Friday, October 20, 2006

Criticism of Cannabis Reclassification

The Herald is here highlighting the growing incidence of mental health problems which seem strongly related to heavy cannabis consumption. Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research at Glasgow University, the British Journal of Psychiatry and Swedish and Dutch studies are mentioned in linking heavy cannabis use with psychosis or depression especially amongst younger people. The article rightly deplores the relative lack of research on this drug and criticizes the inevitable political point-scoring that will likely occur at the next election between the authoritarian and the liberal over the drugs issue instead of a focus on the science and on practical outcomes such as giving teenagers more warnings over the dangers of cannabis.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Classification and Deterrence - where's the evidence?

In the first of series of blog posts considering the Government's response to the The Science and Technology Select Committee's report 'Drug Classification; Making a Hash of it?' we consider what is arguably the most significant finding of the Select Committee and the most stunningly inadequate of the Government’s responses.

The Science and Technology Select Committee report 'Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it?' conclusion/recommendation 34:

"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 in 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’s response, in full:

“Reject in Principle

The Government fundamentally believes that illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour. The exposure to criminal sanction, in particular through sentencing, influences perceptions and behaviours. It believes that the illegality of certain drugs, and by association their classification, will impact on drug use choices, by informing the decisions of dealers and users. Imposing penalties on the offence of possession is intended to deter use, particularly experimentation by young people. Whilst the Government accepts that there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure, there is some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey that the deterrent effect of harsher sentencing was greater among those admitting to the supply of a Class A drug, compared with other offences.The Government will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened.”


Perhaps the best place to start is to note that whether the Government ‘fundamentally believes’ that ‘illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour’ is not the point. This is not about ‘belief’, however fundamental it may be. This is an issue of sound science and evidence based policy. The Select Committee very clearly points out: ‘we have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect’. The Government produce nothing to challenge this beyond their ‘belief’ in the existence of such an effect and yet they reject the conclusion regardless. This deserves some more detailed attention.

With apologies for some trumpet blowing here, Transform’s evidence to the Select Committee was quoted directly in their final report:

Transform Drug Policy Foundation asserted that the ABC classification system was "based upon the false assumptions underlying historical prohibition of specific drugs". Steve Rolles, information officer for Transform, also told us: "there is no research at all—not a single piece of research ever done by the Home Office that I am aware of—into the effectiveness of the classification system as a deterrent and the independent research that we do have—what little there is—suggests that at best it is a marginal impact on drug taking decisions". The Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker was unable to provide us with any specific evidence to the contrary.

The Government’s written response (see above) does not offer any new evidence to the contrary either, even though they have had several months to find some since Vernon Coaker was unable to do so earlier in the year. They merely restate that the Government ‘believes’ illegality will ‘impact on drug user choices’. There is a vague reference to ‘some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey’ but no details are given, and they are clear that ‘there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure’.

This is a very long way from an adequate response to the Committee’s conclusion and is frankly insulting as a basis for rejecting it.

It is important to be clear what we are talking about here. The deterrent effect is the absolute cornerstone of the classification system and indeed the entire criminal justice based policy we have in the UK - the policy of prohibition - on which billions of pounds are spent each year. The concept of enforcement / penalty related deterrence is precisely why we have a hierarchy of penalties superimposed on the hierarchy of harms (the ABC classification system), and why drug policy is run by the Home Office and not by the Department of Health (which runs policy for alcohol and other legal drugs). That the Science and Technology Select committee was unable to find any evidence of a deterrent effect is remarkable enough. That the Government – challenged by the Committee – were then unable to produce any credible evidence - not a shred - of a deterrent effect is quite simply astonishing. It can only call into question the entire classification system and indeed the enforcement focus and punitive nature of UK drug policy generally.

This is not even the first time that the issue of deterrence relating to criminal penalties has been raised by a Select Committee. The Home Affairs Select Committee were concerned enough about the issue to raise it back in 2001 in their report; ‘The UK’s Drug Policy: Is It Working?’ (to which, incidentally, they concluded: no). The Committee specifically asked for a response to the question ‘what would the effect of decriminalisation be on the demand for drugs?’. Whilst Transform might have phrased the question a little more precisely, the initial Home Office submission ignored it completely and just trotted out current Government policy, failing to address the question in any way. The Committee, somewhat affronted, demanded an answer to the question it had actually asked. They received the following short response:

“As some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality (e.g. "forbidden fruits"), the evidence suggests that a great many are deterred by the law. Nineteen per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults surveyed by MORI on behalf of the recent Police Foundation Inquiry, mentioned the law as the reason for not taking drugs. And the respective prevalence rates for controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco are also illustrative.”

