Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pre-election prohibition fast-track for mephedrone

In Prime Minister's Questions yesterday Gordon Brown came up with this response to a question calling for a ban on mephedrone:
The Prime Minister: I am very concerned about what my hon. Friend has told me, and I send my sincere condolences to Jordan’s family and to their friends. We are committed to preventing young people from starting to take drugs. The advice is clear that, just because a substance is legal, that does not make it safe.

A valid point - tobacco, alcohol, paracetamol, nutmeg, prozac etc.
He continued:
We are concerned specifically about the harms of mephedrone, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD] is considering that and similar compounds as an absolute priority. We will receive its advice on 29 March, and subject to that advice we will take immediate action. We are determined to act to prevent this evil from hurting the young people of our country.

'Evil'? If mephedrone is 'evil' because it can hurt people, then alcohol and tobacco (which kill respectively, 100 and 300 a day in the UK), must truly be the work of Satan. This is hyberbolic twaddle straight out of the pre-election manual: 'How to garner votes in marginal constituencies by appealing to populist fears and nationalistic prejudices'.
As for ACMD, when exactly did the Government start getting so impatient for their expert advice? Certainly not when they called for the downgrading of Ecstasy from Class A to B. Or when they said cannabis should be left as Class C.
Truth be told it is already pretty clear where the ACMD are going on this.
But what would Brown do if they actually did call for enough time just to gather the evidence properly, rather than support a populist knee-jerk reaction?
Or they called for a detailed review, now or even at a later date, of any unintended consequences of absolute prohibition (including those identified by the head of the UNODC) e.g. creating a massive criminal black market, diverting money from health to criminal justice, displacing users to more harmful substances, marginalising and criminalising large numbers of otherwise law abiding users? Or causing an increase in the use of hazardous cutting agents, or the drug becoming of highly variable strength leading to increased overdose risk, or an increase in acquisitive crime if prices rise dramatically? Many of which, at least anecdotally, appear to be happening in the Channel Islands where a ban already exists.
Or, heaven forfend, what if the ACMD even called for the creation of a new holding category? Whether Class D, with tightly regulated legal sales including the provision of detailed health and use advice as suggested by the ACMD's last Chair David Nutt. Or Category X as suggested by the UK Drug Policy Commission, while all the possible options were properly modeled, to make sure we took the best route to minimize harms to individuals and society?
David Nutt's latest from the Evening Standard is well worth a look, and bearing in mind his treatment from the Government, the most likely outcome for ACMD of seeking a genuinely evidence-based review, would be finding themselves all sacked...
Update 26 March:
This is how the Daily Mail ran Nutt's views after the Standard rewrote their own story.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mephedrone and the ACMD: lessons from BZP and New Zealand's 'Class D' experiment?

Witnessing the media frenzy around mephedrone yesterday I was struck by the similarities with the situation that emerged around the last legal stimulant to achieve any real youth market penetration, namely BZP. BZP (Benzylpiperazine) was reviewd by the ACMD and, following their recommendation, brought within the Misuse of drugs Act just before last Christmas, but had been effectively removed from the 'legal high' market after the MRHA clarified that it was covered by the Medicines Act in 2007. There was never the level of media frenzy over BZP that we are now witnessing with mephedrone, probably because it was neither as popular nor (from the relatively little we know) as risky, and specifically was not directly linked to any deaths. Some journalists did their best to whisk up some hysteria (check out this joker in the Guardian for example), but it never really got any full blown drug-panic momentum.

But at the time the BZP issue was emerging (around 2006), Transform, aware that the drug would soon be under consideration, produced a briefing and submitted it to the ACMD. Central to that briefing was a consideration of New Zealand's policy on BZP, where a unique experiment was underway in which a new piece of legislation had been added to the conventional ABC system, in the form of a new 'restricted list' or  'Class D' as it came to be known, within which drugs would be legal for sale under certain conditions. This was, to our knowledge the first time that a non-medical stimulant drug widely used on the party scene, had been legally regulated for commercial sale anywhere in the world.

Since the briefing was written the situation in New Zealand has changed, and there are also obvious differences between the situation with Mephedrone and BZP. None the less, it was interesting to see David Nutt (who was sitting on the ACMD when we submitted our BZP briefing) suggesting the New Zealand Class D model in the Guardian CiF today. With all this in mind we thought it was worth revisiting the discussion and recommendations from the 2006 BZP briefing, as they seem pertinent to the current debate around mephedrone (not least since the ban on BZP arguably created the space in the market into which mephedrone emerged).

BZP as sold in 2006 

To note - the briefing was produced in October 2006, and some of the information is out of date (more up to date reviews of BZP have emerged). Also, whilst a Class D might be useful as a short term measure it  is not a long term solution and comes with its own problems (potentially further muddying public understanding of drug risks for example). If you want to know what Transform are advocating see here (it isn't prohibition, it isn't a Class D, and it certainly isn't powerful stimulants being sold without any regulation online as plant food).

The full 2006 BZP briefing, with references, is available here, the discussion and recommendations section is copied below:

Piperazines are psychoactive drugs and clearly not without risks. However, the assessments that have been done suggest that the risks are relatively low (see safety appendix), arguably on a par with or less than khat, another legal stimulant (in this case plant based) recently considered by the ACMD  - for which classification under the MDA was not recommended.

Whilst the demographic profile of khat use (largely limited to traditional use amongst the male Somali community) is very different to that of piperazines (mostly used in the party / club / dance music scene) some of the same conclusions apply.

Costs of prohibiting piperazines would include:
  • Potential for the creation of an illegal market for drugs that have an established market and level of demand
  • Profits being diverted from legitimate, taxed and legally liable producers/retailers into the hands criminal gangs and unregulated dealers
  • Increased risks/harm to users from drugs of unknown strength and purity, sold without any health and safety information
  • Removal of potential harm reduction gains achieved by diverting recreational users away from more dangerous illegal drugs such as amphetamines (including methamphetamine) and MDMA (ecstasy) and its analogues.
  • Criminalisation of users, mostly young people
  • An increase in enforcement costs to police, customs, courts, prisons and probation services
Are there potential benefits to prohibiting piperazines?
Benefits of such a move would seem to be primarily political (i.e. demonstrating ‘tough on drugs' credentials).

A deterrent effect from such a prohibition is possible, but doubtful given that there is already an established demand for these drugs, and those deterred would likely substitute back to other illegal equivalents. Such a deterrent effect is poorly supported by evidence. The Science and Technology Select Committee recently concluded that:
“We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government's policy on classification. In view of the importance of drugs policy and the amount spent on enforcing the penalties associated with the classification system, it is highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the system's effectiveness.”
The Government presented no evidence in their response to contradict this position. Piperazines (primarily BZP) have been prohibited in a number of countries including the US and it would be useful to examine what effects this had on patterns of use, and knock on effects on the use of other drugs. Transform is not aware that any such research has been undertaken.

