Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bush can't remember if he used cocaine or not.

There is an interesting section about George Bush's alleged cocaine use in Scott Mclellan's new book 'What happened: Inside the Bush Whitehouse and Washington's culture of Deception' that documents his seven years under George W, two as his press secretary. According to Mclellan, during the brief frenzy of media interest about Bush's alleged drug use he privately claimed 'the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not'.

OK. That sounds plausible.

Whilst Transform are not interested in 'outing' public figures as illegal drug users, the situation does assume a rather different complexion when said individual is arguably the world's leading drug war warrior (dramatically upscaling militarised cocaine eradication in Colombia under the Andean Initiative), and one who personally oversaw increases in penalties for cocaine users, including prison for posession of under a gram (as Texas Governor).

Make of it what you will (Mclelland suggest the perceived self deception on Bush's cocaine use reflects on how he approached the Iraq war), but come November, he'll be gone anyway. Its a shame such tales of hypocrisy invariably only emerge after or in the dying days of an administration.

McClellan tracks Bush's penchant for self-deception back to an overheard incident on the campaign trail in 1999 when the then-governor was dogged by reports of possible cocaine use in his younger days.

The book recounts an evening in a hotel suite "somewhere in the Midwest." Bush was on the phone with a supporter and motioned for McClellan to have a seat.

"'The media won't let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,' I heard Bush say. 'You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember.'"

"I remember thinking to myself, How can that be?" McClellan wrote. "How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine? It didn't make a lot of sense."

Bush, according to McClellan, "isn't the kind of person to flat-out lie."

"So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true, and that, deep down, he knew was not true," McClellan wrote. "And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious — political convenience."

In the years that followed, McClellan "would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment." McClellan likened it to a witness who resorts to "I do not recall."

"Bush, similarly, has a way of falling back on the hazy memory to protect himself from potential political embarrassment," McClellan wrote, adding, "In other words, being evasive is not the same as lying in Bush's mind.

Source article by Ken Herman

Nurses implore Canadian PM to keep supervised injecting facility open

To those nimbys, soap box moralisers and shameless political game players (yes, I mean you Brown, Smith and Coaker) who have systematically stymied attempts to set up supervised drug consumption facilities in the UK - I challenge you to watch this video. These are not 'pot-heads', 'junkies', or evil trojan-horse 'legalisers' making the case for Vancouver's pioneering Insite facility to remain open, these are leading nurses, researchers and public health experts imploring the Canadian Prime minister not to jeopardize a proven life-saving facility just because he thinks it is the politically expedient thing to do.

For those who have not been following developments in Canada you can read here about how Insite this week won a legal reprieve in the British Colombia Supreme Court to prevent its imminent closure. There has been massive international coverage of this story, and it has important implications for similar debates unfolding across the globe, not least in the UK.

more discussion of Insite's numerous impact assessments here

CBC radio on the Supreme Court ruling here (mp3).
Includes Interviews Liz Evans of PHS Community Services, who operate Insite, Comments from Dean Wilson of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Health Minister Tony Clement in response to questions from Vancouver East MP Libby Davies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Even CIA analysts acknowledge prohibition is the problem

Stratfor - publisher of online geo-political intelligence analysis written by a global team of intelligence professionals (read former CIA staff) - has argued that Mexico rapidly hurtling down the road to becoming a 'Failed State' due to the 'War on Drugs'.

The author argues that there is a real danger that the drugs war could have such a negative impact on the Mexican state apparatus that the government ceases to be in control of its own law enforcers/politicians and civil administration.

This analysis comes after a number of high ranking policemen have been killed by the drug cartels. On May 8th Edgar Millan Gomez, Mexico's highest-ranking law enforcement officer who was responsible for overseeing most of Mexico’s counter-narcotics efforts, was shot dead in his own home. Numerous other police chiefs have also been assassinated by the cartels, and some have resigned to save their lives.

Statfor points out that these cartels are now fighting amongst themselves as well as against the government for control of the estimated $41 billion a year drugs trade.

'Given the amount of money they have, the organized criminal groups can be very effective in bribing government officials at all levels, from squad leaders patrolling the border to high-ranking state and federal officials. Given the resources they have, they can reach out and kill government officials at all levels as well. Government officials are human; and faced with the carrot of bribes and the stick of death, even the most incorruptible is going to be cautious in executing operations against the cartels.'

'Government officials, seeing the futility of resistance, effectively become tools of the cartels. Since there are multiple cartels, the area of competition ceases to be solely the border towns, shifting to the corridors of power in Mexico City. Government officials begin giving their primary loyalty not to the government but to one of the cartels. The government thus becomes both an arena for competition among the cartels and an instrument used by one cartel against another. That is the prescription for what is called a “failed state” — a state that no longer can function as a state.'

The article goes on to give a detailed critique of drug prohibition, comparing it to the alcohol prohibition in America in the 1920's. Whilst many of the readers of this blog will be well-versed with these arguments, Friedman's stark analysis of the break down of state control is compelling . It argues that,
'It is important to point out that we are not speaking here of corruption, which exists in all governments everywhere. Instead, we are talking about a systematic breakdown of the state, in which government is not simply influenced by criminals, but becomes an instrument of criminals — either simply an arena for battling among groups or under the control of a particular group. The state no longer can carry out its primary function of imposing peace, and it becomes helpless, or itself a direct perpetrator of crime.'

Members of the Mexican federal police and organise cocaine packages to be destroyed in Manzanillo port, Mexico. Photograph: Jorge Gutierrez/EPA

The article acknowledges that the best way to resolve this problem is the repeal of prohibition, which the author states has helped the cartels increase their power more than anything else by inflating drug prices and creating the conditions for the systematic breakdown of state control. However the argue that,

'There is no visible political coalition of substantial size advocating this solution.' Obviously this seems a bit defeatist to us at Transform so we are proposing an article to Stratfor based on the Transform timeline for reform.

