Monday, June 30, 2008

Making the case for regulated drug markets

Today the blog returns to the serialisation of Transform's Autumn 2007 publication 'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate'.

Chapter 4: Making the case for regulated markets

Although it is important to expose the shortcomings of current drug policy, no amount of devastating critique of prohibition will achieve very much unless a convincing case for an alternative policy is made. The big problem with the so-called ‘legalisation lobby’ in the past is that brilliant critique has tended to be followed with a one word solution – ‘legalisation’. Chapter 4 considers how to advocate clearly what the replacement for prohibition will look like, and the principles by which such policy alternatives will be developed and implemented. Chapter 5 chapter considers a number of the most common concerns raised about a post-prohibition world, and how these concerns can be addressed.

From 'legalisation' to 'regulation'

The alternative to the current system of drug prohibition needs to be clearly and confidently specified. Just saying ‘legalisation’ is inadequate - and indeed problematic, as the term comes with a lot of baggage. For many people it is associated with either ‘hippies and pot-heads’, specific political ideologies (usually libertarianism or liberalism) that condone the use of drugs, or suggests a surrender’ in the drug war that would leave us with some sort of un-policed ‘free for all’.

Using the term in isolation creates a vacuum that will be filled by such misconceptions (which are regularly promoted by prohibition’s advocates and political beneficiaries)– frequently of the 'heroin would be available in sweet shops’ variety.

In actuality the term ‘legalisation’ describes a process (rather like ‘abolition’)- in this case the process of something currently illegal being made legal – rather than an end point or goal in itself. It gives no indication what the policy replacing prohibition would look like. For this reason it is very important that the term is clarified as soon and often as possible.

Explain what you mean by ‘legalisation’ at the earliest opportunity and try to talk about ‘regulation and control’ as often as possible. There is no harm in repeating the phrase – in fact we would encourage it. Avoiding the term ‘legalisation’ altogether is no bad thing, but if it is unavoidable, either use it in the phrase ‘legalisation and regulation’ or make it clear it is a process not an end point: ‘legalisation is necessary to move from prohibition to legally regulated markets’. A useful alternative is to talk about ‘moves towards legal regulation and control’, or ‘legally regulated drug markets’ .

Be clear about what regulated markets are, and what they are not

Once you have clarified that your understanding of ‘legalisation’ is very specifically ‘regulation and control’, whenever possible it is worth going further to explain in very clear terms more precisely what you are proposing and the principles on which future policy developments would be based.

Some activities and products would remain prohibited as part of the regulatory framework.

This is hugely important point to make as it reinforces the idea of control, and moves perceptions away from the misconceptions of ‘legalisation’ and libertarian free markets. Activities that would remain prohibited would include, for example, underage sales, consumption in public, unlicensed sales, advertising and so on. Similarly, supply of certain particularly potent or high risk preparations of some drugs would also remain prohibited. All psychoactive drugs are potentially dangerous substances that should be subject to tight legal and social regulations. We should learn the lessons from tobacco and alcohol (see– ‘talking about… alcohol and tobacco’ on p.37). The level of enforcement, and associated penalties for activities that remain prohibited, would be determined by legislation, police force or local licensing body as appropriate.

Discussing the role of ‘prohibitions’ post legalisation may be a bit confusing; to avoid this, talk about replacing ‘absolute prohibition’ or ‘the war on drugs’ with ‘a system of strict legal regulation and control in which some activities remain prohibited’.

Make it clear you are not talking about a free market...

.. that would give carte blanche to multinationals and pharmaceutical companies to market or promote recreational drugs (see ‘concerns about legalisation/regulation’ on p.46). Producers would be strictly regulated, particularly with regard to advertising, marketing, health warnings and packaging.

Different regulatory regimes would be put in place for different drugs in different locations.

The strictness of regulation for different drugs (or different preparations of a given drug) would be determined by the comparative risks associated with their production, supply and use.

Regulatory regimes would be based on existing models

This is a point that allows people some real world perspective on what is being proposed. Models include;

  • Medical prescription (possibly involving supervised use) for the most risky drugs (e.g. injectable heroin – the legal framework for which already exists in practice)

  • Over the counter pharmacy sales – from qualified pharmacists (possibly with additional training for vending non-medical drugs)
  • Licensed sales (as with off licenses or tobacconists) with various available tiers of licensing conditions that could be applied as appropriate
  • Licensed premises (pubs or Dutch style coffee-shops) again, with variable licensing conditions.
  • Unlicensed sales for low risk drugs – like coffee

(for more discussion of regulatory models see the Transform, KCBA and HOBC reports detailed in Chapter 6, p.59).

The type of regulation for each drug would be based on evidence of what works.

Unlike the inflexible straitjacket of prohibition, a regulatory regime could develop a range of responses to the risks that different drugs present. Different models would be piloted and tested, with policy development and implementation based on evidence of effectiveness. Regulatory frameworks could be changed and updated in response to changing circumstances.

Implementation would be phased and based on the precautionary principle.

