Friday, August 29, 2008

Commentaries on UN conventions now available online

The International Harm Reduction Association recently received digital copies of the Official Commentaries on the 1961, 1971 and 1988 UN Drug Conventions, as well as the Commentary to the 1972 Protocol amending the 1961 Convention, from the Legal and Treaty Affairs team at UNODC, all now available online.

These four volumes, each several hundred pages in length, are the official (although non-binding) explanatory notes from the UN to member states on how to interpret each of the articles in the Conventions. In essence, the Commentaries put ‘meat on the bone’ in providing detailed guidance to states on what the drug conventions mean, don’t mean and how they are to be interpreted and implemented.

Unfortunately the pdf files for these important and hard to find documents are massive (some as much as 50mb each), and the IHRA HR2 team has been struggling to find a way to make them available online.

As an interim solution they have stored them on an online document storage website.

The 1971, 1972 and 1988 Commentaries are now available in English, Spanish and French at

The 1988 Commentary is also available in Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

Simply enter the email address damon.barrett(at) and the password commentaries

Bear in mind, however, that they are quite large in some cases and if you are on a dial up connection may take some time to download.

Unfortunately the Commentary to the 1961 Convention is too large even to go onto this website! However, it has been online (English only) for many years at DrugText.

IHRA are currently working out a permanent, faster and more simple solution which will include the English, French and Spanish versions of the 1961 Commentary.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Illegal cocaine worth more than gold, platinum, and human blood

A group of scientists with too much time on their hands, over at the brilliant Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories website, have produced a guide to the monetary density of things, or in other words the value per pound of various commodities, from flour through to kobe beef, marijuana, human blood, gold, cocaine and antimatter. Are some drugs literally worth their weight in gold as Transform have claimed? - lets see....

ItemPrice per pound
All purpose flour $0.52
Zinc $0.80
Lead $0.85
Bottled water $1.00
Pennies $1.81
Copper $3.50
Nickels $4.54
Nickel $9.00
Bulk hemp fiber $12
Dimes $20
Quarters $20
Turkey feathers $26
Maine Coon Cat (Pet quality ~20 lbs) $50
Dollar coins $56
Uranium (as U3O8) $65
Kobe Beef Filet Mignon $112
Kopi Luwak $160
Human Blood $181
Silver $197
Printer Ink $322
Peacock feathers $410
One Dollar Bills $454
Two Dollar Bills $907
Lottery Tickets (California $1 scratch-offs) $907
Saffron $1,000
Marijuana $2,000
Five Dollar Bills $2,268
Industrial diamonds $2,300
LZR Swimsuit $2,495
Palladium $4,287
Ambergris $4,500
Ten Dollar Bills $4,536
Twenty Dollar Bills $9,072
Any object brought to ISS At least $10,000
Gold $12,000
Platinum $20,679
Fifty Dollar Bills $22,680
Cocaine $22,680
Hundred Dollar Bills $45,359
Rhodium $77,292
Good-quality, one-carat diamonds $11.4 M
LSD $55 M
Antimatter $26 Quadrillion

So there you have it. Cocaine is worth way more than gold, platinum or sending stuff into space by rocket, whilst LSD, a pound of which will set you back a cool $55 million dollars, is second only in cost to a pound of antimatter that, at $26 Quadrillion, will cost you more than all your pocket money (even if you save up for absolutely ages).

Marijuana/cannabis, it turns out, costs more that uranium, human blood, and saffron, as well being more than ten times as expensive as silver.

It should, of course, be pointed out that the ridiculously inflated prices of illegal drugs are specifically due to the fact that they are illegal rather than reflecting intrinsic value or production costs. The risks carried by the producers and suppliers are translated into inflated prices, their blatant profiteering pushing prices still higher - often by several 1000 percetange points. Unlike saffron, for example, which is laboriously produced from individual dried stigma of the saffron crocus, marijuana is laughably easy to produce in large quantities for almost no cost. Similarly, cocaine would probably cost no more than asprin to produce, were it a more conventional legally regulated product. This graphic reproduced in the recent UKDPC report on drug markets illustrates the point:

Going by these estimates, cocaine at its farmgate price (still arguably inflated over legal production) would be about $600 a pound, putting it just above peacock feathers, and somewhere between 1 and 2 dollar bills. To put this in perspective the mad scientists estimate that illicit cocaine currently costs the same, by weight, as 50 dollar bills. So curiously enough it turns out that one gram of cocaine costs $50, and a $50 bill weighs one gram. All the drug dealing gangsters will laugh at that; prohibition for them is quite simply a license to print money.

Lets just hope no-one finds a way of smoking antimatter.

Titan prisons:letter to Jack Straw from the Criminal Justice Alliance

The following letter, signed by Transform, was published in the Guardian today.

Other media coverage:

Guardian news
Daily Mail (complete with the seemingly mandatory hang'm and flog'm comments)

Rt Hon Jack Straw MP
Secretary of State for Justice
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty

28 August 2008

Dear Secretary of State for Justice

On the day that the Government's consultation closes, we are writing to you to highlight our opposition to the building of Titan prisons.

The Government's proposals to build three Titans, each housing around 2,500 prisoners, would cement this country's position as the prison capital of western Europe, while squandering billions of pounds of taxpayers' money which could be better spent elsewhere. The proposals ignore evidence that smaller, local prisons work better than large ones, raise serious concerns about the wellbeing and safety of prisoners and prison staff, and would put at risk relationships between prisoners and their families.

The Government cannot build its way out of the current crisis in the prison system, as you have previously acknowledged, and further expansion of the prison estate would be damaging both socially and economically. Instead of rushing headlong into an expensive prison-building programme, the Government must shelve its plans for Titan prisons and instead focus on addressing the causes of the growing prison population.

