Thursday, February 25, 2010

UNODC censors its own website making the case for cannabis decriminalisation

note: for an update on this story see here  (the censored section has returned in dramatically edited form)

The page on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime site that we flagged up on the blog earlier this week, has now been censored to remove the section featuring a rare outbreak of pragmatism making the case for cannabis decriminalisation.

This seems rather pathetic. The page in question has sat unmolested since September 2006, over 3 years, only to be stripped of the decrim-arguments now, the day after we blog about it. Why, its almost as if......

Anyway, as people should all know by now the internet never forgets, and you can read the page as it was using the ever useful Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

I hope that the fact they have rather childishly censored this page on their own site will help teach the UNODC another lesson: Internet users do not like being treated like idiots and tend to respond rather badly.

So to all our internet friends: Please link this and the previous blog as much as possible, blog about it elsewhere, and use twitter, facebook and all your other internet toys to get the original page (and its censorship) as much publicity as possible.

By all means contact a few journo friends as well, see if you can get it in the news. They should be interested as it makes considerably more interesting news than (or at least an interesting counterpoint to) the latest tedious INCB report, obsessed as ever with attacking countries who, wait for it, dare contemplate decriminalising drug possession.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

UN Office on Drugs and Crime makes the case for cannabis decriminalisation

UPDATE:  25.02.10 - Dissapointingly The UNODC YouthNet page discussed below has apparently now been updated with the section on cannabis decriminalisation removed - read more in this follow-up blog

It was interesting to stumble over this page titled 'Cannabis - a few issues' on the UN Office and Drug and Crime website, nestling within the on 'Youth and Drugs' pages of the the UNODC 'Youthnet' micro-site, making a clear and convincing case for decriminalisation of cannabis possession.

The page open with this introduction:

Cannabis (including marijuana, hash, hash oil) continues to be a controversial drug in many countries as people try to figure out the place that the drug has in their society. In the Western world, marijuana smoking by young people has become a very common activity - in some countries even more common than tobacco smoking. The UN's international conventions require countries to treat cannabis and other drug offences as criminal offences. However, these conventions leave the door open for countries to establish alternative measures as a substitute for criminal prosecution. Consequently, much of the debate about cannabis is around the legal status of the drug.
These questions are not simple. For that reason through the month of November, the Global Youth Network is going to review what is known about cannabis use and young people in a four- part series dealing with:
(i) the level of use worldwide;
(ii) why some young people use cannabis/why some have problems;
(iii) the harms associated with cannabis use; and
(iv) the effect of cannabis laws.

What follows is a refreshingly sensible and balanced review of the issues highlighted. Most interestingly is the final section on the cannabis laws, copied in full below,  making a strong case for cannabis decriminalisation:

Cannabis Series - Part 4
The effect of cannabis laws

A number of countries are debating their marijuana laws, in most cases, trying to decide whether the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis should be reduced. Some advocate legalization of cannabis, that is, making it available through controlled, legal sources, as are tobacco and alcohol. However, most policymakers see that option as a huge social experiment, with outcomes that are difficult to predict. Others advocate that possessing personal amounts of cannabis should no longer be viewed as a criminal offence and penalties should be reduced. This is because, even though marijuana is not a harmless drug, an increasing number of health officials, researchers and politicians in these countries view the penalty to be out of proportion to the potential harm of using cannabis. The following are some of the arguments being made for reducing the penalties so that possession of small amounts of cannabis is no longer a criminal offence:

A criminal record is a serious matter
A criminal record labels a person caught with possessing small amounts of cannabis as a criminal and severely limits their ability to find employment, professional certification and to travel to other countries. Criminalizing a behaviour has a number of effects: it may make it more attractive to some youth, and it may result in the further marginalization of some youth, making it more difficult to help them.

Reducing the severity of the penalty doesn't seem to lead to increased use
Cannabis use (particularly heavy use in combination with other substances) poses risks, so it is important that any change not result in increased use. Based on the experiences of those countries or states that have reduced their penalties, various reviews agree that there is no indication that this will happen. For example, the 11 US states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s did not see increases in use beyond that experienced by other states; neither did the Australian states that have introduced a civil offence model over the past decade.

Laws don't seem to matter one way or another to young people
Over the past 10 years in most Western countries, the use of cannabis by young people has increased and attitudes have generally grown more tolerant toward the drug, with no difference between countries that had stiff or reduced penalties. For example in the Netherlands, where cannabis use is not a criminal offence, usage rates are lower than in the US, which has some of the toughest cannabis laws in the Western world. Young people who do not use cannabis generally say that their decision is based on health concerns or that they are just not interested. They aren't as likely to mention the laws as being a factor in their decision. In fact, research with teenage students suggests that the criminalization of cannabis and the stigmatization of cannabis use as a dangerous and forbidden activity makes it even more attractive to some.

