Thursday, December 27, 2007

What Darwin Teaches Us About the Drug War

DECEMBER 26, 2007

by Sanho Tree

With every passing year the drug problem seems to get worse. The U.S. government responds by pumping billions more dollars into the war on drugs. Federal spending for this “war without end” is more than twenty times what it was in 1980 and still the drug traffickers appear to be winning. Despite more than six billion dollars spent on “Plan Colombia” alone, cocaine production has actually increased in that country. Now the Bush Administration is asking for $1.4 billion more to aid the Mexican government’s drug crackdown through the “Merida Initiative.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the “law and order” response by our politicians only intensifies the problem. Instead, they might turn to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to glean insight as to why these “common sense” reactionary solutions often are counterproductive. As illegal drugs become easier to obtain and more potent, politicians respond in a knee-jerk manner by ramping up law enforcement. After all, drugs are bad so why not escalate the war against drugs? Politicians get to look tough in front of voters, the drug war bureaucracy is delighted with ever expanding budgets, and lots of low-level bad guys get locked up. Everyone wins – including, unfortunately, the major drug traffickers.

As politicians intensified the drug war decade after decade, an unintended consequence began to appear. These “get tough” policies have caused the drug economy to evolve under Darwinian principles (i.e., survival of the fittest). Indeed, the drug war has stimulated this economy to grow and innovate at a frightening pace.

By escalating the drug war, the kinds of people the police typically capture are the ones who are dumb enough to get caught. These criminal networks are occasionally taken down when people within the organization get careless. Thus, law enforcement tends to apprehend the most inept and least efficient traffickers. The common street expression puts it best: “the dealer who uses, loses.” Conversely, the kinds of people law enforcement tends to miss are the most cunning, innovative and efficient traffickers.

It’s as though we have had a decades-long unintended policy of artificial selection. Just as public health professionals warn against the overuse of antibiotics because it can lead to drug resistant strains of bacteria, our overuse of law enforcement has thinned out the trafficking herd so that the weak and inefficient traffickers get captured or killed and only the most proficient dealers survive and prosper. Indeed, U.S. drug war policies have selectively bred “super-traffickers.”

Charles Darwin

Politicians cannot hope to win a war on drugs when their policies ensure that only the most efficient trafficking networks survive. Not only do they survive, but they thrive because law enforcement has destroyed the competition for them by picking off the unfit traffickers and letting the most evolved ones take over the lucrative trafficking space. The destruction of the Medellin and Cali cartels, for instance, only created a vacuum for hundreds of smaller (and more efficient) operations. Now the police cannot even count the number of smaller cartels that have taken over – much less try to infiltrate and disrupt them.

Moreover, the police have constricted the supply of drugs on the street while the demand remains constant thus driving up prices and profits for the remaining dealers. Increasing drug interdiction creates an unintended price support for drug dealers which, in turn, lures more participants into the drug economy. Of all the laws that Congress can pass or repeal, the law of supply and demand is apparently not one of them.

A public health approach to dealing with illicit drugs should take precedence over “law and order” approaches. Treatment and prevention must take priority over interdiction and eradication because drugs are a demand-driven problem. Politicians, however, continue to devote most drug funding toward cutting the supply. The proposed aid package for the notoriously corrupt Mexican drug war establishment would be better spent on providing treatment for addicts in the United States. Over reliance on politically expedient “get tough” policies will only continue an endless spiral of drug trafficking evolution.

reproduced with permission


Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and directs its Drug Policy Project. The Institute for Policy Studies is the only multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. Through books, articles, films, conferences, and activist education IPS offers resources for progressive social change locally, nationally, and globally.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Transform in the Guardian: drug consultation dodgy dossier again

Some not-so-festive cheer for the Home Office as the high level Whitehall bodies seem to lining up to point a finger at its drug strategy consultation document and say; 'hang on a second, that's complete rubbish'

"it is unfortunate that the consultation paper’s ‘key facts and evidence’ section appears to focus on trying to convince the reader of success and progress; rather than providing an objective review and presentation of the current evidence. The ACMD found the consultation paper self-congratulatory and generally disappointing.

It is of concern that the evidence presented, and the interpretation given, are not based on rigorous scrutiny."

  • And now from the Statistics Commission following a complaint from Transform.
For those not familiar with the Statistics Commission it was set up in June 2000 to 'help ensure that official statistics are trustworthy and responsive to public needs', to 'give independent, reliable and relevant advice' and by so doing to 'provide an additional safeguard on the quality and integrity' of official statistics.
Transform's complaint was made on the basis of our analysis of the statistics in the consultation document Drugs: Our Community, Your Say. You can read this detailed critique in the Transform briefing: Drug policy 1997-2007: the evidence unspun and discussion in the Transform submission to the consultation.

