A couple of interesting media appearances for Transform last week.
The first was an invitation to debate drug legalisation/regulation with Anne Widdecombe MP on David Frost's Al Jazeera show; 'Frost over the World'. This was significant in that the show is broadcast to an audience we rarely access - 140 million households internationally (although not, presumably, anything like that many actual viewers) - mostly in the Middle East, where the drug law reform debate is historically some way behind Western Europe and the Americas.
Anne Widdecombe (who was very personable and charming in the green room) is famously outspoken on the issue (she has clashed with Transform before), and one of the most public voices (along with Melanie Phillips) for a particular form of moral authoritarianism in the drugs debate, which is, IMHO, rooted in ideology rather than evidence and rational analysis. She is, however, unlike some of her political colleagues and drug war advocates, unquestionably sincere and well intentioned in her beliefs , which I can respect even if she has got it horribly wrong.
Another TV appearance was on the BBC's Newsnight (Scotland), available on iplayer here for a few more days (and we will try and sort something out and post it here when iplayer has expired) . The interesting thing about this one was the the Newsnight editorial position was very much why has drug policy been so hopeless for so long, and given that it has been, why aren't politicians engaging with the legalisation/regulation debate. This sort of questioning is exactly where we need to be, and was a welcome sign of the changing climate in this debate. It was also a nice curtain raiser for next week's Transform publication of our Cost Benefit Analysis report.
Monday, March 30, 2009
A couple of interesting media appearances for Transform last week.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Dr Frederick Polak and others have been trying to get the UNODC to publish their discussion document on the Dutch coffee shop system for some time now. Here's the latest attempt to get some answers about the report.
Last May at the international harm reduction conference in Barcelona, Mr. Costa had promised to publish the report “very soon” - it still hasn't been released. You can see Dr Polak's previous attempts to get Costa to respond to his questions about the paper here.
This time, Mr. Costa did admit that there are some discussion papers produced by his agency that “were eventually quashed” and “remained an internal document never published”. However he claimed that he had given a detailed answer regarding the document on his website.
In fact there was a 'leaked' report written by Costa following his visit to the Netherlands, that was published (and scrutinised) on this very blog, before being rather begrudgingly published on Costa's own site (not really a 'blog' in the traditional sense as it does not accept even moderated comments). This report, however, was clearly his personal views and was a long way from an objective piece of policy analysis, being, as it was, entirely reference free and replete with subjective opinion and unevidenced assumptions and inference. Introducing this report he not only refers again to the 'pro-drug lobby' but notes that:
According to economic science, the greater the availability of a commodity on the market, the more likely its consumption (via the price effect, but also thanks to psychological factors). Does this only apply to normal markets? My Office has examined whether there is a statistical relationship between availability of drugs and their use, and reached the same conclusion.This is important work, that should be informing important decisions (not least around the now completed 10 year review and political declaration), but has similarly never been published and made available for public scrutiny, even to member state Governments. 'Scientists' actually publish work, so that their statistics, methodologies and conclusions can be discussed, scrutinised and learnt from. This is the very essence of scientific and social policy discourse, something Costa parades the trappings of whilst simultaneously ignoring its most basic principles.
Hopefully someone at the UNODC will see fit to release both the Netherlands study and statistical analysis on drug availability into the public domain so we can see what it reveals reveals and why the UNODC have chosen to go against there own promises and scientific (and indeed UN) principles of free debate, by suppressing the work. Hopefully member states - particularly the UNODC funders (prominently including the UK and the Netherlands) who of course fund such work in the first place - will demand that the reports are published so they can be subject to public scrutiny and contribute to public debate. This is what the rational policy development within UN forums should be all about.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions Lembit Opik MP requested a meeting with the PM to propose a full impact assessment of current drug policy.
His full question was:
“A new European Commission report on drugs shows that despite prohibition the illegal drugs trade has thrived, creating what the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, describes as a “staggering” criminal market, destabilising health policies and entire countries.
“As such, will the Leader of the House please convey my request to meet the Prime Minister to propose a comprehensive impact assessment of current drugs policy, to help us tackle this crisis in an evidence-based way?”
In response, Harriet Harman MP, Leader of the House, answering on behalf of the Prime Minister who is this week attending the G20 conference, said:
“I will pass on his request to the Prime Minister who I’m sure will agree that we need to make sure that every bit of support is available to those who are addicted to drugs and we need to crack down hard on dealers.”