The evidence is clear; Titan prisons are not the solution to the prisons crisis. As members of the Criminal Justice Alliance, a coalition of organisations working in the criminal justice system, we urge you to abandon these misguided proposals for Titan prisons before they become a reality.

Yours sincerely

Lucy Gampell, Director, Action for Prisoners' Families

Davlin Brydson, Chair, Association of Black Probation Officers

Angela Clay, Chairman, Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards

Emma Norton, Bindmans LLP

Denise Marshall, Group Co-ordinator, Birth Companions

Christopher Jones, Chair, Churches' Criminal Justice Forum

Clive Martin, Director, Clinks

Dr Katherine Rake, Director, Fawcett Society

Professor Mike Hough, Director, Institute for Criminal Policy Research

Rob Allen, Director, International Centre for Prison Studies

Deb Coles and Helen Shaw, Co-Directors, INQUEST

Sally Ireland, Senior Legal Officer (Criminal Justice), JUSTICE

Gareth Crossman, Policy Director, Liberty

Paul Cavadino, Chief Executive, NACRO

Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary, NAPO

Chris Thomas, Chief Executive, New Bridge

Andy Keen-Downs, Director, pact

Colin Moses, National Chair, Prison Officers’ Association

Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust

Pat Jones, Director, Prisoners' Education Trust

Alan Hooker, Director, Prisoners' Families and Friends Service

Paula Harvey, Programme Manager, Quaker Crime, Community and Justice Group

Joyce Moseley, Chief Executive, Rainer Crime Concern

Sebastian Saville, Executive Director, Release

Harriet Bailey, Chief Executive, Restorative Justice Consortium

Paul Corry, Director of Public Affairs, Rethink

Baroness Linklater, Chair, Rethinking Crime and Punishment

Kevin Ireland, Interim Chief Executive, Revolving Doors Agency

Fran Sainsbury, RSA Prison Learning Network

Sean Duggan, Director of Prisons and Criminal Justice Programme, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health

Lucie Russell, Director, SmartJustice

Gary Kernaghan, New Business Director, SOVA

Steve Rolles, Research Director, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Bobby Cummines, Chief Executive, UNLOCK

Suzanne Sibillin, Director, Women in Prison

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Over 100 US college presidents call for drinking age of 21 to be revisited

It's interesting that at a time when the Scottish Government, and leading policy think tanks are seriously mooting raising the drinking age in the UK to 21 , in the US there is an emerging campaign led by college presidents to make a change in the opposite direction. The recently launched Amethyst initiative is a petition of over 100 US college and university presidents calling for the 21 age limit to be revisited. Their consensus statement is as follows:

It’s time to rethink the drinking age

In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state's federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21.

Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that…

Twenty-one is not working

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?

We call upon our elected officials:

To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.

To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.

To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold

I know nothing about the campaign beyond the website I stumbled upon, and of course there are 1000's of colleges in the US and I have no idea how representative the signatories are. But what did strike me was that many of the points made in the statement above are equally applicable to other drugs:

"A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking - often conducted off-campus - has developed."

The parallel: Clandestine drug use is more dangerous.

"Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students."

The parallel: Abstinence only education doesn't seem to have worked with drugs

“By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

The parallel: The need for students to go outside the law to get access to drugs fosters their disrespect for the law in general and for the authorities behind the law

"How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?"

The parallel: Fairly obvious

Age controls are an important element of any legal drug regulatory regime and there will always be a difficult balancing act between dissuading use, not inadvertently creating unintended negative consequences, and respecting the freedoms of consenting adults (itself another age issue). It's not easy and the statement above seems to point to one key point - that any system needs have its effectiveness objectively evaluated on a regular basis. These issues can never be written in stone.

I therefore wonder what the college and university presidents might say if they were approached to apply these same arguments about the prohibition of other drugs? Could this newly-established group -- dedicated only to rethinking the drinking age at present -- be another potential ally, or will it merely perpetuate the hypocrisy of our world by saying that prohibition doesn't work for alcohol or tobacco, but that it should apply to other drugs? That evidence based policy applies to alcohol and tobacco control but that illicit drug prohibition is cast in stone for all time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A response to Ian Oliver's anti-legalisation comments in the Independent

As the drug law reform position gathers mainstream momentum the number of people willing to publicly defend prohibition and critique regulatory policy alternatives is dwindling, along with the number of comment pieces attempting to make that case. Following former head of the UKs Anti drugs Unit Julian Critchley's piece in the Independent last week it was perhaps both inevitable and appropriate that space was given to one the old guard to attack Critchley's position and defend the prohibitionist status quo. In this case the honour fell to one of the brave few still willing to stand the their drug-war ground, Dr Ian Oliver, former Chief Constable of Grampian Police, now public speaker (for a mere 1-3K) , and author of 'Drug Affliction' , which the single (five star) review on Amazon describes as 'essential reading' (reviewed by Dr Ian Oliver).
You would hope that Dr Oliver, with his undoubtedly distinguished police career would have a pretty sophisticated and nuanced understanding of drugs policy, but if so it is not evident in his Independent comment piece, titled 'legalising drugs would only make matters worse' . Instead we are presented with a string of credibility-straining unreferenced 'facts' and a case against the legal regulation of drugs seemingly based largely on his own invented reality, bizarre inferences, and what I can only describe as a 'quirky' take on economics, maths and logic. A curiously distilled version of the Oliver's arguments can be seen in the BMJ discussion forums here.