As Stratfor is staffed by former (and possibly current) CIA employees, its interesting that they are now carrying analysis publicly acknowledging and discussing the carnage that prohibition has fuelled.

According to official figures, over 1,367 people have died this year in drug-related violence. Thats up 47% on last year. 10% of those killed have been police or soldiers. For further details on the rising body count see 'Body count mounts as drugs cartels battle each other - and the police'

A 12-step program for drug war addiction

  1. Admit you are powerless over the world's £300 billion a year illegal drug market controlled by networks of violent criminal profiteers — it has become unmanageable.

  2. Come to believe that an alternative policy approach to yours could restore us to sanity.

  3. Make a decision to turn your will over to the care of rational policy thinkers and evidence based policy development.

  4. Make a searching and fearless cost / benefit analysis of your absolutist drug prohibition stance.

  5. Admit to yourself, and to another human beings, the exact nature of what has gone wrong with the drug war.

  6. Be entirely ready to have evidence-based policy development remove all these defects.

  7. Humbly try to address the shortcomings in your policy understanding.

  8. Make a list of all persons the war on drugs has harmed (may take a while), and be willing to make amends to them all (may prove expensive).

  9. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (a new concept for you: unintended consequences).

  10. Continue to take a personal inventory of drug policy impacts, and when you are wrong promptly admit it.

  11. Seek through study and research to improve your conscious contact with reality, your knowledge of pragmatic policy alternatives, and the resources to carry them out.

  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, try to carry this message to others still suffering from drug war addiction, and practice these principles in all your affairs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Caught in the Drug War crossfire: the tragedy of Rachel Hoffman

Rachel Hoffman had just graduated from Florida State University, with plans to attend culinary school. As an undergrad, she was popular among her group of friends, many of whom she met through her involvement in FSU’s chapters of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Like many college students, she shared cannabis/marijuana with her friends, and would often “go in” on larger amounts in order to save money. And that’s how she got busted.

Rachel was threatened with prison time, then promised a slap on the wrist if she agreed to wear a wire and set up a deal with her suppliers. Tallahassee police gave her $13,000 in cash and told her to purchase 1,500 ecstasy pills, 2 ounces of cocaine, and a handgun. They never informed her attorney, family, or the state prosecutor before they sent Rachel into the lions’ den that day. And nobody had the chance to tell her she was in way over her head.

After police found Rachel’s body, they held a press conference to blame her for her own death. Among Rachel’s family and friends, sadness quickly turned into outrage and action. Last Wednesday, hundreds of students marched in protest of the role the Tallahassee Police Department played in Rachel’s death. They held signs that read “Who Killed Rachel?” and “No More Drug War” while wearing t-shirts they had gotten from SSDP and other allied organizations at our last international conference.

In her memory, Rachel's mother has established the Rachel Morningstar Foundation, the goal of which is to pass a law requiring legal advice to be sought before a civilian can consent to undercover work. Beyond that, it will also work to decriminalize marijuana in Florida.

More information:

Comprehensive news coverage and analysis can be found on

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (US)

Vietnam may decriminalize drug use

I missed this development last week because I was at the IHRA conference in Barcelona, but it's worth flagging up. Yes, even in Vietnam they are capable of a level of debate we seem entirely incapable of holding here in an apparently 'developed world' parliament . There's an awful lot wrong with Vietnamese drug policy (not least hardcore coerced treatment regimes and the illegal use of the death penalty) but if even they can seriously consider following the global trend toward decrimnalising drug use, it really puts the last year's childish political posturing over cannabis in the UK into stark relief.

Vietnam may decriminalize drug use

Hanoi - Vietnam's National Assembly is considering decriminalizing drug use, downgrading the personal use of illegal narcotics from a criminal offense to an administrative violation, a Vietnamese legislator said Friday. Truong Thi Mai, chairwoman of the assembly's Committee on Social Affairs, said her committee had recommended scrapping Article 199 of the country's Criminal Code, which prescribes prison sentences of up to two years for persistent drug users. Dealing drugs would remain a serious criminal offense, punishable in some cases by death.

"Being addicted to or using drugs should be considered a disease, and should only be subject to administrative fines," Mai said. "We cannot jail hundreds of thousands of [drug users], can we?"

Vietnam addresses drug addiction through mandatory drug detoxification centres, in which drug users are confined for periods of two years or, in the case of a few centers, up to five years. Local government authorities maintain lists of drug addicts in their districts and send cases to the detoxification centers at their discretion.

In practice, Mai said, the legal change would have little effect, since almost no drug users are prosecuted under Article 199. Instead, they are generally sent to the detoxification camps, said Le Minh Loan, a police chief and former director of the anti-narcotics department in Son La province, which borders Laos and has one of the highest heroin addiction rates in Vietnam.

"I think it makes sense to drop the article," Loan said. "Few countries in the world sentence drug addicts to prison terms."

However, Loan said the detoxification model has flaws as well. "The rate of relapse into drug use is very high."

Phung Quang Thuc, director of a detoxification centre in Hanoi with some 1,100 inmates, said many of those in his camp were there for the second time. According to Mai, some 90 per cent of those released from the detoxification camps eventually return to drug use.

Critics of the camp system say there are few opportunities for those released from the camps to find jobs, reintegrate into society, or get support in staying off drugs, and that they usually gravitate back towards their old social circles and habits.

The government sponsors community-based support groups for former drug addicts, but the groups have only been implemented in Hanoi. A 2007 evaluation found they were underfunded and ineffective, and that most former addicts relapsed within a year of release from the detoxification camps.