UK drug enforcement policy is unique in terms of delivering the exact opposite of its intended outcomes, consistently, for decades - massive levels of drug misuse, health damage, and crime. This huge expenditure is also unique in the lack of scrutiny it has been subject to with regards to cost effectiveness or attempts to quantify these unintended negative consequences. Such scrutiny is long overdue and we welcome this initiative from Mr Opik
A full impact assessment laying out and counting the costs of current drugs policy in a structured and detailed way for the first time, would be a significant step towards making future policy evidence-based – and therefore more effective, just and humane.
Transform has long been calling for a full Cost Benefit of Analysis (CBA), which an impact assessment would be part of, comparing current UK drug policy with alternatives. We would like the UN to orchestrate a similar initiative at the global level. At a recent All Party Parliamentary Group on the Mis-use of Drugs meeting Transform laid down a challenge to all: support this approach, or don’t pretend you are interested in having evidence-based drugs policy.We will be publishing our own UK oriented CBA soon, laying out the best evidence available, and the gaps in research that should be filled, so watch this space.
Once again, absolutely terrible news from Daily Dose this week, that unless adequate sponsorship can be found by the end of the month, the peerless drug news service that has been running since 2002 will close. For any blog readers that don't know about Daily Dose, and there cant be many, it is a BRILLIANT daily drug news listing website (and free subscription email) that is hand-complied 365 days (and nights) a year. Testimony to its brilliance is that it has over 7000 subscribers and gets 800,000 hits a month.
For Transform the service is invaluable. Google news alerts and similar automated news aggregators are, lets face it, a bit rubbish. They completely lack the depth, editorial input, and human touch that makes Daily Dose so incredibly useful. It is the editorial genius of Jim and the rest of the Wired Initiative team that means it outstrips any of the automated parliamentary news filter services Transform have used in the past, as well as automated news search services like Lexis Nexis - and these cost serious money, whilst Daily Dose is completely free. The great thing about the editorial content is the non-biased coverage from all news and information services across the web, reflecting the full range of media outlets and opinion in the drugs field. That's why everyone loves it and everyone uses it - from Whitehall and Government, through the treatment field, and across the non-government sector.
Daily Dose is a non profit free service supported by sponsorship - which to any commercial players in the drugs field should appear to be a complete bargain given the site's amazing profile. If there is one thing Daily Dose has fallen short on, it is marketing itself - probably because they are so obsessed with turning out first class content.
So to all you potential sponsors: compare the measly £5K you would have to spend to have your logo associated with the much loved and legendary Daily Dose (raking in 10 million hits a year, and a million or so emails direct to marketers-dream demographic in the drugs field) to the untold thousands you shell out on having one of those pointless fancy stalls at yet another awful drug conference where you speak to about three bored people who really just want a free pen.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
They may be the UNintended consequences of the drug ‘control’ system, but they show that the entire prohibitionist apparatus should come with an explicit health warning.
The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs completes its marathon session on evaluating the ‘success’ of the drug control system tomorrow, and the ‘coalition of the willing (and not so willing)’ march out of the building, not quite in lock step, but maintaining de facto support for the global war on drugs. It is timely to examine whether these ‘unintended’ consequences, can still be seen as 'unanticipated'.
In March 2008 Antonio Maria Costa, Director of UNODC published ‘Making drug control ‘fit for purpose’: Building on the UNGASS decade’
It was a groundbreaking document. Whilst the conclusion still calls for prohibition to be implemented better, some of its critical analysis is spot on:
“The drug control system has succeeded in containing the drugs problem to less than 5% of the adult population (aged 15-64) of the world. This refers to annual prevalence: those who have used drugs at least once in the year prior to the survey. Problem drug users are limited to less than one tenth of this already low percentage” p.3Which means that he concedes that 90% use non-problematically.
“The ways in which the drug control system has been implemented have had several unintended consequences: the criminal black market, policy displacement, geographical displacement, substance displacement and the marginalization of users.” P.20
It also identifies the enforcement of prohibition as responsible for:
- A criminal market worth $320 billion that is destabilizing entire nation states and filling prisons the world over
- Public health is marginalized in favour of enforcement, to the extent that 1 in 3 of those (outside Africa) who are infected with HIV/AIDS, contracted it through needle sharing
- The balloon effect – meaning that where the Golden Triangle once supplied the opium trade, it is now Afghanistan and where the Caribbean once carried much of the transit of cocaine, now West Africa suffers from its corrupting effect
- The discrimination that users suffer throughout the world because their drugs are prohibited and therefore they are demonised
“Vacillation is also prescribed by more than one tract on drug policy reform, exhorting the world to renounce ‘prohibition’ and espouse ‘legalization.’ The temptation to find a simple solution, the proverbial ‘silver bullet’ is timeless, but ultimately chimerical. Improving the performance of the control system is however both necessary and possible.” p.14
Amazingly, despite his realistic analysis, he still repeats the drug free world nonsense again.