Regulated models would not be rolled out for all drugs overnight. It is likely that certain drugs would be legalised and regulated first (probably cannabis) and other drugs phased in over a number of years. Initially the default position would be to err on the side of stricter regulation, which could then be relaxed only if evidence suggested that would be more effective.

Internationally, this is about returning democratic freedoms to sovereign states.

Under this new system no country is going to be bullied into legalising and regulating any drug (in contrast to the bullying to maintain prohibition that many experience now). The changes we are seeking at the international level would change the UN legal system to allow the freedom of individual states to democratically decide on any move towards regulated drug markets if they determined that was the best way forward for them. It would merely put regulatory policy options back in the frame. If certain nation states (those, perhaps, where alcohol is still prohibited) wished to maintain absolute prohibition, that decision would remain their sovereign right.

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8

Print copies are also available, please contact Transform

Thursday, June 26, 2008

War on drugs began 14 centuries ago

An extraordinary piece from the Gulf Times today 'War on drugs began 14 Centuries ago', shows just how deep the roots of prohibition are in relating drugs to religious concepts of wickedness, evil and the devil. The author's strict interpretation of the Qur'an ought to make for discomfiting reading for the DEA, the Home Office and senior advisors in Gordon Brown's office. Nice to know who your friends are, eh?

Alcohol prohibition. Apparently not where it all began

Interesting to read this alongside Peter Cohen's analysis: 'The drug prohibition church and the adventure of reformation', which starts:
"Whatever the origin of the UN Drug Treaties, and whatever the official rhetoric about their functions, the best way to look at them now is as religious texts. They have acquired a patina of intrinsic and unquestioned value and they have attracted a clique of true believers and proselytes to promote them. They pursue a version of Humankind for whom abstinence from certain drugs is dogma in the same way as other religious texts might prohibit certain foods or activities. The UN drug treaties thus form the basis of the international Drug Prohibition Church. Belonging to that Church has become an independent source of security, and fighting the Church's enemies has become an automatic source of virtue."

The Gulf Times article by By Dr Bilal Philips includes:

However, for one-fifth of the world’s population, the anti-drugs campaign began 1,400 years ago, when the rest of the world was drowning in drug-crazed debauchery. It began in a small city called Madinah, in the north of Arabia when the following Qur’anic verses (5: 90-91) were first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam – may Allah’s peace be upon him) and his followers:

“O Believers! Intoxicants, gambling, idolatry and fortune-telling are abominations devised by Satan. So, avoid them in order to be successful. Satan seeks to stir up enmity and hatred among you through intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah and from regular prayer. So, will you not then desist?” (5: 90-91)

Satanic Origin: Branding them as devised by Satan

Allah identified the origin of drugs for humans to realise that they are weapons of their most avowed enemy, Satan. In the battle for human souls, Satan uses a variety of tools which he beautifies and makes alluring in order to trap human beings.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The opium war's front line: Afghanistan, Iran and Hampshire

There has been a series of opium stories in the last couple of days that highlight some of the big questions in drug policy that the media and politicians rarely if ever want to mention, let alone explore in a rational and intelligent way.

First up was a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) about how much profit the Taleban (BBC) or Taliban (Daily Mail) are making from Afghan opium production. The figure given is a charmingly rounded and media friendly (although somewhat Dr Evil-esq) one hundred million dollars, which is, according to the UNODC, 10% of the total value of Afghan opium harvest valued at a similarly nice round $1 billion.

"one hundred million dollars"

This announcement follows a curious pattern in similar UNODC missives, apparently torn between wanting to let people know how bad the drug crisis has become, so as to justify their existence (and expanding budgets), and at the same time studiously avoiding the fact that it is the quite staggering failure of the international drug control infrastructure they have overseen for the past 47 years that has allowed such disastrously destructive illegal markets to emerge (indeed thrive). A similarly bizarre 'look how useless international drug control is; we are needed more than ever' announcement was made about increased cocaine production in the Andes this week.

Interestingly UNODC Director Antonio Costa is at pains to point out that the failure of the billions poured into counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan is even worse than was previously thought, with the Taleban moving into processing the opium into heroin, so as to make more money for the various unpleasant military and terrorist activities, and also noting that last year’s production was so massive (and by implication drug control so hopeless) that there is as much as 4000 tonnes of opium (enough to supply the global illicit market for a year) stockpiled somewhere across Afghanistan. This is disheartening news for the British troops (of whom over a hundred have now died, many whilst involved in anti drug operations); even if our boys achieve the impossible and prevent 100% of the opium production this year, the flow of opium will be essentially uninterrupted, and the whole hopeless charade will begin again next season. The miserable futility and human cost of this whole shamelessly political exercise is laid bare for all to see. There will doubtless be more bad news dressed up in as success in tomorrow’s UN World Drug Report. Watch this space.

