a variety of views in the field. I had no problem with Debra Bell, SANE, ACPO and others being there even if I disagreed with there position and thought that some of their presentations were a bit weak, and in Bell's case - pitched for entirely the wrong audience (a day-time TV approach for a group of scientists was never going to work). But this was an open session reviewing various – often conflicting - evidence and perspectives. If there were voices missing from the presentation line up they were arguably:

  • those of the majority of cannabis consumers whose use is occasional, moderate and not causing them or anyone else significant problems,
  • people who have been criminalised for cannabis possession and suffered unduley as a result,
  • or mothers of problem cannabis users – like Helen Sello (who was in the audience but not given a platform) – who think that a punitive criminal justice approach is entirely counterproductive and the focus should be on public health education.

But let’s be clear: I didn't talk about legalisation, Lenton didn't talk about legalisation. The legalisation question was barely touched on, only being alluded to briefly on a couple of occasions during the day, with references to the Dutch tolerance model (which isn’t technically legalisation anyway, and besides was raised by the Speaker from SANE who advocated a move back to B). Legalisation was barely mentioned for one simple reason: for better or worse this was a discussion about cannabis harms and classification harm rankings. Much as I think the ACMD should hold a similar session looking at the legalisation/regulation debate - this wasn't it. The proposed change in harm rankings and associated change in related penalties is nothing to do with the legalisation debate - why I found Rayne's piece especially baffling. If some of the defenders of the status quo saw reclassification as the first crack in the citadel of prohibition from the ‘pro-drugs lobby’ (?) that's their business, but it is a view non-congruent with reality and nothing whatsoever to do with what was being discussed on Feb 5th.

Media

I’m not paranoid enough to think it was a conspiracy of course, but myself and Prof. Lenton had our presentations timed for the end of the day so all the journalists had left to go and fill their copy before the evening deadlines and we achieved (a very non-sinister) zero coverage the following day. I probably should have done a press release, still, I did get an invite to go on radio Five Live the previous night but couldn't make it. There was a lot of journalists there but, rather like Raynes, you sensed many had arrived not to really listen and analyse, but rather to filter the day’s information to fit a preconceived narrative, or just trawl for the juiciest panic headline. When skunk or psychosis was mentioned all the journos seemed to perk up and start scribbling. The coverage ranged from OK (the Guardian) to dismal (the Daily Mail), mostly focused on an morning presentations about the proportion of ‘skunk’ now found in police raids, reported to be 70% - 80% (not that police raids necessarily represent the market but anyway). The suggestion made by myself and others that the economics of unregulated markets was fueling this increasing prevalence of stronger cannabis went unreported.


The Times won the bad reporting oscar, scraping the tabloid barrel (not for the first time) with a ludicrous bit of sensationalism, leading, on its front page with the headline that ‘Cannabis dealers prey on Hospitals’, stemming from one brief comment from a speaker on cannabis and mental health treatment. It probably warrants a blog all of its own, but needless to say, Rethink and others have identified and talked about this (completely non-shocking nor surprising) issue for years.


General thoughts on the day

One theme I noticed throughout the day, even amongst the many speakers who wanted to see cannabis moved back to B, was a desire not to see more young people criminalised. Whilst welcome it seemed odd, given that the result of a move back to B would achieve precisely this, but there it was, from ACPO, from several of the Mums, from the Magistrates representative, and even from David Raynes. Yet it is also an unavoidably contradictory position and one that highlights the wider problems with a classification system that ties the harm rankings to a hierarchy of penalties. The only logical solution would appear to be what the Science and Technology committee recommended and ‘decouple’ the classifications from penalties in some way, but quite where this would lead isn’t clear. The ABC system is built around and exists to establish the hierarchy of penalties and doesn’t really serve any other useful purpose; it offers no practical public health benefits in terms of education, or if you like ‘sending out messages’, (even ‘unequivocal’ ones). It was a point raised several times in the day, not least from me; that there’s no evidence that changes in classification have any impact on use or overall harm.


The obvious answer for those who want to send out honest and effective messages about cannabis risks, especially if they are increasing (which I think we can safely assume includes everyone) is to use proven public health education and targeted prevention strategies. The B/C debate seems entirely pointless, and as Rethink pointed out, is a distraction from the more important challenges around how best to address the harm cannabis can cause.