The relevant section of the Police Foundation Inquiry report that the Home Office are quoting, actually says this:

“The most frequent reasons given by both children and adults for people not taking drugs were 'health reason' (33% and 51%) and 'just don't want to take drugs’ (27% and 56%). By comparison only 19% of children and 30% of adults mentioned 'illegality' and 12% of children and 17% of adults cited 'fear of being caught by the police'.”

So even five years ago, the only research evidence that the Home Office could scrape together to support the contention that illegality deterred use was a poll from the Police Foundation Inquiry report that showed less than a fifth of children mentioned the law as a reason for not taking drugs, less than one in eight children or one in six adults mentioned ‘fear of being caught by the police’, and there were two other reasons given, health concerns and lack of interest, that scored much higher as reasons for not taking drugs. Bear in mind also that the Police Foundation Inquiry that commissioned the quoted survey was, at the time, not only the most critical report ever produced of UK drug policy, but also one that concluded;

"such evidence as we have assembled about the current situation and the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years all point to the conclusion that the deterrent effect of the law has been very limited".

Furthermore we hear the Home Office suggest that in fact ‘some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality’. This clearly suggests the opposite of what they are nominally arguing for although, to be fair, they do not provide any evidence for this point either. The evidence they cite regarding alcohol (use of which is rising) and tobacco (use of which is falling) does not illuminate anything much. These are drugs that have been with us for Millennia and Centuries respectively and have had the best part of a hundred years of largely unregulated aggressive commercial marketing behind them. It is also faintly amusing to read the phrase 'controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco' given that it is actually alcohol and tobacco that are controlled and illegal drugs that have no controls at all - we abdicated control to gangsters and street dealers when we the decision was made to prohibit them.

The significant point here is that this has been a live issue for a number of years and in that time the Government has been able to assemble precisely zero credible evidence that lends support to the deterrent effect, and has undertaken or produced precisely zero published research to try and rectify this.

As Transform pointed out in its written submission to the Committee:

‘The [classification] system is based on the un-evidenced assumption that criminal penalties are an effective deterrent and that stronger penalties are a stronger deterrent’

There was no evidence to support this basic assumption when the policy was put in place 35 years ago and the Government's response to the Committee demonstrates that none has emerged subsequently. Transform further noted in its written submission to the Committee:

There is also no evidence to show that key target groups understand or pay any attention to the classification system or related announcements from the home secretary when making drug taking decisions. It can only be assumed that no research is commissioned on these key topics as it would expose policy failings.
The little independent research that has been done in this area suggests that the law and enforcement are, at best, marginal factors in drug taking decisions - especially for the most excluded groups; young people, those with mental health problems and those from socially deprived communities – who are most vulnerable to problematic use. Studies in Australia and the US have compared levels of cannabis use between different states with different enforcement regimes for cannabis offences (from harsh penalties to effective decriminalisation) and found no causal link between penalties and incidence of use.”

The fact that the massed ranks of Home Office civil servants and researchers can’t find any evidence from 35 years of data collection to show that the classification system works might suggest that, well, there isn’t any. Moreover, this striking lack of any evidence to show the classification system is effective is not deemed by the Government sufficient reason to even have a consultation on, or review of the the classification system, as recommended by the Select Committee. Not a change in policy – just a consultation. Just an open dialogue with independent experts who might be able to shed some light on this vexing lack of evidence. Maybe a little bit like the consultation on the classification system that the Home Secretary promised to the House of Commons in January this year.

But the Government has now reneged on this promised consultation, because it now ‘believes that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively and has stood the test of time’. (they even underlined the 'has' to emphasise the point). Maybe Transform, Drugscope, The Police Foundation, The Home Affairs Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee are missing something here, but ‘scientists’ or ‘statisticians’ might argue that the fact that trends in use of almost every major drug covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act have risen consistently since 1971, and the fact that drugs have become progressively cheaper and more available over the same period was not actually evidence of the classification system discharging its function fully and standing the test of time, but was actually evidence of the exact opposite. So can we have a consultation on this please? Maybe even the one that was fully drafted and ready to be sent out to experts across the country days before a new Home Secretary was appointed and apparently thought better of it? Apparently not.

