Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Media Review: Prof Ian Gilmore calls for decriminalisation and regulation to be considered

Transform issued a press release last Monday about Sir Ian Gilmore's comments in his final Newsletter as president of the Royal Society of Physicians:

"I feel like finishing my presidency on a controversial note. I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health. Drugs should still be regulated, and the argument for decriminalising them is clearly made by Stephen Rolles in the latest edition of the BMJ."
The press release led to a huge amount of media coverage and debate in print and broadcast media over the following days, with Transform at the heart of much of it; having broken the story and with the BMJ piece on Transform's 'Blueprint for Regulation' specifically cited. Amongst the coverage detailed below, especially in the following days, were some very significant developments. 

Print coverage on the day included:
during the following days:
"Politicians could prepare public opinion for change by a public assessment of what Britain's war on drugs has achieved. It should ask whether better results could have come by a less damaging route. A policy that results, via the Afghanistan poppy harvest, in financial support for the Taliban, boosts international organised crime and is the underlying problem for more than half of the UK prison population will require some defending.

Decriminalisation would not be an answer in itself. Legalisation is no quick fix. But prohibition's defenders need to show how, against its dire results, their policy can still be justified."

  • Arguably more significantly was the interest of the tabloids: Gilmore had a very welcome opportunity to speak to a wider audience when given space for an editorial piece in the Sun, titled 'treat addicts like patients, not cirminals' (when it first appeared online, missing the point entirely, it was daftly titled 'treat junkies like patients, not criminals' - we are not sure which ran in the print version)
  • At the weekend the Sunday People - hardly famed for its progressive position on drug policy - went further, dedicating a two page spread to the drug law reform debate, quoting Transform, listing famous supporters of reform, and detailing Portugal's experience with decriminalisation. Better still, they joined the Observer and Guardian in taking a clear editorial position in favour of reform,  their 'Voice of the People' leader column titled 'Time for a new look at drug laws':  
"When the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971 our politicians, lawyers and medical experts still dreamed of creating a drug-free society.

If we locked up all dealers and users the market would dry up... wouldn’t it?

Forty years on it is clear that the war on drugs was a naive policy that failed miserably and injured more people than it protected.

The huge profits of the international drugs trade fund terrorism, drive crime, and wreck lives across the globe.

But jailing users does nothing to break the cycle of those who commit crime to fuel their habit.

Now, at last, the Government is ­looking at the bigger picture and considering radical plans to decriminalise hard drug use. As we reveal today, 12,000 addicts could be moved out of jails and into hospitals to be treated as patients and not criminals.

Top doctors believe it is the only way to cut crime, improve health and save public money. But it will be a hard pill to swallow for the thousands of victims of druggie muggers and burglars who steal to fund their habit.

It’s a bold move. But if Ministers are finally having a “mature debate” on drug strategy they then need to discuss the “L” word. Legalisation. Criminalising some drugs while ­allowing a free market in others, such as alcohol and nicotine, makes no sense.

Our leaders need to think the ­unthinkable and consider bringing the entire drug industry, from production to use, out of the shadows and under ­legitimate controls.

Could we allow adults to buy limited supplies of drugs from licensed and regulated outlets and tax them as ­highly as possible without creating a black market?

Legalisation may spark an initial ­increase in the number of adults who use drugs, albeit in safer and healthier circumstances. But should adults be ­allowed to make that choice – when many already choose to wreck their lives, quite legally, with alcohol?

Tough questions – but the Government must seize the moment and ask them."

OK, so not exactly how Transform might argue it but we have to welcome the fact that this -mostly reasonable- editorial appeared in a national paper new to the reform position and, like the Sun coverage, is reaching much wider audience than the same Guardian and Observer readers, most of whom are already sympathetic to the drug law reform position. The positive tabloid coverage in particular is a sure sign that this debate is moving into the mainstream and moving in a positive direction.

Broadcast media 

On the Tuesday the story broke, Steve did 17 broadcast interviews and Danny did 10, in addition to the various interviews Gilmore himself gave, and a further 7 picked up by our colleagues over at Release. Highlights of Transform's coverage included appearances on
  • BBC Breakfast TV (live interview)
  • SKY breakfast news (pre-recorded interview for news segment)
  • BBC Radio 4's Today program (quotes and Today audio clip on BBC coverage)
  • 5 Live breakfast (pre-record for new segment), and 5 live morning debate (with David Raynes)
  • BBC News Channel (debate with Neil McKeggany)
  • SKY lunchtime news
  • Talk Sport radio
  • BBC Radio Wales (debate with Ian Oliver)
  • BBC World Service (international broadcast)
  • BBC News International TV (international broadcast - debate with David Raynes again)
The following day there was an additional appearance on CNN International, a 'Connect the World' half hour special on drug policy and law reform, with Steve debating former DEA agent Bob Stutman.

In addition there was plenty of blog action around the issue, all attracting many comments (mostly positive) - notably including:
There was also a steady stream of op-eds, including efforts from:
And even some satire from the Daily Mash legalise drugs, says some crazy president of the Royal College of Physicians.

Critical voices were, of course, also in evidence but curiously muted - the sense being that the media were struggling to find many. If there were pro drug war op-eds in any of the nationals we must have missed them. There were some quotes in the news coverage, however; In a widely quoted comment by Keith Vaz MP he stated that the legalisation of drugs "would simply create the mistaken impression that these substances are not harmful, when in fact this is far from the truth". This rather facile misconception about what a public health approach to drug regulation would entail is exactly the same one that he carried through the mostly awful 2010 Home Affairs Select Committee report on cocaine.