There would be no prospect of reduced crime and social disorder, since there is none currently associated with the use of piperazines. According to the New Zealand EACD:
“ there is no reported criminal behavior associated with the use of BZP & TFMPP, as they are moderately priced and have a lower dependence potential than illicit amphetamine” (page 6)
Can we leave the market to self regulate?
The third alternative is to leave the market as it is. This is clearly not a long term tenable situation, even if producers of UK products (from New Zealand) and UK retailers put in place a voluntary code of practice. Although current UK retailers seem to be acting more responsibly than in the past (with, for example, magic mushrooms), there is no guarantee this will be the case for all retailers, and experience with unregulated ‘legal high' markets in the past does not inspire confidence. The New Zealand EACD report states that:
“Because there are many new substances that could appear on the market in this way, the challenge for public health practitioners and regulators is how to respond to these new substances in a way that promotes the public health while protecting individual rights. They are generally of lower potency and price than of illicit amphetamines and methamphetamine, and they are commercially packaged, labeled with the major ingredients and their strengths. The distributors would argue that this is a responsible approach to a demonstrated demand for the effects given by these substances.
When first distributed, this was an approach that allowed users to exit the illicit market with its inherent risks and the often poor quality drugs. Substitution of illicit with Piperazine is occurring, mostly amongst users who are afraid of the damage to their lives that a conviction would bring and who also wish to normalise the transaction required to purchase their choice of recreational substance. However, being unregulated at this time, they are being promoted within the free market, which has the generation of profit as the driving force. This can as easily lead to market saturation as can the imperatives driving the black market. Unlike either novel foods or new medicines, these products are being marketed without adequate scientific safety assessments because there is no need for the distributor to seek regulatory pre-market approval from a regulatory agency.” (p.8)
What would be the benefits of introducing appropriate regulation of the market and licensing of producers and vendors?
The idea of having a ‘restricted list' separate from, or a ‘Class D' in addition to the main drugs legislation (i.e. the ABC classification system under the MDA 1971) has many advantages over the status quo:

  • It would create an enforceable legal structure allowing effective state intervention and control of production, supply (availability), promotion and use. This is not possible under the minimally regulated existing market, any existing regulatory options (medicines Act, food supplement regulations), or under the unregulated criminal market that classification under the MDA would inevitably create.
  • It allows for full risk assessment of each drug as the basis for tailored penalties/restrictions rather than as a part of the blunt and malfunctioning instrument that is the ABC classification system.
  • This form of legislation is significantly more flexible than current arrangements under the Misuse of Drugs Act and would allow for restrictions to be changed rapidly in light of new research, emerging trends or changing conditions.
  • It removes virtually all the risks inherent in criminal markets; separating consumers from the wider criminal market (which in the case of Dutch cannabis policy is suggested to have kept down levels of use of more dangerous drugs) and offering harm reduction benefits from the availability of drugs of known content, strength and purity, and supplied with health and safety information
  • Harm reduction through diversion away from use of more dangerous drugs.
  • Harm reduction in terms of reducing the risk of young people being branded with the stigma of a criminal record.
The wider debate over classification and prohibition / regulation
Inevitably perhaps, proposals for a ‘restricted list' and or ‘Class D' will be seen by some as a ‘back door to legalisation' of cannabis and perhaps other drugs, a sentiment aired during the policy debate in New Zealand. The NZ legislation passed, however, following an intelligent public and parliamentary debate and engagement with all the relevant parties.

Transform's position on the current prohibition of drugs is well documented. We believe the enforcement led approach has been spectacularly counterproductive – failing to deliver any of its stated policy goals, maximising harms associated with dug use, creating a crisis in the criminal justice system and fuelling crime at all scales, at home and in producer and transit countries. We believe that drug policy should be led by evidence of effectiveness, established harm reduction principles and public health science. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that regulated markets (with different regulatory models depending on the drug) offer better outcomes than absolute prohibitions, on all key policy indicators; crime, social nuisance, public health, welfare of young people and value for money expenditure.

We are not alone in this view of prohibition:

“Prohibition doesn't work, as the US found out many years ago.”
John Reid MP Labour (now Home Secretary in charge of drugs policy):
Jeremy Vine programme, BBC Radio 2, 11.11.04

…"we can prohibit, regulate or leave it to the market. Prohibition does not work - it drives the activity underground…”
“Only ideological extremists favour a free-for-all where only the laws of the market hold sway. So the third option is regulation - and regulation with as much emphasis on the quality of the debate as the policy outcome. 'Better regulation' has to mean government engaging people in the decisions that affect their lives and doing so in new and better ways”.

Tessa Jowell MP Labour: 'Grown up politics for an adult world' The Guardian 21.11.04

The Piperazine issue offers a real opportunity to do the right thing, not necessarily the politically expedient one. These are drugs that have yet to attract the attention of a media hungry for drug scare stories (although the first murmurings are beginning to be heard in Ireland), so currently there is little political capital to be made from a high profile crackdown. There is some breathing room in which to address this issue before it gets out of hand. Intelligently handled this need not be a political minefield, and sold as a pragmatic public health intervention to better control a potentially risky substance and keep criminals away from the trade, regulatory options need not be perceived as ‘soft' either.

Important lessons can be learnt from the recent UK experience with fresh magic mushrooms. Whilst there has been well founded criticism that class A is not the appropriate classification for magic mushrooms (or psychedelics more generally), the situation with magic mushrooms was considerably different from that which we are facing with piperazines. Fresh magic mushrooms were legal because of anomaly in the law, rather than because they were a new ‘legal high'. Furthermore they were potentially creating a new market and demand for psychedelics that did not already exist, whereas piperazines are entering, and potentially displacing, existing demand for illegal stimulants (amphetamines and ecstasy) on the party scene. The ban on fresh mushroom sales has been effective at closing down the retailers and returning the market to its previous position, with lower levels of use and production returning to informal harvesting and small scale illegal sales of naturally growing UK mushrooms, that are rarely prosecuted. If there has been a knock on effect in terms of users moving to other drugs (legal or otherwise) this is impossible to quantify, however likely. This ‘success' (at least from the Home Office's point of view) is far less likely to occur following a similar move with piperazines, as has been discussed above, and as was concluded by the NZ Expert Advisory Council.

Similarly lessons can be learnt form the different approach taken with khat, which was rather more pragmatically left unclassified following a thoughtful and thorough investigation and report from the ACMD (unlike magic mushrooms, where policy alternatives received only the most cursory of consideration).

Piperazines probably lie in a similar risk spectrum to these drugs and if we have a choice between prohibition under the Misuse of Drugs Act (magic mushrooms, ketamine, GHB), and leaving things as they are (khat), surely the option of regulatory models, which have demonstrable advantages over both, must now be seriously considered. This is likely to remain a live issue as new ‘legal' drugs continue to emerge into the recreational market but are not covered by the UN drug conventions (Kratom, Fly-agaric mushrooms, peyote cactus, salvia divinorum and nitrous-oxide all potentially warranting consideration).

The ongoing debate around the ABC drug classification system has been brought into sharp relief by the recent Science and Technology Select Committee report, which concluded there was a poor scientific basis in support of its efficacy as either a public health tool or criminal justice deterrent. Even though the Home Office has now reneged on its promise to have a thorough review of the classification system (despite the fact that this idea was welcomed by everyone in the drugs field including the ACMD, and specifically requested the Science and Technology Select Committee) it is hoped that possibilities for the classification system to include a ‘Class D' - offering the possibility of licensed sales of some lower risk drugs - will feature prominently in this ongoing discourse.

The recent ACMD report ‘Pathways to Problems' has recommended that alcohol and tobacco be specifically brought within the remit of the ACMD. Such a move will raise many difficult questions about the historical legal anomalies between legally regulated and totally prohibited drugs. There may well exist possibilities for including alcohol and tobacco in a new ‘restricted' category (which, in effect, they already inhabit, albeit under separate legislation), and also for moving other misclassified (e.g. some psychedelics) or unclassified drugs (e.g. khat) into the new regulatory system. Transform would welcome a debate on these ideas within the ACMD, given that they have now very publicly opened the door for such a discussion.

