Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lords jump on the canna-panic bandwagon

Some cannabis, yesterday.

The government have scored another victory in its battle with the evil weed. Jacqui Smiths decision to reclassify cannabis from class C to B -despite the explicit advice of its own experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to keep it at C - was supported in the Lord's yesterday, the final potential hurdle before the reclassification takes effect in January.

In a last-ditch attempt to postpone the change, Molly Meacher called a debate in the Lords arguing that not only is the move ill-advised, as use has in fact fallen since the drug was downgraded in 2004 and therefore ironically the shift could lead to increased use, but also this change in the law will lead to more young people being criminalised unnecessarily.

Meacher’s arguments are supported by a group of scientists in a widely reported letter to the Guardian. They urged Peers to maintain the trend of evidence-based policy-making by supporting Meacher's amendment. She argues that cannabis should remain class C and that the evidence should be further reviewed by the ACMD in two years time.

Some highlights from the House of Lords Debate include:

Lord Ramsbotham: “One reason why I am strongly behind my noble friend Lady Meacher on this issue is that I hate the thought of large numbers of our young people being wrongly criminalised for being in possession of cannabis, with all that a police record means for their future.”

The Earl of Onslow: ‘Some 10 years ago I was invited on to the programme ‘Have I Got News For You.’ Not long before I had said in public that I was pro the legalisation of drugs. The man chairing the programme, Mr Deayton, who I think later had to resign when he was caught using cocaine, said in a perky way, “Of course, Lord Onslow, you are pro drugs, aren’t you? I answered by saying, “I am going to respond to the question seriously because the issue is too important for flippancy. Drugs are by far the greatest social problem in the country and they result in the greatest amount of crime.” The policy we have in place at the moment obviously does not work… If we go on with our present drug policies, the prisons will be full and we will produce markets for the ungodly to get rich, and thus continue to cause serious social damage. Incidentally, the whole audience clapped loudly and clearly at my answer. To think that the public take the view of the Prime Minister is not very well informed.”

In the end, the House of Lords voted by a majority of 52 against the amendment, which, whilst a disappointment for fans of evidence based policy (at least in the context of a hopelessly malfunctioning classification system ) does at least mean that the endlessly tedious cannabis classification debate wont drag on for another two years and we can get back to talking about more important things, not least the wider failings of the UK's drug enforcement strategy.

Hopefully for (almost) the last time, Jacqui Smith responded with her now familiar line on the subject:
“This is the next step towards toughening our enforcement response - to ensure that repeat offenders know that we are serious about tackling the danger that the drug poses to individuals and in turn communities. We need to act now to protect future generations.”
In stark contrast to the rather depressing tale of political posturing taking place in the UK, the Dutch continue to lead the way in rational thinking towards drugs. This week an article in The Independent reported that the Dutch are planning to set up a cannabis plantation to supply cannabis to coffee shops throughout The Netherlands. This is an attempt to solve the ’back door’ problem (it is legal to buy up to 5g of cannabis, but the cultivation and supply of cannabis to the coffee shop remains illegal), which has resulted in an illicit industry worth around 2billion Euros.
Rob de Gijzel the Mayor of Eindhoven commented: “It's time that we experimented with a system of regulated plantations so we can have strict guidelines and controls on the quality and price… Authorities must get a grip on the supply of drugs to coffee shops”
How this will work in practice regards international law remains to be seen, and the plantation plan will now go to the Dutch cabinet, and undoubtedly faces bureaucratic and political hurdles. Illustrating some of these tensions, elsewhere in the Netherlands the Amsterdam city council announced last weekend that 43 of 228 coffee shops must close by the end of 2011 because they are within 250m of a school. This tightening of the coffee shop system does not, however, threaten the general approach of tolerance and regulation of cannabis supply, which maintains a broad consensus of support from local and national politicians as well as the public, despite vocal dissent from some.

Switzerland is preparing to take a step further with a national referendum next week to move to a system of legally regulated production and supply of cannabis.

It all seems some way away from the UK where we are still obsessing over whether the sentence for cannabis users for should be 2 or 5 years.

for more on cannabis and classification see previous post

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Transform blog: BEST OF

After a little over two years, four hundred and fifty three blog posts and over 225,000 page views (10,000 unique visitors a month and a regular spot in the Wikio top 100 UK political blogs really isn't bad for a non-commercial super-niche policy blog like this one) we thought it was time to assemble a Transform blog best-of list. And here it is.