Next, to Iran where it was announced 2 days ago that Iranian customs and police had intercepted a record 900 tonnes of opium, just over a third of the 2500 tonnes estimated to be entering the country in 2007 from neighbouring Afghanistan. Indeed Iran does have, by global standards, an impressive record in percentage terms for national drug seizure rates. But, and it deserves a capital B, not only did 1400 tonnes not get seized, but seizure rates (assuming the total estimate figures are correct) fell from 46% in 2006 and the total that got through actually increased. Moreover, since Iran upped its game on the interdiction front, the traffickers have done the logical thing and, being highly flexible and non-stupid, redirected or opened up new routes for getting their opium/heroin from Afghanistan to Western markets, mostly to the North through the former Soviet Republics and Baltic states. Thus it ever was with highly profitable markets run by organised criminals with more interest in making money than respecting traditions and national boundaries. Interestingly this analysis is not lost on the UNODC, which, again rather confusingly, is happy to proclaim local supply control successes whilst simultaneously revealing the stunning failure of the bigger picture regards total drug production - (often in the same press release, with last week’s cocaine press release being a splendid example). Indeed UNODC director Costa, an economist by trade, has made it very clear in public statements and publications that he understands this analysis of the brutal realities of supply and demand economics within a completely unregulated and highly profitable illicit trade (see for example here and here). The Iranian success, needless to say, has had no more impact on heroin supplies in the West than the recent UNODC trumpeted Afghan mega cannabis bust/nuking had on cannabis supplies (note how the ever scientific Daily Mail claims in this report "that Officials believe the area - near to the Taliban stronghold of Quetta in Pakistan - was turning dried cannabis leaves into heroin." - Im no biochemist but I'm positive that's not feasible)

And so finally to the sun dappled meadows of rural Southern England which, we are informed in a classic Daily Mail non-scoop, are now "The opium fields of England", in which "heroin-producing poppies [are] grown to make NHS pain-relief drugs" (since 2002). Unfortunately, nowhere in the Mail coverage do we learn that one the 'NHS pain-relief drugs' made from said poppies is in fact heroin. More significantly perhaps, we also do not learn that some of this 100% legal heroin 'made from heroin-producing poppies' 'identical to the plant used to produce heroin' is then legally prescribed to around 400 long term UK based heroin addicts, in injectable form, as part of a maintenance/stabilisation/treatment program. Indeed fact fans will be interested to learn that Macfarlan Smith, mentioned in the Daily Mail piece, are the only company licensed to buy poppies to produce opiates in the UK (there's another story here about their monopoly abuse pricing policy that means UK heroin is six times as expensive as in Holland but that will have to wait for another time). Also farmers do not require a license to grow opium poppies but are apparently required to inform the Police about cultivation. The licensing of the cultivation of legal opium (which until last year's bumper Afghan harvest was actually more than 50% of total global opium production) in the UK and elsewhere (primarily Tasmania, India and Turkey, but also Spain and Norway), its transit around the world, and its processing into various opiate drugs, including heroin, is overseen by...the UNODC.

Class A drug production in a field near you

As an aside the Daily Mail is also not exactly correct when they claim that: "Extracting opium from the poppies and turning it into morphine – or heroin" is "complex and expensive". Making morphine and heroin is tricky, but extracting opium - which is itself a potentially potent and addictive substance, is simple enough, requiring only some basic scraping of opium gum from the scarred poppy heads or a simple boiling and reduction process. Opium poppy seeds can be bought in any garden center and growing them is not illegal (odd in some ways that many of the UK's opiate users haven’t latched onto this). You can actually buy opium poppy heads, from which opium can be easily extracted, from most craft shops, and I even saw them for sale in IKEA the other day. Yes, you probably have some Class A drugs nestling in that dried flower arrangement on your mantle piece and don’t even know it. If you get bored and are not averse to risk and law breaking, I'm reliably informed you need about 12 heads for a decent dose.

But back to the real issue here. The opium poppies growing in those fields all over Hampshire and the South East (you can actually see one from just outside Didcot Parkway station for frequent London to Bristol train travelers like me), whilst botanically identical in every way to those growing in the wilds of Helmland province, have some significant and one would have thought fairly obvious distinctions. They are not funding nasty military operations by oppressive
Islamic militants, extremists and terrorists; the profits from their production and supply are going to farmers and legitimate companies. The heroin they are used to produce is 100% legal, is prescribed by doctors and used relatively safely by their patients – whom as a result are not dying of overdoses, getting HIV or Hep C through needle sharing, getting nasty infections from contaminated street drugs and dirty needles, robbing you, me, or your granny in the street, burgling your house, or prostituting themselves to raise money to pay the inflated prices demanded by illicit markets run by violent gangsters and street dealers.

We can keep on trying to eradicate production, cross our fingers that it’ll work one day (20 years was the latest plucked-from-nowhere estimate from DFID and the World Bank) and that when it does opiate addiction will be a thing of the past.

Or, back in the real world, experience suggests we need to take a different, arguably more pragmatic approach and firstly expand the model that is already in place, is 100% legal and operational under domestic and international law, and unlike the desperate and demonstrably futile interdiction efforts the UNODC and UK Government continue to back (at terrible human cost), is based on an extensive evidence base to prove its effectiveness on key public health and criminal justice indicators. Quite simply; every dependent opiate user brought within the legal system will reduce the demand for Afghan opium and horrors associated with its production, supply and use.