Transform welcomes the recent shift in approach to the drugs issue, away from heavy handed enforcement towards public health and harm reduction as the guiding principles, and the development of effective regulatory models for some of the less harmful drugs currently in a legal grey area is inevitably going to be an important part of this process. Piperazines, a fairly marginal issue from Transform's perspective, could offer a useful opportunity to experiment with regulation whilst the stakes remain low, rather than leaving the market to self regulate, or opting for another expensive and counterproductive crackdown.


  • Initiate an official consultation as part of a formal engagement between the relevant Government agencies (including the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Treasury and key stakeholders including drug services, police and enforcement, NGOs, user groups, producers and retailers) to consider the three key choices for going forward regarding policy and legislation on recreational piperazines (status quo, regulation, prohibition). The possibility for a ‘Class D' or ‘restricted list' for lower risk drugs along the lines of the New Zealand model should specifically be included in the consultation.
  • That the ACMD produce a report that considers the information available on piperazines, clarifies the legal status and knowledge on of the various substances in question, and makes recommendations on ways forward, in line with similar recent reports on cannabis, khat, methamphetamines etc.
  • The ACMD should be specifically required to consider the models brought into New Zealand law, and make direct contact with colleagues on the New Zealand EACD, to discuss their findings and recommendations.
  • In the short to medium Transform recommends the establishing in of a new ‘Class D' within the MDA to enable the licensed sale of certain drugs under the direction of the ACMD.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mephedrone and Methadone - keep calm and review the evidence

There is a two pronged drug panic now in full swing, with the media calling for 'someting to be done' about mephedrone and methadone (Always get the journalist to spell it before you start rabbiting on about the wrong drug...)


I was up at 5.30am this morning in order to prepare for 5Live news at 6.00am to respond to the media furore regarding the deaths of two young people who had allegedly taken mephedrone. By 7.00 am I'd done eight interviews for local radio stations, warning of the dangers of rushing to make it illegal.

As ever the call is being driven by hysterical media hype (for example Telegraph Daily Mail The Sun and Guardian) about deaths of young people, none of which have unequivocally been linked exclusively to the use of mephedrone.

Leah Betts anyone?

Transform's call is three-fold:

  1. Calm down. A knee jerk response to classify may in fact increase harms, rather than reduce them. Mephedrone is not a threat to humanity or even a significant threat to the lives of users (we would have seen far more deaths if that were the case, given the high levels of use). Reduce the threat level to the correct proportions and begin to explore options. Recognise that the media massively over report illegal drug deaths, as opposed to all drug deaths, such as alcohol and tobacco, whose dangers are well known and demonstrably kill many more than mephedrone has (in relative or absolute terms).

  2. All drugs have dangers associated with their use. Put as much harm reduction information out there as we possibly can (knowledge of mephedrone is limited - here is a a decent guide to current knowledge).

  3. Recognise that criminalising drugs causes harms that may significantly outweigh any benefits. Conduct an independent and comprehensive impact assessment to explore all the options: do nothing, criminalise production, supply and posession, legally regulate its production and supply. Until that work is done, we cannot say which is the best option.

However, anecdotal evidence from Guernsey sugggests that the ban on importation there has pushed the price up from £10/gram to £60-80/gram and consequently acquisitive crime is now being committed by heavy users to fund their use/habit. Organised crime has taken over distribution (no guns on Guernsey, so samurai swords are the order of the day for fighting turf wars). This cannot possibly have made things better for the good citizens of Guernsey, and we would hope that (despite the differences between Guernsey and the UK) the Advisory Council take this evidence into account before recommending classification.


I also had a chat with The Times yesterday to try and give some balance to their anti-methadone line. It could have been worse (Leader Here and Feature Here)

What has been forgotten in the drive to turn the rhetoric of 'getting people off drugs' into reality, is  some of the basics.

  1. The vast vast majority of problematic users are not ready to stop using. The question then is how do you we manage that fact and reduce the harm that they cause themselves and the wider community.

  2. Methadone is not just for 'getting people off drugs', even if it can help with that goal for some. It is primarily used to reduce the amount of injecting of street heroin. Its purpose is to improve individual and public health by reducing both offending (acquisitive crime or prostitution to support a habit) and prevalence of high risk injecting behaviours, and thereby reduce transmission of blood borne viruses.
Methadone does not stop people becoming drug free. Anyone on methadone who wants to stop should be supported to do so. But whilst the majority of heroin users remain using, we would be foolish to throw away the medicine that has helped the UK keep its HIV rates amongst injectors relatively low, and reduced the collateral damage of making heroin illegal for non-medical use in the first place.

Transform is working with partner organisations to counter this pernicious move to undermine opiate substitute prescribing in the UK.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Home Office forced to evaluate its drugs strategy...but not yet

Whilst we were busy at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna a potentially really important meeting of Parliament's Committee on Public Accounts happened, following up the National Audit Office report on the UK Drugs Strategy we blogged about. To recap, the NAO report said:

"Without an evaluative framework for the [Drug] Strategy as a whole, the NAO is not able to conclude positively on value for money." and, "So overall performance measurement across the range of programmes needs to be put in place."
This was no shock. For decades, successive Governments have avoided developing meaningful measures of success, or research to objectively test the effectiveness of their drugs strategies.

For example, Parliament's Science and Technology Committee pointed out in their 2006 report "Making a Hash of it." that there was no evidence of a deterrent effect from criminalising drug use. The Government promised to do research to prove the link, but...hasn't.

Even the limited evaluations of the drugs strategy that have been done have been suppressed - like the value for money study of the last ten year drugs strategy that Transform recently prised from the fingers of the Home Office only after a three year Freedom of Information battle.

Why this coyness about evaluating billions of pounds of public spending? Well, in 2003 at a press conference, we asked the drugs spokesperson at the Home Office, Bob Ainsworth MP, whether the government would support a cost benefit analysis of drug law enforcement. "Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?" he replied.

So no evaluation, because they know it would show prohibition is failing.

Of course it is not just the UK that fails to evaluate its approach to drugs in a rational, effective way, it is a worldwide problem, including in the American heart of the drug war, as the US National Academies report, "Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us" back in 2001 makes clear.

And let's not fool ourselves, this failure to evaluate is not a victimless crime. It is a double hit. Not only do we squander billions that could be spent on treatment, schools, hospitals or other social goods, but the current policies themselves are often actively counterproductive.

That is why Transform, The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Release, the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, the Home Affairs Select Committee etc. are all calling for one or more of; a cost benefit analysis, a value for money assessment or a full Impact Assessment comparing current policy with the alternatives. Then we could move forward based on evidence of what works, not what is politically convenient.

Now the good news. Maybe, just maybe the Government will now have to put in place the first step towards a genuine evaluation of its current strategy. So back to where this blog started, with the Committee of Public Accounts: Tackling Problem Drug Use meeting on the 10th March 2010.

Chair Sir Edward Leigh MP:
Sir David, if I may start with you and refer you to paragraph eight of the Comptroller's Report [NAO] on page five, it starts off by saying, "Neither the current Strategy, nor the supporting action plan for 2008-2011, set out an overall framework for evaluating and reporting on the degree to which the Strategy is achieving the intended outcomes ..." Sir David, how are you going to evaluate and measure your success?

Sir David Normington, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office:
"...we have not had an overall framework of evaluation. We accept that in the new Strategy that is what we need to have..."