The most common recreational drug in Vietnam is heroin, which contributes to the country's HIV epidemic through the use of shared needles.

Vietnam has strict laws forbidding sales of illegal drugs. A total of 85 people were sentenced to death for drug crimes in 2007, and nine more have received death sentences so far this year.

But National Assembly member Mai said the campaign to eliminate drug dealing was not succeeding.

"Many people have been sentenced to death for trafficking heroin, but heroin trafficking is still rampant," Mai said. "The traffickers know that the laws are strict but they are still trafficking narcotics."


This story is reproduced from

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Transform in the Guardian CIF: Coaker's line on Cocaine

Coaker's line

It is not coca growing per se that fuels the conflict in Colombia, but the fact that cocaine is illegal - a point lost on most policymakers

Emily Crick 7.00am May 22, 2008

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker announced a new anti-cocaine initiative yesterday. Coaker and the Colombian vice president, Francisco Santos, along with former Blur bassist Alex James, were in Trafalgar Square to attend an exhibition that aims to highlight the environmental and social destruction that cocaine causes.

Coaker's new initiative, backed with a £1m Frank campaign aimed at 15-18 year olds, is running in conjunction with the Colombian government's "shared responsibility" project that attempts to link consumption in the west with the carnage created by illicit markets in producer countries. The idea is to appeal to consumers' ethical conscience, rather than the more familiar health concerns. Alex James, the former blur drummer and bon viveur who once claimed he had personally spent a £1m on cocaine, has been recruited to the cause after visiting Colombia to see the problems with illicit cocaine firsthand.

Earlier this year Antonio Costa, head of the UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC), also got in on the act when he wrote an article in the Observer entitled "Every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies", highlighting the chaos caused by western consumption in emerging transit countries like Guinea Bissau, specifically pointing the finger at those "fashionistas", including Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss, who he accused of glamorising cocaine use.

This rather ludicrous argument ignores the general consensus that Amy Winehouse is at her least cool and sexy stumbling out of hotels in blood-stained slippers. More significantly what Costa, Coaker and Santos fail to make clear is that it is not actually the coca growing per se that fuels the conflict in Colombia but the fact that cocaine is illegal.

It is the massive untaxed profits on offer, created by the policy of prohibition, that attract the violent unregulated gangsters and are the real cause of the devastation that affects Colombia. The cocaine trade is estimated to be worth $56bn-$70bn globally and the UNODC estimates that 14 million people worldwide take it.

Furthermore, whilst use is falling in the US, it is still on the rise in Europe - particularly Britain and Spain. It has been suggested that the profit margin in cocaine is between 2,000%-3,000%. With profits like these, is it any wonder that the illegal drug trade attracts insurgents and paramilitaries, eager to find new ways the fund their war?

In 2001 Jaime Ruiz, senior advisor to the then president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana said, "From a Colombian point of view ... just legalise it [cocaine] and we won't have any more problems. Probably in five years we wouldn't even have guerrillas." This may be somewhat simplistic but with depleted economic resources there would be more incentive for those involved in armed combat to negotiate for peace.

It is this fundamental issue that Coaker and his cohorts are failing to address when they call for a "boycott" on cocaine. It is their shared irresponsibility that gifts the cocaine trade to organised crime and those involved in violent conflict from Bogota to Brixton.

Add comments on the Guardian CIF website here (closes after 3 days)


Emily is Transform's new research associate

Related reading:

When all else fails: blame Amy Winehouse

Traditional coca use: caught in the cross fire

Section on crack cocaine in Transform's 'Tools for the debate' (p.41)

Other news (maybe the debate isn't as closed as some suggest?)

Colombian vice-president calls for debate on cocaine

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ecstasy reclassification meltdown; it begins again

Thought the reclassification ridiculousness was over? WRONG. It's only just starting. The miserable cannabis reclassification saga (as chronicled on this blog over the last couple of years) may be done and dusted for the time being but the next installment is about to begin with the imminent ACMD review of ecstasy's classification status. And if it was possible to find a drug that works tabloids and politicians into more of a irrational lather than cannabis, then that drug is ecstasy.

buckle up folks, its about to begin again. And it'll be even worse this time.

The first trickle has begun with the media reporting the fact that Sir Micheal Rawlins has resigned (more accurately stepped down at the end of his tenure) as chair of the ACMD, to be replaced by Professor David Nutt, the coverage leading with the hook that Nutt wants to reclassify ecstasy downwards to class B.

The Telegraph for example, reports that 'The Home Office Considers Reclassification of Ecstasy' . For a start it is the nominally independent ACMD, not the Home Office per se, that has decided to review the drug's classification. We can be certain that the Home Office would be delighted if the committee would leave the whole question well alone; they are painfully aware the review will once again highlight the absurdities and injustices of the classification system and the crumbling edifice of the Misuse of Drugs Act in which it sits. Secondly, the 'news' of this 'admission' is actually neither. The ACMD have been very open and clear since 2006, yes that's over two years, that the ecstasy review would be undertaken. Indeed it has already begun, with a review of the literature already commissioned and underway. All made fully public. The Telegraph are either guilty of lazy journalism or, surely not, whipping up some non-news into a sexy headline.

Almost the exact same story ran in the Sun (which informed us that ' BRITAIN’S new drug Czar wants to DOWNGRADE mind-bending ecstasy and LSD, it was revealed last night.') , and minus a few gory details but using much of the same (presumably agency supplied) text, on . Nutt, it should be made clear is not the new Drugs Czar - that absurdly titled post (it was actually on the job application form) was created and inhabited by Keith Hellawell in 1998, until he was rather ungraciously shunted into retirement and the post quietly dropped into to the stupid-populist-ideas-bin in 2002.