Do not expect to read this last paragraph in tomorrow's UN World Drug Report

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

From Reefer Madness to Khat Psychosis

Sayeeda Warsi, Tory party shadow spokeswoman for community cohesion and social action (and former vice-chair of the Conservative party) announced recently that her party will make Khat illegal if they come to power.

Conservatives will ban khat

In the article she argues that khat is a far from harmless drug and that making it illegal will improve the situation of many in the Somalian community.

'This is a drug that is beginning to tear apart the social fabric of certain communities... When any section of society is under threat, affected or underachieving, we must all stand up. That is why a future Conservative government would legislate to make khat a classified drug.'

This contention has been used in relation to heroin in non-immigrant communities and is a key argument in the prohibitionist doctrine. The flaw in this line of argument is that the most damaging drug to society is alcohol and I'm betting that Ms Warsi isn't calling for the prohibtion of that.

Khat. Not illegal yet

Ms Warsi's article mentions the ACMD report commissioned by the present government in 2005 on whether khat should become a scheduled drug. However she is somewhat disingenuous about the report's conclusions - she argues that,

'The government decided that its use was not prevalent enough among the wider community, and so it remained legal.'

This lack of widespread use is not the major reason that it was decided to leave khat outside the drug classification system. The ACMD concluded that banning khat would be much more damaging to traditional khat using communities than it is at present.

'If khat becomes more expensive due to criminalisation there is the potential for exploitation by organised criminal gangs already involved in the trade of illegal drug.'

The ACMD report highlights the fact that this has already happened in the USA where it is already illegal.

'However, since the USA made khat illegal there is some evidence of organised criminals becoming involved in its shipment to the USA.'

In the UK khat costs roughly £4 per bundle (which works out to be about £15 per kg). In the USA khat costs $400 (£200) per kg because of its illegality. If nothing else the startling cost differentials shows what happens when a drug becomes illegal. The price hike would be detrimentaly to Somalian (and Yemeni) societies across the UK. Families that struggle to manage on their current incomes would suffer greatly if khat prices leapt tenfold. Men from such communities may well end up turning to criminality such as drug dealing in order make enough money to support their habits. And criminalising whole communities is not going to increase social cohesion or integration.

Ms Warsi argues that khat is used more in the UK than in traditonal khat using countries, that it can trigger paranoia and hallucinations, as well as increase the likelihood of domestic violence. However the ACMD looked into these claims and largely refuted them.
  • Use in the UK is the same or slightly lower than use in traditional khat using societies
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a chance that it could be a cause of familial breakdown
  • In the UK there have been reports of psychosis after khat use however there is little evidence of this in traditional use countries. The ACMD notes that 'Evidence points to social stress such as the effects of war on the Somali population mixed with misuse of khat can increase the likelihood of the development of psychotic symptoms.'
  • Khat is not a 'gateway' drug although tobacco use is high amongst khat users
  • Khat is not associated with acquisitive crime

Making khat illegal would not only criminalise societies and raise the price dramatically leading further disenfranchisement amongst users but it could also glamorize it amongst certain groups and perhaps even cause use to spread outside its traditional societies.

In 2002 David Cameron , as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for a rational debate about drug legalisation and Alan Duncan, a member of the shadow cabinet, has said,

"The only completely effective way to ameliorate the drug problem, and especially the crime which results from it, is to bring the industry into the open by legalising the distribution and consumption of all dangerous drugs, or at the very least by decriminalising their consumption."

The policy on khat (and the Tory's support for the reclassification of cannabis to a class B drug) is a further example of the Tory party's move from an evidence-based reform position to a rhetorical populist approach as the general election draws closer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

New report calls for drug-free prisons

A new report released by the Centre of Policy Studies yesterday has strongly criticised the government's approach to drugs in prisons.

The report 'Inside Out: How to get drugs out of prisons' was written by Huseyin Djemil, former Drug Strategy Co-ordinator for seven London Prisons and previously a heroin and crack cocaine addict.

The report's main thrust is that government policy on drugs in prisons is wrong to focus on 'managing the problem [rather] than in eradicating it.'

Whilst some of Djemil's comments are valid, such as his critique of mandatory drugs testing (MDT) orders. He describes them as 'unrealiable and potentially dangerous'. However, his call for prisons to be 'drug-free zones' and that any approach should 'start from the premise that all illicit drugs should be eliminated from prisons' is just not realistic.

Djemil himself argues that, 'The demand for drugs is so great and the system so porous that this [mandatory drug testing, CCTV etc] will only cause minor disruption. Drug dealers in contrast are organised, highly motivated, clearly focused. They build effective alliances for mutual benefit and profit. As their resources grow, so does their buying power – and their capability to corrupt more staff.'

While demand is a factor, the real reason that staff can be corrupted and drug dealers are 'highly motivated' to smuggle drugs into prisons, is that prohibition inflates prices way beyond their true worth.