As reported in today's Guardian the complaint has been largely upheld:

Whitehall accused of drugs cover-up

· Watchdog asks officials to rethink use of statistics
· Document obscures policy failures, say campaigners
Duncan CampbellThe Guardian Monday December 24 2007

The Home Office has been accused of misusing its statistics on drugs in order to cover up failures in policy. The independent body responsible for providing and assessing government statistics has now asked the Home Office to "carefully consider" its handling of the figures.
In July the Home Office released a consultation paper - Drugs: Our Community, Your Say. It contained a section called "key facts and evidence" in the annexe which put a very positive gloss on the government's policies. Other statistics indicating that the government had failed to achieve its targets were obscured, according to drug reformers. Danny Kushlick, director of the campaigning Transform Drug Policy Foundation, complained to the Statistics Commission. The chairman of the commission, Prof David Rhind, accepted many of his points and has asked the Home Office to explain itself.
"We think that most people would expect it [the annexe to the document] to provide a balanced presentation of the relevant statistical and other evidence," Rhind said in a letter to Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the Home Office. "This particular annexe is more like a briefing document. Where a target has been met or exceeded, as is the case with the target to increase participation of problem drug users in treatment programmes, this is highlighted ... but where the target has been missed or seems likely to be missed the relevant information is presented in a low-key way without acknowledging that a target exists."
Rhind added that "issues of public trust in official statistics" have recently been considered by parliament. He has suggested that the Home Office should "carefully consider" the criticisms.
Kushlick said the Home Office's use of statistics was a symptom of the government's refusal to accept that its drugs policy was not working.
The government had failed to achieve its target of reducing class A drug use among young people but failed to mention this, he said.
He added: "One of the outcomes of the government's unwillingness to allow public scrutiny of the overwhelmingly negative outcomes of current policy is that the debate on potential alternatives to prohibition are dismissed as unnecessary and irrelevant. This is despite the 10-year drug strategy delivering almost the exact opposite of its stated goals, costing billions a year, and creating over £100bn more in crime costs over the past decade, according to the government's own figures."
A Home Office spokeswoman said that it had responded to Rhind's letter and stood by the statistics quoted "which are an accurate reflection of current progress with the existing drug strategy".
She added: "The Home Office takes very seriously the need to ensure that we always publish accurate and robust data ... we are making progress in reducing all drug use amongst young and vulnerable people.
"The level of class A drug use has stabilised, and is therefore not increasing. In order to fully meet our target of reducing this class A drug use by young and vulnerable people a cross-government action plan has been developed to improve prevention, education and access to treatment."

here's the complete letter for your reading displeasure:

Its something of a shame that this story emerges only on Christmas Eve when it is unlikely to get much political traction as the drug policy world, with a few sad exceptions like myself, are wrapping presents and basting the turkey.

But the sham consultation is now threatening to cause far more trouble for the Home Office than they evidently hoped to avoid with it in the first place (by shamelessly dressing up the failures of the past decade as success with ridiculously rose-tinted nonsense like Drugs: Our Community , Your Say.)

It should have been called Drugs: Our Propaganda, Your Say* (*will be ignored).

The whole sorry saga looks set to continue into the New Year as the Home Office continue to stubbornly defend their hopelessly misleading cherry picked interpretation of the statistics as the Home Office representative quoted in the Guardian seems determined to do. There have been three highly critical national media stories (two in the Observer and now in Guardian) on this already, and there is much more to come in the New Year (oh yes), not to mention the growing possibility of a Judicial Review forcing the Home Office into the humiliation of having to do the consultation all over again. Properly.

Its all completely unnecessary of course (and I, for one, would much rather be drinking sherry and singing Carols around the piano with my granddad). This isn't about point scoring, its about coming up with effective responses to the drug related problems we face. It doesn't matter what your policy position is in the drugs debate, one thing is absolutely certain: it is in no ones interest to have debate or policy making on the basis of misrepresented data and politically tainted Home Office propaganda. This is one issue on which we should all have a policy of zero tolerance.

Further reading:

Lords savage drug strategy consultation, and debate prohibition

Observer: Drugs strategy debate 'is a sham'

ACMD attacks drugs strategy consultation

DHA publishes drugs strategy consultation submission (NGO coalition critical of the consultation document)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Drug Dealers Open Fire on Santa Claus Helicopter

some festive drug war madness from Drug war Chronicle Blog Thu, 12/20/2007:

Not even Santa Claus is safe from the violence caused by drug prohibition:

Drug traffickers in a Rio slum opened fire on a helicopter carrying a Santa to a children's party, apparently mistaking it for a police helicopter, police said on Tuesday.

"They thought it was a police operation and started shooting. Luckily, nobody was hurt," a police official said. [Yahoo]

Yeah, those drug traffickers are just lucky Santa Claus didn't go all Chuck Norris on them. You never know what kind of firepower he keeps on hand to protect his monopoly.

All I want for Christmas is a world free of drug war violence and disorder; a world in which men in big red suits can fly helicopters over Rio without being used for target practice by machinegun-toting thugs with free reign over the slums; a world where a man can frolic with carpenter elves and flying reindeer without getting his mistletoe confiscated by the government; a world in which a pungent piney aroma emanating from the den no longer gives police probable cause to search our cozy Christmas cabin.

So happy holidays to you all, whether hippie or hypocrite, activist or antagonist. May the New Year bring hope to the hopeless and clues to the clueless.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Christmas from an old drug warrior

Just say no, etc.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

US: 99% Say They Wouldn't Use Hard Drugs If Legalised

Washington, DC, USA

- Marking the 74th anniversary of the repeal of national Alcohol Prohibition, (DRCNet) on Tuesday released polling results suggesting that drug prohibition's main supporting argument may be simply wrong. Drug policy reformers point to a wide range of demonstrated social harms created by the drug laws -- crime and violence, spread of infectious diseases, official corruption, easy funding for terrorist groups, to name a few -- while prohibitionists argue that use and addiction would explode if drugs were legalized. But is the prohibitionist assumption well-founded

DC-area beer raid during Prohibition (Library of Congress)

Zogby polling data released today asked 1,028 likely voters, "If hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine were legalized, would you be likely to use them?" Ninety-ninety percent of respondents answered, "No." Only 0.6 percent said "Yes." The remaining 0.4 percent weren't sure.