Chair Sir Edward Leigh MP:
So if you come back to this Committee in a couple of years' time we will have this overall evaluation at a more sophisticated level, will we? Remember that was the very first question I asked Sir David and he said, "We are doing it individually but we are not doing it comprehensively". This is your job, so you are going to be working with us now and you will be able to report back to us within a couple of years, will you?

Ms. Mandie Campbell, Director, Drugs, Alcohol and Partnerships Directorate, Home Office: Yes, I will. We have agreed with the National Audit Office that we will put a framework for evaluation in place that will look to identify and address those areas that are not evaluated at the moment.

So there it is - Make a note. the Home Office has promised to put in place a framework to evaluate its drug theory we should have more detail in about four months from now, so watch this space...But perhaps don't start holding your breath just yet.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Costa's legacy: Human Rights and the UNODC

Before talking about far more important things going on at this years CND, briefly to this morning, when the NGO representatives had a particularly fractious meeting with the UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa. Instead of having a constructive dialogue with the NGOs representatives present, the Director prompted an audible gasp as he immediately lashed out, angrily accusing half of us of being 'pro-drug' (again) and not caring if we killed millions in poor countries. Inevitably several present felt bound to take him to task on these offensive, and frankly ridiculous comments, and depressingly familiar scenes ensued. All rather pointless. There may be other accounts of all this but I won't dwell on it now. Costa is stepping down in May and hopefully a more positive relationship will be possible with his successor. We should also remember that the UNODC is far more than just its figurehead.

More on the activities at CND today from IHRA HR2's day three report , and all the nerdy detail on the CNDblog

Despite Costa parting company with many in the NGO community on a rather sour personal note this morning, the UNODC under Costa has, in fact, seen some considerable improvements in some areas of its NGO engagement - even if often rather begrudging, and more often behind the scenes than at the big showpiece events like the CND, as we have seen.

We should give credit where due; this engagement has delivered some meaningful progress, the Beyond 2008 NGO meeting, for example, producing a potentially useful document (even if CND chose to completely ignore it). Perhaps the most significant development on this front has been the dramatically improved incorporation of human rights analysis from the NGO sector into the wider drug control discourse (for which IHRA's HR2 program and others including Human Rights Watch can take considerable plaudits). Costa, to his credit, has made a series of useful statements on human rights issues, notably on the death penalty.  

As he prepares to bow out he may well also look back at today's publication by the UNODC of new a discussion document, 'Drug control, crime prevention and criminal justice: a human rights perspective - Note by the Executive Director' , as one legacy for which he can be justifiably proud. It contains a level of sophistication in its analysis that has long been absent from the high level drug policy UN discourse. It is an authoritative document and one of potentially huge importance in the longer term. UN drug control, and international drug policy more generally has been uniquely divorced from much of the mainstream human rights analysis that flows through the very core of the wider UN family. This new document goes some way to correcting this historical anomaly  - at least on paper - covering a range of issues including:

  • The nature of state human rights obligations within drug enforcement, 
  • Issues of proportionality in sentencing
  • The use of imprisonment and the death penalty for drug offenses, 
  • Due process and treatment of drug offenders, 
  • The right to health - including access to clean needles and substitute opiate prescribing for injectors (including in prisons)
  • Personal rights regarding coerced treatment and testing 
  • The right to provision of essential medicines
  • Mainstreaming of human rights in international drug control, including - we were pleased to see  - a call for  a human rights impact assessment  to be used as a evaluative and developmental policy tool, as well as incorporating a human rights compliance assessment into the annual World Drugs Report, and provision of human rights training.
You will forgive the lengthy excerpts that follow, but this is material really worth highlighting. I fully recommend you read the complete report (which provides the context and the references for the quotes below, (that btw include my emphasis)). The body of the report is only 15 pages and by UN standards, its pretty accessible and free of heavy legalese/waffle.

from Para 2:

"The normative foundation of the United Nations’ work in the area of the rule of law work is the Charter and the body of international law, including international humanitarian law, international criminal law, international refugee law, and international human rights law. Responses to drugs, crime and terrorism that are based on the rule of law must therefore also incorporate human rights law and principles. Too often, law enforcement and criminal justice systems themselves perpetrate human rights abuses and exclude and marginalize from society those who most need treatment and rehabilitation"
Para 3:

"Placing human rights at the centre of drug control, crime prevention and criminal justice provides an organizing set of principles that dissolves boundaries between the fields and promotes a single coherent response. Effective drug control cannot exist without fair criminal justice and successful crime prevention. Human rights offer guidance on the delicate balance between the protection of fundamental freedoms and the protection of public health, morals and security. It sets out the broad responsibilities of the State to respect, protect and fulfil the health and wellbeing of its peoples and specific due process guarantees, such as for those suspected or accused of a criminal offence."
 Para 4:

"Such an approach represents more than “added value”; it is a legal obligation. In the 2005 World Summit Outcome, Member States resolved that the promotion and protection of human rights should be both integrated into national policies and mainstreamed throughout the United Nations system. That the fight against drugs, crime and terrorism must conform to human rights is clear. The challenge is to understand how these policies may be pursued in a manner that not only respects and protects human rights, but also contributes towards their positive fulfilment."
Para 8:

"These bodies of treaty law are interdependent and are intended to support elements of the same pillars of peace and security, development and human rights. Nonetheless, references to human rights within the crime, terrorism and drug-related treaties are sparse. This does not mean that human rights law has no application to drugs, crime and terrorism. Rather, where references to human rights do occur in the drug, crime and terrorism conventions, it is clear that the intention is to highlight that international human rights law must be fully respected in their implementation. This is consistent with the core Charter obligation to promote respect for, and observance of human rights."
Para 9:

"No treaty, however special its subject-matter, applies in a normative vacuum, as both general international law (including customary international law) and particular concurrent international obligations affect its interpretation and application.
The question of whether a particular criminal law is inconsistent with international human rights must be assessed on a right-by-right basis. One reason for this is that while some rights (such as freedom of expression, for example) may be limited on the grounds of public safety, order, health, morals and the rights and freedoms of others, other rights may not be limited under any circumstances."

from Para 15:

"In particular, the balance between State action and individual rights can be different when it comes to vulnerable groups. Indeed, human rights law can be said to have a particular focus on marginal groups, vulnerability, disadvantage and discrimination"

Para 17 (on children drugs and rights):

"With respect to children who use drugs and abuse alcohol, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child considers that the right of the child to protection demands that such children should be treated as victims and not as criminals. Indeed, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — as the only core United Nations human rights treaty to refer specifically to drug use — has a strong focus on protection rather than punishment."

Para 18 (on harm reduction):

"Similarly, as concerns persons vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, the International Guidelines on HIV and Human Rights emphasize that criminal law should not be an impediment to reducing the risk of HIV transmission among injecting drug users, or to provision of HIV-related care and treatment for injecting drug users. "
 In particular, Member States should consider the repeal of laws criminalizing the possession, distribution and dispensing of needles and syringes, in favour of the authorization or legalization and promotion of needle and syringe exchange programmes.

 from Para 21 (on proportionality)
"..the principle that the severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offence is found in a wide body of human rights related standards. This principle includes the notions that imprisonment should be used as a penalty of last resort, and that the choice between penalties  should take into consideration the likelihood of the offender being rehabilitated"

Para 23 - (making a clear case from decrim of personal possession/use)

"In the context of drug laws and sentencing, the drug-control conventions generally require parties to establish a wide range of drug-related activities as criminal offences under their domestic law. Nonetheless, they permit parties to respond to them proportionally, including through alternatives to conviction or punishment for offences of a minor nature. Serious offences, such as trafficking in illicit drugs, must be dealt with more severely and extensively than offences such as possession of drugs for personal use. In this respect, it is clear that the use of non-custodial measures and treatment programmes for offences involving possession for personal use of drugs offer a more proportionate response and the more effective administration of justice. Moreover, the criminal justice response should not be considered proportionate if it results in the denial of another individual human right. Where imprisonment for possession/use offences precludes access to appropriate drug-dependence treatment, for example, this may constitute a denial of the right to the highest attainable standard of health or even the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, rendering the criminal justice response de facto disproportionate."