'Revealed: how drugs trade took hold of British prisons' notes that:

'14 Staff suspended at Pentonville prison in 2006 amid claims of drug and mobile phone smuggling;

68 Staff suspended from the prison service in 2006;

1,000 Prison staff suspected of corruption'

The article also claims that the drugs trade in British prisons is worth an estimated £59 million.

Scotland looks to a new future of drug control

The Scottish Futures Forum (SFF) has proposed a brave new world where all drugs, both legal and illegal, are controlled and regulated within one simple framework.

In a new report released yesterday the SFF has argued that, ‘By 2025, there should be in place a new approach to regulation in Scotland and elsewhere, based on evidence whereby the regulation of all psychoactive substances, including currently illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, prescribed medicines and other legal drugs will be governed by a single framework, which takes into account their different levels of potential risk.’

(Click on report to read)

The SFF was set up by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body in 2005. Its aim is to identify key issues affecting Scotland and stimulate debate between politicians, academics, civic society, and international organizations on how to resolve them.

The Forum’s most recent task was to address how Scotland could reduce the damage done to its population by alcohol and drugs. In doing so the report acknowledged that, ‘our leaders need to be brave and even radical if Scotland is to see significant reductions in harm.’

They are realistic about the fact that people take drugs for a number of reasons and that drug and alcohol related problems will be around for the foreseeable future. A survey carried out by the SFF concludes that, ‘77 per cent of young people surveyed by the Forum were doubtful that Scotland would ever be drug free and only 45 per cent of respondents felt we should even be trying to become drug free.’

In light of this, the SFF has concluded that, ‘There should therefore be a more honest approach to alcohol and drug policy, with the primacy of effort concentrating on prevention, harm reduction measures and treatment, supported by enforcement activities.’

They argue that any new framework should ensure ‘The cost and availability of regulated substances should be decided in tandem with prevention measures and taking into account the prevailing substance culture.’

Danny Kushlick of Transform praised that SFF report saying ‘…it points to the overwhelming and urgent need for policy makers to join up thinking across disciplines and departments to develop a cohesive plan for dealing with the reality of drug use in the 21st century.’

‘To its enormous credit the Futures Forum has… embraced wholeheartedly the taboo area of the prohibition regulation continuum… The fact that it has recognized the counter productivity of an enforcement-led approach and the enormous benefits of a public health approach will put further pressure on unreasonable tough on drugs rhetoric from vote hungry politicians… ‘Overwhelmingly what the report argues for is science over rhetoric and for democratic input above all.’

The SFF report calls for 'consumption rooms', the prescription of heroin rather than methadone and a controlled and regulated legal market for cannabis, amongst other policy options. This is in direct contrast to the Scottish Government's new drugs strategy that was launched last month. Whilst it puts major emphasis on the links between drug use and poverty, it still focuses most of its attention on a criminal-justice led approach and on 'helping people live drug-free lives' which is why the SFF report is so welcome.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

TV documentary: Prime Time Investigates: War Without End

An extraordinary documentary marking a new level in broadcast journalism critiquing the international war on drugs was shown on Irish TV last night (3 June 2008).

Filmed in Colombia, Ireland, England, the US, The Netherlands, Switzerland and many more, it includes a veritable who’s who of drug policy experts on all sides of the debate (Including Transform's Danny Kushlick).

It is absolutely unequivocal in demonstrating the futility and massive costs of fighting the war on drugs, as well as suggesting legal regulation as a viable alternative. A must see for anyone interested in the debate.

The entire program can be viewed online here

Sunday, June 01, 2008

UNODC director goes to Amsterdam: the lost report

As revealed on the Transform blog on May 6th the head of the UN office on drugs and crime, Antonio Maria-Costa, recently visited Amsterdam to see for himself how their policies on drugs (and sex work) operate in practice. Now we can exclusively bring you his personal account of that visit that has apparently proved so controversial with his Dutch hosts that it saw the light of day for only a few brief hours online before being deleted.

As the May 6th blog speculated the visit was possibly part of a response to recent challenges Costa had faced from civil society concerning Dutch policy's effectiveness (regards prevalence rates) relative to other countries that have very different polices (more in line with those espoused by the UNODC). Notably, a video of one such challenge made at the UN NGO forum in Vienna this March has now had 40,000 hits on YouTube - many times more than any of their expensively produced PSA's.

Costa stated at the recent IHRA conference in Barcelona, when asked what he had learnt from his visit, that he would be producing a report, throwing in a highly dubious sounding statistic about Amsterdam having three times the cannabis addiction rate of anywhere else in Europe. We wait to see whether he can back that up with any real world references – seems unlikely somehow but you never know; with some diligent cherry picking and other statistical shenanigans you can show just about whatever you want. From his various comments on the Netherlands drug policy and given the UNODC and INCB’s historically hard line philosophy and animosity to progressive drug policy generally (and lauding of the Swedish zero tolerance anti-harm reduction model) the worry has to be that he approached the visit as an opportunity to seek out evidence to bolster his preconceptions rather than as an part of an objective review of policy impacts and efficacy. Costa has made big play of his sound bite that countries get 'the drug problems they deserve' and presumably does not want to be proven wrong by those pesky Dutch liberals (they are actually very conservative, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story).