I don’t think for a second that the ACMD will change their views in cannabis classification, but not because the evidence sessions were inadequate or manipulated by the evil pro-pot legalisation lobby, but rather because the ACMD don’t think there is significant new evidence on cannabis harms to emerge in the last 2 years that changes their long held view that it should be in Class C based on relative harms. Not harmless, just less harmful than say, amphetamines. The evidence at the hearings was comprehensive and mostly excellent, but I genuinely don’t think there was anything on the table that wasn’t there 2 years ago. If the committee seemed occasionally exasperated then that’s probably why, we are talking about 40 very busy and highly trained people spending 3-4 days of their own (unpaid) time on what was essentially a pointless political exercise.


What the Government will do when the ACMD report back in favour of Class C is hard to say. To go against the ACMD would be unprecedented and leave them horribly exposed as populist and unscientific, with any last vestige of us having an evidence based drug policy in tatters. The Government after all hand picked the ACMD in the first place. So I suspect the ACMD call will be used as an opportunity to step away from the debate again with moral credentials intact probably in tandem with an announcement on a big education push cannabis risks to show they are ‘doing something’.


In the meantime cannabis users will carry on using, the unregulated illegal market will carry on making lots of untaxed profits for often unsavory characters whilst maximising harms, and all the moral grandstanding, tabloid scaremongering political posturing – that has been going on for longer than I’ve been alive - will have got us precisely nowhere.


Maybe now we can have a debate about models for the legal regulation of cannabis, based on evidence of effectiveness, proven harm reduction initiatives and established public health principles? Or maybe not.



7 comments:

Peter @ Eden Lodge said...

No surprises in your comments Steve. Judging by what others who were there have said, I think, David got it right, nor do i think he was in anwyay uncomplimentary towards you.

Lets face it Rawlings does not want to regrade cannabis, he would like to legalise it.

We both know that the evidence of the dangers of cannabis were known prior to when it was downgraded,and what has emerged since merely confirms what was known then, but the ACDM chose either to ignore it or suppress it.

You and I also know that rarely is cannabis used as a stand alone drug, and that the common combination with alcohol, not to mention other drugs is deadly.

What really puzzles me Steve is that given the similar physical damage casued by smoking cannabis and ordinary cigarettes, is why you want to legalise the former which also causes mental problems, but are so much in favour of the restrictions that have been put on smoking?

Regards,

Peter Eden Lodge Practice

Anonymous said...

No Steve you cannot have the debate you call for, you have had it already, ad nauseam, and one time supporters have deserted you in droves. Transform and others have been talking about legalisation of all drugs since the mid 90s. Society is not going to keep giving you this debate until you get the answers you want. It is not on any forseeable agenda of any party likely to form a UK Government. You have lost that debate. You also seemed confused and surprised when I discussed the criminality point with you, you repeat that confusion above. The move back to B is certainly NOT about "locking up" users, it is about signalling the real harms of cannabis. It is part of the education you pretend to call for. Nor would a move back to Class B actually MEAN "locking up" users. You know full well that imprisonment for just personal use of any drug hardly happens in the UK because of sentencing guidelines and precedent. I and others have said, the UK cannot arrest it's way out of our current drug use problems (legal or illegal drugs). Cannabis should never have been downgraded, you admitted almost as much, it is more harmful than you thought, you said. So YOU were wrong, (why should anyone listen to you now). Well then, is it not right to share that information with the world, with potential users and with their parents? What are you so frightened of? Could it be that you actually WANT more users? For young people whose human potential is damaged forever by cannabis use (and there are too many of them), cannabis is in many ways a Class A drug in terms of total-harm effects. Class B is where it was, it is where it belongs under the UK system, (much as I dislike the system). You also are bright enough to understand that your legalisation model would not remove criminal supply. You understand the demand for something stronger (which we see being played out now) and for supply to those outside age restrictions. I am astonished that you still persist with this failed idea. Drugs use in any society is controlled by laws and/or social taboos. Never in human experience has removal of laws or taboos against drug use led to a decrease in total use. If total use increases, so does total harm. There is an intellectual discconnection in your approach.

Steve R said...

Hi Peter

I don't think i said David was uncomplimentary, and i hope I haven't been uncomplimentary to him. As he's said, we get on very well, but regardless of that I disagree with his position and have responded to his account with one of my own - pointing out that it didn't strike me as the corrupt legalisers convention he portrayed it as. Its a debate, and this is a demoncracy. David is free to have his view and I'm free to respond - nothing new there. We've been having this debate for years.