Finally we are given a hint about how the Government intends to proceed on this thorny question, with its suggestion to the Science and Technology Committee that they ‘will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened’. This is a troubling turn of phrase. The Government should be doing objective research to see whether or not there is a deterrent effect, how it works, how strong it is, whom it effects and whether it justifies spending billions a year on criminalising and imprisoning lots of people - not seeking evidence to strengthen a pre-held ‘belief’ in such an effect. Call it cherry-picking, call it faith-based policy making, call it bad science; whichever way you look at it this is a course of action that would seem to jettison even the pretence of scientific method altogether and take the Government unambiguously into the realms of ideological propagandising, a place many would argue UK drug policy already inhabits.

The Science and Technology Committee asked for some evidence and received none. Transform have been asking for the same evidence for nearly ten years and still have yet to see any. Belief must be based on evidence, and if the Government can’t produce that evidence and then flatly refuses to engage in a dialogue on it, they shouldn’t be surprised when people stop believing them.

next ... Drug classification and 'sending out messages'

Lazy coverage of an important drugs story - a case study

And so back to the Government’s response to the Science and Technology Select Committee report on the Drug Classification…….

The media coverage of the Government’s response last Friday (13th October 2006) focused almost exclusively on the Government announcement that methamphetamine would be reclassified from Class B to Class A. It is important to point out that:

1) The Science and Technology Committee did not recommend that Methamphetamine be reclassified- they merely considered the process by which the decision was made; and..
2) The decision to reclassify methamphetamine was actually made months ago and was announced publicly by the Home Office Minister to the committee – and then published in the Committee’s report back in August – to near total media silence.

Neither of these facts were noted in any of last weeks media coverage, which focused almost exclusively on how awful and scary Methamphetamine is and by implication how sensible and indeed ‘tough’, the Government was being in reclassifying it.

This was a masterstroke of media spin on the Government’s part since it took control of the media agenda, turning it rather cunningly to their advantage on what should have been a day of highly critical reporting on the Government drugs policy. They knew that ‘scary new drug’ was a far more media friendly story than the minutiae of their detailed response to 50 different recommendations made by a Select Committee of nerdy science boffins, and they played it beautifully. It is to the great shame of almost all the media that covered this story so lazily and played along with this.

More significantly, the meth reclassification non-news story successfully distracted attention from the far more important issues raised by the rest of the of the Government response to the Sci-Tech Committee report, including the responses relating to things the Committee had actually recommended. The meth reclassification non-news also reduced coverage, to almost invisible, of the fact that clause two of the Drugs Act 2005 (the intent to supply thresholds that had caused media uproar only a few months previously) was being shelved. This was another drug story that potentially put the Government in a bad light, not because the descision to shelve Clause two was a mistake, but rather because they had only figured this out after it had been enacted (read the Transform briefing on this sorry tale here)

So, in a belated effort to rebalance the coverage somewhat, the Transform blog will, over the next few weeks be unpicking and critiquing some of what the Government’s response actually said.

first up will be the evidence (or otherwise) for the deterrent effect of classifying drugs.....

watch this space

Monday, October 16, 2006

More bad news from Afghanistan

Yet more depressing news from the front line in the "drugs war" as the Afghan counter-narcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, admits that neither opium production nor the Taliban insurgency can be defeated separately. This will be cheering news for the troops on the front line who have focused on defeating the Taliban separately without undertaking significant counter-narcotics operations for fear of further alienating the local Afghan people.

The reality is that even if the insurgency could be dealt with - and there is little to suggest it can be anytime soon - this would not mean that the opium crop could then somehow miraculously be eliminated. Eradication efforts have never succeeded on such a large scale anywhere - whether it is coca production in South America, opium production in Central and SE Asia, or cannabis production pretty much everywhere. The economics of the illegal market mean that whilst demand remains high and extraordinary profits are on offer to criminal entrepreneurs, eradication efforts will just shift production to another region. Afghanistan has particular problems because of its troubled history and lack of social and political infrastructure. These are exacerbated by its sprawling and remote geography that make it effectively impossible to police; remember that it is roughly the size of Europe, and for many poverty stricken farmers opium cultivation is an obvious choice. Eradication is simply not a practical suggestion.