“We need, first and foremost, to ‘finish the job’ on heroin and cocaine: a job we began a century ago and reiterated at UNGASS. The Political Declaration adopted at UNGASS, committed States Members [to]:He also notes that:
“…to developing strategies with a view to eliminating or reducing significantly the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008.” P.15
Oh dear, a pointless debate… maybe he should take a look at our extensive archive of those calling for change in our voices for reform.
“Unless we make strategic choices, prioritizing those areas where we have real competency and comparative advantage, and where we can leverage resources and expand partnerships, we risk wasting public money and delivering ineffective programmes.” P.16
“It [the paper] ends with an appeal to the States Members of the United Nations, and through them, to those who are enshrined in the first words of the Charter, “the peoples of the United Nations”: we must work together to solve the world’s drug problem, not by losing ourselves in pointless debates from extreme positions, but by occupying the centre– the proverbial ‘middle ground’ – which is wide enough to accommodate all of us and solid enough to bear our weight as we step forward into the next decade.” P.20
In March 2009, in advance of the High Level Meeting in Vienna, Costa published ‘Organized Crime and its Threat to Security – Tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control’. This paper is a much more focused document on opportunities for organised crime that arise from the implementation of the drug “control” system. But it also comes with a much more pointed smear of those who differ from the UNODC line on enforcement. This is the first sentence of the summary:
“crime and corruption associated with the drug trade are providing strong evidence to a vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists to argue that the cure is worse than the disease, and that drug legalization is the solution.” P. iClearly the aim is to inure the UNODC against charges of complacency by recognising that there are negative consequences of global prohibition, and absolving themselves of responsibility by labelling them as ‘unintended’. At the same time, it attempts to undermine claims by Transform and others in the reform movement (we are as pro-drug, as UNODC is pro-mafia) that these consequences call into question the entire apparatus of global prohibition.
The identification of harms caused by global prohibition is nothing new. A devastating critique was published by the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2003 (eventually leaked in full to the media in 2005). However, the March 2008 paper was the first real admission from the UN that there were huge unintended consequences.
The use of the term 'unintended consequences' is very similar to the phrase ‘collateral damage’, used in military situations as a euphemism for dead and injured civilians. What we are talking about here are drug war casualties.
It is unquestionable that these consequences are both undesirable and unintended by UNODC. No UN bodies want to enrich the Mafia, for example. However, should they have been unanticipated, given what we knew about alcohol Prohibition?
It is also interesting to compare this with the way that doctors describe ‘Side Effects’ of drugs – effects from treatments that are unwanted, and have a negative effect on patients’ health. The issue of side effects from medical treatments is dealt with in a very different way than Mr Costa deals with the unintended consequences he identifies. Side effects are a significant issue of discussion between patient and doctor as part of a comprehensive exploration of a treatment package. What takes place is effectively a cost-benefit analysis of a particular intervention or series of interventions.
As result of the knowledge of side effects, all treatments carry a health warning. I don’t remember seeing one of those on the UN Conventions.
In the UK we operate the Yellow Card system whereby doctors, and importantly patients and carers, can report negative effects to a body of oversight. Genuine civil society involvement in global drug policy development, anyone? How about reporting unintended consequences as part of the feedback of member states to the annual UN World Drug Report?
Last, but by no means least, orthodox medical interventions are also accompanied by a list of situations in which the treatment is contra-indicated. One can only wonder at the extensive list of places where global drug prohibition would be contra-indicated:-
- Fragile states – Afghanistan, Colombia, Guinea Bissau
- Governments of transit countries with a propensity for knee jerk military enforcement responses – Mexico
- Industrialised countries with high levels of inequality, disenfranchised non-white populations, and draconian criminal justice systems – US and UK
- Anywhere with established organised criminal gangs and high levels of demand for drugs that fall under the prohibition – Too many to mention
What are the indications that the regime’s side effects are outweighing the benefits?