Anyway, the ACMD ecstasy review will report later this year and will almost certainly call for ecstasy to be reclassified as a class B drug. Just as happened with the cannabis saga, opponents of the move, or the Government, or both, will say repeatedly and entirely incorrectly that this is 'sending out the message' that 'ecstasy is harmless/safe'. Now, as has been explored in detail by Transform for a number of years, the classification system is riddled with conceptual and intellectual holes rendering it almost completely devoid of public health or criminal justice utility. None the less it is at least nominally based on ranking drug harms and Nutt and his brainy academic colleagues have recently, if rather belatedly (a mere 35 years late) made it clear how they think this ranking should work. Moving ecstasy to B will no more be saying 'it is safe' than moving cannabis to C did. It will merely indicate, correctly as far as it goes, that the risks (addictiveness, toxicity, mortality, social harms etc) are relatively less than other drugs in A, such as cocaine and heroin, just as the cannabis move to C described it as less harmful than class B drugs such as amphetamines. Nutt has also suggested that LSD be moved to B, and moving ecstasy and LSD out of the 'most risky' category has been supported by the Police Foundation report back in 2000 and the Home Affairs Select Committee drugs inquiry back in 2002. Its far from hot news this.

We can fully expect to see all the same confused, emotive and partisan nonsense from the cannabis debate regurgitated once again as ecstasy classification rears its head over the toilet bowl. The ghost of the Leah Betts tragedy will no doubt return to haunt and misinform us, lazy journalists will trawl scientific papers for ecstasy-shock statistics to cherry pick and mis-report, meaningless monkey brain-scans and unclever headlines about 'The agony and the ecstasy' will make a unwelcome return to our newspapers, and the David Davis sending-out-the-wrong-message-ometer will light up like a Christmas tree.

Now before I conclude by pointing and laughing at the anti-science political posturing of drugs minister Vernon Coaker (that has a particular bearing on this story) I would like to say a couple of words to the ACMD on the off chance that any of them are reading this; Reviewing the safety of ecstasy is a very tricky business. Not only is the literature painfully thin (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the subject in 1992 and was able to read everything ever published) but the drug's effects on individuals, or on populations, is nigh on impossible to ascertain for a number of reasons:

  • Ecstasy is rarely used in isolation - poly-drug use with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, ketamine and / or amphetamines is very much the norm amongst ecstasy users and teasing out which negative effects can be pinned on ecstasy alone is highly problematic. The ABC classification system is woefully inadequate for describing or tackling such complex interactions of variables and behaviours.

  • Ecstasy death statistics are an epidemiological minefield. What is recorded on death certificates does not imply direct causality with ecstasy use as raw death stats suggest. As the Leah Betts case demonstrated, related behaviours can cause or contribute to deaths, as can poly-drug use or other individual predispositions. 60% of recorded 'ecstasy deaths' are of people 'known to drug services'. Think about the significance of that.

  • What is taken as 'ecstasy' is not always MDMA, indeed testing suggests it rarely is. I have done pill-testing at parties (using the maquis reagent) when none of the pills tested contained any ecstasy at all. Are you examining the risks of MDMA or the 'pills' containing a range of different unknown substances that are now sold as ecstasy? (I have discussed this briefly with Prof Nutt and I'm glad to say he acknowledges the difficulties)

  • The nature of the ecstasy pills, and patterns of use has changed dramatically in the last 20 years - they have become far cheaper and (generally) weaker (consequently used in much greater volume) as well as less often containing MDMA - is the research you are looking at still relevant to today's patterns of use? (probably not)

  • There is also a split in the market between cheap ecstasy 'pills' and more upmarket crystal MDMA powder (I predict this to be the new ecstasy version of super-potent 'lethal skunkabis' around which the imminent media ecstasy panic will, er, crystallize). Again, patterns of use are very different and generalised conclusions about harms are not useful for making policy decisions.
  • As the above points suggest, drug harms are directly impacted by legal status. Pills and powders of unknown strength, purity and often containing unknown drugs are (unless they contain no drugs at all, which is not uncommon) intrinsically more risky than pharmaceutical grade drugs from legally regulated sources with dose, purity and safety information on the packaging. Comparing the safety of pharmaceutical ecstasy (and there is some literature on this) with the safety of illicit use and related behaviors would not only be scientifically sensible but also very illuminating for policy considerations. This point highlights the significant missed opportunity from the 2007 Nutt et al Lancet study on drug harm rankings, discussed in more detail here.
Also, please remember that translating rankings of rather vague population wide harms of a certain drug into criminal penalties for individuals is neither scientific nor ethical and there is no evidence that such and approach, even if the rankings made more sense, delivers any useful policy outcomes. The classification system is long overdue a major review and overhaul, that goes a long way beyond an occasional alphabetical re-jig. The ACMD supported the call of the Science and Technology Select Committee classification inquiry for such a review in 2006, as promised by a previous Home Secretary to the House of Commons in January of the same year. In line with the responsibilities of the committee, the appointment of the new chair provides an apposite moment to repeat this call.

And while you wrestle with all the above remember that whatever the review determines regards ecstasy, the cannabis classification debacle demonstrates with absolute clarity that the government do not give a stuff about science and rational policy making when it does not fit their political prerogatives or pre-ordained 'beliefs'. For those in any doubt let us revisit the follow up oral evidence session to the publication of the Science and Technology Select Committee’s devastating 2006 critique of the classification system, when the the committee re-interviewed then ACMD chair Sir Micheal Rawlins, soon to be chair Prof Nutt (who both acquit themselves very well) and drugs minister Vernon Coaker MP (less well).