The results are similar to usage rates occurring under today's "drug war," as measured by the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health (formerly the National Household Survey). The 2006 NSDUH found 0.3 percent of the population had used heroin in the past month and 2.4 percent had used cocaine. Even for cocaine, the numbers are compatible, because Zogby surveyed persons aged 18 years and up, while NSDUH begins with age 12; and because of the poll's statistical margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

A comparison of drug use rates in countries with criminal penalties for drug use with the drug use rates of countries that have decriminalized personal use also suggests that policy may play only a secondary role in determining use rates. For example, in the Netherlands, where marijuana is sold openly in the famous "coffee shops," 12 percent of young adults age 15-24 reported using marijuana during 2005, as compared with 24 percent in neighboring France, where marijuana is an arrestable offense, according to data compiled by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.In the United States, where police make nearly 800,000 marijuana arrests each year, young adults age 18-25 in the 2004-2005 survey year reported past-year marijuana use at the rate of 27.9 percent.

David Borden,'s executive director, commented when releasing the Zogby data:

"Prohibition is sending hundreds of billions of dollars per year into the global criminal underground. That money fuels violence and disorder on the streets of our cities, while simultaneously helping to finance international terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted cocaine prices are a fifth of what they were 30 years ago, and any kid who wants to join the Mafia can sign up to deal it in his school. Addicts are harmed by the prohibition policy worst of all. It's time to stop shooting ourselves in the feet, and to control and regulate drugs through legalization."

The full Zogby poll results are available online at:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dutch Government urged to open international debate about UN drug conventions

The Transnational Institute in the Netherlands, one of the worlds leading centers of drug policy scholarship, has today co-signed a letter and resolution sent to the Dutch Prime Minister and relevant parliamentary commissions, stressing the need for an active Dutch involvement in the UN's 10 year drug strategy review process and specifically to use the window of opportunity offered by the 10 year strategic review to open the discussion about the UN conventions that are an obstacle to further developments in Dutch cannabis policy - specifically the issue of legal production. The resolution has received massive media coverage in the Netherlands today in part because it has been signed by Van Agt (a former Dutch prime minister), a number of ex-ministers, five mayors and several police chiefs.

The letter presents the resolution that resulted from the October 31 invitational conference on Dutch cannabis policy in The Hague, chaired by Maastricht Mayor Leers.

The resolution calls for moves towards legal regulation of cannabis production which, anomalously, remains illegal despite the tolerance for and licensing of cannabis sales in 'coffee shops', the so called 'back door problem'. There has been a Parliamentary majority for such a move for a number of years but the Government has been reluctant to take the step as it would be in clear violation of the UN drug treaties, which the the existing policy of tolerance for small scale supply and use arguably is not.

Unfortunately an english translation of the resolution will not be available for a few days (It will be posted here when it becomes available - in the mean time a rather garbled babel fish translation is in comments). Dutch speakers can read the resolution and accompanying documentation here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

UNODC director (lamb) addresses the DPA (slaughter)

I'm in New Orleans at the Drug Policy Alliance 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, and it was a fascinating opening day featuring as its center piece an address from Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director,United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, followed by a Q&A session.

The DPA conference in New Orleans

Transform blog regulars will have read about some of Costa's peculiar comments before (In the Independent on Sunday, on Swedish drug policy, and a particularly strange recent speech in Spain). In the context of some of his previous comments, and indeed his role overseeing the UN drug conventions that enshrine prohibition into the domestic laws of over 150 countries it may seem strange that he would accept and invitation to the worlds largest conference discussing the problems caused by prohibition and more just and effective policy alternatives. So his decision to attend must be applauded and is a historic first for the reform movement, but as he himself commented humorously there was an element of 'lamb to the slaughter' about proceedings.

Costa's speech the text of which is available on the UNODC site here) was well choreographed and superficially made some concessions to the critics of the broader UNODC approach. He implicitly conceded that supply side drug control efforts had been ineffective and that the best that could be claimed was 'containment' and 'stabilisation' of the problem, some way from the 1998 UNGASS commitment to a significant reduction by 2008. More significantly perhaps was an analytical perspective rarely if ever heard from the UNODC that unless demand was reduced, supply could not be prevented. He worded it, in the frank manner befitting an economist, like this:

I invite you all to imagine that this year, all drugs produced and trafficked around the world, were seized: the dream of law enforcement agencies. Well, when we wake up having had this dream, we would realize that the same amount of drugs - hundreds of tons of heroin, cocaine and cannabis - would be produced again next year. In other words, this first dream shows that, while law enforcement is necessary for drug control, it is not sufficient. New supply would keep coming on stream, year after year.

So let's dream a second time. Let's dream that, by some miracle, we can convince farmers around the world to eradicate the thousands of hectares of drug crops, replaced by the fruits of development assistance (in Afghanistan, Colombia, Morocco, and Myanmar). A great dream of course, but yet again one that would not on its own solve the world drug problem. Why? Because when we wake up after this second dream we would realize that other sources of supply would inevitably open up somewhere else on the planet, to satisfy the craving of millions of drug users around the world.

Whilst then proposing a the rather confusing argument (that because one prong - supply reduction - was futile, you therefore needed a two pronged approach - i.e .supply and demand reduction) it was a significant point for the head of the UNODC to concede.