There is obviously an enormous amount more material that has not been included; much of it press releases, published articles and straight news reporting - so it's definitely worth going for a browse through the archive menu down there on the right.

I've gamely tried to divide the list up into various categories but there is inevitably a lot of cross over so don't pay them too much attention. If the bad science, bad politics and bad journalism headings all seem a bit negative, that's partly because the good news blogs tend to be 'this is good *point*' and as such just aren't as interesting, and partly because at this stage of the campaign, there's sadly still a lot more bad stuff to critique than there is good stuff to celebrate. There's other categories: cannabis gets its own one, as does alcohol and tobacco, international news, a small one for scoops, and finally a miscellaneous category for all the best-of blogs that didn't easily slot in elsewhere.

A big thanks to our bloggers, readers, and all those who have posted comments (even the trolls).


In many ways a distraction from more pressing drug policy issues but, particularly with the whole sorry reclassification saga unfolding over the last few years, it has obsessed the media and correspondingly provided a rich vein of bad reporting, bad science and political idiocy that is hard for a critical drug policy blog to ignore. The Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday in particular have distinguished themselves, but they have been far from alone.

Daily Mail, Bad Science Drugs Deaths and Reclassification
Aug 06. The first blog to really critique bad science and misreporting of drug statistics. On this occasion linking cannabis reclassification with a rise in opiate deaths (that took place before cannabis was reclassified - Doh!). More Daily Mail silliness here and here.

How the Independent on Sunday got it horribly wrong on Cannabis
March 07. A masterpiece in poor journalism is forensically taken to pieces. The biggest hit count of any blog post to date. Follow ups part 1, part 2

More shoddy reefer madness reporting of cannabis risks
July 07. The Lancet fails to discourage poor reporting of statistics.

Brown on cannabis - it gets worse
Sept 07. The cannabis reclassification saga comes to a head, the new PM makes a fool of himself, and any vague pretense of evidence based policy making goes out the window once and for all

More Independent on Sunday reefer madness exposed
Oct 07. A case of grotesquely misrepresented research and shock headline-mongering. The authors of the research question thanked us for this one, the IOS have failed to apologize or print a correction (also belongs under bad science)

Smoking stuff bad for lungs shock
Jan 08. Another one of those reheated drugs bad for you-shock stories.

Millions quit cannabis following reclassification
May 08. Satire – pulled in tonnes of hits after 'going viral' on social networking sites


There's been lots going on around the world - from crazy drug war excesses to inspiring reform news, with the US often at the center of the vortex. But increasingly it is the UN drug control agency’s struggle to come to terms with half a century of failure and a legal infrastructure no longer even remotely relevant to the challenges of the modern world in particular that has made for a particular brand of hard to ignore bureaucratic drama.

UNODC ramps up the weird drug warrior rhetoric
Nov 07. The UNODC director talks about ‘evil’, ‘junkies’ and ‘Britney Spears’. And says ‘fuck’.

What Darwin Teaches Us About the Drug War
Dec 07. Brilliant analysis from guest blogger Sanho Tree, on how enforcement acts as natural selection in the illicit drug trade, making the criminals ever more sophisticated and violent.

UNODC Director declares international drug control system is not ‘fit for purpose’
Mar 08. Not a scoop exactly – but you heard it first here.

When all else fails: blame Amy Winehouse
Mar 08. Various big hitters from the Prime minister to Antonio Costa lining up to blame celebrities for the failure global drug policy. Buck passing on a grand scale. See also INCB prioritise celebrity tat over human rights abuses and mass murder

Traditional coca use: caught in the cross fire
April 08. Some of the forgotten victims of the drug war

US Congress celebrates 75 years of drug legalisation and regulation
Sept 08. All a bit hypocritical really

Drug Free America Foundation clash with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
Oct 08. A clear points victory for LEAP


There's plenty out there with old-school prohibition clearly requiring a monumental propaganda effort of it to keep itself propped up in the face of overwhelming failure, and sustained critique. A number of these blogs ended up featuring, occasionally starring in the Guardian’s regular bad science column (as did some of the cannabis stuff above).