By any stretch it is a truly remarkable interrogation, with the Minister not having a leg to stand on when he is repeatedly challenged on the lack of evidence base for the classification system's effectiveness, or the justification for certain howling anomalies within the system. He falls back on evasion, changing the subject or the excuse of decisions being ‘political judgements’ , or worse, merely that it is his ‘belief’ that the system works. There is not even the pretence that the system is evidence based. So here you go folks, just so you know what you're up against.

First is a section about the reclassification of ecstasy:

Q109 Mr Newmark: If the ACMD discovered new evidence when it undertook the review, would you consider reclassifying ecstasy?

Mr Coaker: We would consider their evidence. As I say, we have no plans to reclassify ecstasy. The ACMD is independent of government, we obviously respect what they say, and they will bring their report forward, but the Government has no plans and no intention of reclassifying ecstasy.

Q110 Dr Harris: You say that you do not propose to move ecstasy and it will remain a Class A drug. Is that an evidence-based policy?

Mr Coaker: That is a judgment the Government makes on the basis of what we believe to be something that is in the interests of the public at large to keep ecstasy as a Class A drug.

Q111 Dr Harris: Is it an evidence-based view?

Mr Coaker: It is a judgment that we make based on all the evidence we have had no recommendation from anybody to reclassify ecstasy from an A to a B. We think it is a drug which is harmful. There is no safe dose of it. We were talking about alcohol earlier on and one of the problems you have with alcohol is there probably is a safe dose. Like many here, I have a drink now and again, but there is no safe dose of ecstasy, we think it would send out totally the wrong messages and, as I say, we have no intention of reclassifying ecstasy.

Q112 Mr Newmark: Because it kills unpredictably?

Mr Coaker: As I say, there is no safe dose. This is the point, just half a minute—

Q113 Dr Harris: There is no safe dose of tobacco.

Mr Coaker: It just does make the point very well, the exchange that we have just had between two members of the Committee, quite rightly, about the difficulties that there are in this area and the different views and opinions that people have. I think what we all wrestle with is using evidence and using science and also trying to think about it from a non-scientific point of view in the social judgments and the individual judgments and the community judgments that we make. We wrestle with that and, as I say, as a Government we have no intention of doing anything with respect to ecstasy because we do not believe there is a safe dose, it is harmful, it kills unpredictably, as Brooks has said, and we just think that it is a very important way to use the classification system.

Q114 Dr Harris: If the ACMD reviewed the evidence and that review made recommendations to you, are you saying now it is not worth them doing it because your decision on this will not be evidence based, it will just be a reassertion of your "no intention to reclassify ecstasy"? Even if they said there will be fewer deaths, for whatever reason, if it is reclassified, are you saying that you will never consider an evidence-based decision on this drug?

Mr Coaker: I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is the ACMD, of course, can conduct research and look at whatever they wish to with respect to drugs and make recommendations to the Government. What I am saying quite clearly is that we have no intention of reclassifying ecstasy.

Q115 Dr Harris: I am keen to pursue this one. I understand you have no intention and I assume that is current because I do not think you could bind your successors if the evidence changed. Is it your view that all drugs for which there is no safe dose should be in Class A or is there something special about ecstasy which means it is one of the drugs for which you say there is no safe dose which means it must be in A?

Mr Coaker: In talking about ecstasy, it kills unpredictably, we do not believe that there is a safe dose; we will not reclassify ecstasy.

Q116 Dr Harris: Does that apply to all drugs that meet those criteria?

Mr Coaker: What we try to do where we have evidence and where people come to us with recommendations is make individual judgments, as we will do whenever people come to us. All I am saying with respect to ecstasy is that we have no plans and no intention of doing so.

Q117 Dr Harris: So do you think you are wasting your time, Professor Rawlins, if you end up doing a review in this area?

Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, I think we will give advice on whatever we feel is appropriate but perhaps in a way more importantly we will also be able to, I hope, give better advice on harm reduction, which is actually rather important, and on what further research is needed in order to understand the dangers of it.

Q118 Dr Harris: Will the fact that the Minister has said quite categorically that he is not going to change the classification have any bearing on whether you follow through and do a report?

Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: None at all because we are going to do it*.

*please take note, James Kirkup, Political Correspondent at the Daily Telegraph

Now here is a second section from slightly earlier in the session. Creationism gets a mention in reference to the Minister's scientific discourse; it seems an appropriate analogy:

Q45 Chairman: Vernon, in response to us, you said that the Government "fundamentally believes that illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour . . . It believes that the illegality of certain drugs, and by association their classification, will impact on drug-use choices". Where is the evidence for that?

Mr Coaker: That is the belief and the judgment that the Government have.

Q46 Chairman: I did not ask you that. People believe in creationism and they are entitled to do that, though I do not agree with that, but I am asking you, where is the evidence?

Mr Coaker: To be fair to the response that we tried to make in response to the Committee where the Committee has challenged us, we have ourselves said that we need to do more research into the deterrent effect, that we need to establish a better evidence and research base for that, so we have accepted the point of the need to actually do something about it, but we do believe, and strongly believe, that the classification of drugs in the current system, A, B and C, with respect to Class A does act as a deterrent system. That is a judgment we make, it is a belief that we have and we have accepted that there is more to do with respect to that.

Q47 Adam Afriyie: If when you carry out and conduct this research the evidence shows that you are completely mistaken in that view, will change your view?

Mr Coaker: I cannot prejudge what any research is going to tell us. Clearly you make judgments about the research that you receive and that is obviously the point.

Q48 Chairman: Vernon, you have not commissioned any research and nor have the ACMD.

Mr Coaker: No, but what we have said in response to where the Committee challenged us and said, "Where is your evidence base for that?", as we have done with a number of other things, we said that we understand that point, we accept that point and we need to look at establishing a better evidence base for that, but it does not alter the fact or change the fact that the Government believes that the tripartite system, the classification system, does send out a strong message and does impact on, and affect, behaviour.