In related bad news the BBC reports that the Senlis Council is being booted out of Afghanistan. The Senlis Council is a drug policy reform organisation that has been working hard to promote the idea of legalising the Afghan opium crop by buying it up for use in the medical opiates market . The idea is bascially that such a move would provide income and stability for Afghan opium farmers, removing them from the illegal market and preventing profits from flowing into the hands of military groups, whilst simultaneously helping respond to a chronic shortage of opiate drugs for medical use in Asia. This seems like a positive idea and even if it is not practical or very realistic, and would certainly not result in a long term fall in global opium production (which would inevitably just move to other regions in central Asia or elsewhere in the world) it has certainly been useful in promoting debate on alternatives to futile eradication programs. The idea has had a lot of high profile coverage including an editorial in the New York Times.

Given the disastrous failure of current efforts it would be a great shame if the Senlis were kicked out just for suggesting something new.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Government snubs Science Committee

So according the Times the Government's response to the Science and Technology Select Committee report - that concluded the classification system was un scientific, unsupported by evidence and unambiguously 'not fit for purpose' - is to.. ignore the substantive criticism that the classification system is unscientific and doesnt do what it is supposed to and try and bluff it out by trotting out the same old drivel about drug seizures.

I do hope the minister will come on TV later and make the case for unscientific un-evidenced drug policy formation. I was due to go on the Today program and BBC breakfast TV to give them a hard time about all this but was unceremoniously dumped because the head of the army pointed out that the war in Iraq was a counterproductive disaster (pretty much what i was going to say about the drug war). I did get to go on the Nicky Campbell show though so not a total washout media wise.

Meanwhile it seems the new law on intent-to-supply thresholds, to determine whether people arrested for possession are deemed dealers or not, is to be dropped. This follows a consultation undertaken after the law was passed. Everyone said it was a stupid and unworkable idea (as they had before it was made law), so some faintly good news, in an 'avoiding another bit of pointelss legislation' sort of way. Read Transform's briefing on the shocking process by which this legislation came into being here.

What do these stories tell us about drug policy thinking at Government level? Well, political expediency clearly rules. On the one hand we have a mostly brilliant report from the Science and Technology Select Committee - detailed, thoughtful and making a series of very specific and clear recommendations, completely blown out the water by a Government obsessed with appearing tough, and not willing to give any ground on pragmatic reform (or even review/discussion of reform) for fear of being accused of being soft. On the other we have a stupid piece of 'get tough' policy that everyone thought was stupid - and said so - but was as barrelled through parliament before the election anyway, now being acknowledged as stupid and being consigned to the dustbin.

The Government couldn't care less whether the policy consulation process was completely topsy turvey - they got some tough sounding headlines in the election run up and can now dump the idea on the basis that its unwanted and unworkable - which they knew anyway.

more to follow....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Herald Highlights Problems of Prohibition Enforcement

This insightful article by the Herald from the 12 October 2006 clearly exposes the problems that arise after the successful rounding up of drug dealers by police. Although catching such a large number of dealers in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde makes great headlines for the police and supposedly makes the public feel safer, the practical consequences are that addicts are forced to pay more for lower quality drugs thereby further fuelling crime. The Herald is to be commended for making an effort to understand the practical consequences of prohibition and for suggesting that more resources should be devoted to a massive input of drug rehabilitation, a stance that almost flirts with legalisation.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hypocrisy of Italian Politicians Exposed

This article is a high profile scoop by an Italian television satirical programme called 'the Hyena'. The show revealed cannabis and cocaine on the skin of sixteen politicians' faces who thought they were having make-up applied for a debate on the country's budget but instead had drug-detection chemicals applied. Paolo Cento, a member of the Green Party which favours decriminalising drugs, rightly criticised politicians' hypocrisy who voted 'for anti-liberty laws whilst snorting cocaine'. The names of the politicians are not revealed.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

'So Macho' Reverend wants police to arrest more kids

I read in the Daily Mail yesterday that there is some sort of legal challenge being made 'in the High Court' to the ACPO guidelines, drawn up after cannabis was reclassified, clarifying that there should be a 'presumption against arrest' for possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Quite what this court action involves isn’t made clear by the Daily Mail report, by James Slack, but then a lot is left unclear by the story generally.