At last! polonium 210 in cigarettes hits the news
Dec 06 We’ve been going on about the scandal of radioactive cigarettes and lung cancer for ages – but still no-one seems interested. You try.

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and 'Prohibition Works!'
Mar 07. Commentary on statistical tricks used by drug war propagandists

Nitrous - No laughing matter
Mar 07. The normally sensible MHRA get in a spin over laughing gas.

Child drug vaccines: the worst idea ever
Feb 07. Mercifully they have yet to materialise

How to spin drug prevalence data: a beginners guide
April 07. This one is linked from several degree courses around the world. Nice.

Is this the most pointless drug research ever?
Jun 07. Cocaine detected in the air, in Rome. Why?


Watching the Government attempt to argue its way past sustained parliamentary critique of the classification system has been a bizarre and depressing spectacle - warranting its own bad science sub-category. It's an issue that shows no sign of let up with the upcoming miserable show down over ecstasy.

Classification and Deterrence - where's the evidence?
Oct 06. A detailed deconstruction of the Governement’s preposterous response to the Sci-Tech select committees suggestion that the deterrent effect of classification is un-evidenced.

Meth is Class A - we can relax now.
Jan 07. The ridiculousness of the classification system laid bare

The Lancet and drug harms: missing the bigger picture
Mar 07. Nutt et al spell out their methodology for assessing drug harms – a step forward, but key conceptual errors mean they have missed the point: drug use harms and drug prohibition harms are not the same.

Ecstasy reclassification meltdown; it begins again
May 08. As the cannabis saga draws to a close a whole new world of stupidity opens up, but with a different drug.


So much to choose from.

Playing SOCA with drug policy?
Jan 07. Discussion of why the Government’s new serious crime agencies drug brief is doomed from the outset, and the politics of why it was set up in the first

Yet another leaked government report critiques prohibition/calls for regulation
Feb 07. Still, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. Politics and expert advice evidentely don’t make comfortable bed fellows in drug policy.

No10 drug policy e-petitions: a total waste of time?
Mar 07. The answer would appear to be ‘yes’

The War on Lemsip
April 07. The meth panic provokes some predictably risible knee-jerk responses

Drugs minister gives a masterclass in drug policy spin and evasion
May 07. He’s no longer drugs minister – having graduated with honours and moved onto bigger fish

Gordon Brown on Drugs: friend of the mafia, enemy of pragmatism
Sept 07. More prime ministerial drug policy hypocrisy

NZ drug warrior pwned by Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax
Sept 07. Desperate drug warrior antics exposed

Home Office refuses to release strategy evaluation research
Sept 07. An ongoing disgrace as the Home Office, in the spirit of informed debate, refuses to release independent analysis that might make it look bad. The FOI appeals on this are still rumbling on.

Why we need a cost-benefit analysis
Aug 08. The most reasonable policy call possible – but still they wont do it. I wonder why?


For some reason illegal drugs are like a magnet for bad journalism. Beyond the reefer madness silliness above there has been no shortage daft drug panics, shoddy reporting or utterly pointless make-up-a-story-from-nothing journalism.

The anatomy of a drug panic
April 07. Even the Guardian are not immune from a good drug panic story. This time its BZP.

Ridiculous magic mushroom non-story makes 'news'
April 07. Contender for worst drug story ever

Rubbish drug story of the week
April 07 dustbin sniffing is apparently sweeping the country. ridiculous

Loads of people taking drugs shock!
Aug 08. The same story recycled each year by lazy journalists.

Ketamine: badger tranquilizer
Nov 08. Where did the horse tranquilser meme come from?


Transform are interested in effective regulation and control of all drugs, and alcohol and tobacco are far from perfect.

Supercasinos, drugs and alcohol prohibition: more than a whiff of ministerial hypocrisy
March 07. Ministers fail the consistency test when it comes to regulating ‘vice’.

Why alcohol ads being pulled from kids replica kits is nowhere near enough.
April 07. We moan about this on the blog, the following month it changes. FEEL THE POWER. (unfortunately there is still somewhere to go)

Why Transform supports the smoking ban
July 07. Yes, sometimes prohibition is the appropriate and sensible response.

Government complicity in the alcohol marketing scandal
May 07. Government can’t seem to get the level of regulation right for some legal drugs either.