Resources could be better placed elsewhere
Cannabis offences can take one or two officers off the street for up to several hours + their time for court appearances + tying up other court resources. These $$ could have more impact put into apprehending producers and traffickers, or directed at prevention, education and treatment. Although the law is an important means of controlling behaviour, accurate and balanced information and education should be seen as the primary means to enable young people to make informed choices about their drug use. For example, laws cannot distinguish between levels of use, whereas educators can help young people by providing clearer messages (for example, all drug use contains some risk - heavy use can result in serious problems for young people, while light, infrequent cannabis use poses fewer risks).

A case example
In Canada police are often reluctant to apply the penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis, not only because of the work involved, but also because they do not want to saddle a young person with a criminal record. When a young person is found in possession of small amounts of cannabis in Canada, the typical police response is some combination of taking the drug, detaining the person in the police car or station, giving them a warning and letting them go. As a result, young people feel that the police do not take the laws very seriously; some also feel that they are applied unevenly depending on a person's ethnicity, the clothing they are wearing, etc.

One of the options being considered is to give the person a ticket, like a traffic ticket. Even though this would seem like a softer approach, it would in fact represent a greater penalty than many young people currently experience. And if the police "widen the net" (that is, become more active in apprehending youth) as apparently occurred in Australia when penalties were reduced, it would actually mean that young people would be more likely to be penalized.

Another possible outcome is that parents are more likely to be involved when their child is fined than if they are just "slapped on the wrist" and let go, providing an opportunity for parent/child discussion on the issue.

Also, creating a reduced penalty option reduces the deviance attached to the behaviour, which does lead to a climate more open to actual health promotion messages (e.g., that using around driving and sexual situations, or using to the point of intoxication, or using in combination with other substances or medications, or while involved in physical or cognitive activity can be harmful).

This section, that could have been written by any number of drug law reform NGOs that leading figures in the UNODC have been happy to make disparaging comments about in the past, has, it would seem, been sitting unbothered on the UNODC site for some years (the Youth and Drugs pages don't appear to have been updated since 2007).

There are clearly a range of views on this issue within the UN drug agencies, but the arguments put forward above are strikingly at odds with those traditionally expounded by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), for example, that has been vocally opposed to any moves towards increased tolerance, decriminlaisation, or decreased penalties suggesting that such moves would increase use and undermine international drug control (famously attacking the UK s decision to reclassify cannabis in 2001).

The current Director of the UNODC, whilst sticking to his rather unpleasant mantra that countries 'get the drug problems they deserve' and generally lambasting what he sees as the 'liberalisation' of drug policy, has actually been open to, even supportive of, reducing cannabis penalties, for example suggesting  that administrative penalties, such as fines and treatment referrals would be appropriate for personal possession offenses (slipped into this otherwise ridiculous 2007 op-ed/rant). The UNODC's 2009 World Drugs Report also begrudgingly acknowledges that the decriminlisation of personal possession (of all drugs) in Portugal in 2001 helps "keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users" noting further that "It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased". 

It is notable then, that at the same time as UK politicians are making a song and dance about 'sending out the right message' by is increasing cannabis possession penalties (upping prison sentences from 2 to 5 years),  a real, active and public debate around cannabis decriminalisation is opening up, even within the most conservative bastions of the UN. More importantly this debate is being driven not by politics, but primarily by the reality of the policy's increasingly widespread adoption and the growing evidence that it has not unleashed the pandora's box of addiction, crime and depravity anticipated by some of its more vocal opponents.

And, ironically enough, I found the UNODC Youthnet drug site in the links page of one such opponent's website.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another contemptuous Home Office rejection of a request for better evidence in UK drug policy

In April 2009 Transform published a groundbreaking report, titled 'A Comparison of the Cost-effectiveness of the Prohibition and Regulation of Drugs'

We sent a copy to the Secretary of State in July 2009 with the letter below. Our tardiness was to put to shame however, by the time it took the Home Secretary to respond - we received his response today, 15th Feb 2010 - eight months later. According to the Home Office the delay was partly due to awaiting Gordon Brown's response to our call for an Impact assessment. Clearly this delay wasn't because of the effort that went into the content of the response, which is as ever, contemptuous.

Our letter and the response from the Secretary of State are shown below.

The civil service manual for answering correspondence is:

1 agree with what you can,
2 ignore the rest and
3 restate government policy whilst you're at it.

The response from Alan Johnson shows the manual being followed to the letter.

Here's our blog on the saga of the withholding of the Home Office 2007 (Christine Godfrey) value for money study mentioned in Alan Johnson's response. That report took almost three years to emerge after our initial request...

The letter to the Home Secretary and his response speak for themselves. To enlarge the view just click on the page you want to see.