The Home Office response was even more inadequate, and missed the point to a such a staggering degree as to not deserve or warrant any further scrutiny:
'Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.'
 In a Mirror news piece (nominally about a separate 'legal highs' story that this blog will return too at a later date) we also learn that:

Leading doctors argue prohibition of heroin and cocaine has failed and they should be decriminalised and allowed for use under licence and tomorrow the Government will launch a major review of Britain's drugs laws. Home Office Minister James Brokenshire will rule out new legalisation but call for a more "mature debate" on how to control drugs.
You can only laugh (somewhat bitterly) at the Minister's concept of what constitutes a 'mature debate', one in which entire policy arenas he does not approve of are closed down before the debate has even begun. This despite the genuinely mature debate - one in which all options are on the table - that is happening in the real world (note links above for example), and being encouraged by the President of the Royal College of Physicians (not to mention the President of Mexico), and indeed Broke nshires own Prime Minister (albeit a while back). For the record decriminalisation of personal use, certainly non-prosecution of users, was also in the Lib Dem manifesto. They have been strangely and disappointingly silent during all this.
There was a predictably critical blog post from Kathy Gyngel from the Center for Policy Studies, but it is a lacklustre and scatter gun affair by her standards (see the comments for some critique of the factual analysis). 

Overall - this has been a hugely positive few days for the UK debate. Its always hard to gauge how much impact events like this have; maybe it was just a silly season story on a slow news day.  But it feels like part of a much more significant shift in the debate that has taken place over the last couple of years and appears to be accelerating- one in which the law reform arguments are being increasingly well understood for the principled pragmatic position they represent. Even Drugscope, usually very cautious in the debate, this week made a welcome call (in the Times) for decriminalisation to be considered (repeating a call they made back in 2001 but have been very quiet about since).

Small steps as ever, but the direction of travel is the right one. 


Anonymous said...

Great work, folks.

John Ellis said...

A very well written piece.
The speed at which we move forward may be slow at this point in time, but we are gaining ground on the debate in the media which is a really good thing.

Most of the prohibitionists that have argued the toss on Mark easton's blog have all but departed, possibly they themselves now see the bigger picture and choose to slip quietly into the night.
the uptake of the recently banned adverts for the USA cannabis movement by google will also go a long way to help. I wonder if google.co.uk will run them? http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/08/google-to-run-marijuana-ads-that-facebook-wouldnt/62050/

Anyways here's to many more media stories that support an end to the madness.

Anonymous said...

Cannabis - how should it be regulated? 'It' is not being regulated, 'it' is your mind. It is you who are denied it, not it that is denied you. It is you who cannot 'be' with it, not it that cannot 'be' with
you. It is you who cannot 'be' without it, not it that cannot 'be'
without you.

Peter Reynolds said...

A great summary of the exciting events of the last couple of weeks. Transform has done a good job of holding its profile in the media and I think is now regarded as the authority on the subject.

I am deeply disturbed by the sham and deception behind the Home Office's Drug Strategy consultation. How will Transform respond to this? I think a response is necessary as well as a strong protest at the "fait accompli" that it really is.

James Brokenshire is a very dangerous young man who needs to be stopped. It is evident that his influence is seriously naive, badly or prejudicially informed and misguided. He's got himself an important job though. We need to prove how wrong he is. If ever there were policies for a Broken Britain they come from Brokenshire.

It is my view that cannabis should be addressd as a separate but related issue. Clearly, there is a range of different regulation policies required. However, particularly with Proposition 19 looking on course, cannabis, the positive benefits of its medicinal use and the particular injustice of its prohibition should take more priority.

For instance, Brokenshire's distortion of the ACMD's advice on cannabis has got to be stopped!

At least this subject has shot up the political agenda. There is to be a new Drugs Strategy by the end of the year. Everything that can be done to influence it must be done.

thepoisongarden said...

It was noticeable that the response to the many well-informed voices calling for change was, overwhelmingly, from non-experts who have had a single encounter with drugs and think that gives the knowledge to speak in general.

Channel 4, for example, used Debra Bell to counter Prof Gilmore.

The Home Office Consultation is a disgrace - 'We want to ask you about drugs but there is a correct answer'.

I'm sure I wasted my time but I couldn't resist going through their online questionaire, link at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/consultations/cons-drug-strategy-2010/ and pointing out how regulation instead of prohibition would achieve what they say they want.

Steve Rolles said...

yes - the channel 4 news coverage was very poor. Debra Bell (whilst I mostly disagree with her) is at least able to speak about cannabis from her personal experiences - but this really wasnt a discussion about cannabis; Gilmore was basically talking about heroin prescribing, whilst the presenter was raising much broader questions about the direction of drug policy generally. The whole segment became a confused waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Steve - can I please take you to task on your ringing endorsement of Debra Bell?

'Talking about cannabis' is rubbish, we should be talking about cannabis-phobia, and why people go puke themselves on drugs when they feel for the first time having had a few drinks something not quite right in their diet and in their bodies. This a a woman who thinks it's evil new cannabis that is the problem, I wonder ever even hint that she was an authority on anything, what she is an example of something - a woman who couldn't support her son during his growing up.