Para 25/26 (making it clear the death penalty is illegal for any drug crime including trafficking):

"The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifies that in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, the sentence of death may be imposed only for the “most serious crimes”. The concept of “most serious crimes” is limited to those where it can be shown that there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life. The weight of opinion indicates that drug offences (such as possession and trafficking) and those of a purely economic nature do not meet this threshold. Moreover, States that have abolished the death penalty are prohibited to extradite any person to another country where he or she might face capital punishment."

"Despite such prohibitions, a considerable number of the 47 retentionist States that continue to use capital punishment have carried out executions for drug offences in recent years. In some of these countries, drug offenders constitute a significant proportion of total executions As an entity  of the United Nations system, UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offences of a drug-related or purely economic nature.
Para 27:

Overall, while human rights law does not usually direct the content of criminal laws or penalties per se, it does demand strict scrutiny to ensure that laws do not deny the rights of individuals. In the case of drug laws in particular, obligations to establish offences under the international drug conventions must be fulfilled while at the same time respecting a range of rights, including the right to health, to the protection of the child, to private and family life, to non-discrimination, to the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. As noted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, drug laws frequently overemphasize criminalization and punishment while underemphasizing treatment and respect for human rights.

Para 41 (clarifying the right to health includes access to needle exchange and opiate substitution)

"Accordingly, the right to health calls for access to measures such as counselling, advice, clean needles and syringes, and drug dependence psychosocial and pharmacological treatment, including, where appropriate, opioid-agonists therapy (or long lasting opioid-agonists). Such requirements are fully compatible with those of the international drug control conventions. The International Narcotics Control Board notes that governments should adopt measures that may decrease the sharing of hypodermic needles among injecting users in order to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS.72 It is also of the view of the Board that the implementation of drug substitution and maintenance treatment does not constitute a breach of treaty provisions, whatever substance is used for such treatment in line with established national sound medical practice."

Para 59: (on human Rights Impact Assessments)

"UNODC will consider using, where appropriate, the Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) as a predictive tool for assessing the potential human rights impact of a policy or programme, with the aim of informing decision makers and affected persons. By helping to identify the nature and extent of the potential impact, the HRIA facilitates the adjustment of the proposed policy, mitigating the negative and maximizing the positive human rights impacts. HRIA is a combined tool for risk assessment, civil society engagement and decision-making, geared towards ensuring, from the outset, that human rights are at the centre of all policy and programmes. This is a relatively new and developing area and not without its difficulties, but one which could be of significant value for UNODC as a mechanism to mainstream human rights and operationalize human rights commitments and responsibilities. To this end, the HRIA includes a wide range of activities intended to identify and  manage human rights risk and to evaluate humanrights impact, positive and negative, throughout the life of each project."
Of course, This should all have been said years ago - and might have helped avert all manner of drugwar excess and horror if it had been. None the less, progress is progress and this is a useful foundational document for moving forward. So, well done Costa, thank you, and farewell.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How the UNODC welcomes NGO involvement : slurs and exclusion

The UNODC has been playing up its committment to NGO involvement in this year's Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting, but they certainly have a long way to go compared with how other members of the UN family engage with civil society. Or even to be just plain civil to civil society...

For a start the Executive Director of the UNODC deliberately slandered a whole section of the NGO community in his opening speech, calling groups who support a debate on wider drug law reforms/regulation "pro-drugs", despite Transform specifically writing to him, requesting that he desist with this childish and unwelcoming slur, on the basis that it was inaccurate, pejorative and offensive. Would he call the US Government "pro-drug" for supporting the regulation of tobacco and alcohol? No. We wrote to him about this after the last CND - see "Reformers are not pro-drug" - and got an acknowledgment of our concerns, but no actual response.

In addition:

  • NGOs were initially excluded from the key meetings where the real decisions are taken on resolutions (The Committee of the Whole ), despite having been allowed to attend in previous years. This was only resolved following a procedural intervention from the UK delegation.
  • NGOs have one room available for their use, that is too small for us all to fit in at once
  • NGOs are expected to share a handful of computers with all the delegates
  • The microphone for the single seat allocated for NGOs in the plenary was removed, though has now been returned after we complained.
  • The 160 representatives from 55 NGOs (according to the UNODC website) have just this one tiny table (see pic below) to display and share all our materials. Despite assurances that space would be provided to put out materials for delegates to pick up, even this table only materialised today after NGOs complained yesterday.
'Ambassador. you are spoiling us'

To be meaningful, NGO engagement has to be about more than just letting us through the main door - it has to be about providing genuine opportunities for us to express our views and engage in meaningful dialogue with decision makers at the UN, and country delegations both in and outside the formal meetings.

I understand UNAIDS is pretty good on all of this, but to take an example I am familiar with, when I was working on international development issues I went to many Annual and Spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank where all the member countries get together.

Whilst far from perfect, and somewhat begrudgingly at first, these involved:

  • NGO townhall style meetings with the Heads of the Bank and Fund, and Chairs of key committees where we got time to publicly question them on their policies, and closed meetings with them on key themes with groups of key NGOs
  • Staff dedicated not just to NGO registration and support at the events, but also for liaison all year
  • Plenty of computers and space dedicated for NGOs
  • Plenty of space to display materials, posters etc where the delegates could pick it up
  • Controlled but ready access to the press rooms and help distributing press releases to media

NGOs have a huge amount to offer in terms of independent and fresh thinking, factual knowledge and analysis that is not tied to a particular party or national political agenda. This input is invaluable not least forensuring transparency and accountability of these sprawling and often bureaucratic UN organisations to the public at large.

I just hope that Mr. Costa's successor (this is his last CND) takes NGO engagement far more seriously, rather than viewing it as an inconvenience and chore, and at the very least doesn't actively denigrate people and organisations like Transform whose sole purpose is to see the harms from the use and trade in drugs minimised - particularly when they have been awarded UN ECOSOC accreditation to attend and contribute to CND on a formal basis.

Further reading:
Civil Society: The Silenced Partners? Civil Society Engagement with the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (IHRA 2009)

UPDATE 16.00

i ) Mr. Costa is now going to have an informal dialogue meeting with NGOs tomorrow morning - at a time that clashes with a planned NGO briefing meeting.

ii) A second table has belatedly appeared to display NGO materials. (But where is the  designated and signposted NGO zone? Should we really have to beg for these things?)

Transform at CND in Vienna

As Steve Rolles heads off for California, I am at the UN's annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna for which Transform has ECOSOC special consultative status.

UN buildings in Vienna*

We are here as more than just spectators. In addition to attending a range of meetings that I will report on over the next few days, we have co-organised our own event, as part of the rapidly growing campaign for an Impact Assessment of drug policy, with our colleagues at the International Drug Policy Consortium. We are particularly pleased Carel Edwards the Head of the EC's Anti-Drugs Policy Unit has agreed to speak, as well as the Chair of IDPC Mike Trace, and myself (details below).