Those moved to do so might want to contact their MP or prospective parliamentary candidate to suggest that they support our call for an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Tobacco regulation: saving lives vs personal freedom

The UK’s Department of Health (DoH) has announced an ambitious new strategy for reducing smoking in the population from 21% currently, to 10% by 2020.

In 2007 the Government brought in a ban on smoking in virtually all enclosed public and work places. This move added to earlier regulatory controls including the restrictions on displaying tobacco products, prominent graphic health warnings on packaging, raising the age access limit, and progressive increases in tax. These came on top of bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, and historic increases in investment in public education of smoking health risks. Combined, these measures are widely seen as having contributed to a substantial reduction in smoking across the population since the 1970s.

Transform has supported these policies, including the ban on smoking in enclosed public places, that have demonstrably delivered positive health outcomes without the need to resort to criminalisation of users or abdication of market control to criminal profiteers, quite the opposite in fact. For more discussion see our recent submission to the DoH 2009 consultation on tobacco policy.

Along with a raft of new public health measures (such as extending tobacco cessation treatment provision) The DoH is now considering extending tobacco regulation further. Policies that are being consulted upon include:
  • Plain packaging - removal of all logos/branding
  • Ending the sale of tobacco from vending machines (a significant source of tobacco for young people)
  • Promoting smoke-free homes and cars
  • Reviewing whether to extend legislation from enclosed public places and workplaces to areas like entrances to buildings
Plain packaging in particular seems like a good idea, and one with a strong evidence base that can hardly be seen as restricting user freedoms. One suspects that it wont happen in the short term at least, with a tokenistic ban on smoking around entrances, that wont serve any real purpose being the move that is actually enacted. Some countries are already going further. Finland, which outlawed tobacco advertising as far back 1976, aims to make smoking in a car carrying anyone under the age of 18 illegal by this summer.

Other countries, such as the US, are lagging behind in many of these moves, at least at Federal level (some states such as California have introduced very restrictive controls on smoking in public places). Last year Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This legislation, which was passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 307 to 97 and the Senate 79 to 17, granted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) extensive new authority to regulate tobacco products. It means that the FDA would regulate the content of tobacco products, prohibits the use of the terms “light,” “mild,” and “low” on packaging and in advertising and mandate dramatic changes in the nature and strength of cigarette warnings, which by 2012 would have to cover the top 50% of both front and rear panels of cigarette packages. And it also stipulates that the FDA must reissue its 1996 regulations, which, among other things, would prohibit outdoor advertising of tobacco products within 1000 ft (305 m) of a school or playground, limit advertising in publications with a “significant youth readership” and ban brand-name sponsorship of sporting and cultural events.

To most Europeans, none of this seems new or radical. However in America such stipulations are frequently seen as a threat to the First Amendment of the Constitution – in other words they contradict commercial freedom of speech. Opposition to these policies comes not only from the tobacco manufacturers but also the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU sent a letter to senators arguing that,
‘… regulating commercial speech for lawful products only because those products are widely disliked — even for cause — sets us on the path of regulating such speech for other products that may only be disfavored by a select few in a position to impose their personal preferences.’
This idea that tobacco advertising controls are an unacceptable infringement on freedom of speech seems mistaken, when it has been recognised the world over that tobacco, specifically smoked tobacco, is not a 'normal' commercial product in that it causes direct and serious measurable health harms (around 50% of smokers will die prematurely as a result of their use) even when used as directed. This sets it aside from even alcohol.

The WHO has estimated that, at current global rates, there will be 1 billion tobacco related deaths during this century. Even the ACLU accepts there are must be some limits on freedom of speech. If the prospect of a billion deaths is not enough not justify some restrictions (not on use remember, just marketing) you have to wonder what would.

What is of more interest to Transform, however, is the policy disconnect that exists between tobacco policy and drug policy more generally. Most governments have acknowledged that using tobacco is hugely damaging to health and that stricter regulations are proven to reduce levels of use relative to prevalence patterns that emerged during the unregulated commercial tobacco promotion of earlier in the last century.

In the developed world, tobacco has been falling since the 70's, As a result of improved regulation, the reigning in of commercial marketing and increased public health education. This is in stark contrast to use of most illicit drugs.

If increased regulation and public health education has been proved to successfully contribute to a reduction in tobacco use and health harms, it is follows that these same policies might also be successful in reducing the harms associated with other – currently illegal – drugs. Unfortunately, we cannot even begin to explore the options for better market regulation whilst drugs are subject to rigid blanket prohibitions that mean no such market interventions are possible, default control falling to criminal profiteers and the economic dynamics of a completely unregulated illegal market.

For more information about proposed models of regulation for tobacco, alcohol and currently illegal drugs, see our Transform's new book – ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’.