Coaker's speaking in political tongues couldn't help but remind me of this:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Millions quit cannabis following reclassification

After listening to Jacqui Smith MP talking about skunk cannabis in Parliament today millions of young people have decided to quit using cannabis and drink 3 litre bottles of white-lightning cider instead. Across the housing estates of Britain vulnerable young people, more used to the daily truant ritual of a skunk fueled psychotic axe-rampage, could be witnessed huddled around radio's hanging on Home Secretary Smith's every word. Interviewed afterwards many were of the opinion that now they faced a super-stern warning from the police for cannabis possession, instead of a mere moderately-stern warning like in the old days, the risk was simply too great. It was time to quit weed and hit the cider big time. This fear was combined with a new found insight into cannabis provided by Gordon Brown, specifically regarding the 'lethal' skunk version of the otherwise completely benign sixties flower power drug smoked by Smith and her cabinet colleagues way back when.

The general opinion around the bus shelters was that Smith and Brown, given their in-depth academic research, backgrounds in the drugs field and Phd's in epidemiology and psycho-pharmacology respectively, were far better qualified to advise today's youngsters about drug harms than those 'unqualified jokers on the thingy-wotsit committee', as one former feral youth described it. He added;

'now cannabis is class B and we all know how bad it is for you again, there's no point wasting money on education, treatment and prevention any more. That cash would be far better given to the police so they can alienate us with some futile heavy-handed enforcement like they did with my big brother. A criminal record should really help any remaining tokers get on in life'.

lethal skunkabis: relax, its a thing of the past

Other reports are also coming in of queues forming at airports of evil Vietnamese gangsters waiting to fly home. Interviews suggest that now no-one is smoking lethal skunkabis anymore the evil foreign criminals have decided to close their network of suburban cannabis factories. There are also strong indications that a major contribution to the foreign criminal exodus is fear of the move from a trifling 14 year sentence for cannabis supply under the namby-pamby old class C regime to the new scary 14 year sentence under Class B.

Triumphant ministers have drawn comparisons to the reclassification of meth-amphetamines (combined with the new war on lemsip) that successfully scared off any potential meth users or dealers, and the classification of ketamine which similarly put paid to use of that drug with a flick of the legislators pen.

Who knew drug policy was so simple?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

SOCA, Organising crime

It was brought to my attention recently that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has, ostensibly at least, a remit essentially based upon harm reduction.

The following is from the ‘About us’ section of the SOCA website:

“SOCA is an intelligence-led agency with law enforcement powers and harm reduction responsibilities. Harm in this context is the damage caused to people and communities by serious organised crime.”

Now, according to the State of the Future survey by the World Federation of United Nations Associations, 2007, the drug trade is the second biggest earner for organised crime, with an estimated $320bn in annual takings.

In 2003 the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit produced a report that showed how supply side enforcement of the drug laws gifts the trade to organised crime.

Again, according to the SOCA website:

“The SOCA Board has determined that SOCA should aim to apportion its operational effort broadly as follows against the main threat sectors:

  • drugs trafficking, primarily Class A - 40%...”

So, if SOCA is genuinely intelligence-led, the main thrust of 40% of its operational effort against drug trafficking ought to be in explaining to policy makers that prohibition creates huge opportunities for organised crime and that it should be stopped forthwith and replaced with a legal distribution network for currently illegal drugs.

My guess is that it isn’t doing that; that SOCA is colluding with prohibition’s supporters in what amounts effectively to a ‘protection racket’; not reducing harm, but actually supporting its increase to create a raison d’etre for itself.

I leave it to you to decide if that is intelligent or not…

Antonio Maria-Costa: international man of mystery

UNODC director Antonio Costa is something of an enigma. One day he seems to be keen to engage with the progressive NGO community, the next he calls them lunatics. One day he will make political capital from his NGO engament strategy, the next treat them with disdain and contempt. One day talk sense, the next, utter nonsense (or complete tosh). He will positively engage with the harm reduction NGO community (speaking at the IHRA conference next week), before visiting Sweden for an anti-harm reduction back slapping prohibitionist hoe-down.

Now it seems, having said some pretty outrageous things about The Netherlands (and being forced to apologise to their Ambassador), Costa has spent some of last week visiting the country famed for it progressive drug policy. The blog learns that included in his trip were a visit to a cannabis coffee shop (apparently on called De Dampkring in the Spui area of the city) and a visit to supervised injecting center. So what's all this about?

De Dampkring ('the atmosphere') coffee shop in Amsterdam

Well, who knows. Previous visits to Amsterdam by prohibition big wigs have been pretty calamitous, but something feels different this time and you have to think it can only be a good thing. I'll ask him in Barcelona next week and let you know, but until then we can but speculate.

An international man of mystery, yesterday

  • Maybe its a diplomatic PR move, trying to make amends with Dutch diplomats for his ridiculous 'river of poison' comments about their drugs policy - which, by any public health measure stands up favorably relative to the rest of Europe without resorting to the heavy handed enforcement that some of its neighbours (including the UK) fetishize over.

  • Maybe, he genuinely wanted to see for himself what people were going on about and what pragmatic drug policy interventions and sensible (quasi) legal market regulation actually look like - especially after being deluged in letters following his CND outburst. Or maybe he just wanted to reinforce his pre-determined prejudices - and will see what he wants to see.
  • Maybe, despite his occasionally inappropriate rhetoric and rudeness, the recent push of NGO engagement is having a positive impact, making him think, and actually forcing him to confront some of the critical issues and tensions within the UN drug control system, long swept under the faded 70s carpet at the Vienna International Center. By all accounts Costa has been meeting with a whole range of people, and more importantly, apparently listening to what they have to say.
  • Or maybe he just wanted spliff and somewhere to shoot up (on balance, fairly unlikely).