Pseudoscience tobacco advertising from the bad old days
Oct 08. A collection of the very worst, most exploitative tobacco adverts from 30s, 40s, and 50s.


When stuff gets emailed in, or stumbled upon, we’ll cover it.

Forget the war on drugs. Here comes the WAR ON GUMMI BEARS!
Feb 07. No one can say we don’t break the big drug stories.

Home Office spin guide for the new drug strategy. Part 1
Feb 08. The Home offices very own guide to answering tricky questions on legalisation/regulation, leaked to the Transform Blog. Actual genuine scoopage.

UNODC director describes DPA event as '1000 lunatics', 'obviously on drugs'
Mar 08. Failed to win any friends by later refusing to apologise

UNODC director goes to Amsterdam: the lost report
June 08: SCOOP!


Various other interesting stuff that didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories

Has the heroin prescribing debate reached a tipping point?
Feb 07. Another senior policeman calling for heroin prescribing makes a media splash (he and media apparently unaware it is already both legal and prescribed).

A tribute to Eddie Ellison
Feb 07. Eddie Ellison, Transform friend and Patron, a senior drug law enforcer who became an outspoken and eloquent advocate for reform, who died in January 07. See also Interview with Eddie Ellison, former head of the Met drugs squad

RSA Drugs Report - so near and yet so far
Mar 07. Transform’s commentary on the RSA drugs report

Arnie, Whitney and the Hoff say: "STOP THE MADNESS!"
April 07. Hilariously bad 80’s video demonstrating the dangers of using celebrities in anti-drug campaigns

Prohibitionist rant trashed in the FT Economists' forum (with some help from Transform)
Aug 07. Transform hangs with ‘the world’s leading economists’

Drug testing company welcomes expansion of drug testing - shock
Aug 07. With much poor science spouted in the process.

Richard and Judy back drug legalisation
Jan 08. Yes, that Richard and Judy, the nations favourite TV couple

Transform in...wait for it...Take a Break magazine!
Jan 08. A truly momentous day

The Daily Mail's occasional forays into drug law reform
April 08. Very occasional.

A 12-step program for drug war addiction
May 08. As with most treatment programs – it’s hard to vouch for the effectiveness of this one

How much tax revenue are we gifting to criminals?
May 08. New research from the Netherlands suggests: a lot.

The opium war's front line: Afghanistan, Iran and Hampshire
June 08. It’s an international problem, with an international solution

Is Drug Policy Climate Change Happening?
July 08. A new member of the Transform team reviews media from the previous few days

Drugs, knives and moral panics
July 08. Different issues, similar media driven panics

Why crackdowns on drugs in prison completely miss the point
July 08. Essay on how policy makers are missing the bigger picture.

A response to Ian Oliver's anti-legalisation comments in the Independent
Aug 08. A workman like Transform blog smack-down

Former Director of UK Anti-drug Co-ordination Unit calls for legalisation
Aug 08. One blog that pretty much wrote itself

Treatment - a new definition
Oct 08. Drug users as hazardous waste

photo: Guardian

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thailand's latest crackdown raises concerns over human rights violations

The Thai government announced last week that they are launching a new crackdown on drugs . According to the Bangkok Post;

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has ordered a new crackdown on drug peddlers…. This has raised concerns, particularly on the civil rights front.’

Wongsawat: Thailand's new drug warrior

In fact the Thai authorities appear to issue statements about ‘new’ crackdowns with some regularity – the last one, due to last 6 months, started in February. Announcing such crackdowns is in many respects the sort of populist posturing seen the world over (not least in the UK); if the policy outcomes from your drug policy are all terrible, just announce some tough sounding new stuff to show you are doing something (evidence of effectiveness not required). Thai newspaper The Nation notes;

‘Normally, a move like this is perfect for frustrated Thai politicians looking to win quick political points in times of desperation.’

In 2003 then Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra instituted his now notorious ‘war on drugs’ that resulted in over 2500 extra-judicial killings - the reason that Thai drug crackdown announcements send a chill through human rights observers. The new Prime Minister (and brother-in-law of Thaksin), Somchai Wongsawat, has defended the ex-premier’s part in it saying,

'It was not extra-judicial killing by police. They were killed by drugs dealers.'