- The existence of ‘narco states’ involved in production and supply
- Cocaine and heroin cost more than their weight in gold (but use still rising)
- Large prison populations made up of significant proportion of drug related offenders
- Black people and other marginalised groups over-represented in prison populations
- Reactive enforcement costs that outweigh proactive ones
- A blanket refusal from senior politicians to debate the issue
- Challenges to status quo coming from across the political spectrum
- Policy makers who call for reform when they leave office (Mo Mowlam, Julian Critchley etc)
As a scientifically based primer that explores why we find it so difficult to self evaluate critically, I strongly recommend: ‘Mistakes were made (but not by me)’ Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
If the UN drug agencies cannot collectively admit that a war on drugs is a singularly inappropriate treatment regime for us all, then we will need to find another forum to develop global drug policy that is effective, just and humane.
For more on Transform's take on the Vienna process, see:
Thanks to Ben Goldacre for advice on side effects and the Yellow Card System
Thanks to wordle for the word montage
This short flim produced by the HCLU in conjunction with uber-blog Boing Boing provides commentary from various figures in the drug policy reform movement on the current events at the UN in Vienna where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs is meeting to determine global drug strategy for the next ten years. (Danny from Transform appears in the film).
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Today Ministers from around the world are in Vienna for the High Level Meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to set a new ten-year UN drug strategy. Whilst fear and inertia has generally prevailed amongst our political leaders, we have also heard a huge range of serious voices calling for a debate on replacing drugs prohibition with legal regulation and control. At the same time a concerted effort has been made by Antonio Maria Costa the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to smear those calling for reform as “pro-drug”.
The effect has been to stifle critics of the status quo, and make a rational and mature exploration of alternative approaches into a political no-go area, by inaccurately and offensively portraying advocates of change as ‘pro-drug’.
This was the latest in a series of similar public comments over several years seemingly based on the absurd false binary that since Costa views his position as ‘anti-drug’ then anyone who disagrees with him must be ‘pro-drug’. However, despite his attempts to malign those calling for debate, many have had the courage to call for reform.
So who should be included under Costa’s ‘pro-drug’ banner?
In the run up to the last UN 10 year drug strategy meeting of this kind in 1998, Rowan Williams (now Arch-Bishop of Canterbury) and Prof. Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, were amongst over 500 prominent academics, scientists, political and religious leaders, including a number of Nobel laureates and former presidents, who signed a letter (1) stating that:
"Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering. Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of "surrendering”. But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies.”
Adair Turner, Peer and Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority has said (2):
"And if we want to help sustainable economic development in the drug-ridden states such as Colombia and Afghanistan, we should almost certainly liberalise drugs use in our societies, combating abuse via education, not prohibition, rather than launching unwinnable 'wars on drugs' which simply criminalise whole societies."
David Cameron MP (now leader of the Opposition), Tom Watson MP (now a Cabinet Office Minister), Bridget Prentice MP (now a minister in the Ministry of Justice) when on the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2003, signed up to a report (3) saying:
“We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.”
David Cameron MP also said at that time (3):
“[I]n Holland you can walk into a café and buy cannabis quite openly…I wonder why we should have such a concern if a country like Holland or elsewhere in the world wanted to go a bit further. It is virtually legal in Holland, but if they wanted to go a bit further, why should we be so concerned? We might learn something from a country taking a different and radical approach, and we could see whether it worked or whether it was a disaster.”
“I do not know whether it would be an unfair summary, but … the Government position on the two UN bodies seems to be that they are pretty hopeless talking shops that set very odd targets, that use extraordinary statistics, but we have to take part, we have to be there and try and have an input.”
This week a cross-party group of 26 peers including David Puttnam and Molly Meacher wrote (4):
“What is now needed is an admission that most existing policies have failed and an open debate on what alternative policies should be adopted for the future…To this end we suggest that the UN should now establish an intergovernmental panel charged with the task of examining all possible alternative policies for the control of the drugs trade.”
Recently, because of his concerns about drugs prohibition bankrolling paramilitary gangs (including the Real IRA) in Ireland Denis Bradley (former vice-chair of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and Co-Chair of the Consultative Group on the Past) said (5):
“It might be time to legalise drugs. It might be time to create outlets licensed and under government control, to supply drugs to those who are already addicted and to those who wish to dabble. It might be time to cut the gangs off at the knees by making them economically redundant.”