I would also recommend checking out the live CNDblog run by IHRA and IDPC which will provide regular  independent updates and reporting throughoutthe CND. IHRAs HR2 blog will also be reporting daily (report on Day 1 is already up)

CND 2010 side event -Time for an Impact Assessment of Drug Policy

10 Mar 2010
Vienna, Austria

All stakeholders in the drugs debate share the goal of a policy and legal structures that maximise social, environmental, physical and psychological wellbeing. Particularly at a time of economic stricture, it is also crucial that drug policy expenditures are cost-effective. Yet despite the many billions of dollars in drug-related spending each year, there are great concerns about the outcomes of the current approach, at the domestic and international level.

However, the debate around improving drug policy has been emotive, polarised and deadlocked. Proponents of different views of the best way forward tend to focus on the arguments and evidence that support their perspective. In this context, national governments and international agencies need to take a structured approach to assessing the best mix of evidence-based drug policies to promote human development, human security and human rights. Impact Assessment methodologies provide a potential mechanism for conducting an independent, neutral analysis that all stakeholders can support. These methodologies have been used to great effect in other policy areas, comparing the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of existing policies against a full range of alternatives. For an Impact Assessment of drug policy, these alternatives should include more intensive/punitive enforcement approaches, as well as options for decriminalisation of personal use, and models for legal regulation of drug production and supply.
This introductory event on Impact Assessment will consist of short presentations and a Question and Answer session covering:
  • How Impact Assessments can help;
  • How Impact Assessments might be commissioned and structured, both nationally and internationally;
  • Opportunities and Barriers; and
  • Impact Assessment of drug policy and the EU.
  • Carel Edwards, Head of the EC Anti-Drugs Policy Unit, DG JLS
  • Mike Trace, Chair of IDPC
  • Martin Powell, Campaigns Manager, Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
* pic: Steve Rolles 2008

Monday, March 08, 2010

Transform goes to California

Steve from Transform is speaking at the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) conference in San Francisco this Saturday, presenting Transforms latest publication 'After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation', at a panel discussion titled 'should we legalize all drugs'. The full SSDP conference program is available here (pdf).

Immediately following the SSDP event Steve is attending the 2-day RAND International Society for Study of Drug Policy 4th annual conference in Santa Monica, where he is chairing a panel discussion on 'Prevention and other community approaches to drug policy'. 

Thursday, March 04, 2010

NAO drugs report - No framework to evaluate value for money. Again.

"Without an evaluative framework for the Strategy as a whole, the NAO is not able to conclude positively on value for money."

No evaluative framework. This is a pitiful point to have reached, two years after the 2008 strategy was supposedly reviewed for efficacy, its success trumpeted repeatedly.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, in an extraordinary understatement said: "So overall performance measurement across the range of programmes needs to be put in place."

To add insult to injury, this report only covers specific initiatives to “tackle problem drug use”. It hasn’t even looked at policing costs, (which, according to the value for money study that Transform tore out of the clutches of the Home Office under FOI, constitutes the far larger expenditure) – £2 billion a year – and is subject to even less value for money scrutiny.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Parliamentary Cocaine Trade Report - Good, bad and downright ugly

Today the Home Affairs Committee publishes a report on the Cocaine Trade - to which Transform made a written submission and was invited to give oral evidence. Whilst there is some limited useful content and recommendations, the report overall is desperately disappointing and unlikely to impress or please anyone. It is characterised by weak analysis and poor scholarship, leading to a set of mostly pointless recommendations. Occasionally the recommendations are actively obnoxious (see sentencing recommendations below) - the overwhelming impression being of an ill considered and rushed inquiry that has been badly chaired and poorly supported - and one that has a distinct pre-election feel to it (the evidence has been shaped around a pre-decided narrative).

This is particularly disappointing coming from the same committee that in 2002 produced one of the most important, thorough and influential drug policy reports of the modern era (especially given the fact that three of the committee members from 2001 are still members). Also disappointing is that the report lacks anything approaching the analytical rigor of the last major Select Committee drug report; the Science and Technology committee report on the classification system from 2006, with key analysis from that 2006 report (on, for example, drug harms or the deterrent effect) notably absent from this new HASC cocaine report. It really does seem like a massive step backwards - with few lessons learned, and others forgotten or actively abandoned.

Before chronicling some of the report's multiple failings, first we should acknowledge its strengths. Transform is pleased that the Committee has called for “a full and independent value–for–money assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation and policy”. This was one of Transform's specific calls to the committee in both our written and oral evidence, and something we have campaigned for since 2002.

We hope that the Government will now reconsider our call to evaluate drug policy using established Impact Assessment tools in the light of this new HASC recommendation, as it was dismissed by the PM, following a private meeting with a Transform representative last year.

We were also pleased to see this recommendation being supported by discussion of the Home Office 'value for money' study that Transform secured publication of earlier this year. Given that the media will almnost certainly ignore this section of the report I think it is worth reproducing in full (note: i. Steve Rolles is from Transform, ii. David Nutt was still chair of the ACMD at this point):

20. Some witnesses suggested there was a need for a cost/benefit analysis of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to assess the evidence of whether the Government’s drugs policy offered value for money. Steve Rolles called specifically for a value for money impact assessment of the 1971 legislation, and told us that the Act had “never been subject to that kind of scrutiny and it is time that it was”. Professor Nutt supported an impact assessment, saying “I think my Council would be quite comfortable if people wanted to review the Act”

21. On 21 January 2010 the Home Office published an evaluation completed in June 2007 by an academic at the University of York entitled Drugs Value for Money Review, which Transform had been campaigning for three years to have released under a Freedom of Information request. The review as published made two key conclusions. Firstly, that there was a real lack of data collected by Government to enable an assessment of how effective its drug policy had been, particularly on the supply side. It stated:
Policies to reduce the availability of drugs produced the greatest analytical challenge. The absence of robust and recognised measures of success, combined with a limited base of research evidence makes it particularly difficult to draw conclusions about supply-side policy.
Secondly, it concluded that Government spending on drugs had not been properly evaluated, making it hard to draw conclusions about whether resources were appropriately allocated:
There is no single, comprehensive, agreed overview of cross-government expenditure. Evaluations of effectiveness are patchy and incomplete, making it difficult to assess value for money and to decide how to best allocate resources in the future
There was a similar indictment in analysis carried out by the UK Drug Policy Commission—a grouping of expert drug treatment and medical practitioners—in April 2007, which concluded that it was “difficult to estimate government expenditure on drug policy, as it is not transparently reported” and that “the UK invests remarkably little in independent evaluation of the impact of drug policies, especially enforcement. This needs redressing if policy makers are to be able to identify and introduce effective measures in the future”

22. The Home Office review was intended to inform the Government’s new Drugs Strategy 2008–2018.32 However, the publication of the strategy in February 2008, only eight months after the review was completed, suggests it is extremely unlikely that the serious criticisms voiced in the review about the lack of an evidence base on which to assess the effectiveness of expenditure on drugs could have been addressed in time.