But before I tear into the Daily Mail report, a few words on the key protagonist. It is none other than the Reverend George Hargreaves, a 'senior church figure' and 'advisor to the Metropolitan Police' who is apparently 'backed by a £30,000 fighting fund'. Hargreaves is a Pentecostal minister with a particular brand of Christian politics that includes being strongly anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research and anti-euthanasia. He has also stood in various elections for various constituencies; for the 'Scottish Christian Party, Proclaiming Christ's Lordship' for the Scottish Parliament in 2006, the UK Parliament in 2005 for 'Operation Christian Vote' (and a by-election in 2004 - getting a handsome 90 votes), and the European Parliament in 2004. Way back in 1997 he contested Walthanstow for the Referendum party. It turns out that he has funded some of his political aspirations with a small fortune made from his former career as a pop song writer, apparently raking in £10,000 a month in royalties from penning the epic 80's disco smash and gay club classic 'So Macho', performed by the legendary popstrel, Sinitta. You know the one:

"I don't want no seven stone weakling nor a boy who thinks he's a girl
I'm after a hunk of a guy, and experienced man of the world
There ain't no way that I'll make do,
with anything less than I'm used to
If I have a man tonight he's gotta be right right right

So macho he's gotta be so macho
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on
He's gotta have big blue eyes, be able to satisfy
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on

I'm tired of taking the lead
I want a man who will dominate me
Someone who will love and protect me and take care of my every need
Now I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you

I am in need of a man oooh
I am in need of a man a man a man a man a man


I had the pleasure of debating cannabis reclassification and related policing issues with Hargreaves on Talk Sport Radio yesterday morning, on the awful John Gaunt show. The No1 pop smash writing Reverend seemed like a perfectly nice chap, even if we didn’t really see eye to eye on the drugs issue. He admits to being a 'hedonistic sinner' and 'jack the lad' in his pre-Reverend days. However, he doesn't seem to have a very forgiving attitude to the young sinners in his flock. He wants them arrested and prosecuted for their cannabis related wickedness, not let off with a caution, a policy which, according to the Mail, he claims has 'led to a surge in youths smoking strong skunk cannabis that was turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.' ' He is quoted saying:

'This guidance must be reversed. The only way to crackdown on the problem is to return to arresting and prosecuting people carrying even small amount of cannabis.'

'So Macho' Reverend George Hargreaves

No evidence is given by him in the report that reclassification, or the ACPO guidelines, have led to any kind of 'surge' in use. The Mail report also fails to mention that the two key official surveys of cannabis use, provided by the British Crime Survey and the DoH (flawed as they may be) suggest that cannabis use has remained unchanged or has actually fallen marginally since 2004. I’m not making the case for or against the reclassification policy here (you can read the Transform briefings on the subject here and here) , but Hargreaves and the Mail clearly are, and they have got their facts wrong:

Trends in cannabis use among people aged 16 to 24 years
Percentage reporting use:
--------In past year----In past month
Source: Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2004/05 British Crime Survey.
Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

I’m also not a doctor and I try and avoid getting dragged into the debate about cannabis and mental health. But what the various reports (from ACMD and other expert bodies) suggest is that, on the schizophrenia link specifically, it only effects a very small percentage of users, and that the published research shows that the link is ambiguous – whether cannabis use is causative or merely unmasks existing conditions is not clear. It's obviously not a completely safe drug, there's no such thing, and clearly no drug is risk free, but ‘turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.’ is not precision science, it is emotive scaremongering silliness.

From here the story goes into a bit of a nosedive:

“Earlier this week, the pastor blamed skunk for the mindless murder of Nyembo-Ya-Muteba by a gang of thugs.”

Is there any evidence to suggest this is true? Is there any evidence to suggest that cannabis was a factor? Should the Mail report unsupported hear-say before the police have investigated and made a statement, let alone charged or prosecuted anyone? Who knows what drugs any of the murderer or murderers had consumed. Maybe they were drunk; maybe they'd been sniffing bostik, maybe they were just murderous 'thugs'. I have no idea – and nor does Mr Hargreaves, or for that matter the Daily Mail.