(update 21.08.08: an edited version of Olivers Independent piece also appears in the Guardian's Comment is Free online today)

I welcome contributions to the debate such as these. Oliver's response, however well intentioned he may be, provides a striking contrast to Critchley's piece and I sincerely hope people will read both side by side, highlighting the yawning gulf in understanding. It also gives us the opportunity to pull apart the hopelessly lame arguments that prohibition's defenders continue to parrot despite the overwhelming intellectual and evidential case against them (see below - responses in small italics). I actually hope more of Oliver's colleagues will put righteous pen to paper and produce similar missives as they only invite ridicule and are quite brilliantly effective at undermining what little credibility the crumbling prohibitionist narrative still has, especially when so obviously juxtaposed against an eloquently put case for reform such as Critchley's.

Legalising drugs would only make matters worse
Recently, A great deal of media attention has been focused on a call for the legalisation of drugs by a former civil servant who was responsible for the Cabinet's anti-drug unit. In The Independent last week, Julian Critchley said that legalisation would be "less harmful than the current strategy" and that an "overwhelming majority of professionals in the field" agree with that view.
Now he has become a teacher, his dangerously naive views appear to be more harmful than an inadequate UK drug policy, and he must associate with a limited group of professionals if his assertion is not gross exaggeration. The majority of people in the UK do not wish to see drugs legalised, and only 6 per cent of the global population between the ages of 15-64 use drugs; this is hardly justification for legalisation.

Nor is this the justification Critchley makes. He argues for reform on the basis that the current policy is not only ineffective but makes things worse - and that our drug policy 'is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by evidence'. The fact that a position does not enjoy majority support does not nullify the arguments for it and appealing to the authority of opinion polls so early in the piece displays the intellectual weakness at the heart of the analysis. Whilst it is true that most people do not use illegal drugs , there are massive problems associated with significant minority who do - more specifically the sprawling criminal markets that supply them.

The UK has the highest rate of drug misuse in Europe and the abuse of illicit drugs is a major social problem, not least because of the public health implications.
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the policy status quo Oliver advocates
Aids/HIV and other blood-borne diseases are global pandemics and there is a huge ignorance in the UK about these.....
There is no HIV transmission or AIDS directly caused by any form of legal drug use. None. The use of prescribed heroin with clean needles is not associated with any HIV transmission, so let us be completely clear on this: drug related HIV transmission amongst injecting drug users is very specifically a result of prohibition and the use of dirty drugs with dirty needles in unsafe environments it promotes. Oliver is apparently defending the policy that has caused the widespread misery and death he is simultaneously condemning, whilst criticizing those who propose proven approaches that entirely eliminate the problem. This thoroughly unpleasant and offensively stupid argument was similarly pushed by Joseph Califano in the Financial Times and the BMJ recently, and - to their shame - the Home Office, particularly bizarrely given that they are currently funding a pilot study of Swiss-style heroin clinics in London.
and sexually transmitted infections, which are also linked with drug abuse.
er, predominantly alcohol abuse. But anyway the legal status of the drugs in question is irrelevant.

The legalisation of drugs would lead inevitably to a greater number of addictions...
There is no evidence that punitive drug laws are an effective deterrent to use and plenty of evidence to show that they are a marginal or negligible factor in drug taking decisions which are largely determined by a complex array of cultural and socio- economic variables. Drug use has risen consistently during prohibition, indeed faster than any time in history: Making the case for prohibition keeping drug use down it a tricky one, not that this stops Oliver (see below). For a more detailed discussion on the impact of drug law reform on prevalence see chapter 5 of 'After the War on Drugs Tools for the Debate'.

Critchley directly addresses this point with the example of the fall in smoking following more effective regulation and public health led interventions over the past two decades – a point Oliver entirely fails to engage with. increased burden on the health and social services,...
Again – no evidence is provided to support this assertion. Prohibition is very effective at maximising drug harms by encouraging high risk behaviours amongst users (injecting, sharing needles etc), and ensuring drugs are of unknown strength and purity and used in dangerous environments. It actively increases drug harms to users. With such pressures removed overall harm would fall under a regulatory system in which lower risk behaviors (including non-use) could be encouraged through re-direction of enforcement spending into proven public health interventions: education, prevention, harm reduction and treatment.

.....and there would be no compensating diminution in criminal justice costs as, contrary to the view held by legalisers, crime would not be eliminated or reduced.
This is ridiculous. Even the Home Office – hardly the most emphatic supporters of legalisation – acknowledge that crime would be reduced. Currently we spend over 4 billion a year enforcing the drug laws, in turn creating somewhere between 11 and 16 billion in crime costs. We know from the experiments with heroin prescribing, in which problematic illicit drug users are brought within a legal regulated system, that their offending drops dramatically as does related illicit market activity. The crime costs associated with alcohol prohibition in Al Capone’s era largely disappeared when alcohol was re-legalised and regulated.