If Rawlins of the ACMD want to legalise cannabis they have certainly never made that clear to us. I assure you we only get slots at these things by relentless pestering and have no direct line to ACMD, nice as that might be. They have repeatedly refused our requests for someone from transform to sit on the Committee. If theres a conspiracy, they haven't told us about it. Anyway - the hearings weren't about legalisation and as i have made clear, I didn't raise the subject and nor did any one else.

I agree about poly-drug use - just another reason why the classification system offers little or nothing in terms of public health education utility. I have written about this very point in various briefings all on the Transform website (Policy/ Briefings). I have also been very clear about cannabis harms in all three of my briefings to the ACMD classification reviews. Also on the Transform site.

My position re tobacco is completely consistent. I want to see cannabis properly legally regulated and I want to see tobacco properly legally regulated. For the former that means bringing into the legal sphere so regulation is possible, for the latter that means stricter regulation than we have had in the past. I have never called for outright prohibition of tobacco or criminalisation of its users, but any legal regulatory framework will involve some activities (eg sales to minors, public consumption licensed premises , hours of opening etc) that remain prohibited. Ive written about these st in more detail the cannabis alcohol and tobacco sections of the recent 'Tools for the Debate' Transform publication which is available as pdf on the website. Interested to hear your thoughts as ever.

john-boi said...

Society may not want the debate about legalisation of drugs. It has been fed much unfounded propaganda around this issue to make it political suicide except for some enlightened back benchers.
But it really is the only answer as we see almost 40 years of persuing a failed drugs policy.
If we seek to reduce harm to our citizens then within the current framework whatever class a drug is has very little relevance to its users.
The downgrading of Cannabis has proved one thing that public health information has a definate affect on use its declining use is not due to its downgrading but the surrounding reefer madness reporting.Note the use of Class A cocaine rose during this period.
For me its an issue of personal freedom, that I may choose to use Cannabis in the privacy of my own home hurting noone and certainly with less risk to my health than the legal drugs alcohol and tobaoco. Whatever hope the prohibtion lobby may have the stark fact is that drugs are here to stay we will never have a drug free society. What we need to do is make sure that we treat our citizens as intelligent responsible citizens and those who choose to use drugs are presented with education and information and empowered to make informed decisions.Some of our citizens when presented with this information may eschew some drugs and not tothers but inevitably a large proportion of our society will use drugs lets make sure they do so safely and responsibly.

Steve R said...

Hi David

"No Steve you cannot have the debate you call for, you have had it already, ad nauseam, and one time supporters have deserted you in droves".

Well we are having the debate, we are attracting new supporters every day, we have new funding (no, not from Soros) an expanding staff and volunteer team, and our media profile, and the media profile of the reform position generally has never been higher, we have increased access to key players in the NGO sector aswell as parliament and whitehall, and we have a growing international profile and have been awarded special consultative status at the UN.

"Transform and others have been talking about legalisation of all drugs since the mid 90s. Society is not going to keep giving you this debate until you get the answers you want."

well, all the big social reforms of the last century took a while to get going. I look to the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement for inspiration. A few years before any of these momentous prohibitions were lifted people talked in very similar dismissive terms. I remain optimistic. No policy that is such a demonstrable failure can continue for ever. Scrutiny is increasing and momentum for change is building.

"It is not on any forseeable agenda of any party likely to form a UK Government."

You are probably right but thats why we have to keep at it in the longer term. its certainly not going to happen overnight. The lib dems could be well positioned if there is a hung parliament and have a fairly sensible progressive drug policy.

"You have lost that debate".

well, I suppose we all see things from different perspectives. Obviously I think you're wrong.

"The move back to B is certainly NOT about "locking up" users, it is about signalling the real harms of cannabis."

I dont talk about locking up users, although it does happen sometimes, if you take a look at the home office stats. a move to B would lead to greater use of prosecution, over warnings/cautions and therefore more criminal records. I have a problem with that, and its not a sensible health policy in my my view.

"It is part of the education you pretend to call for"

No, I do call for it, unambiguously and repeatedly. Why would I not? however there's no evidence that the classification is effective education. There is some evidence that education through traditional media, schools, families, community groups, peers etc can be effective.