This follows Thaksin’s line whilst in power that the deaths were simply,

‘…the result of bad guys killing bad guys.’

An official investigation in 2007 found that over half of those killed had no connection whatsoever so drugs - that's over 1000 individuals murdered. A devastating report on the atrocities was published in 2004: 'Not Enough Graves: Thailand’s War on Drugs, HIV/AIDS, and Violations of Human Rights'. As recently as February 2008 Human Rights Watch reported that a Thai police captain and seven other members of the Border Patrol Police (BPP) had been arrested on suspicion of human rights abuses and corruption after 61 people filed complaints ranging from abduction to torture by the BPP.

In 2005 the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns over the number of executions and since then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called for increased protection for the health and human rights of people living with HIV, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and young people who inject drugs. Even the director of the UNODC has said that,

“It stands to reason, then, that drug control, and the implementation of the drug Conventions, must proceed with due regard to health and human rights.”

PM Somchai has tried to placate concerned observers by claiming that,

‘Implementing extra-judicial killings to solve the drugs problem is absolutely banned.'

However despite this statement and the reaffirmation of Thailand’s commitment to the UN Human Rights declaration on the 60th anniversary of its signing, there is concern that the crackdown will again lead to more human rights abuses.

In related news, the British government has revoked the visa of Thaksin Shinawatra who has been sentenced (in absentia) by a Thai court to three years in prison for corruption. The fact that he instigated and approved a program of 2500 largely indiscriminate and entirely illegal extra-judical civilian murders seemed not the bother UK immigration officials (or for that matter Man City Football club) but corruption is obviously a bigger issue for Britain’s government and its much lauded ‘ethical foreign policy’.

While Thaksin and his wife search for somewhere to take him in - a number of Asian countries including the Phillippines have refused him entry – Thai authorities have vowed to extradite him in order to serve his punishment. It is unlikely he will ever face justice for his murderous drug war.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ketamine: badger tranquilizer

Despite being used widely in humans and numerous other animals, describing the drug ketamine as 'horse tranquilizer' or 'horse drug' has now become almost universal across the media. From the tabloids to the broadsheets, the BBC to the leading news agencies, it is now unusual that ketamine is referred to as anything else*. Such is the hold of the 'ketamine is a horse drug' idea that a recent Mixmag cover-story on the drug actually pictured a 'clubber' wearing a pantomime horse head on the dance floor. Today even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime got in on the act with a report about how: 'A drug used to tranquillize horses has taken the world's dance scene by storm'.

Now, ketamine is indeed used as an anesthetic for horses, but it should also be pointed out that:

1. Ketamine is used extensively in humans
Ketamine is a dissociative and is a particularly useful anesthetic for the elderly, very young, and in emergencies as it does not suppress the respiratory system (although the powerful hallucinogenic effects - why it is used non-medically - are an unwanted occasional side effect). The UNODC report notes half-truthfully that it is 'used as a general anesthetic in developing countries' ; in fact it is used far more widely than that. Some of my anaesthetist friends inform me, for example, that it is widely used in the UK.

2. Ketamine is not just used in horses.

Ketamine is also used amongst a veritable Noah's ark of animals, including - in roughly descending size order: elephants, camels, gorillas, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, guinea pigs, birds, gerbils and mice. Oh, and badgers.

So whats with the horse thing? Why do we never hear about the 'gerbil tranquilizer ketamine', or the 'badger tranquilizer ketamine'? Horses are obviously quite large (except those little shetland pony ones) and you can see why horse tranquilizer provides a more potent scary-drug narrative for the headline writers, than say, guinea-pig tranquilizer. But then why not go for gorillas or elephants?

Indeed why does ketamine get the animal/horsey treatment at all, given that many drugs, (including morphine and diazepam for example) that are used medically and non-medically in humans, are also used for animals, including horses. None are routinely referred to in the context of their animal use like ketamine. When did you last hear about the the 'sheep drug diazepam' or the 'dog drug morphine'?