Transform has now received a document titled ‘Amsterdam blog Mon 27 April 08’ which apparently appeared briefly on ‘Costa’s Corner’, his UNODC blog (although not really a blog as you can’t post comments) before swiftly disappearing again. Sadly I don’t visit it often enough to confirm this (posting is not very frequent, or very interesting). Still, the rumour is that Costa presented a report on his Amsterdam visit to his host, the Netherlands Ministry of Health, and that this report was considered unacceptable, and rejected by them. So it may be that this blog was indeed posted in Costa's Corner but retracted after a few days - when the relevant Dutch authorities made it clear they were not happy with his public pronouncements (not for the first time - and remember they are one of the UNODC's biggest donor states). But who really knows – he is an international man of mystery.

Anyway, here is the now disappeared personal report for your unedited reading pleasure, the authenticity of which we have no reason to doubt. We await (with a certain weary trepidation) the revised version, should one ever appear, and also the final UNODC Amsterdam report, which may even include some references. I have added some preliminary comments in blue italics. I’m sure some of our Dutch colleagues will have more to say about all this, and your comments are welcome.....

Amsterdam: City of Tolerance is Tightening the Rules

Amsterdam is famous for its business wealth, world-class museums, canals, ubiquitous bicycle riders and care-free lifestyle - as well as for its red light district and marijuana coffee-shops. Since my Office is responsible for drug control and crime prevention (including fighting human trafficking), I decided to learn more about the facts - rather than the myths - surrounding the cannabis and sex trades in this wonderfully unique city. Thanks to the generous hospitality of Mayor Job Cohen and his staff, with colleagues from the Office I made a study tour of the city, with a full programme of meetings, lectures, presentations and on sight visits.

Back in Vienna, so many images of this fascinating city stick in my mind: the beautiful Rijksmuseum, the phantasmagoria of tulips, the historic bridges and the richly decorated houses overlooking the canals. But also the sights and the smells of drug coffee shops, especially the one I was invited to visit (featured in the movie Ocean's 12). Its jolly owner -- who said (and one could tell) he had personally tested all his products -- proudly showed me a colourful marijuana menu, that he compared it to a wine list, emblazoned with colourful graphics and vivid jargon. On offer were hashish products, ranging from the expensive Dutch-produced full and rich Water Works (at 50 euro a gramm) recommended only to experienced smokers, to the cheaper black Lala Hasna from Morocco, graded very strong stoned.

Note the contemptuous ‘he’s a druggie’ dig nestling in this paragraph

There were also varieties of marijuana like the very strong, clear high Mexican Haze, the sweet & fruity Love Potion no. 5, and a cheap mellow & spicy Laughing Buddha.

That was about drugs. What about sex?

Equally unforgettable were Amsterdam's sex windows (450), its brothels (30) and escort agencies (120). I recall, just facing our boat's embarcadero, one house with 3 such windows and as many scantly clad prostitutes soliciting their bodies – right next to a kindergarten, and across the street from one of Amsterdam's most beautiful churches.

Children and religion: pressing some emotive buttons?

Throughout the red light district a great variety of skin colours, ages, sizes and shapes were on offer (apparently there are around 8,000 sex workers). I cannot say much about the prices and types of services as we did not walk into any of these joints or speak with any of the women for rent, but the sex market seemed thriving. More than once I saw male clients, after some hesitation in front of the merchandise on display (sorry: in front of the girls), walk in - and the window curtain immediately pulled shut.

OK – slightly sneering but essentially reasonable descriptions of a coffee-shop and some window sex workers. Shame he didn't see fit to talk to any of the sex workers. That seems like a major missed opportunity.

A libertine city?

Despite its reputation, the Netherlands does not actually have a tolerant drug policy. Law enforcement is tough. There are increased efforts to hit drug traffickers and confiscate their assets: the city's enormous Schiphol airport has long maintained a zero-drug tolerance on passengers, crews, cargos and even aircraft.

It is in fact almost uniquely tolerant towards users, even if not to trafficking; important distinction. Obviously every airport on Earth has a zero tolerance approach to trafficking so this remark is meaningless. He seems to struggle to understand how tolerance and strict regulation can be compatible.

Throughout the country, there are plenty of measures (even coercive) to address the health of drug addicts. Spending on drug control is by far the highest in Europe (almost 0.7% of GDP). As a result, the Netherlands has below EU-average annual prevalence rates of cocaine, opiate, and amphetamine use. The percentage of people (aged 15-65) who consume cannabis at least once a year (5.4%) is above the global average (3.9%), though much lower than, say, Spain and Italy (11.2%) or Canada (17%).

None of these three countries have coffee shops

Note, however, that despite the high budget expenditure (much larger than even in Sweden, where 0.47% of GDP is spent in drug control), the prevalence rate of cannabis use in the Netherlands is greater than in Sweden (3.1%). Is it that tolerant attitudes on the ground (i.e. at the municipal level) reduce the impact of otherwise uniquely high drug-related national budget expenditure?