"Nor would a move back to Class B actually MEAN "locking up" users. You know full well that imprisonment for just personal use of any drug hardly happens in the UK because of sentencing guidelines and precedent."

read the post. read my submission. I didn't say "locking up", I said increased criminalisation - unquestionably true if you increase penalties.

"I and others have said, the UK cannot arrest it's way out of our current drug use problems (legal or illegal drugs). "

glad to hear it - then why support a policy that undoubtedly means increased arrests?

"Cannabis should never have been downgraded, you admitted almost as much, it is more harmful than you thought, you said."

I think it should be legalised and regulated but i supported the downgrading as it would lead to less criminalisation in the meantime. I said that even if it is more dangerous -increased criminality is still not the answer. don't misquote me.

"So YOU were wrong, (why should anyone listen to you now)."

Come on David. thats just playground stuff. Im on the record on this issue over a number of years and have been very consistent about cannabis harms and what we think the response to them should be. All my cannabis briefings for the ACMD are online.

"Well then, is it not right to share that information with the world, with potential users and with their parents? What are you so frightened of?"

nothing. I support effective targeted public health education prevention, and harm reduction.

"Could it be that you actually WANT more users?"

Thats just offensive and ridiculous. Why would I or anyone possibly want that? What possible motive do you think I have? The real shame is that its probably exactly the same as yours.

Our mission statement: Transform Drug Policy Foundation exists to reduce harm and promote sustainable health and wellbeing by bringing about a just, effective and humane system to regulate and control drugs at local, national and international levels.

"For young people whose human potential is damaged forever by cannabis use (and there are too many of them), cannabis is in many ways a Class A drug in terms of total-harm effects".

the fact different drugs are used in different ways by different populations with very different harm impacts again highlights the shortcomings of a simplistic ABC system.

"Class B is where it was, it is where it belongs under the UK system, (much as I dislike the system)."

fine, but why don't you call for a change to the system? and what system would you like to see?

"You also are bright enough to understand that your legalisation model would not remove criminal supply."

not completely - but it would get rid of most of it. The less criminal market (and associated problems; crime, violence, lack of regulation etc) the better.

"You understand the demand for something stronger (which we see being played out now) and for supply to those outside age restrictions."

Unregulated market economics push production towards more concentrated and risky (but malso more profitable) preparations of drugs. In the last century we've witnessed the effect with opiates, coca based drugs, alcohol and now cannabis. If people have a choice - like in a pub or dutch coffee shop - they don't always want the strongest stuff. At least with a leaglly regulated maket you can put in place some controls on age access - however imperfect. With illegal markets there are no controls and profit-seeking will actively seek out new markets - ie young people. prohibition does not protect young people, it puts them directly in the firing line.

"I am astonished that you still persist with this failed idea."

and drug prohibition has been a success? just look around you.

"Drugs use in any society is controlled by laws and/or social taboos."

except under prohibition when they are controlled by gangsters, violence, illegal market economics, and social norms are actively prevented from evolving.

"Never in human experience has removal of laws or taboos against drug use led to a decrease in total use."

Im talking about bringing drugs within the law - currently they operate in a totally unregulated criminal market that show s no sign of being eliminated by a criminal justice approach. her or anywhere else. Secondly, looking at the UK since, say, 1971, you'd have to conclude that prohibtion hasn't been a great success at reducing drugs use either - whatever class the drug.

"If total use increases, so does total harm."

thats demonstrably not always true as your frequently made point about cannabis use falling in the last few years, but harm increasing, demonstrates. The nature of the use obviously influences the level of harm.

"There is an intellectual discconnection in your approach."

I see a drug problem made worse by the current policy and i'm rationally examining policy options that might improve things.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of crap, if you think cannabis is illegal because of the health dangers then what is alcohol and tobacco doing on the shelves?

The fact is its fibres make the strongest clothes you can imagine, the best quality paper, Henry Fords first mass production car was made from hemp (the panels and upholstery) and designed to run on hemp ethanol, not any derivative of crude oil, pure sustainable CANNABIS.

The reason why its illegal is because the leaders of those industries (paper, oil and tobacco even has a part in it) lobby money to the government to promote anti-cannabis campains, THEY DONT WANT IT LEGALISED BECAUSE IT WILL AFFECT THEIR BUSINESS'S PROFITS.

Stop believing what the MSM tell you is true about this wonder plant, because its not.

DAVE BONES said...

If you know where the ACMD meet is tomorow give us a shout