Perhaps it is not widely known that there is a global movement to overturn the United Nations Conventions and secure the legalisation of all drugs driven by people who see huge profits to be had from marketing another addictive substance.
An example of the daft evil-legalisation-conspiracy theories popping up with increasing frequency (as meaningful intellectual arguments prove increasingly hard to cobble together). It is a now familiar and rather sad gambit of those on the defensive in a public drugs debate to accuse the opposition of being corrupt or having sinister financial backers – usually being in the pay of Big Pharma or an evil anonymous billionaire. To note: If I have a sinister paymaster, the cheque has yet to arrive, and I honestly have no motive beyond our mission statement. Transform is a registered charity funded largely by charitable trusts (details freely available), the staff receive pretty measly salaries (grumble grumble), our many volunteers none, and unlike Dr Oliver, our books are all free online, and we don’t charge three grand for speaking engagements.
Critchley remember, whose article Oliver’s cut and paste rant is supposed to be a response to, is evidently not funded by anyone, indeed he only returned to the media spotlight reluctantly (8 years after leaving his post) because someone happened to spot an obscure blog comment post and alerted the media (wasn’t me boss). Oliver’s deliriously stupid and unfounded accusations do, of course, conveniently divert attention from having to actually engage with most of Critchley's arguments or analysis. So if you have a specific accusation about us Mr Oliver, I want to hear it. Otherwise, shut up, grow up, and lets stick to the policy debate please. With us – not some phantom enemy.
We also see a comparatively new arrival in the paranoid prohibitionist conspiracy canon, the equally risible suggestion that there is some sort of legalisation Illuminati attempting to ‘overturn’ the UN conventions, with unspecified and unstated aims left to the readers imagination, but we presume to be some sort of end of days global-hedonistic-anarchy-Sodom and Gomorrah type thing. (But who knows?).
Needless to say it’s all prize winning twaddle which would probably also be mildly offensive if it wasn’t so ridiculous. At Transform, its true, we do occasionally don hooded capes, sacrifice chickens, drink the blood of virgins and chant Latin incantations around candle lit pentagrams – but that’s just team building and nothing to do with our policy or campaigning work.
Of course there are a many individuals and NGOs seeking to reform and adapt the UN drug conventions and related institutional structures so that they are better able to deal with the challenges faced today – challenges that are dramatically different to the era in which the conventions were conceived and drafted (going back to the 40's). Indeed the need to make the conventions ‘fit for purpose’ has been highlighted at the very top of the UN drug control infrastructure. This UN drug control reform debate is both entirely appropriate (indeed encouraged and funded by the UNODC - an organisation whose initials Dr Oliver likes to put after his name having done consultancy work for them) and urgently needed given the all to obvious failings and unintended negative consequences of current global approach Oliver apparently wants to defend (consequences also acknowledged within the UNODC system itself).
Amongst the reform minded NGOs are some, including Transform, that seek UN level legal reforms that allow greater flexibility within the system for individual countries – or groups of countries - to opt out of some of the rigid prohibitionist strictures, if they democratically determine it to be in their best interest. This is a freely, widely and publicly stated position and Transform, amongst others, are welcomed by the UN to the debating forum to make their case, having been awarded ECOSOC special consultative UN status in 2006. We seek to reform and improve the obviously failing UN drug control systems, not to 'overturn' them.
Research has demonstrated that the dependency rate for "legal" drugs among those who chose to use them would be around 50 per cent, the same as tobacco, which is why major companies are turning to developing countries in order to encourage smoking.

Different populations of drug users (by drug, geography, demographics, social class, sex, ethnicity etc) display dramatically different behaviors and experience dramatically different levels of harm. Legal status has little or nothing to do with addiction rates, and to suggest that when illegal drugs are brought within a legal framework addiction rates for all drugs will magically change to 50% - on the basis that 'that’s what’s happened with tobacco’ (again referring to some mysterious unreferenced ‘research’ ) is, well, non-congruent with any conventional understanding of addiction science that I'm aware of.

Recently, a TV programme discussed the issue, and several members of the public phoned in their views, most of which were responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs.

Supporters of legal drug regulation are all ‘responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs’. Unlike many who share Oliver’s punitive prohibitionist position, however, they are able to make a distinction between use and misuse, or problematic and non-problematic use, (the mainstream public, media and political discourse does not struggle to make this distinction with alcohol) and also think that proven public health interventions are likely to be a better way forward than mass criminalisation of young people.

However, it was alarming to hear several people say that they thought that legalising drugs would be the most effective way of dealing with the problem. All of these good people believed that such action would defeat the traffickers, take the profit out of the drug trade and solve the drug problem completely.
No, not ‘solve the drug problem completely’, rather dramatically reduce the problems specifically associated with the illegal market. Legalisation and regulation does not claim to be a silver bullet or a panacea – merely reduce the carnage directly created by prohibition and the criminal control of a multi billion pound market in dangerous drugs. Also worth pointing out that random phone ins on an unnamed TV show do not necessarily represent the extensive body of expertise in the drug law reform movement.

There was no consideration given to the fact that there is a thriving black market in the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco,...
The criminal market for tobacco is around 20% of the total market, and most of that is smuggled and at least produced legally in the first instance, even if tax and excise is being avoided. The illegal market for alcohol is pretty insignificant as it is so cheap and available anyway. Would Dr Oliver prefer 100% of the illegal market to be controlled by violent criminal profiteers, or 20%? Even if we conservatively use the tobacco market breakdown as our model, with a global illicit drug market turnover estimated at £300 billion a year, we would still be looking at £240 billion a year worth of criminal opportunity being eliminated and brought within the legal sphere. Illegal markets would not disappear entirely but the extraordinary profits on offer to organised criminal networks under the current system would dramatically fall. Its basic supply and demand economics. Drugs like heroin and cocaine are worth - literally - more than their weight in gold because only because of prohibition. Without it they are just basic low value processed agricultural products.

..and no awareness of the huge administrative burden that would be created by setting up a government department to tax and administer drugs if legalisation had occurred.

Billions saved annually from criminal justice enforcement expenditure would eclipse any regulatory administrative expenses by a vast margin, and the billions generated in tax revenue would also feed positively into the equation.

There was no awareness of the devious ways in which drug traffickers would circumvent the legislation and no thought given to the huge increase in addiction/dependency that would automatically follow such an ill-advised move, with the tremendous damage that would be visited on the health services in perpetuity. The tax demands would rocket as a consequence.
Harm would fall, as would health costs, as already outlined. Financial savings across government would be huge.
It is always asserted that legalisation would take the profit out of drug trafficking and would result in a huge drop in crime but, short of the Government distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain their drugs would continue to do so if they became legal.
Under a legally regulated system the Government is in the position to determine pricing and the balance would have to be struck between keeping prices low enough to discourage illicit market activity and high enough to discourage use – the ongoing dilemma faced with tobacco pricing policy. None the less this is a a key intervention that Government are completely powerless to do under the existing unregulated criminal free for all Dr Oliver advocates. Drugs supplied under a medical prescription model to small minority of long term problematic users (this model already exists and functions both effectively and legally) would indeed be effectively free, but would only represent a small part of the total market. Worth noting that almost zero crime is committed by tobacco and alcohol addicts to support their habits. Oliver again misunderstands basic economics; Expensive drug habit = stealing, cheaper drug habit = less stealing.