Is that pure speculation? Greece has one fiftieth the per-capita drug expenditure of the Netherlands and a lower level of drug use (according to the EMCDDA). Could it be that levels of drug use are determined by a complex and highly localised interplay of multiple social, cultural, economic and demographic variables, and that government drug policies, specifically enforcement and prevention efforts, have, at best, only marginal impacts?

A convincing model?

Of course, a closer scrutiny of the drug prevalence numbers, their causes and implications is needed, and we are undertaking it at UNODC. A few facts struck me, however. First, the marijuana coffee shops concept is logically flawed, as owners buy the drug illegally in bulk from traffickers and then sell it legally at retail.

That would be your fault Costa. Whilst tolerating use may be allowed by a flexible interpretation of the conventions, legal production for sale obviously isn’t. The Dutch system is obviously flawed, but that is because of the constraints placed on it by the legal framework that Costa oversees - tolerance rather than legal regulation of production supply and use. This fact is not lost on the Dutch, which is why their parliament recently discussed how this problem might be addressed ,with a call for the system to be regularised within a new international framework coming from a group of senior Dutch policy makers. Costa must have known about this and it's a shame it doesn’t get a mention.

Second, these are licensed shops that sell an internationally controlled (i.e. illicit) drug: hence the complaints from neighbouring countries that drug tourism is encouraged.

Ive never been sure why cannabis tourism is inevitably a bad thing? Some people come to the city to enjoy the coffee shops. So what? Will Costa be condemning the famous - all you can drink - tours of Amsterdam's Heineken brewery?

Third, as the EU smoking ban in public places comes into effect on 1 July, Dutch citizens will face the bizarre situation of being allowed to smoke a cannabis joint, but not allowed to smoke a cigarette in a coffee shop. Does all this make sense to you?

This does seem strange, and I would have to be convinced that there was a good case for making this distinction, but it's really a side issue. Vaporizer lounges in Vancouver have managed to get around the no-smoking ordinances.

Why such a tolerant attitude towards cannabis?

We asked, and were told, that in 1976 the Netherlands passed an updated Opium Act that bans drug use (in line with the UN drug control Conventions).

Only the 1988 convention actually specifies that personal use should be subject to criminal penalties (and even that is subject to significant caveats). 1988 came after 1976 if I read my calendar correctly.

The Act makes a distinction between hard and soft drugs, although neither is legal (the soft/hard distinction is not sanctioned in the UN Conventions).

Hard/Soft is not a useful distinction and not one used by Transform and rarely if ever by others in the reform community. Even the most scientific ranking of relative harms (which the UN drug schedules can barely lay claim to) does not change the fact that all drugs can be harmful, and cannabis is no exception, especially when used in certain ways by certain individuals.

Nevertheless, and following a policy of dedoogbeleid (tolerance), marijuana coffee shops - which, according to the International Narcotics Control Board violate the UN Conventions - are allowed to sell cannabis under specific conditions (no more than 5 grams per person, no patrons under the age of 18, no more than 500 grams kept in the coffee shop, etc). The goal, as described to me, is to separate the market between more and less harmful drugs, curb street dealing of cannabis, and keep its users in the mainstream of society.

All of which it does very effectively, not that the prevalence obsessed Costa will tell us this.

What are the results?

A fundamental principle in economic science is that supply and price of a product affect its demand. With cannabis legally and plentifully available, its use is much higher in Amsterdam (almost 3 times more) than in the rest of the country (note: 80% of Dutch municipalities do not allow the sale of marijuana).

'Use' is somewhat different from 'addiction' as he proclaimed in Barcelona.

Furthermore, in Amsterdam marijuana consumption is well above EU averages - and these figures do not count the tourists.

The nature of averages means some places will be above and some below. There are of course many places without coffee shops that are also above the average, and indeed above Amsterdam regards consumption rates.

An urban problem? Hardly so: there is no difference in the rates of marijuana use between London and the rest of the UK, or between Washington DC and the rest of the USA. Elsewhere in the world, the urban setting does not affect drug consumption rates: why should it affect Amsterdam?

I would like to see some references for this. Are the relative rural urban demographics in the US, UK and Netherlands comparable? Do the countries geographies make a difference? What about other countries in Europe, ones that neighbour the Netherlands for example – is Costa cherry picking? And is cannabis not plentifully available almost everywhere?

To conclude, the city has a health problem caused by marijuana availability, and this could get worse as cannabis becomes more potent.

Cannabis is available everywhere and some health problems will no doubt result from its use, But, in what way does this 'health problem' compare to similar countries without coffee shops? .....*silence*

We asked plenty of questions, and were given lots of information from open, friendly and well-prepared experts, willing to engage in debate in a most courteous and constructive way
Everything that we learned, and the conclusions we shall draw from it, will add to UNODC's research on different approaches to drug control around the world.