Danny Kushlick of Transform said:
“The last ten years has seen fear and inertia prevail amongst our political leaders, but it has also seen a huge range of serious voices calling for a debate on replacing drugs prohibition with legal regulation and control. All of these calls have been ignored, sidelined or suppressed, and Ministers look set to rubber-stamp another ten-year strategy indistinguishable from the last, with political posturing again winning out.”
“A significant block to debate has been a very active campaign by the executive director of the UNODC to smear and caricature those calling for an exploration of alternatives to global prohibition as being “pro-drug”, in a way that is inaccurate and offensive to a large body of respected thinkers and commentators. Is Mr Costa labeling UK Ministers and the likes of Lord Adair Turner, David Cameron and Rowan Williams as pro-drug?”
"We can bring peace and stability to producer and transit countries, and end much of the harm in consumer countries only by ending the war on drugs and replacing it with an effective, just and humane system of regulation and control. For that to happen, world leaders must stop using the UN to shut down any real debate on alternatives to war, and listen to the voices from across the political spectrum calling for change."
3.Home Affairs Select Committee drugs inquiry quotes
- Recommendation 24, paragraph 267
- Cameron quote: Minutes of Evidence Home Affairs Committee 20 March 2003
Thursday, March 05, 2009
The Economist this week runs one of its cover-story drug policy and law reform special issues. This latest installment, that follows previous efforts in 1993 and 2001 features the cover below , four detailed briefings and leader column. The Economist has a readership of 1.2 million (half of them in the US) is highly influential and widely read by a demographic with a serious interest in economics - from all political persuasions, despite its generally right leaning economic perspective.
This weeks' publication features four detailed briefings on attempts to deal with drugs:
- On the Trail of the Traffickers looks at the violent drug war carnage enveloping Mexico
- Sniffy Customers considers the how the cocaine is thriving despite enforcement efforts
- Levels of prohibition: A tokers guide looks at how countries across the world are challenging the letter and spirit of the outdated UN conventions
- Drug education: in America lesson learned considers the historic failure of drug education in the US
"Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs."
UN bodies betray principles of peace by supporting the war on drugs
Transform Drug Policy Foundation: media release 05.03.09
Transform Drug Policy Foundation: media release 05.03.09
As the member states gather in Vienna for next week’s meetings to set a new 10 year UN drugs strategy, it is clear that rather than supporting the fundamental UN objective to broker, maintain and promote peace and wellbeing, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (the Commission) will announce their continued support for an unwinnable war on drugs.
- a huge criminal market
- policy displacement, whereby public health is displaced by enforcement
- the ‘balloon effect’ where enforcement just shifts trafficking routes and production from one location to another
Transform Head of Policy, Danny Kushlick said;
“Every state that signs up to the Political Declaration at this Commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs. It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalised people on earth. 8000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilisation of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition.”
“It is no surprise that the Declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm.”
This latest failure of leadership at the Commission highlights how the entire UN drug control infrastructure is not fit for purpose and should be completely over-hauled.
Transform has three calls for the UN:
- A year-long moratorium on strategic drug policy commitments at the global level
- A full impact analysis of the ‘unintended consequences’ of the drug control system to feed into a genuine review in 2010
- A commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs
Danny Kushlick added;
“The unwillingness of the UNODC and other international bodies to formally evaluate the negative impacts of the war on drugs is the classic modus operandi of bodies scared of letting the outside world know that their policies are failing. As a result the Commission will be a succession of speeches that amount to little more than self-congratulatory propaganda or bellicose exhortations to fight the war with more vigour.”
“ A year long moratorium on global drug policy commitments would allow a meaningful process of evaluation on which to build a policy based on principles of peace, security and wellbeing, as opposed to militarisation, securitisation and incarceration - especially in light of a change in tone on drug policy from the Obama Administration.”
Danny Kushlick, Head of Policy and Communications 07970 174747
Steve Rolles, Head of Research 07980 213943
Notes for Editors:
- The 52 session of the CND will be meeting in Vienna. First the government ministerial High Level Segment (11th –12th March 2009) will sign off the Political Declaration, and then the CND meeting itself (16th-20th March 2009) will debate the details.
- The global market in illegal drugs is estimated at £160 billion a year. If the current regime remains in place for the next decade, the total could approach £2 trillion.
- The crime costs accrued over the last ten years in the UK alone, are estimated to be in the region of £100 billion.
- Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime declares international drug control system is not ‘fit for purpose’