Even if, hypothetically, the murderer/murderers turn out to have been stoned out of their minds, this still would not allow Hargreaves to link the murder to reclassification, or the enforcement of the new law (which he does even more overtly in yet another unambiguously titled Mail report: 'Cannabis downgrading blamed for psychotic killer gangs by vicar' ). Millions of people used cannabis before the changes, people have always been getting murdered - to suggest there is a causal link with a minor tweak in policing policy is completely spurious. There are some very real issues with young people misusing cannabis and it is no doubt sometimes a factor in antisocial behaviour, but Hargreaves' claims here have an air of hijacking a tragedy to further his own misplaced political objectives. The Mail apparently has no problem with this, not that its is the first time they have been guilty of dubious hype and nonsense reporting on the cannabis issue.

Anyway, we then hear from a regular Mail pundit on drugs issues, Mary Brett, neither a doctor, nor apparently, a statistician:

'What are the police waiting for? Since they talked about downgrading cannabis, admissions to mental health units have increased by forty per cent.'

A totally bizarre and unsupported claim for which no reference is given. She goes on:

'There has also been an increase in the number of users, despite the Government's denials, and there is also the awful violence.'

What increase? And this isn't about Government 'denials' - it’s specifically survey data from published and long established surveys that provide detailed notes on their methodologies. And precisely what violence is she talking about? Where does this stuff come from and why does the Mail publish it unchallenged? What evidence is there that cannabis use is a significant (or even insignificant) cause of murder or violence, or that reclassification has had any impact on levels of use or violence? I’m one of the most boring drug policy nerds on the planet and I’ve never seen any. What I have seen, however, was a recent detailed report by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee report which concluded that:

"We have found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government's classification policy, and have criticised the Government for failing to meet its commitments to evidence based policy making in this area."

Finally we learn from the Mail that:

"The Met's report declared the soft policy a 'success.' In an astonishing admission, it said letting-off more than 30,000 drug takers with a warning was good for 'police/public relations.' By not bothering to arrest the criminals, officers were having a 'positive effect in reducing friction between young people and the police.'

Why is this astonishing? Why is this an 'admission'? It’s just a statement of fact. It's just the police being honest and suggesting that it's a good thing for police relations that 30,000 more young people are not being branded with the stigma of criminality for something no worse than you or I having a few drinks down the boozer. I’m mystified why the Mail are having a go at the police anyway – they are just doing their job enforcing the laws handed down from Parliament, as they see appropriate with the limited resources they have – it has always been thus.

I despair reading this sort of thing, both the bonkers comments and the shoddy reporting. Drug policy is an important issue for debate - this really doesn’t help anyone. How about James Slack doing some accurate objective reporting and quoting a balance of opinions? To quote the 'So Macho' Reverend:

"I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you"

Thursday, October 05, 2006

New Scientist Reviews Alternative Legal Drugs

This article from the New Scientist examines the array of existing aternative, legal drugs, such as salvia and BZP. The article reviews the likelihood of governments around the world banning such substances but concludes with the caveat that no sooner does a government ban a particular substance than another one appears to take its place and as long as people are prepared to experiment there will be drugs to give them a high. The article doesn't tackle prohibition head on but offers insights into why it will never succeed.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Selling drug law reform to the Tory Dragon's Den

In what is hopefully the final installment of the Tory blog triple-whammy (well it is Tory conference week after all) here is a link where you can listen to the Radio 4 program Broadcasting House, a sort of satirical - but occasionally bit more serious - political and current affairs show that goes out on Sunday mornings. It features a section where they did a spoof of BBC Dragon's Den program, where instead of entrepreneurs punting their radical inventions and business ideas to a bunch of venture capitalists, they had policy folk (including me) punting 'radical' policy ideas to a bunch of Tory capitalists. The four Dragons then decide on the basis of the pitch whether they were 'in or out', and whether they would 'invest' in it being a new Tory policy. They were actually Tory pundits from newspapers and think tanks rather than MPs or party movers and shakers and it was, in theory at least, supposed to be a 'fun' piece. hmm. You can judge for yourself how well you think I did, but as far as it goes I thought I did OK, given that I was trying to persuade them to adopt a very progressive drug law reform position including the phased legalisation and regulation of currently illegal drugs.