He sought to distance himself from the notoriously stupid drug free world motto of 1998, and the phrase war on drugs, whilst also stating his support for effective treatment, prevention, eduction and harm reduction (although there was an unstated suggestion that these were policy elements that were the somehow the exclusive preserve of the prohibitionist position). But at least there was an unambiguous statement of support for harm reduction, which was welcomed after the embarrassments of the 'Dear Bobby' letter episode .

His response to the broad drug law reform / prohibition critique arguments were familiar, predictable and none could stand any sustained scrutiny (see the links above or Transform's 'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate' for a more detailed deconstruction of the most of the points he makes). He conceded that prohibition fueled crime but that the health implications of abandoning it made the reform position untenable:
"I know your argument on this last point. Prohibition causes violence and crime by creating a lucrative black market for drugs: so, legalize drugs to defeat organized crime. Thus far, as an economist, I agree with you. But this is not only an economic argument. Legalization may reduce the profits to organized crime, but it will also increase the damage done to the health of individuals and society. Evidence shows a strong correlation between drug availability and drug abuse. Let us therefore reduce the availability of drugs - through tackling supply and demand - and thereby reduce the risks to health and security."

His comments received more detailed scrutiny in the Q&A session which followed, at which a number of leading drug law reformers, including Pat O'Hare (IHRA) Alex Wodak (Australian Drug Foundation) , Craig Reinarman (UC Santa Cruz), and Martin Jelsma (TNI Netherlands), offered a critical commentary on his speech.

lamb, slaughter etc.

At this point, faced with what were effectively un-answerable questions and observations, Costa slipped into evasive politician mode. A good example was when he was challenged, with the example of the Netherlands, on a comment he made about how availability correlates to prevalence of use. The point made to him was specifically that the Netherlands effectively had free cannabis availability, but average to low (European) levels of use. Costa's response was to accuse the Netherlands of 'poisoning the rest of Europe' with its amphetamine production. Whether this is true or not it had no bearing on the availability/prevalence question asked re cannabis. Costa preferred to reiterate his rather unpleasant sound bite that countries 'have the drug problem they deserve' (explored here).

Overall it was fairly predictable, and the significance really lies in the fact that it happened at all. How significant in the longer term is impossible to guess, but it does at least suggest that the movement is being taken seriously at the highest level and a decision has been made to develop and implement some sort of engagement strategy. That said, if this is the strongest factual and analytical defense of prohibition (and its institutions) that can be mustered then we can perhaps be a bit more optimistic, and we must assume they are very worried.

more detail and analysis at Drug War Rant and Reason Online

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Prominient US think tank publishes pro- decriminalisation paper

The the Washington DC based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a paper by Sidney Weintraub last month, titled 'The high cost of criminalizing drug use' that I have only just come across.

Sidney Weintraub from CSIS

His analysis is concise and useful - although specifically focused on economics. He notes that:
"The “war” on narcotics continues to be waged with little to show for it other than occasional successful skirmishes (like Mexico’s recent drug seizure) at great cost in self-destruction and deep damage to other countries."
"Limiting drug usage after decriminalization would cost many billions of dollars a year for education and treatment, but markedly less than the costs of current policy."
The concluding paragraph:
"Decriminalization of drug use is a controversial recommendation. My reaction over the years was to reject the idea when it was proposed by others. What has turned me around is the reality that the current policy of criminalizing drug use is not working—and cannot be successful. If one drug shipment is interdicted, other shipments and substitute drugs are available. Burglaries and muggings by young offenders are motivated by the need for money to buy a fix. The rents to drug dealers are so high that there are no practical limits on their ability to bribe officials; and those who refuse to be bribed are often killed. In developing countries like Mexico and Colombia, the dealers can buy their own armies and outgun government enforcement personnel. My conclusion is that in a democracy—where drug offenders are not summarily put to death by the authorities—the only feasible approach is to eliminate the rents and treat and educate the addicts. This is no cure-all, but is preferable to efforts at prohibition of narcotics, something we learned years ago in the case of alcohol."

There are hundreds, if not thousands of think tanks in Washington and I don't know a great deal about the CSIS, but Sanho Tree (a colleague who is director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, also DC based) describes CSIS as 'a center-right think tank' that is 'in many ways the voice of the Establishment'. CSIS certainly lists a who's who of political and corporate heavy hitters amongst its trustees (including, I noticed, Henry Kissenger). So whilst CSIS specifically notes that:
"CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author"
it remains significant that they published this paper and is indicative of a new level of mainstream institutional engagement in the the broader critique of prohibition from across the political spectrum.

The full document is available here (pdf)

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Onion: Drug Czar Toppled By Drug Bolsheviks

Contrary to what you may have read from some opponents of progressive reform, this is not how it's going to happen.

Drug Czar Toppled By Drug Bolsheviks

Onion Radio News

Sunday, December 02, 2007

ACMD attacks drugs strategy consultation

As reported in the Observer today: "The government was at loggerheads with its own advisers last night over its new drugs policy."

It continued:

"An influential Home Office-backed committee raised serious doubts about the consultation process behind the 10-year strategy which will be unveiled in April. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) described the process as 'self-congratulatory and generally disappointing' and questioned the credibility of much of the evidence presented to government."
The castigation appears in the Overall Comments (p3) to the ACMD's submission to Government on its strategy review. It is a withering attack in an otherwise fairly innocuous document.

There has been widespread condemnation from across drugs field of the strategy consultation p since it made its appearance in July this year. However, the significance of the Advisory Council reiterating this condemnation will not be lost on the Government.