It is seldom made clear which drugs the legalisers are referring to and to whom they should become available.
It’s perfectly clear if you can be bothered to read the relevant documents rather than inventing your own reality based on TV show phone ins. The lack of clarity is your own private domain of willful ignorance.

Is it the position that they wish to legalise "crack" and will all people, regardless of age and mental condition, be able to buy them?

Obviously not. You clearly don’t understand the concept of 'regulation' .

The cumulative effects of prohibition and interdiction, combined with education and treatment during 100 years of International Drug Control, have had a significant impact in stemming the drug problem.
Im sorry, but comments like this are basically beyond satire. LOOK AROUND YOU and tell me again that you think prohibition has been effective.

Legalisation would be likely to convince people that any legal activity cannot be very harmful,...
Again, utter nonsense. A key element of future policy is that part of the redirected enforcement expenditure would be spent on educating key vulnerable populations about drug risks, and encouraging responsible lifestyle choices. There is nothing about pragmatic law reform that precludes a stong anti drug message, indeed it is the enforcement of prohibition that devours the lions share of precious drug policy resources better spent on evidence based public health measures, as well as actively preventing the development of social and cultural norms around safer, more responsible drug use (or indeed abstinence).

... increase the availability of drugs...
legal regulation allows some degree of control over the availability of drugs, currently we have none at all as prohibition has abdicated all control to violent gangsters and unregulated street dealers.
...increase the harmful consequences associated with drugs and remove the social sanctions normally supported by the legal system.

Rubbish. See above.

All drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, can be dangerous if they are taken without attention to appropriate medical advice.
Obviously true – and equally obviously why they need to be appropriately legally regulated rather than left in the hands of criminals and street dealers.
Instead of calling for legalisation, it would be far more sensible, as Nick Harding suggested in his article about cannabis use in yesterday's Independent, to seek improved policies. The compassionate and sensible approach should be that we do everything possible to reduce addiction and drug abuse, not encourage it.
No one in drug law reform movement is opposed to sensible prevention measures if they can be shown to be effective, in fact the entire thrust of the movement is to realign policy towards public health interventions that can be shown to work and away from criminal justice measures that are proven to be futile and counter productive.

For more on the drugs debate, and how to respond to frequently raised concerns about drug law reform please see Transform's recent publication: After the war on Drugs; Tools for the Debate.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Former Police Chief of Seattle critiques the War on Drugs

From Reason TV

Norm Stamper is a cop who saw it all during his 34 years on active duty. As police of Seattle from 1994 through 2000, he was in charge during violent World Trade Organization protests in the Emerald City.

Stamper, who holds a Ph.D. in leadership and human behavior from United States International University, has emerged as one of the most thoughtful and outspoken critics of the war on drugs, which he believes causes untold misery, undermines effective law enforcement, and doesn't begin to pass any sort of cost-benefit analysis. As important, the libertarian Stamper believes that the drug war—and other wars on the behaviors on consenting adults—does great violence to the idea that we own our bodies.

Stamper is the author of the Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing (2005) and now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a nonprofit created by former cops to "reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition."

For an audio podcast version, go here.

Typical of the US debate it is heavily cannabis skewed, a doubtless reflecting his experience on the front line, and also reflects his libertarian sensibilities. Interesting stuff from a senior police officer.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How the Daily Mail dealt with the Julian Critchley story

As reported on our blog on Wednesday, the former head of the UK Anti-drug Co-ordination Unit (UKADCU – UK Anti-Drug Co-ordinating Unit) Julian Critchley, called for the legalisation of drugs. It was reported in the Daily Mail online thus ’Legalising drugs would cause less harm AND cut crime, says former senior civil servant’. It is fairly straight reportage with some entirely unexceptional quotes from the usual suspects.

For a number of weeks now, Transform has been talking about policy climate change – the developing environment, increasingly toxic to prohibition and more nurturing toward fundamental reform. So how does the Mail story stack up? Firstly the headline is not rabid, it is absolutely neutral with a nicely capitalised ‘AND’. Secondly, the majority of the story just reports the key parts of Critchley’s analysis. It isn’t until the end that the unreconstructed ‘drugs are bad’ nonsense kicks in - the comments - copy and paste soundbites - seeming extreme and rather bizarre relative to the more nuanced Critchley analysis. Thirdly, no leader comment to undermine what Critchley said and no rant from Melanie Phillips (I know she’s on holiday, but my guess is that they have a bank of Mel sound-alikes that they could have drawn on).

For me this explodes the myth that the Mail-type reactionary tabloids will destroy anyone that calls for significant reform and shows that policy climate change is happening. As I have said many times before, it would be bizarre for any tabloid to seriously attempt to defend prohibition (aside from the un-useful ‘drugs are bad’ generalisations) because there is no line of reasoning or evidence to support it. Indeed the Mail has historically been equivocal and sometimes supportive of debate.

I was called by the Mail.

It is crucial that we, as commentators on the drug policy issue, challenge the rhetoric that the tabloids have created, an atmosphere where it would be ‘political suicide’ for senior politicians to call for prohibition to be replaced with legal regulation of drug production supply and use. As we are calling for the evidence to prevail on the policy issue, we should also review the evidence on ‘political suicide’. David Cameron will, in all likelihood be our next Prime Minister. Not only is he on the record calling for a genuine debate on legalisation at the highest level, he’s also a former cannabis user. Added to that, his friend and cabinet colleague Alan Duncan, is a supporter of legalisation, as he proudly displays on his web site. This is the next Tory Government folks, not some parliamentary candidates for the Green Party. Forming the next Government is not ‘political suicide’. Paul Flynn MP, the most outspoken advocate of drug law reform in the House has been reelected three times with increasing majorities.