24. We were very interested to learn that a Government review completed in 2007—the publication of which the Home Office had fought for three years—concluded that the effectiveness and value for money of the Government’s drugs spending could not be evaluated. It is at best careless that the Government nevertheless pressed ahead and published its Drugs Strategy in February 2008 without publishing a proper value–for–money analysis of where resources would be most effectively targeted. We therefore support calls for an full and independent value–for–money assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation and policy. This assessment must also address the concerns about inadequate data collection raised in the 2007 review.
Beyond this section there is little positive to be said about the report, and much to criticize. Large swathes of it are essentially a workmanlike summary of evidence taken from various sources, prominently including the UNODC World Drugs Report, and various documents from the EMCDDA, NTA, SOCA, UKBA and others. There is nothing wrong with any of this of course, the researchers having done an adequate job of compiling some potentially useful supporting evidence. There are, however, some serious sins of omission. The problems come partly from the evidence that was missed or ignored, but perhaps more importantly, the weak policy analysis that flows from all the evidence presented as we will discuss.

The most notable omission from the evidence considered is the World Health Organisation' s cocaine report from 1995 (details and link to the full report here) the largest global study of cocaine use, risks and policy ever undertaken. This report was suppressed under pressure from the US (until it was leaked into the public domain years later) essentially because it did not fit with the prevailing prohibitionist political narrative. That the HASC has chosen to overlook it, despite it being flagged up in Transform's written submission (and sent separately to the committee secretariat) is a telling reflection on the committee's mindset.

The tone and overarching narrative of the report are framed in the press release that accompanies it, which contains some very dramatic language about the nature of cocaine, and from the outset makes the cardinal error of conflating prohibition policy harms with drug use harms:
"In a report published today, Wednesday 3 March, the Home Affairs Committee warns that a deadly, socially and environmentally destructive drug seems to be becoming more widely acceptable in the UK, and says more must be done to tackle the demand side in the UK alongside international efforts to disrupt smuggling."
This mistaken conflation of drug use and drug policy harms (something that, disappointingly, David Nutt's evidence also failed to challenge) was something Transform specifically warned against in its written submission;
"Any discussion of the cocaine trade in the UK, and what our response should be, requires that we separate the public health problems associated with cocaine use per se, from the secondary criminal justice harms associated with its prohibition."

The press release then produces a 'must try harder' admonition of supply side enforcement agencies' commitment to 'stemming the flow':

"The Committee praises SOCA’s and UKBA’s general approach, namely to actively disrupt the cocaine trade overseas and thereby prevent it reaching the UK..... The Committee was shocked to discover only 3.5 tonnes of the estimated 25–30 tonnes of cocaine which does enter the UK border was seized in the UK last year. The Committee says interception of 12–14% of cocaine reaching the UK is ‘woefully inadequate’, while UKBA’s target to seize 2.4 tonnes of cocaine this year is ‘deeply unambitious’ and lower than the amount it seized in both previous years"

Adding that :
"The Committee suggests UKBA’s low seizure target reflects a culture of complacency"
This summarizes the key failing of the report's analysis; the implied suggestion that the failings of supply side enforcement could somehow be solved with more resources or better organisation, or that the supply of cocaine could genuinely be prevented such that the cocaine problem would somehow diminish or even disappear. This all harks back to the denial-of-reality prohibitionist analysis that: drugs are bad, therefore we will ban them and make the problem go away. Once you have bought into this hopelessly naive premise, as the committee chair seems to have done, all other facts and analysis naturally have to be shaped around it. This is the process that we then have to endure for the majority of the report.

For no obvious or stated reason, the report spends an inordinate amount of time critiquing both UK cocaine seizure rates and the collection and presentation of seizure statistics, somehow managing to completely avoid grappling with the actual impact of seizures on levels of availability. It is important to bear in mind that seizure rates, even if you buy into the overarching prohibitionist analysis (see above), are a proxy measure (or process measure) for the efficacy of supply side enforcement - the actual outcome measures of which are levels of availability, and ultimately levels of use/misuse. At one point the report does note that:
The doubling in wholesale price of cocaine at the UK border between 1999 and 2009 does indicate that more effective supply-side enforcement may have squeezed the supply of the drug to the UK. However, we do not consider that the substantial fall in purity of cocaine at street level can be attributed to supply-side enforcement. The consistency of purity at the UK border but fluctuating levels found in street–level seizures within the UK—some with as little as 5% purity—suggest to us that the fall in purity is not so much driven by overall squeezing of the cocaine supply to the UK, but rather associated with the emergence of a ‘two-tier’ market in which there is demand for lower price, more heavily cut cocaine on the street, as well as higher end product by other consumers. The use of more sophisticated cutting agents which themselves mimic the analgesic effect of cocaine may mean that less pure cocaine has gone to some degree unnoticed. And the increase in the number of users may in itself have driven the available cocaine to be more thinly spread, thus reducing purity levels. (Paragraph 162)
This is the nearest we get to a discussion of the impact of seizures on actual availability but appears to suggest that the impact is marginal at best. The committee suggests that current seizure rates of around 10% are inadequate, but does not suggest what % would be good enough - or suggest how such improved seizure rates might be achieved, or explore possible knock on impacts even if it were (like, for example, displacement to other drugs). There are some rather random examples of enforcement best practice based on the committee's field trips, but it is far from clear if they are seriously suggesting that such models - if rolled out nationally/ internationally - would somehow deliver the desired outcome of actually reducing cocaine use/harms. Crucially they fail to engage with key elements of the analysis:

  1. The unintended negative consequences of supply side enforcement - as spelt out in detail in the submissions of Transform and others, as well as being detailed by the UNODC. Some of these harms are mentioned - such as environmental destruction, but again these are blamed on cocaine users rather than the prohibitionist policy environment the committee is evidently supporting. The role of prohibition in creating opportunities for criminals is mentioned only once, in a Transform quote (below).

  2. The' balloon effect' - that even seemingly 'successful' localised supply side enforcement will only achieve a displacement of illicit activity, not elminate it. Steve is quoted in the report saying that: 'History shows with crystal clarity that an enforcement response cannot get rid of the illicit drug trade…it is a fundamental reality of the economic dynamics of unregulated illegal markets where demand is huge; the opportunity is created and criminal entrepreneurs will always exploit that opportunity. Every dealer or trafficker you arrest, another one immediately fills the void.' Only for this analysis to translate into an ambiguous conclusion that 'Neither supply–side enforcement nor demand reduction can on its own successfully tackle cocaine use.'.

  3. At no point do they get to the heart of the matter to highlight the futility and counter-productive nature of supply side enforcement as evidenced by 40+ years of increasingly expensive failure. No examples are given of countries that have delivered good overall drug policy outcomes (in terms of reduced drug use/harms) from more effective or well resourced supply side enforcement (for the simple reason that there aren't any).
As Transform made clear in our written submission:
10. Decades of supply-side enforcement experience at all scales, from international interdiction efforts to arresting dealers on street corners, demonstrate how its successes can only ever be marginal, temporary and localised. This failure results not from incompetence, flaws in execution, or under-resourcing, but because this approach ignores the economic forces of supply and demand in an unregulated illicit market controlled by criminal profiteers.
We also quoted the committee's previous drugs report:
12. Enforcement also has a Darwinian-style ‘survival of the fittest’ effect – it is the most efficient, ruthless, and violent criminal networks that prosper. So the more energetically prohibition is enforced, the worse the ‘cocaine problem’ becomes. In short, as the 2002 HASC drug inquiry report concluded:
“If there is any single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail.”
Whilst the committee isn't bound to agree with any of this well established historical critique of supply side enforcement, they should at least have tackled it and made the case in support of the wider supply side enforcement paradigm. Nowhere in the report is there anything even approaching this sort of discussion. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Drugs Report of 2003 demonstrated in detail how global prohibition creates much of the harm associated with the production, supply and use of cocaine and heroin. Like the SciTech classification report, and the 2002 HASC drugs inquiry report, it is not mentioned, nor its central findings engaged with.