This is a crucial time for the Advisory Council as it flexes its muscles in the upcoming review of cannabis reclassification in February next year. More importantly though the Council loses its incumbent Chair Sir Michael Rawlins next year and takes on six new members in the next few months (currently being appointed).

The Council's remit is to advise ministers on drug policy and law and specifically on the operation of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). The ACMD's position was undermined in 2006 when the Science and Technology Select Committee called into question the entire scientific evidence base for the drug classification system, in their report 'Making a Hash of it'. Initially the Council acted as if they had given it a clean bill of health, but do now appear to be taking at least some of the criticisms on board.

Transform has been calling on ACMD for years to evaluate both the classification system and the operation of the entire MDA and indeed prohibition itself. As ACMD suggests in its comments, an adequate definition of 'harm' is required in order to develop an effective drug strategy. At the least the ACMD needs to publicly state which harms are caused by drugs and which are caused or exacerbated by the enforcement of the MDA.

If the Council is to reassert itself as the much needed bastion of evidence and rationality within Government, it will need to step up a gear and proactively begin its own work of exposing the MDA to scientific evaluation (if necessary demanding the required resources and capacity from the Home office). If it fails to do this then agencies in the NGO sector - including Transform - will need to step in to do their job for them.

Friday, November 30, 2007

ACMD opens its doors to the public.

The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, the Government appointed panel of experts established under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 to advise ministers on drug policy and law, yesterday opened its doors to the public for a full meeting (or at least part of it) for the first time. I went along and it wasn't nearly as boring as I expected.

The Home Office: 'come on in' (actually the meeting was in a Hotel in Victoria)

The impressively knowledgeable and diverse panel of 30 or so experts from the drugs field spent several hours discussing a range of current concerns and how best to respond to them including a detailed discussions on the growing use of anabolic steroids, the threat of GBL (a precursor of GHB), implementation of the Council's recent 'Pathways to Problems' report, needle exchanges, and the upcoming reviews of the classification of ecstasy (MDMA), cannabis (again - at the request of the Home Secretary) , and, we were told, all drugs covered under the MDA. A full agenda is available here.

This last point I found interesting as a quick look at the drugs covered under the MDA reveals that there are over 400. No timetable was given but at the Council's going rate of reviewing about 2 drugs a year, and I'm being generous here and assuming the Government doesn't ask them to undertake pointless re-reviews (a la cannabis), we can therefore look forward to the process being finished sometime around 2200.

Even if they are only looking at, say, the top 20 problem drugs we are still looking conservatively at the process ending sometime around 2020 and lets face it, that's just not good enough. At one point during the public Q&A session Professor Nutt said, in response to a question about why they weren't looking at cocaine given the worrying growth in its use, that they had 'a lot on their plate' and couldn't do everything. It was a fair point to which I, rather supportively I think, suggested that it was about time the Home Office provided the appropriate resources to give the them the required research capacity to deal with all that stuff on said 'plate'. ACMD Chair Micheal Rawlins curiously said he didn't feel increased funding/capacity was necessary and that the Council would increasingly be working with the MRC and other research agencies. To me this was an odd answer: there are some specific tasks, like the 400 classification reviews, that only the ACMD can do.

I noticed Alan Travis from the Guardian was amongst the public audience and his report appears in todays Guardian, titled: Boys of 12 using anabolic steroids to 'get girls'. (it is probably worth noting that a lot of boys are also using steroids to 'get boys' but anyway). Travis quotes me at one point:

Challenged by Steve Rolles, of the drugs legalisation campaign Transform, to look at the whole system of drug classification, Rawlins remarked that the notes detailing the basis for each classification from A to D dating back to 1973 had been lost. But he confirmed the council is reviewing the legal status of ecstasy as part of a systematic look at the classification of each illicit drug in turn. The ecstasy review began in September and involves the Health Technology Association in Plymouth appraising 750 scientific papers on the harmful effects of the drug in relation to similar illicit substances.

He rather misunderstands the thrust of my question (as well as the fact that the classification system is A-C, not D). I observed that the most of the ACMD meeting had been considering, in detail, the evidence of harms for various drugs and the implications of this analysis for whether they should be brought within the MDA or have their classification changed. My point was that there was major flaw in the Council's thinking if the impacts on key public health and criminal justice indicators of such changes were not being evaluated (as we have discussed in detail in previous Transform briefings). I then pointed out that the Government had called for, and indeed fully prepared, a comprehensive root and branch review of the classification system, a move that had been supported by the ACMD itself, The Sci-Tech Select Committee, Drugscope, and as far as I am aware everybody in the drugs field. Since the Government had since canceled the review (for transparently political reasons), but the need for such a review remained pressing, would the ACMD itself undertake such a review itself?

Rawlins answered that yes there were anomalies in the system but that the systematic review of classifications was underway, including ecstasy, and that the ACMD did not have the power to change the law.

I responded that I was not talking about the anomalies, but rather the more general efficacy of and the ABC system and its nominally harm based hierarchy of penalties. I also noted that it is specifically in the ACMD's remit under the MDA to call for 'changes in the law' as they see being necessary, and also that they can undertake reviews of drug policy if they deem it 'expedient'. Rawlins replied rather vaguely that they would take my points on board and look at the question but this didn't translate into any firm commitment to make it an agenda item (although one member of the committee I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and said they would raise it in the 'closed' afternoon session). We'll wait and see, but I don't have much cause for optimism.