To be honest I have no conclusive answer, having been unable to dig up a definitive first pop-cultural appearance of the horse tranquilizers / ketamine meme (submissions in the comment section please). The popularisation of a substance being strong enough to “knock out a horse” may hark back to the the legendary Groucho Marx dishing out horse pills to humans and himself to comic effect in the classic A Day At the Races. But I suspect that the modern link to ketamine specifically probably stems from media reporting in the mid 90s of the drug being stolen from vets and misused. If the first media reporting of the drug was of stolen veterinary tranquilizers (from a stables) it probably then just stuck with our lazy journalist friends - even though subsequently most of the drug was supplied from larger scale illicit or grey market imports from India and elsewhere. If the first thefts had taken place from a badger hospital, who knows?

Its not a massively big deal either, just rather a peculiar and irritating reflection on the curious sheep-like laziness of drug reporting in the media generally. And this sort of entrenched semantic misunderstanding is hardly going to help rational policy development, or for that matter educating young people about ketamine harms or other drugs' relative risks.

Transform briefing on Ketamine classification/criminalisation from 2005

See also the similar piperazine /worming-tablet meme (in its early days)

* The Frank website being a creditable exception

Monday, November 10, 2008

Drug war remembrance

Remembrance Sunday, a tradition that seemed to be waning in its national importance, has assumed a new meaning and relevance for the younger generations with the event of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The day is still marked by the wearing of poppies, a tradition that grew out of the emergence of the flowers on the battlefields in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Belgium and Northern France at the end of World War I.

It is hard to escape the dual-symbolism of the poppy in relation to the Afghanistan conflict. Over 800 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan, over a hundred of them British - at least some of which have been as a direct result of anti-drug operations aimed at eradicating the poppy harvest that provides the raw opium that in turn feeds over 90% the West's demand for illicit heroin. Many more Afghans have also died, both combatants and civilians. The symbolic historical links of the poppy with death are not just the blood red from battle fields but also the opium connection; the poppy being used as a traditional tombstone emblem to symbolise eternal sleep.

The Afghan conflict is, of course, more complex than merely a war on drugs, but the massive illicit profits that flow from the poppy fields are fueling the violence, and helping destabilize the entire region. Eradication of the illicit trade is a key element of the coalition and now NATO strategies into which billions of pounds has been poured, and for which no let up is on the horizon. Yet there is nothing from the experience of the past 7 years to suggest it is even remotely possible, as recent bumper harvests and stockpiling demonstrate.

It also needs to be repeated that it is the prohibition of opiates for non medical use that creates the illicit trade in the first instance. There is no violence, criminal profiteering or terrorism associated with the 50% of global poppy production (for medical use) that is entirely legal and regulated. It is prohibition that creates the link between drugs and terror, and prohibition that is responsible for the nexus of their respective wars - which become increasingly difficult to disentangle as each year passes.

If we do make the terrible decision to send soldiers to war, with all the consequences and bloodshed that entails, then we should have a damn good reason for doing it. An unwinnable and counterproductive war against drugs comes nowhere close. Whilst we remember our fallen soldiers with poppies, we should not forget that their fellow soldiers continue to die in a pointless fight against poppies.

We may not know yet how to solve the complex issues of international terrorism, but we do know how to solve the problems created by the drug war.

Photos: Guardian,, Aaron Huey

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ironic new US anti-pot ads

Below are some new anti-drug ads from the US drug Czar's office, that spoof newspaper job ads of the past (click to see full size pdf - 1meg). I actually think these are quite amusing, and saying that being stoned all the time is a pretty lame may well have more impact than 'just say no' type messages, or shock horror scare tactics (In Austrialia they tried an even more direct approach with the 'pot could turn you into a dick head' campaign) . That said, I suspect these new posters are a bit too clever-cloggsy-ad-agency-ironic for there own good and may well actually end up above the sofa in student flats as the subject of much postmodern stoner hilarity.

thanks to drug war rant

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Drug policy initiatives score big successes in US vote

Below is a summary table of drug policy ballot initiatives that took place alongside last nights US presidential vote (provided by the Marijuana Policy Project). All except California's ambitious Prop 5 (and the retrograde drug war prop 6) were concerned with cannabis/marijuana, and most are basically expanding local and state level medical cannabis access. More significantly perhaps de facto cannabis decriminalisation measures were passed in the state of Massachusetts - expanding the number of decrim states to 13 - and Fayetteville Arkansas.