My conclusion - the Daily Mail is not responsible for closing down the debate on drugs and drug policy – politicians are. It is their cowardice, opportunism and careerism that they prioritize over telling the truth about the failure of prohibition and the need to bring the drugs trade within the law and the ambit of state regulation. And that applies not just to Labour and the Conservatives. The Lib Dems have hidden their far more enlightened drug policy so deep as to render it effectively invisible, for (misplaced) fear of taking flak from political opponents.

Politicians cannot continue to blame the media for their reactionary positions and overwhelming silence on drugs policy reform. And we must not let them off the hook by repeating the myth that they are basically in hock to The SUN and the Mail. It is incumbent on our elected officials to subject any long standing policy to substantive analysis and fundamental review – especially when it has been subject to such long running authoritative critique from a wide range of academic, parliamentary and NGO bodies.

It’s our money that they’re spending on the drugs war, and they’re fighting it essentially in our name. Buying into the rhetoric about ‘what the tabloids will say’ is to collude with political cowardice and opportunism. The tabloids are in fact potential allies in communicating policy failure and the need for change to the wider public. The target of our ire must be our elected officials and their dangerous propaganda. Don’t let’s shoot the messenger.

blog by Danny Kushlick - Posted by Steve

Loads of people taking drugs shock!

There are two main official UK drug use surveys each year, the British Crime Survey, and the Department of Health drug use school survey, now compiled together by the NHS Information Centre each year published today along with various other data from the DoH, the Home Office, Office for National Statistics, the Health Protection Agency and NTA. Notably (pay attention journalists) 'most of the data contained in the bulletin have been published previously', in fact the only unpublished figures are on drug-related admissions to hospital.

It is now a calendar fixture that each time these surveys are published the media will run 'loads of people taking drugs shock!' stories, demonstrating their goldfish-like ability to forget the 4 monthly repeated fact that, unbelievably, loads of people are in fact taking drugs. As regular as clockwork, this morning sees the Independent lead with one of its tabloid style front page headlines:

None of these facts are new or significantly different from last year, when loads of people were similarly taking drugs. The Home Office, with similar predictability will spin the prevalence figures as best they can, and try and show that drug use is actually falling, when it clearly isn't - especially when you look at the area that matters most - problematic use of heroin and cocaine which remains more or less stable at its historic Euro-league topping high.

The Sun front page has a similar theme:

As does the Daily Mail

If anything this tri-annual media ritual only serves to highlight, yet again, what stunningly poor value for money we are getting from our disastrous drug strategy and just how hollow all that political posturing about 'cracking down', 'getting tough', 'turning the corner' and 'zero tolerance' really is. But nothing it seems will prompt the Government to change course or give alternative approaches even fleeting consideration (even though many evidently think we should in private). Not the relentlessly bad news on drug use, misuse, drug related crime, or the spiralling catastrophes in Afghanistan or Colombia, nor the endless stream of authoritative high level reports spelling it all out in tedious detail. More of the same is all we are promised, with a bit of populist window dressing if you're lucky.

The DoH is quoted in the Independent parroting the usual line that:
"More people than ever before are getting into and staying in treatment, drug-related deaths are down and the level of drug-fuelled crime has fallen substantially."

Scratch beneath the surface and even these claims are either untrue or misleading. They dont measure drug related crime, drug deaths are not down, and even if treatment numbers are up no amount of throwing money at the problem or diddling the stats can hide the fact that treatment outcomes remain obstinately awful.

The Independent at least gives the Transform position a nod in its coverage :

Danny Kushlick, the head of policy at the drugs think-tank Transform, said the Government was burying its head in the sand by refusing to acknowledge that millions of people used drugs safely. "In order to maintain its position on prohibition, the Government has to show that all drug use is dangerous. Politicians find it very difficult to admit that 90 per cent of those who use drugs either have a boring or a fun time. Drug policy is overwhelmingly focused in a very skewed way on problem drug users. We should focus our attention more on managing use rather than mismanaging misuse.

"We need legal control and regulation of drug use. That is how we manage use of alcohol and we need the same for drugs."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why we need a cost-benefit analysis part II

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has recently released a report 'Towards a better understanding of drug-related public expenditure' which backs up calls for a cost-benefit analysis of the current drugs laws.

Click on image to read the report

The report argues that,

'Quantifying a government’s drug-related expenditure is a first step in formulating an economic evaluation of drug policy interventions. This evaluation will provide information that can be used to determine whether or not intended outcomes have been achieved.'

The report also recognises that any form of CBA must also look at the alternatives to prohibition in order to fully evaluate the most viable options.

'Public expenditure figures are ultimately intended to enhance policymakers’ decision-making on drug policy. But decisionmakers must be very careful and refrain from taking decisions based on raw public expenditure figures without carefully trading-off the alternatives involved or without a sufficient evaluation of the possible consequences of spending choices. The simple identification of an area of low (or high) expenditure cannot in itself suggest inefficiency. An inefficient allocation of resources exists when the resources concerned could generate greater benefits if used elsewhere, but without an understanding of the benefits gained, it is not possible to assess whether expenditure in a particular area is efficient or not.'

This report is welcomed by Transform who have consistently called for a CBA (see my previous blog on why we need a cost-benefit analysis).

The new report, in conjunction with the Eurobarometer poll (blogged here) that asked young people their opinions about support for the control and regulation of drugs, suggests that within the EU and EC there is a willingness to look at alternatives to the status quo.