In the mean time please read this ill-considered rant

Tightening the rules

Most importantly, we were told that Amsterdam is taking measures to reduce the number of coffee shops and sex clubs, to reflect policy and attitude changes about both. Country-wide, the number of coffee shops has dropped by a third in the past decade: the number of people seeking treatment for cannabis-related health problems has doubled in the same period. (Note: there were 729 coffee shops in the Netherlands in 2005, of which 226 are in Amsterdam.) We were told that the onward trend will continue.

The broader policy of tolerance, however, enjoys wide and growing support from police public and policy makers. Lets hope the public police and policy maker opinion polls are included in the final UNODC report - rather than a few cherry-picked negative quotes from dissenters

Tougher actions are also envisaged against people involved with drugs who cause public nuisance.

No one would really object to that. It’s not relevant.

I was happy to visit a care centre for addicts, serviced by dedicated staff with big hearts and an extraordinary sense of friendship.

Did you visit a supervised injecting room?

We were told that the government is also contemplating a ban on grow-shops

They are also 'contemplating' this in the UK. Sadly it is impossible to stop people selling equipment to grow plants. Its political posturing and nothing more.

and magic mushrooms,

in response to a tabloid panic

and is moving marijuana coffee shops farther away from schools.

Fine – but it also has a populist ring to it, rather like the UK's sporadic clamp downs on the 'evil dealers' of tabloid mythology who 'prey on school children at the school gates'.

(Note: the Maastricht town council is even looking at ways of restricting access to marijuana shops to residents, as a way of preventing drug tourism and related complaints by neighbours).

Again, if this sort of regulation is what is democratically deemed appropriate, fine, but they are specifically not talking about closing them down.

I was also interested to hear that the government plans to publish a comprehensive evaluation of the national drugs policy in spring 2009, that will "look at the effectiveness of the policy of tolerance, make a risk assessment of the damaging effects of cannabis, and focus attention on the social impact of drugs."

Great – but don’t pre-empt them, or put political pressure that would compromise its objectivity.

What about the sex trade?

All over the world the drug and the sex trades go together

Usually because they are both prohibited and controlled by the same gangsters. The debates around legal regulation of both correspondingly have a lot in common.

, often accompanied by violence and crime

See previous comment

: hence former Secretary General Kofi Annan's decision to established UNODC (in 1997) to deal with them all. Not surprisingly Amsterdam is also tightening policy regarding sexual exploitation and prostitution (which has been legal since 2000: the only city in the world).

Maybe I don't understand what he's saying here but I’m sure that’s not true. Prostitution is legal in the UK even if soliciting is criminalised. There was some pragmatic moves to have licensed brothels in the UK (currently they exist and, rather like Dutch coffee shops, are tolerated by police) but these have since been abandoned and criminalising paying for sex has been mooted. Yup. That should work.

The municipality is carrying out large scale urban renewal in parts of the red light district. One of the more striking projects is to buy up canal-front properties formerly used as brothels, and rent them out to fashion designers. It is a bit eerie, yet effective, to see well-dressed mannequins (from top designers) in the same windows that until recently exhibited undressed women. Still, the city admits to problems in combating human trafficking and the booming escort services (Note: the latter have doubled since 1999 and now employ 1000-1200 women and men).

Trafficking in women is a problem for sex work the world over. The difference is that in the Netherlands, as elsewhere where it is legal and regulated, the women are better protected and have better access to care services.

We visited a newly opened counselling centre for prostitutes. I was impressed by the efforts social workers are putting into remedial actions to rescue victims of human trafficking who are trapped in rooms not much bigger than the size of a bed, behind oversized street windows.

A hunch and a wish

Amsterdam deserves credit for its focus on evidence-based policy on drugs and sexual exploitation - and for the wisdom to adapt local regulations as needs arise. My hunch is that the progressive tightening will continue and address the health risks of increasingly potent cannabis (its psycho-active component, THC, is more than 15%, as against the 2-3% when I was a Berkeley flower kid).

This sentence starts well but then the cannabis potency issue appears, which is rather more complicated than Costa suggests here. Different strains have different strengths and as Costa has already noted, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, in a coffeeshop you can chose the potency you are after, and get advice from the vendor (but beware, he may be a stoner!). The lower potency strains remain in demand, just as some people choose to drink beer instead of absinthe. The relative balance of CBD and THC (there is more than one active ingredient in cannabis) can have a significant impact on its effects/risks.

It is also looking at better protection of the increasing number of trafficked women.

Good. But driving them further underground with enforcement crackdowns is unlikely to facilitate this, one suspects. What exactly are you calling for Costa?

My wish is to see this process of change well documented so that, first, the myths about Amsterdam's drug and sex trades are dispelled and, second, useful lessons are learned by other administrations.

Agreed. But I hope that it is not just you doing the documenting. As head of a globe straddling prohibitionist enforcement agency I would have to question your objectivity.

PS: Mayor Job Cohen is not elected (he is government-appointed) and I'm not a Dutch citizen. Should these two impediments be removed, next time around I would vote for him.

gratuitous brown nosing.