The failure of Prop 5 was a big set back (although the failure of prop 6 provides some consolation), but the scale of the successes elsewhere - with the cannabis measures all notably winning by far bigger margins of support that did Obama himself - points towards something more important. Even though the actual changes achieved are modest and not hugely relevant to more pressing debates in the UK, the fact remains that they have won large majorities due to grass roots NGO campaigning winning over popular support despite being fiercely opposed by the US drug agencies (who have fought against them with considerable propaganda resources). It suggests the public no longer unquestionably accept the Governments drug war posturing, and the scale of the wins bodes well for more ambitious reform in the future.

State Initiative Sponsored by MPP supports? Results

Massachusetts Question 2: Remove the threat of arrest or jail for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, replacing it with a $100 fine, which could be paid through the mail without lawyers or court appearances, just like a speeding ticket. MPP's campaign committee, Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy Yes WIN
Michigan Proposal 1: Permit terminally and seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana with their doctors' approval. MPP's campaign committee, Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care Yes WIN
California Proposition 5: Expand the number of drug offenders diverted from prison into treatment and decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, among other things. Yes on 5 Yes


California Proposition 6: Among other things (such as increasing spending on prisons and law enforcement and increasing penalties for gang crimes and methamphetamine distribution), require the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a recent drug offense. Safe Neighborhoods Act No


Berkeley, California Measure JJ: Expand the non-residential zones where dispensaries can locate, create an oversight commission to create standards and determine whether relocating or future operators are in compliance, issue zoning certificates, and bring Berkeley marijuana possession limits in line with recent court rulings determining that such limits are unconstitutional in the state. Citizens for Sensible Medical Cannabis Regulation Yes WIN
Fayetteville, Arkansas Require adult marijuana possession laws to be the lowest priority for local law enforcement. Sensible Fayetteville Yes


Hawaii County, Hawaii Ballot Question 1: Require adult marijuana possession laws to be the lowest priority for local law enforcement. Project Peaceful Sky Yes WIN
Ayer, Dunstable, Groton, Pepperell, and Townsend, Massachusetts Question 4: Direct the district's state representative to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor’s written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use. DPFMA and MassCann/NORML Yes


Medfield, Needham, and precincts 1 and 2 of Dover, Massachusetts Question 4: Direct the district's state representative to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor’s written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use. DPFMA and MassCann/NORML Yes WIN
Bedford, Burlington, precinct 3 of Wilmington, Massachusetts Question 4: Direct the district's state representative to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor’s written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use. DPFMA and MassCann/NORML Yes WIN
Hanson, Pembroke, precincts 2,3,4,5 of Duxbury, precinct 2 of Halifax, Massachusetts Question 4: Direct the district's state representative to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor’s written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use. DPFMA and MassCann/NORML Yes


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Is the ONDCP blog making stuff up about medical cannabis?

In the States medical cannabis is a massive issue (far more politically potent than its marginal status in the UK), being entwined with a raft of other political and cultural battles; the bigger recreational cannabis issue, tensions between federal and state power, various medical prescribing politics and more besides. It can all get quite rather confused and often real issues about the future of drug policy seem to get lost in the mix as emotions run high on both sides of the various debates. Personally I have mixed feelings about the issue, in particular a concern that conflating the medical and recreational debates potentially threatens to undermine progress on both. That said, I certainly don't want to see medical users criminalised*.

None of this, however, should get in the way straight reporting of facts and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) , the most ferocious opponent of medical cannabis, or 'medical cannabis' as they like to mockingly call it, has made some bold and seemingly inaccurate claims about San Francisco dispensaries in its latest blog post. I say 'blog' despite it not really warranting the moniker, being one of those prohibitionist 'blogs' that does not publish comments, presumably afraid of the roasting they would get if they opened themselves up to that strange concept of democratic engagement and free debate (to my knowledge there are no official prohibitionist blogs that publish comments, and many, like Costas Corner, don't even let you make them) .

Anyway, the latest ONDCP blog claims that

"As we've noted previously, state "medical" marijuana laws breed confusion, abuse, and violence in neighborhoods and communities.

Here's our latest analysis of this phenomenon. In downtown San Francisco alone, there are 98 marijuana dispensaries, compared to 71 Starbucks Coffee shops"

And then there's a map of their analysis to prove it.