Monday, May 05, 2008

'The Government's questions relating to InSite's impact have effectively been answered'

While the UK is once again consumed by the drug policy endarkenment, deciding whether to symbolically increase prison sentences for cannabis smokers from 2-5 years, to our shame the debate on more important issues like supervised injecting rooms has fallen off the agenda completely with ministers claiming -100% incorrectly- that such policies would violate our commitments to the UN drug treaties. Notice that they never state that such facilities wouldn't deliver positive public health outcomes. No, as ever this is all about politics, with cowardly ministers fearful of critical headlines willing to sacrifice lives to satisfy their pollsters.

Well: elsewhere in the world the rational voices of public health and science are fighting back and standing up to the ideologues.....

Professor Neil Boyd, SFU Criminologist Speaks Out on InSite Research

OTTAWA - Professor Neil Boyd, a Criminologist at Simon Fraser University who was recently engaged by the Stephen Harper Government to conduct research on InSite, Vancouver's supervised injection site(SIS), addressed the Ottawa Press Gallery today outlining the benefits of the facility. These public comments are a blow to the Federal Government, as Professor Boyd is the Government's key "witness" in the ongoing BC Supreme Court case regarding InSite's legal status.

"There is no doubt that InSite has made a positive impact for the individuals who use InSite, the residents, service providers and business operators in the neighbourhood, and for the greater public health of the community," said Professor Boyd.

Boyd's research, compiled for an advisory committee specifically selected by the Stephen Harper Government, highlighted many positive impacts of InSite's work, including:

  • InSite is strongly supported by business operators, service providers and residents in the neighbourhood surrounding the facility.

  • An intentionally conservative cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that there are significant savings to tax-payers as a result of InSite's work.

  • InSite has proven to have a positive impact in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and the consequent costs of its treatment.

  • InSite prevents drug overdose deaths.

  • There have been no adverse effects from InSite on drug use patterns, crime, or public disorder.

"The research presented re-confirms the kinds of results obtained from the other Health Canada funded evaluation," said Professor Boyd. "Mr. Harper should respect science and its principles -- the findings are demonstrated consistently in independently peer-reviewed scientific journals."

"The Government's questions relating to InSite's impact have effectively been answered," added Professor Boyd.

In September, 2007 a letter was published in the scientific medical journal Open Medicine, signed by more that 130 prominent Canadian doctors and scientists urging Mr. Harper to refrain from placing ideology ahead of scientific evidence.

Media Contacts
Mark Townsend, cell: 604-720-3050 - PHS Community Services Society
Nathan Allen, cell: 604-833-0748 - InSite for Community Safety


"The Government's questions relating to InSite's impact have effectively been answered." - Professor Neil Boyd, Criminologist, Simon Fraser University

In May 2007, the Harper Government formed a politically-appointed advisory committee to re-explore questions relating to InSite's work. Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd was contracted through a Health Canada RFP process to relay findings from new research to the committee. On April 11, 2008, the Government released a report, Vancouver's INSITE service and other Supervised injection sites: What has been learned from research?, using Professor Boyd's data.

The new Health Canada funded research demonstrated that:

  • Taxpayers receive $4 in benefits for every dollar spent on InSite, based on a conservative cost-benefit analysis. These tax savings do not take into account any potential cost benefits resulting from improved public health, or reduced stress on the criminal justice system.

  • 80 per cent of police officers, business owners, residents and service providers interviewed in the area thought the service should be expanded or retained.

  • More than half of the police officers interviewed in the survey shared the opinion InSite should remain open.

  • Research on calls for service in the area indicated that InSite had not increased drug dealing or crime in the area.

  • Self-reports from users of injection site service indicate that needle sharing decreases with increased use of injection site services, reducing the risk of contracting or spreading HIV and Hep C.

  • A private security company contracted by the Chinese Business Association reported reductions in crime in the Chinese business district in a surrounding area.

  • InSite encourages users to seek counselling, detoxification and treatment. Such activities have contributed to an increased use of detoxification services and increased engagement in treatment.

  • InSite staff have successfully intervened in over 336 overdose events since 2006 and no overdose deaths have occurred at the service. (868 OD events since InSite opened in 2003) Professor Neil Boyd's data re-affirms the substantial research undertaking already completed through previously funded evaluation funded by Health Canada.

The Federal Government has spent close to $2 Million to evaluate InSite, making it likely the most thoroughly researched primary health carefacility in history.

With funding from Health Canada, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS conducted a rigorous scientific assessment of InSite.

Laid out in 25 academic papers published in world renowned, independently peer-reviewed, scientific medical journals, the evaluation concluded the following:

  • The SIS has been associated with reductions in public disorder related to injection drug use. There has been a 45% decrease in open drug use as a result of InSite. (Wood et al., Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2004 Petrar et al., Addictive Behaviors, Stoltz et al., Journal of Public Health, 2007)

  • The SIS has attracted and retained a high-risk population of IDUs who are at heightened risk for HIV infection and overdose. (Wood et al.,Am. Jrnl. of Preventative Medicine, 2005 - Wood et al., Am. Jrnl. of Public Health, 2006)

  • Use of the SIS has been associated with reductions in HIV risk behaviour (syringe sharing). (Kerr et al., The Lancet, 2005, Wood et al., American Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2005)

  • SIS staff has successfully managed hundreds of overdoses - There have been 868 lives saved at InSite (Kerr et al., IJDP, 2006, Kerr et al.,IJDP, 2007)

  • Many individuals at risk for HIV infection receive safer injection education at the SIS, and increases in safe micro-injecting practices have been observed (Wood et al., International Journal of Drug Policy, 2005, Stoltz et al., Journal of Public Health, 2007)