Unfortunately the UK goverment has repeatedly rebuffed calls for a CBA. In 2003 at a press conference, Danny asked the then drugs spokesperson at the Home Office, Bob Ainsworth MP, whether the government would support a cost benefit analysis of drug law enforcement. Quick as a flash his reply came back: "Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?"

Well it seems that within Europe those important questions are being asked now with a view to creating an evidence-based policy rather than one based on outdated, and irrational solutions.

Former Director of UK Anti-drug Co-ordination Unit calls for legalisation

The former head of the UK Anti-drug Co-ordination Unit (UKADCU - the Home Office department in charge of drug policy), Julian Critchley, posted to BBC Home Affairs correspondent, Mark Easton's blog last week, 'The War on Drugs' , calling for the legalisation of drugs.

Media Update: 14.08.08

In his post he also reports how those he met during his time at the Unit knew that criminalisation was causing more harm than the drugs themselves. (This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the damning report from the PM's Strategy Unit from 2003.)

"I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view : the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the Government's policy was actually causing harm."

Julian Critchley is to be congratulated for speaking out with such candour on the issue. One can only wonder how many other former civil servants are of the same opinion, but haven't gone public.

we live in hope

There is nothing to suggest that things have changed at the highest level in drug policy development in the UK, even if the name of the department has changed a few times (to show 'something is being done') since Critchley's stint in charge. During the recent 'consultation' on the ten-year drug strategy, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs described the Government's consultation document thus:

"it is unfortunate that the consultation paper’s ‘key facts and evidence’ section appears to focus on trying to convince the reader of success and progress; rather than providing an objective review and presentation of the current evidence. The ACMD found the consultation paper self-congratulatory and generally disappointing."
Plus ca change...

Critchley, having retrained as a teacher, concludes with the following:

"I find that when presented with the facts, the students I teach are quite capable of considering issues such as this, and reaching rational conclusions even if they started with a blind Daily Mailesque approach. I find it a shame that no mainstream political party accords the electorate the same respect."
Critchley's posts are copied below in full.

73. At 7:25pm on 30 Jul 2008, JulianCritchley wrote:

Several years ago, I was Director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit in Cabinet Office (which sounds a lot grander than it was). Our job was to co-ordinate Government policy across the Departments, supporting the then Drugs "Tsar", Keith Hellawell. I joined the Unit more or less agnostic on drugs policy, being personally opposed to drug use, but open-minded about the best way to deal with the problem. I was certainly not inclined to decriminalise.

However, during my time in the Unit, as I saw more and more evidence of ?what works?, to quote New Labour's mantra of the time, it became apparent to me that the available evidence pointed very clearly to the fact that enforcement and supply-side interventions were largely pointless. They have no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability or use of drugs. In the Spending Review we undertook, we did successfully manage to re-allocate resources towards treatment programmes, but even then I had misgivings about the effectiveness of those programmes. Many hear the word "treatment" and imagine medical intervention or "cures", yet many of these programmes were often supported largely by anecdotal evidence of success, and the more successful interventions were simply too expensive to use widely, given other pressures on health budgets.

It seems apparent to me that wishing drug use away is folly. The only sensible cause of action is to minimise the damage caused to society by individuals' drugs choices. What harms society is the illegality of drugs and all the costs associated with that. There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalisation would be dramatic. The argument always put forward against this is that there would be a commensurate increase in drug use as a result of legalisation. This, it seems to me, is a bogus point : tobacco is a legal drug, whose use is declining, and precisely because it is legal, its users are far more amenable to Government control, education programmes and taxation than they would be, were it illegal. Studies suggest that the market is already almost saturated, and anyone who wishes to purchase the drug of their choice, anywhere in the UK, can already do so. The idea that many people are holding back solely because of a law which they know is already unenforceable is simply ridiculous.

Ultimately, people will make choices which harm themselves, whether that involve their diet, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, sexual activity or pursuit of extreme sports, for that matter. The Government in all these instances rightly takes the line that if these activities are to be pursued, society will ensure that those who pursue them : have access to accurate information about the risks; can access assistance to change their harmful habits should they so wish; are protected by legal standards regime; are taxed accordingly; and ? crucially - do not harm other people. Only in the field of drugs does the Government take a different line, and as a direct result, society suffers truly enormous consequences in terms of crime, both petty and organised, and harm to individuals who are criminalised and unprotected in the pursuit of their drug.

I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view : the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the Government's policy was actually causing harm. I recall a conversation I had with a No 10 policy advisor about a series of Whitehall-wide announcements in which we were to emphasise the shift of resources to treatment and highlighting successes in prevention and education. She asked me whether we couldn?t arrange for 'a drugs bust in Brighton' at the same time, or 'a boat speeding down the Thames to catch smugglers'. For that advisor, what worked mattered considerably less than what would play well in the Daily Mail. The tragedy of our drugs policy is that it is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by reference to evidence.

77. At 9:38pm on 30 Jul 2008, JulianCritchley wrote:

Re : post 75, RandalCousinsI agree with you, as it happens. It's not as simple as some legalisers would have it. It would be a step into the relative unknown, and we should never be glib about that. It might involve having to legally recognise some very nasty people who are currently involved in the trade, but I suspect that the main difference would be that they would be pursued by the taxman rather than the police. There are international obligations, there would be people who would self-harm through drugs and would blame the change of policy. It would take a mature society to accept that some individuals may hurt, or even kill themselves, as a result of a policy change, even if the evidence suggested that fewer people died or were harmed as a result. I'm not sure our media society is ready to deal with that degree of reason. It would take a brave Government to face down the tabloid fury in the face of anecdotes about nice middle class children who bought drugs legally and came to grief, and this is not a brave Government (see the reclassification of cannabis against all evidence and the advice of its own panel of experts).