Interestingly enough one of them 'bought in' to the idea, showing that perhaps its not quite as alien a concept for the Tories as the sniffing from some of the other 'Dragons' might suggest. It highlighted that there is an interesting fault line within the Conservative ranks between the libertarian and authoritarian wings of the party. There have infact been high profile Tories who have been passionate advocates including former ministers Alan Duncan and Peter Lilley to name a few (see the the Transform Hall of Fame for quotes).

I tried to sell the idea as an authoritarian position (the personal freedoms angle may be strong intellectually but it doesn't have any legs politically), arguing that it was about crime reduction, putting gangsters out of business, and bringing strict regulation into a market that is currently totally deregulated criminal anarchy - but this didn't seem to really sink in for most of them who seemed convinced I was talking about heroin in sweet shops. I should point out that there were several key bits of my ranting that were cut including where I described the different models of regulation and how they would be applied according to drug harms, that David Cameron is already on record supporting a debate on legalisation, and my barnstorming finale where I offered drug policy as a great opportunity to attack a conspicuous Government failure and do what opposition parties should do - offer something different and better. Ho hum.

Tories vote 'drugs worse than drink'

The BBC today reports that "Conservative activists have voted overwhelmingly against a motion claiming that alcohol does more harm than drugs. Members defeated the move by 63% to 37% following emotional appeals from the father of two drug addict sons and a recovering alcoholic."

Reading this sort of guff its almost difficult to know where to start. But perhaps the first most important and screamingly obvious thing to say is that ALCOHOL IS A DRUG; it is a psychoactive substance and, like other psychoactive substances, it is potentially toxic, it is potentially addictive, and it can cause harm (and death). Its a drug, end of story, no debate; really the BBC coverage should have pointed this out.

Refering to 'alcohol and drugs' as if they were different things is entirely meaningless and almost willfully stupid, somewhat akin to talking about 'beverages and orange juice'. Unfortunately these confused activists are not alone in perpetuating this nonsensical distinction. Those in the drugs field will be familiar with the daftly named (but otherwise excellent) periodicals 'Drink and Drug News' and 'Drugs and Alcohol Today', and most of us are used to hearing politicians, media and, well almost everybody, talking about 'drink and drugs' (or variations thereof, often involving tobacco, similarly given seperate status from 'drugs'). We even have entirely seperate strategies for alcohol and tobacco (run from the Department of Health) and other drugs (run from the Home Office).

At least the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has moved beyond this meaningless distinction with its new report 'Pathways to Problems' which focuses on the 'Hazardous use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs' - the inclusion of the word 'other' making all the difference. This rather excellent report, which might usefully read by some of the party conference wonks (of all parties), makes it very clear that alcohol and tobacco are by far the greatest threat to the health and well being of young people (from the BBC report the Tory debate did not apparently feature tobacco atall).

Despite the fact that drug deaths are not a particularly accurate measure of drug harms and the collection drug death stats is riddled with methodolgical problems, a cursory glance at the stats we do have (even with a whopping great big margin of error) helps put the scale of the problems into perspective
- Annual tobacco related deaths - approx 100,000
- Annual alcohol related deaths - approx 10,000
- Annual deaths from all other drugs combined - approx 2,500 (of which around 400 are paracetamol).

Clearly the alcohol / drugs distinction is more about an emotional response to the legal / illegal distinction rather than any scientific measure of harms or risks. Moreover it is hard to see how this is something that can voted on - the stats should speak for themselves. The Tories rather pointless 'vote' on a semantically meaningless motion appear to reflect their gut response to acceptable legal drugs (available in the conference hotel foyer) vs those horrid illegal drugs used by nasty yobbos who rob old ladies. Yes, clearly illegal drugs are associated with other harms, primarily the crime and criminality associated with illegal markets, but these are a specifically a result of drug prohibition and and abdication of responsibility for drug markets to gangsters and unregulated street dealers (rather than the fact that illegal drugs are intrinsically more harmful). If you dont believe me try prohibiting alcohol and see what happens (you could ask Al Capone if he were still around).