The same analytical shortcomings and conceptual misunderstandings of supply side enforcement flow through the analysis of crop eradication in South America and the comments on localised UK police operations. Even where useful insights do occasionally appear in the report , in the form of quotes or references, these are never allowed to impinge on the unrelentingly poor analysis of the recommendations and conclusions. It is particularly noteworthy that nowhere in the report is the detailed submissions from the Transnational Institute (arguably the world's leading NGO authority on the international cocaine market and related policy) or the International Drug Policy Consortium quoted or referenced.

In large parts of the report there is evidence that either the inquiry's remit was far to broad, or (looked at another way) that the inquiry has dealt with a series important issues with a woeful lack of depth and detail. Key debates and areas of policy are dealt with in a few paragraphs - a couple of cursory quotes and facts (when far more substantive literature reviews are needed) followed by a rather limp and unconvincing recommendation. Without going into tedious detail on each of the many areas the report attempts to cover, consider for example:
  • Prevention and media campaigns - much backslapping about the Government's FRANK campaign supported a single piece of Home Office polling research, but nothing on the wider literature critiquing such mass media campaigns (including that of the WHO 1995 cocaine report, which is not referenced despite its commentary on this point being flagged up in Transform's written submission), or any reference to the ACMD Pathways to Problems report which did consider such efforts in the sort of detail the HASC has conspicuously failed to.
  • The role of celebrity drug users: Whilst the committee, you suspect rather dissapointedly, acknowledged that 'There is no evidence that celebrity use has made more people turn to cocaine, indeed our witnesses argued strongly against it,' they were, almost laughably, unable to stop themselves from continuing to makes such an assertion regardless, 'However, the seeming propensity of celebrity users to ‘get away with’ using cocaine does contribute to a general trend of glamorising use, as does the social acceptability and normalisation generated by ‘successful’ people who appear to function normally, often holding down high-flying careers, whilst using cocaine.' . This was another example of fitting the facts around a pre-determined narrative (see this appearance of HASC Chair Keith Vaz on channel four news 8 months before the report is published). Guess which part of the report was given most prominence in the press? To find out put cocaine into Google news search...

  • Treatment - a very cursory analysis followed by a call for more residential rehab - but no comparisons of value for money related to treatment outcomes are provided, that would actually support such a call.
  • Cocaine harms - The discussion of cocaine related health harms lacks any sophistication, seemly built around the preconceived requirement to make it clear that cocaine is not 'safe'. This seems like a classic straw man, as we are not aware that anyone has been saying that cocaine was 'safe' (no drug is), nor do the committee provide any examples of anyone doing so. The concept that there are a range of cocaine products and range of cocaine using behaviours associated with a spectrum of risks (from negligible to extreme) is largely jettisoned in favour of less-than-useful headline grabbing generalisations about 'lethal' cocaine. Public understanding of risk is not helped by this sort of language - its hard to see what it seeks to achieve, and it goes against much of the more nuanced analysis we have seen from the Sci-Tech committee in 2006,and the HASC in 2002. The discussion of cocaine deaths similarly lacks any breakdown, analysis, or caveats - rather defaulting again to the the 'lethal cocaine' narrative, or cocaine the 'dangerous and lethal drug' (presumably in that order) as HASC chair Vaz describes it in the press release.

There was a similarly limited engagement with the debate on legalisation and regulation. This was a marked contrast to the HASC 2002 drug inquiry which recognised the harms of current policy, and called on the UK Government to initiate a debate on alternatives to prohibition, “including the possibility of legalisation and regulation drugs – to solve the global drugs dilemma” (It is worthy of note that one of the members of the 2002 Committee who supported that recommendation was David Cameron). Steve's contribution is key to the section the Enquiry calls 'Decriminalisation':

Several witnesses argued that the supply of and demand for cocaine could not be effectively tackled whilst it remained an illegal drug, but one which for which there was demand. Steve Rolles of Transform Drug Policy told us that:
"When prohibition of something collides with huge demand for it you just create an economic opportunity and illegal criminal entrepreneurs will inevitably exploit the opportunity that it creates."
Lord Mancroft agreed:
"We have controlled drugs in this country but you only have to walk within a mile of this palace to realise that the controls do not work, because anywhere on the streets of London you can buy any of these drugs… The way forward is a range somewhere from the way we control alcohol or indeed the most dangerous object in our everyday lives, the motorcar. If you go outside in the street and step in front of a moving motorcar you will find out how dangerous it is, so what do we do? We do not prohibit it. We license the vehicle, we license the users, we made them pass a test, we make them have insurance so if they damage anybody they have to pay up, we tell them how fast they can use it, on which side of the road. That is control."
The response to this is the most cursory of engagements with the concept of deterrence associated with punitive enforcement, deploying two quotes, one from John Strang:
However, others told us that there was little evidence that decriminalisation would affect demand, and that in fact it would be likely to increase it. For instance, Professor Strang of the National Addiction Centre told us:
"There is no question that the illegality of a substance is a major deterrent to its use…one would have to presume that if legal constraints were taken away the level of use would almost certainly increase."
And one from David Nutt, then ACMD chair:
Professor Nutt also said he would be “surprised if making drugs legal would actually reduce use”. He argued that the, at least partial, success of controlling drugs could be seen in the rise in popularity of ‘legal highs’ being bought over the internet: "People are buying drugs over the Internet which are currently legal, presumably because there is a deterrent to getting illegal drugs…The law must influence people to some extent."
That is all we get - no evidence provided in support of the above Nutt and Strang comments, and no review of the literature on deterrence, no more discussion or analysis. Nothing. This section just ends, somewhat patronisingly, with the comment:
"There is no doubt that the arguments set out by Transform Drug Policy and Lord Mancroft will continue to be debated."

Finally we were deeply disturbed by the recommendation to increase sentences for users, purely on the basis that current sentences were not long enough for prisoners to finish there prison-based treatment programmes. Again - no evidence is given that such programmes are more cost effective than the various non-prison based cocaine treatment options (which have a pretty poor efficacy record anyway - albeit better than prison, and much cheaper).

Related, is the call for harsher penalties for supply, which reeks of populist posturing and is, once again, unsupported by evidence that it would deliver better outcomes. Both of these calls - which would incur significant expense and add to pressures on an already overstretched prison service - sit entirely at odds with the work taking place as we speak by the Sentencing Advisory Panel, (also mentioned in the Transform submission, but ignored in the report) which is seeking to reduce drug related penalties across the board.

We could go on picking holes in the report - but hopefully, if you have read this far, you will have got the point. This is a dreadful report; ill-conceived and poorly executed, a wasted opportunity and a publication for which the committee should be, quite frankly, embarrassed. It entirely fails to do what Select Committees should be doing; scrutinize a policy area shrouded deliberately in obfuscatory myth and taboo. Instead it keeps politicians protected by the glass bubble of pseudo-science and populist fear mongering. The real tragedy is that this process could have been used to expose a failing policy to useful scrutiny and instead has, in large part, wasted taxpayers' time and money on a report that serves primarily to entrench a hugely counterproductive status quo.

It will surely be ignored and quickly forgotten. Indeed our initial glee at finding our Impact Assessment recommendation had been adopted progressively turned to despair as we read through the rest of its shoddy analysis, which rather undermines the one thing about it worth celebrating.

thanks to Steve for help preparing this analysis