However, the Government accepts that its job is to confront and challenge ignorance in other fields such as homophobia and racism, and the equality agenda was also once very unpopular with the tabloids (maybe still is in some parts). So I was thoroughly disillusioned to see so many people who had sought power, refusing to exercise the responsibility which went with that power. What is the point in seeking office in order to improve the lot of society, if you refuse to act on something which would dramatically improve the lot of society, especially those with the least ?

I left the Civil Service and retrained as a teacher, in no small part due to my experiences of having to implement policies which I knew, and my political masters knew, were unsupported, or even contradicted, by evidence. I find that when presented with the facts, the students I teach are quite capable of considering issues such as this, and reaching rational conclusions even if they started with a blind Daily Mailesque approach. I find it a shame that no mainstream political party accords the electorate the same respect.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Transform Miniblog

In the right sidebar you will notice that the blog has spawned a new 'miniblog'.

The idea of the miniblog is to allow the Transform team to post interesting links, with a very brief comment and description, when they don't really need a more detailed post on the main blog or when we just don't have the time to write one. It provides a snap shot of the river of information flowing into our computers each day: news reports, writing on reform, drug war lunacy, archived material we have stumbled into, other peoples blogs, images and videos, and other weird and wonderful cyber-detritus that washes up in our inboxes or otherwise catches our eye. It will be updated as often or rarely as often as interesting material appears.

The miniblog is a feed of the 10 most recent posts from our bookmarking page and you can view all previous bookmarks on its own page here. You can subscribe to the miniblog RSS feed by clicking here

Unfortunately you can't post responses to the miniblogs (unlike the main blog posts) but if it raises questions or issues do let us know, and if there are links you think we should include please flag them up by sending us an email from here.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Why we need a cost-benefit analysis

A testimony published by RAND CORP earlier this year reflects what Transform has long been calling for – a cost-benefit analysis of all the policy options for the control of drugs.

‘What Research Tells Us About the Reasonableness of the Current Priorities of National Drug Control’

The testimony was given by Rosalie Liccardo Pacula a senior economist at RAND CORP’s Drug Policy Research Centre to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Domestic Policy United States House of Representatives.
She goes straight to the point arguing that,

‘The current mix of enforcement, prevention and treatment strategies is not the optimal for managing the drug situation we have today. But the problem is not just one of balance in the budget, which implies that simply re-allocating monies across the three primary objectives would fix the problem. The problem is also one of waste. In several areas, the 2008 National Drug Control Strategy advocates continuing or new support for programs that have either (a) never been scientifically proven to be effective and which on analytic grounds seem unlikely to be successful or (b) have already been shown to be completely ineffective.’

This line of argument is backed up not only by Transform (see What is the true cost of drug law enforcement? Why we need an audit for one example) but also by another economist in Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us.

"It is unconscionable for this country to continue to carry out a public policy of this magnitude and cost without any way of knowing whether, and to what extent, it is having the desired result. Our committee strongly recommends that a substantial, new, and robust research effort be undertaken to examine the various aspects of drug control, so that decision-making on these issues can be better supported by more factual and realistic evidence."

Many economists, and indeed The Economist (see here for example) and the FT (here) amongst others have been calling for, at the very least, a rational evidence-based evaluation of the true costs of the war on drugs.

Even the Government’s drugs spokesman in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam of Brighton, discussed the relevance of a cost-benefit analysis in looking at the full range of policy options in October last year, although he also rules it out.

‘…we believe that our policy is not only right but evidence-based [sic] and that we are making progress.... It is for that reason that we have begun to set out our strategy and decided to consult further on the way in which that strategy should be perfected [sic].

To make our position plain—it is worth putting this on the record—we do not accept that legalisation and regulation are now, or will be, an acceptable response to the presence of drugs [how can they know if they haven't conducted a CBA]. As I said earlier, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reinforced that view at the recent Labour Party conference when he said that,

“drugs are never going to be decriminalised”.

Legalisation is not open to us in view of our international obligations… The current policy of prohibition on drugs is international and is governed by UN conventions that make unlawful the production and supply of many harmful drugs and limit possession exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. It would be wrong for us to lose sight of that perspective. There is no effective cost-benefit analysis of such a policy, if one could be made. Any such policy would need to address the international dimension.

The impact of legalisation on levels of consumption globally is key to any meaningful cost-benefit analysis. Without accurate figures for this, it is impossible to ascribe meaningful figures to the likely public and individual health cost or properly to assess the impact on productivity and industry or on the level of industrial or traffic accidents. Such fundamental difficulties call into question whether the task is an appropriate use of research funding. The impact of drugs on health is the only legitimate reason for control…

The Government, like the international community generally, believe that the prohibition of narcotic and psychoactive drugs is a crucial element in keeping the level of drug use under control. Such drugs would become easier to access if they were to become legally available, and we would expect levels of use and the resultant harm and costs to individuals and society to expand significantly in the way in which alcohol and tobacco use has done... We acknowledge that there are apparent benefits to an alternative system to prohibition, such as taxation, quality control and a reduction on the pressures on the criminal justice system, but in our view these are outweighed by the costs to the physical and mental health of individuals and society that result from dependence on, and addiction to, what are mind-altering drugs. Legalisation would not safeguard these very real public health interests or allay the concerns; nor would it necessarily significantly undermine international organised crime. For this reason, the Government will not pursue legalisation either domestically or internationally. It is all too easy to lay the problems of the use and misuse of drugs here and abroad simply at the door of prohibition.’
Transform once asked the then drugs minister Bob Ainsworth MP whether he would commission an audit of the effectiveness of drug enforcement spending, to which he tellingly replied:
“Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?”

Finally, I’m going to leave it to Daniel Craig in the opening monologue of the gangster movie Layer Cake to explain who really benefits from the present system of prohibition and who will lose out when they are legally regulated again (first two minutes).