It would be great to see a more intelligent, informed and sophisticated debate on the drugs issue taking place in the ranks of the opposition. They could do a lot worse than having a read of the latest ACMD report for starters. To be fair there have been some positive signs; The Tories are currently reviewing there drug policy and have been listening to voices from all sides of the debate, and David Cameron, despite the media focus on drugs in his private life, has made some encouraging comments and clearly knows his way around the issue from his time on the Home Affairs Select Committee . The Liberal Democrats have managed to have a meaningful debate and come up with a fairly sensible drug policy (even though they dont want to talk about it), but the Government and the Tories, with a few rare exceptions, seem hopelessly addicted into the populist rhetoric of the drug war. Lets hope the voices of reason will eventually prevail, the drug warriors can be rehabilitated and we can start moving towards a just and effective policy for regulating all drugs.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tories in 'get tough on drugs' shock

In an entirely predictable development "Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie yesterday declared her intention to make Scottish prisons drug-free". Read the full story in the Herald here. . Whilst drug free prisons seem like a worthy aspiration - certainly easier to argue for than the 1998 UN drug agency commitment to 'A DRUG FREE WORLD' by 2008 (to which the UK is a signatory), her comments have a similar air of disconnection from reality.

Firstly it needs to be pointed out that every home secretary in the modern era has called for drug free prisons and none have got anywhere near achieving it. It was infact the last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who introduced mandatory random drug testing in prisons as part of a similar committment. Did it work? Well, 17,000+ positive tests a year suggest not. Fill a prison with drug dealers and drug addicts and it is maybe not surprising that '39% of prisoners said they had used drugs at least once whilst in their current prison, 25% had used in the past month and 16% in the past week' according to this Home office report. The same report notes that 1% of inmates moved from cannabis to heroin to avoid being rumbled by the testing regime.

Another reason why more people use drugs in prison than on the outside is because they are miserable, traumatic and depressing places to be - people use drugs as a means of escape or self medication. The above Home office report notes that 0.7% of inmates actually started using drugs whilst in prison. Prison is clearly a totally unsuitable place to be addressing issues of drug dependency, especially when it is combined with deep seated emotional or mental health problems, as is frequently the case with drug dependent offenders. It is a bizarrely circuitous logic that argues for the criminalisation of drug users and drug markets - that creates crime and mass criminalisation - and then argues that prison based rehabilitation is the best way to reduce future offending. Goldie should realise that it is the 'get tough' criminal justice approach that she supports that has created the problem that she is now advocating yet another 'get tough' solution to.

There is, more to the point, no evidence that the get tough approach will eliminate drugs from prisons. Even high security prisons are awash with drugs - and restrictions on visitors will not prevent them as numerous other supply routes exist including prison staff and the numerous other flows of goods into the prison.

Wouldn't it be great if Annabel Goldie, or any politician for that matter, changed the record for once and stopped talking up tough drug-war nonsense and regurgitating failed policies. Goldie and friends might more usefully want to ask:

- why our prisons are overflowing with dependent drug users in the first place
- whether the £37,000 a year of tax payer money it costs to imprison a dependent drug user couldn't be better spent on residential rehab and other help rebuilding their lives, like counselling and mental health services, employment training and so on.
- whether branding a drug user with the stigma of a criminal record, and putting them in a cage with hundreds of other users, dealers and criminals is really going to help them get better, or get on in life.
- whether just maybe, after decades of counter-productive failure using prison as a primary response to one of our most serious public health problems, its time to have a bit of a rethink and stop trotting out the same old rubbish.

Monday, October 02, 2006

US Officials Urge Opium Crop & $570 Million Income Eradication For Afghan Farmers

As Napoleon observed "In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations". So it's amazing to see the Americans completely ignore this useful maxim when they here urge the Afghan people to eradicate the poppy fields via crop-spraying. Aside from the negative environmental benefits of such as strategy, it is hardly going to popularize the presence of foreign troops in the country given that eradication of the poppy fields would also destroy a $750 million industry which employs up to 3 million people. But then I guess a few thousand NATO troops will manage just dandy against several million hostile, local people whose livelihoods and environments have just been ruined.

Coca Production Rises Despite "Winning" US Battle Against This Crop

Here we see the US singing its own praises in reducing coca acreage in Colombia. It is yet more evidence of the vast gulf that separates reality from the American propaganda of "winning" a "battle against Colombian cocaine traffikers". The US Drug Czar's claims are clearly at odds with the fact, reported here, that coca cultivation has actually RISEN 8%. The US$4.7 billion used to prosecute this war have been put to great use.