  • Use of the SIS has been associated with increased uptake of detoxification services and other addiction treatments. There has been a 33% increase in use of addiction treatment as a result of contact with InSite. (Wood et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2006, Wood et al.,Addiction, 2007)

  • The establishment of the SIS has not prompted adverse changes in community drug use patterns. (Kerr et al., British Medical Journal, 2006)

  • The establishment of the SIS has not prompted initiation into injection drug use. (Kerr et al., American Journal of Public Health, 2007)

  • The establishment of the SIS has not led to increases in drug-related crime. (Wood et al., Substance Abuse Treatment. Prevention, and Policy, 2006)

In January 2006, following media remarks from Stephen Harper stating he was waiting to hear reports from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before making his decision, the RCMP contracted two researchers, Irwin Cohen and Raymond Corrado, to independently review the research from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Their respective papers, compiled for the RCMP, referenced the following:

  • Reductions in public disorder including public drug use and prevalence of injection related litter was significant (R. Corrado, Analysis of the Research Literature on INSITE, 2006).

  • There was a good likelihood that a reduction in the epidemic of blood-borne diseases was enhanced since a substantial number of InSite clients stopped syringe sharing. (R. Corrado, Analysis of the Research Literature on INSITE, 2006).

  • It is necessary to develop policies that protect the public, educate about the harms of drug use, maintain public order, and reduce the risk of an epidemic from blood borne diseases. (I. Cohen, A Review of the Research Literature on Supervised Injection Sites, 2006)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

How much tax revenue are we gifting to criminals?

An interesting news item from the Netherlands suggests, amongst other things, that their cannabis coffee shops are generate 400 million Euros in tax revenue for the Government:

"Coffee shops where small amounts of cannabis can be bought, contributed some €400m to the treasury a year, according to estimates by tv programme Reporter.

The country’s 700 coffee shops are responsible for selling some 265,000 kgs of soft drugs a year, mostly Dutch-grown marijuana, Reporter says. This means turnover in the sector is some €2bn a year.

The programme also estimates some 5,500 plantations were destroyed by police last year. Between 20% and 40% of local production is sold in the Netherlands, the rest exported abroad, largely to Germany and Britain.

Police chief Max Daniel told the KRO programme that that marijuana is the Netherlands second or third-biggest cash crop after cucumbers and tomatoes.

In a programme to be broadcast on Sunday night, Reporter also looks at the amount of (illegal) fertisers and heavy metals found in Dutch-grown marijuana."

It is hard to know what to make of these estimates without any references or background information but several important things are highlighted here.

Firstly, whatever the exact value of tax revenue generated by the coffee shops we can safely assume it to be pretty substantial, and most certainly more than the UK tax haul for non-medical cannabis, which is of course precisely zero. The UK's population is approximately four times as big and we have a higher level of cannabis consumption per head (according to the EMCDDA - probably the most reliable source of info on these intrinsically hard to measure stats). So we could also safely assume that any potential tax haul from a legally regulated market would be bigger than that of the Netherlands by at least a factor of four. There has been some reasonably in depth work done on this by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit but by its nature it is fairly back of the matchbox stuff that necessarily leaves pretty wide error margins. The IDMU estimates:

Potential Excise Duty Revenues


Unit price 2003

Min Units

Max Units

Duty per unit

Min Duty

Max Duty


£ 2.85



£ 1.00

£ 154,471,691

£ 606,889,748


£ 5.75



£ 2.00

£ 187,157,006

£ 735,304,101

So, combining the resin and herbal 'skunk' markets, based on a tax of 1 and 2 pounds per gram respectively, they estimate between a minimum of £341 million and maximum of £1.342 billion annually. So - some pretty serious cash which ever way you do your sums. Start multiplying that by the ten years of your average drug strategy and you are looking at the sort of cash that can transform communities, drug treatment, eduction and prevention services, and police forces. This is before you start to factor in savings made by not enforcing ineffectual and often counterproductive punitive drug laws, and filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders (like this poor guy with arthritis who just got 8 months - at about £3K a month, not including police and court time - for 36 grams of cannabis, thats marginally less than you could fit in two Schwartz spice jars).

The IDMU also look at the wider UK illegal drug market and estimate potential revenue (including costs of administering a legal system, and savings elsewhere in the system) of between £3.4 and £6.3 billion a year to the exchequer. Even if way off beam, we are talking about vast sums of money that, let us not forget (in terms of the tax on sales at least), currently accrue to criminal networks (often unpleasant and violent), here and around the world.

A massive pile of illegal drug money*

People, not least the UNODC director, have suggested that any benefits of legal regulation would be outweighed by the increase in costs relating to increased harm from addiction etc as use rose following any such move. As has been argued elsewhere (see the chapter in 'Tools for the debate' called 'would prevalence rise?') there is little evidence that prohibition has been an effective deterrent to use and enforcement is at best a marginal influence on drug using decisions. The Netherland's experience also suggest that this premise is flawed; despite its de-facto legal cannabis system it has lower cannabis use than its neighbours, notably including the UK. There appears to be no obvious correlation between a countries enforcement regime and levels of use.

There are other costs to prohibition that have been extensively documented on this blog, and in much of Transform's literature. One of them is highlighted in the above news item; the lack of quality control in illicit production maximises the potential harms associated with the product itself whcih may contain unknown contaminants and be of unknown strength - two problems easily dealt with when production is brought within the law.

* This is in fact 206 million dollars found stacked in a bedroom in Mexico in March 2007, thought to be illicit drug profits; the biggest pile of money found by police, anywhere , ever. By the above calculations, it amounts to something in the region of one single month's worth of potential UK cannabis tax revenue - currently being gifted to criminals.