As Transform have said before, the work the ACMD does is of the highest quality. The recent 'Hidden Harms' and 'Pathways to Problems' reports being fine examples of this. The problem with the Council is not the work they do, but the questions they don't engage with, and nothing demonstrates this better than their equivocation over reviewing the efficacy of punitive ABC classification system, and indeed a broader cost benefit analysis of the MDA - and prohibition as the basis of UK drug policy. Given the disaster that has unfolded over the last 36 years, such a review would seem to be 'expedient'.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More Independent on Sunday reefer madness exposed

Back in mid-September the Independent on Sunday (IOS) ran yet another cannabis themed news feature this time under the dramatic headline Re-classification of cannabis ‘fuels youth crime wave’. At the time I couldn’t help thinking that the central claim made in the headline sounded rather implausible even though reportedly having the cred of being based on 'academic research'. In the context of The IOS’s born-again prohibitionist crusade to criminalise half of the nation's youth I almost considered looking into it bit more closely. But I was busy and to be honest weary of the endless stream of self-justifying cherry-picked canna-panic silliness flowing from the paper since March. I figured the public and blog readers of the world probably were to. I had better things to do and lazy IOS cannabis stories are easy pickings.

Then some weeks later I just happened to be lecturing at King College London (as fate would have it, on the subject of drugs and crime), the seat of learning responsible for one of research papers quoted in the IOS cannabis crime wave story, and just happened to bump into one of the research team involved with the very paper used to make the scary crime wave claim. It turned out they weren’t happy with the IOS reporting. So I felt a closer critique of the reporting was probably justified and needless to say I wasn't disappointed.

The IOS coverage opens with

Cannabis use among Britain's young offenders is "out of control", up by 75 per cent in some areas and fuelling a crime epidemic, with youngsters stealing to fund their addictions, according to two studies.

And then, a paragraph later:

Research carried out by King's College London has indicated that 25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield have turned to crime to fund their habit. This contrasts with previous government research which said that "cannabis use was unlikely to motivate crime".

I have the Kings College London (KCL) research paper in front of me. It's called ‘Young people, cannabis use, and antisocial behavior’ and is an excellent and indeed important piece of work that illuminates a lot of the key issues and concerns around cannabis and young people today, making a series of eminently sensible recommendations. But does it suggest that cannabis is fueling a 'crime epidemic, with youngsters stealing to fund their addictions’ , or specifically that reclassification of cannabis ‘fuels youth crime wave’ as the IOS proclaims?

Well no, actually it doesn’t. There's no mention of epidemics or waves of crime anywhere in the document, and interestingly the ‘fuels youth crime wave’ quote from the headline doesn’t even appear in the IOS news story itself. It isn't even paraphrasing something someone has said; a quote apparently pulled from thin air. I believe the technical term for this is ‘made up’.

And what about the IOS claim that “25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield have turned to crime to fund their habit”. Well one of the KCL report's authors felt this didn’t very accurately represent its findings and emailed the IOS story’s author to express their concerns. They were good enough to forward me the email sent:

I have just been emailed a copy of your article quoting the research colleagues and I conducted in Sheffield on young people, cannabis use and anti-social behaviour. I just wanted to let you know that your sentence "Research carried out by King's College London has indicated that 25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield
have turned to crime to fund their habit" is inaccurate. The actual sentence in the report reads:

"Pocket money and work were the most common sources of funding cannabis use. Just over one in ten mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use".

We did not, as the article suggests, interview all young offenders in Sheffield. In total we interviewed 30 youth offending service clients. Below, I have pasted our main findings. If I can be of any further help please don't hesitate to contact me.

The IOS didn’t go as far as to print a clarification. In fact they didn’t make contact at all, or even reply to the email. I believe this is technically known as 'rude'.

So is the 25% figure made up like the crime wave quote? Well, a closer reading of the KCL report reveals that:

“Only eight young people mentioned committing crime to fund their use, seven of whom were YOS clients.”

This is from a total interview sample of 61, all technically youth offenders purely on the basis of their cannabis use, but of whom 30 were specifically under supervision of the Youth Offending Service. So, if we are being generous to the IOS, you could arguably claim that of the 30 YOS clients interviewed, 7 mentioned committing crime to fund their use, and from that almost derive the 25% figure (well, actually 23.3 reoccurring % to be precise) . But let's have a think about this:

  • Firstly, a total sample size of 30 is very small and can therefore only ever suggest very generalised behavioral patterns. Positive respondents in single figures, just 7 on the crime-to-buy-cannabis question, is far too small a number, with far too large an error margin to be the basis of any serious policy conclusions, let alone claims of 'epidemics'. It might suggest the need for further research but as the basis for a ‘youth crime wave’ headline it is faintly ridiculous. The IOS notably fails to mention the sample size, offer a link to the document (which isn't published in a journal yet anyway), mention the title of the research, or -as we have seen- name the authors or offer them a chance to comment (although 11 other experts do get quoted, along with 6 typically narrative re-enforcing IOS vox pops).
  • Secondly The fact that certain individuals, (all eight of them), ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’ is very different from IOS interpretation that they were ‘stealing to fund their addictions’ or that they had ‘turned to crime to fund their habit’. The fact the 7 YOS clients bought cannabis from crime related earnings is not really surprising. They are young offenders already in the system and likely to be using criminal proceeds to find lifestyle expenses generally from clothes, to big macs, to alcohol. Cannabis is not especially expensive(they are likely to be spending as much or more on alcohol), it is in a different league entirely regards crime creation to heroin or crack use that can run to over £50 a day – even though the IOS evidently uses these addictions as its semantic reference point. The KCL report does not state that the youths were asked how much they spent on cannabis or, for any of the 7 youth crime-tsunami, what proportion of cannabis expenditure was crime funded. It is also worth noting that of the 31 cannabis users who, like the vast majority of cannabis users, were not YOS clients, just one ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’. This observation, in contrast to the IOS rather desperate assertions otherwise, doesn't really suggest an epidemic and actually indicates support for the ‘previous government research which said that "cannabis use was unlikely to motivate crime".
  • Thirdly the KCL report does not link the 7 youngster crime 'epidemic’ with addiction as the IOS specifically claims. The report notes that, of the 61 youths interviewed: ‘23 believed that their use had some problematic aspects. Half (12) of them expressed concerns about the frequency of their use and the likelihood of developing addictive patterns of use’. However it does not state that any, let alone all of the 7 who ‘mentioned committing crime as a means of financing their use’ were amongst the 12, and no details are given that any of this 12, or the 7, had been diagnosed as dependent cannabis users or received treatment accordingly. It's possible of course that they were all hopeless cannabis addicts, but the KCL report doesn't tell us this, and actually it strongly suggests otherwise.
  • Finally, whilst there is much interesting discussion in the KCL report about the confusion resulting from the rather bungled re-classification of cannabis from B to C in 2004, there is nothing in it to suggest that for any of the crime-wave-7 reclassification had anything whatsoever to do with their offending or use, as suggested by the IOS headline.

So in just two brief sentences there is a whole series of misrepresentations of the Kings College research, all skewing its findings so as to hype the cannabis crisis and support the IOS's pre-determined narrative about how awful cannabis is. Its an old trick (that even more credible papers can fall foul of from time to time) but in this case it is part of a pattern; the IOS's deliberate and ongoing journalistic shenanigans to justify their born-again prohibitionist editorial position, and indeed its increasingly evident support for a re-reclassification back to B. The same week's IOS leader, dramatically (perhaps in retrospect - ironically) titled 'Our criminal ignorance of cannabis', regurgitates the same distorted reporting, almost triumphantly declaring that:

“Today, we report a further complication. One of the arguments for reclassif'ying cannabis as less serious was that users did not tend to steal to pay for their habit. But disturbing new research suggests otherwise. Our own investigations suggest cannabis use is high and rising among young offenders, and an academic study in Sheffield suggests one in four young offenders has stolen to pay for cannabis.”

And finally it is perhaps worth pointing out one of the KCL report’s recommendations that the IOS didn't mention:

“Strategies that are developed to reduce the negative perceptions that press stories create in the public’s mind about young people should be encouraged.”

More blog coverage of the IOS cannabis frenzy during 2007:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Transform commentary in the British Medical Journal

Following on from the last week's BMJ head to head on 'should we decriminalise drugs?' (read the yes response here, the no here) and a reasonably engaging follow on debate in the online rapid response forum (responses to the 'yes', responses to the 'no') this week's print edition of the journal has run six letters in response, including, I'm pleased to say first in line, one from me. (I also get another quote in a summary response from the letters editor).

My letter is a heavily trimmed version of my (really far better and more detailed) online response to the anti-decriminlisation piece by Joseph Califano, combined with some snippets from my response to the pro-decriminalisation piece (or rather the responses to it). In fact even the heavily trimmed letter I submitted (at their request, with a very strict word count) was itself heavily edited, in doing so rather confusing a few of the points being made and somewhat tempering my glee at getting published in the BMJ. I've posted my unedited letter in the comments section below for reference.

All of the letters are behind an annoying subscription pay wall, meaning you can only read the first 150 words and not see the references. This is particularly ridiculous given the the original articles and the rapid responses are all freely available, and the fact that the letters are mostly not much more than 150 words anyway meaning that mostly it is just the last sentence missing. Pointless copyright snottiness that serves no useful purpose, which I am therefore about to unilaterally over-rule by posting my letter, and my quoted comment from the letters editor, in toto:

Prohibition is an ideologically driven failure

Califano's objections to legal regulation of illicit drugs are based on misrepresentation of the reform position bolstered by irrelevant, cherry picked, or misleading facts. 1 A similar piece appeared in the Financial Times 2 and was systematically critiqued in the paper's economists' forum. 3 While Califano's rhetoric has since been moderated, and facts fine tuned, the conceptual flaws remain.

The example of Zurich's "needle park" misrepresents legalisation as heroin was never legally supplied. As an experimental tolerance zone it was a failure. Yet, Califano fails to mention that the government responded by legalising heroin. It set up clinics for long term users, where legally prescribed heroin was used under supervision. The success of this approach on key social, health, and criminal justice indicators led to its replication by many countries including Canada, Australia, and much of mainland Europe. The UK is piloting a similar scheme.

Califano relates Italy's high heroin addiction rate to its de facto decriminalisation for possession, but other countries with similar approaches have lower levels of addiction (Netherlands, Portugal), while the UK has a punitive approach yet higher addiction. Califano's grotesque conflation of Italy's decriminalisation policy with the spread of AIDS ignores the reality that supervised use of prescribed heroin with clean needles results in zero HIV transmission. Califano defends a policy that caused the tragic outcomes he identifies, while attacking advocates of responses that eliminate the problem.

Cheap illicit drugs are freely available under prohibition. Despite Califano's assertions, once an illicit market is established (and criminal profiteers will see to that) levels of use are mostly culturally determined and demand led. Problematic drug use is not driven by changes in availability or price. 4

Califano doesn't understand that the huge profits offered by prohibition attract the violent gangsters now in control, while it is precisely because drugs are dangerous that they need to be regulated and controlled. They are too dangerous to be left in the hands of criminals.

