Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Miserable re-classification saga enters its final furlong

So this is how it’s probably going to play out. At some point after Thursday’s local election, potentially making use of the ‘burying bad news’ cover the election aftermath will provide, the Government will release the ACMD report that will call for cannabis classification to remain unchanged. The report will acknowledge changes in the cannabis market with a greater prevalence of more potent indoor grown varieties but will say the evidence of risks – that will be acknowledged in detail - have not changed significantly since 2005 and stick to their position that on balance, relative to other classified drugs, C is the appropriate classification. They will clearly state that this does not in any way mean cannabis is harmless, and will probably make some thinly veiled critical comments about how media and political discourse has distracted from rational analysis of the science.

Since the committee’s report has already been leaked and its headline call exhaustively discussed the detail of the report will probably not garner much coverage; this is a shame as the report will doubtless be a thorough and authoritative review, but editorial lines have largely already been determined and political positions most certainly have. At some point next week Brown will announce his intention to reclassify regardless – his slow drip drip of public pronouncements that this is his intention have made this increasingly clear. Even if the ACMD report offered him an ‘out’, it seems clear now that the ‘leaks’ from ‘government sources’ -that he has made no effort to contradict- indicate his mind is made up. He will offer some sort of rhetorical sop to the ACMD but will argue for the change deploying much of the same science-free moral posturing that has characterised his recent comments. He will be bolstered by two main rhetorical planks.

Firstly the Government will make sure some suitably alarming new evidence on ‘skunk’ is released, probably on the same day as the Brown announcement. This is likely to relate to the (neither new nor especially alarming) fact that ‘skunk’ seizures now suggest an increasingly saturated market (it will have probably already been described in the unread detail of the ACMD report). No mention will be made of the role of profit driven illicit market economics in fueling the 'skunkification' of the UK market – although if we are very lucky the ACMD might just – at a push – allude to this analysis (but i doubt it). So the first plank of the case will be established by tapping into the current media skunk panic.

The second will be to refer to the ACPO support for the move back to B (and probaly - to a lesser extent - support from some on message magistrates and mental health charities). The authority of the police is hard to argue with in the public mind and the panic inducing rhetoric of ‘cannabis factories’, especially the ones staffed by foreigners, provide a potent narrative for justifying a punitive crackdown. The ACPO call has been a stinker; I sat though the intellectual and empirical wasteland that was their presentation to the ACMD, and their written presentation, (which I have also had the non-privilege of reading) covered much the same territory. The case is nominally based on two things; their concern for skunk and mental health, an arena in which they have no expertise and that has clearly been informed by media panic rather than an academic literature review (they should obviously defer to the ACMD but have jumped the gun, like the PM, and pre-empted the experts conclusions, defaulting to the Daily Mail position). And secondly, on the growing problem of ‘cannabis factories’. As has been discussed previously this enforcement argument is disingenuous as the penalties for supply of class C drugs were increased to parity with class B when cannabis was moved in 2004 (14 years for supply - hardly a 'soft on cannabis' position but there you go). So a move back to B will have precisely zero impact on cannabis supply penalties (which will stay the same) and any corresponding deterrence, even on the un-evidenced assumption that any penalty increase would have deterred some production/supply (it clearly wouldn't). If the police are concerned about cannabis factories they are free to prioritize and direct more enforcement resources at them – changes in classification are entirely irrelevant and claiming otherwise is simply misleading. Want to place bets on which ACMD members voted for the move to B?

a cannabis factory in Canada. A completely (non-evil) legal one as it happens

For ACPO this is all about politics. The Government have enormous power to wield over the Police – and clearly have done just that; ACPO have been unfailingly compliant on Government drug policy decisions, they supported the original B to C reclassification, they supported the 2005 Drugs Bill (all 21 controversial clauses), and now they are supporting the re-re-classification. Its almost spooky. Trying to think of the last time ACPO (or Sir Iain Blair) defied the Government on drug policy? Don’t bother – it’s never happened. If the public health arguments aren’t there to support increasing penalties against drug users the Government can always appeal to popular fears about crime. ACPO have been pressured to provide the Government with the required moral authority and they have dutifully delivered.

So, what is the best we can hope for? As Paul Flynn MP has described, in some ways the Government on drugs is a bit like a duck; on the surface shouting 'tougher tougher', but underwater, desperately paddling in the direction of pragmatic harm reduction. So can Brown have his cake and eat it? Perhaps to some extent. It is not unlikely that Police guidance on cannabis arrests will remain the same, with the discretion to use warnings, cautions or arrests which exists now will not be made more punitive, and in fact – for all the bluster and posturing, street level enforcement will be largely unchanged – bar a few high profile crackdowns for the cameras. There doesn't seem to be any real appetite from anyone for mass arrests and more criminalisation of young people (so why... but.... hang on...I don't follow.....).

The small band of anti-cannabis fanatics for whom re-re-classification has assumed near religious significance will doubtless smile in triumph at the victory in their titanic battle against the evil scourge, safe in knowledge that now everything will be fine (probably hypocritically toasting victory with lashings of the legal stuff). Their conceit that there has been a seismic shift in the political culture will probably be no worse than that of the cannabis evangelists four years ago. They were both wrong. Classification isn’t symbolic of anything other than the cyclical interplay political spin and media headline chasing, and the ground level change itself will make little or no difference to the millions of users who simply couldn’t care less what Jacqui Smith has to say about their leisure time, even if they actually know who she is. The real difference will only come when consenting adult use is not only decriminalised completely, but production supply is brought back within the law and properly regulated. It will take the non-impact, or active costs, of the latest change to put that debate meaningfully back on the mainstream political agenda (in this backward country anyway). These things seem to go in cycles so we will be back here again in a couple of years.

For now I’m just glad this round is soon to be over because it’s very, very, very dull and there are far more interesting and important thinks to talk about like ya’know...

...*points vaguely out the window*

on the off chance you've not had enough, there's plenty more cannabis discussions on the blog

also, a strong op-ed from Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian (accepting comment's)


Simon Kemp said...

hey, just wanted to say, I enjoyed reading a well written overview of the debacle unfolding in the media eye.You're absolutely on the money, but then you already knew that.Keep up the fine work!
P.S. I'm a drug education police officer who's been in the drug field for 20 years and we're not all clockwork policemen, as Banksy would have put it!

cheers Simon

Anonymous said...

Mr Brown has obviously thought this issue through, and is certain of what needs to be done to save this country....

But will anyone ask why he thinks that cannabis is quantitatively worse than ketamine (Class C)?

Regardless of whether classification has an impact on price, availability and use, this proposed reclassification is either going to make it easier to buy ketamine relative to cannabis, or it is going to send the message that ketamine (less common) is a safer option than cannabis - this means that teenagers might actually seek it out!

Steve R said...

looks like my prediction was right