'over a hundred' Starbucks in downtown SF

One of 'less than 30' cannabis dispensaries in Down town San Franscisco
Various SF based medical cannabis practitioners and activists have been quick to point out the claims appear to be incorrect:

This response was posted on the ONDCP 'blog' by a representative of NORML (not that you will be able to read it because ...democracy...etc.) ;

This is total bunkum. The number of cannabis clubs in SF is limited by city ordinance and has never exceeded 40. A listing of currently active clubs may be found at our website It shows 22 clubs and 5 delivery services. There is also one other unlisted club registered with the city. By contrast, there are 3,500 licensed liquor outlets in SF.

Dale Gieringer, Director, California NORML, Co-sponsor,
California Compassionate Use Act of 1996

Caren Woodson, from Americans for Safe Access, noted similarly that:

The information contained in the Czar's blog is not even close to resembling fact SF Gate (the e-version of the Chronicle) noted in a recent article (Aug 27) about the AG guidelines that SF only has about 26 MCDs currently in operation. Even at the height of 'unregulated' access in SF, there was no where near that many MCDs!

The local ASA chapter is tracking MCD permits in SF with painstaking attention to detail. At present, 28 collectives have submitted applications for permits. A few have been denied and there are 4 collectives that have permits to operate under local law. There are another 20 or so collectives in operation, and these collectives have until Jan 19, 2009 to acquire their permits (part of the grandfather provision we included in the legislation). Obviously not all collectives will survive the permit process, and a few of these collectives are in the process of sorting out some legal battles. But, with absolute confidence, I can tell you that there is no where near 100 collectives operating in SF.

And, finally, not to beat a dead horse, but some of the locations of the info provided on the Drug Czars so-called "map" includes places where dispensaries are absolutely prohibited by local land-use law from operating. The map below, is the current map that details "green-zones" or those places where MCDs may be permitted by the SF government to operate once they have obtained a permit
and a local medical cannabis group that:
As far as we know, there are now a little fewer than 30 dispensaries
or so, so this is more misinformation from the drug czar.
I'm happy to be corrected on this (comments welcome here - all published un-moderated), but if, as the above information would suggests the ONDCP's claim is substantially non-congruent with reality (less than a third does not constitute 'more than') and has been playing silly statistical propaganda games again, let's hope they are similarly willing to publish a correction.

*note: Transform have largely steered clear of the medical cannabis issue, but there it is briefly touched on it our latest report 'Tools for the Debate' in the 'talking about cannabis' section. Release are campaigning actively on medical cannabis issues.

Monday, November 03, 2008

So you are right, and those drug prohibitionists/regulators/libertarians (delete as applicable) have got it all wrong? Well here's how to prove it...

Drug use and misuse is a hugely important issue, agreed? 

Then I have a challenge for you. All of you. 

First though, a question.

Do you know for a fact…; 

Option A:

… that prohibition is keeping a lid on dangerous drugs, and any alternative would be a disaster?

 Option B:

…that prohibition is a disaster, for the world’s poor and rich alike?

 Option C:

…that the truth is somewhere in between A and B?

Do you have enough confidence in your position to actually put it to the test? Do you want to prove the other side is wrong?

Of course you do. 

At Transform we also think that whatever position you take in the drug policy debate, all rational people can agree policy should be evidence-based. That of course means carrying out the research needed to settle the arguments, but that work has not been done yet. For example there has been no audit of the cost effectiveness of drug enforcement measures in the UK, let alone a systematic comparison of the health, economic and social implications of current policies and alternatives.

So I invite everyone from the Legalise Cannabis Alliance to supporters of European Cities Against Drugs and most importantly, all the individuals reading this, to call on the government to commission a comprehensive and independent cost-benefit analysis (CBA) comparing current UK drug policies with other options, including a health-led legal regulation and control approach. Then, whatever the outcome, future policy can be based on fact not ideology.  

To help you, we have written a template letter to send to your MP, or to amend and send to the Home Office if you prefer. Of course, feel free to write your own letter calling for a CBA if you don't like our text. Please also link to this page from your websites, and circulate it to your friends, colleagues and supporters.

Go on,  take the Transform challenge.

Unless that is, which ever side of the debate you are on, you are afraid that filling in the gaps in the evidence would prove you wrong...?