Stephen A Rolles, information officer

Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Easton Business Centre, Bristol BS8 OHE

Competing interests: None declared.


regards above where is says no competing interests declared, in the online response I did declare my interests as follows: "I am Information Officer for Transform Drug Policy Foundation and provided some support with factual references for Dr Chand's companion article in favour of drug decriminalisation". The BMJ editors chose not to reproduce this. No idea why - maybe because my interests were non-financial.

Sweden's story in responses

Echoing Califano's citation of Sweden's drug policy in his contribution to the head to head debate,1 H C Raabe writes:

"Around three decades ago, Sweden adopted the goal to create a ‘drug-free society.' The result is impressive with essentially the lowest rates of drug abuse in Europe, lower than, for example, the Netherlands and much lower than the UK."

But, replies Andrew Byrne, "Sweden's goal of a drug-free society has been a cruel hoax on its people. Read the official EMC [European Monitoring Centre] figures from Lisbon: high rates of hepatitis C, enormous alcohol problems, amphetamines at higher rates than many other European countries. Its approach has been repressive, expensive, and largely ineffective. Along with the USA, Sweden is one of the last western countries without a needle services for drug users. This leads to HIV, bacterial infections, and other preventable and costly burdens on the Swedes."

Stephen A Rolles concludes that there is no correlation between the harshness of prohibition's enforcement and the use or misuse of drugs. "Some countries with harsh enforcement policies (including, prominently the UK and US) have very high levels of use while other countries with very different policies, such as Greece, or more famously, the Netherlands, have low levels of use comparable to Sweden."

Sharon Davies, letters editor

BMJ, London WC1H 9JR

Competing interests: None declared.

1. Califano JA, Jr. Should drugs be decriminalised? No. BMJ 2007;335:967. (10 November.)[Free Full Text]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Transform in the Guardian's Comment is Free

The following article from Transform director Danny Kushlick was published in the Guardian's online comment is free section yesterday evening. There is an active discussion forum below it to which you can contribute for the next three days (after which it closes - this blog forum remains open of course). Note: The slightly odd title to the piece is the work of the Guardian copy editors BTW, not Danny.

A drug on the market

Today's report, revealing the extraordinary scale of the UK's drug trade, admits only one conclusion: the policy of prohibition has failed

A Home Office report published today estimates the size of the UK illicit drugs trade at over £7bn. Using phrases like "market dynamics" and "enterprise structures", the report reads rather like a large business's annual report to shareholders. Except that this trade is entirely illegal and therefore totally beyond the reach of HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is the ultimate in deregulated markets, with absolutely no red tape for traffickers, suppliers and dealers.

To quote from the report (pdf): "There were very large mark-ups along the supply chain, from production to street level, for cocaine (circa 15,800%) and heroin (circa 16,800%)". Yes, you read it correctly, that's 16,000% mark-ups, unheard of in any other commodity market. The reason, pure and simple, is global prohibition. Is this a surprise to anyone in government? No.

The PM's Strategy Unit produced a report (pdf) in 2003 demonstrating in detail how this happens: it explained that "over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption has been rising, prices falling and drugs have continued to reach users. Government interventions against the drug business are a cost of business, rather than a substantive threat to the industry's viability." (p94)

What the Downing Street report shows is that prohibition cannot prevent drug production, cannot prevent drug-trafficking, cannot prevent drug use, but that it does create huge volumes of acquisitive crime. But worse than all this, prohibition actually creates the vast unregulated market and all the misery and degradation that goes along with it from Afghanistan and Colombia to New York, Moscow and London.

These illicit profits are one of the single greatest corrupting economic forces in operation globally today. It is a policy of mass destruction, with dodgy dossiers to support its continuation and a group of senior politicians the world over which proclaims its success, despite its all-too-obvious horrors.

Now, however, there is an increasingly influential group of individuals and institutions demonstrating their opposition to the status quo. Given this growing opposition and sustained critique, one wonders why the Home Office continues to draw attention to prohibition's shocking failings. But, to the extent that they do, it gives us all the opportunity to see the reality of prohibition's impacts for what they are - and to let government know that the "war on drugs" is not being fought in our name.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

ACPO's baffling u-turn on cannabis classification

Scroll down for the main blog post.....

Transform blog CANNABIS links:

In many ways a distraction from more pressing drug policy issues but, particularly with the whole sorry reclassification saga unfolding over the last few years, it has obsessed the media and correspondingly provided a rich vein of bad reporting, bad science and political idiocy that is hard for a critical drug policy blog to ignore. The Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday in particular have distinguished themselves, but they have been far from alone.

Daily Mail, Bad Science Drugs Deaths and Reclassification
Aug 06. The first blog to really critique bad science and misreporting of drug statistics. On this occasion linking cannabis reclassification with a rise in opiate deaths (that took place before cannabis was reclassified - Doh!). More Daily Mail silliness here and here.

How the Independent on Sunday got it horribly wrong on Cannabis
March 07. A masterpiece in poor journalism is forensically taken to pieces. The biggest hit count of any blog post to date. Follow ups part 1, part 2

More shoddy reefer madness reporting of cannabis risks
July 07. The Lancet fails to discourage poor reporting of statistics.

Brown on cannabis - it gets worse
Sept 07. The cannabis reclassification saga comes to a head, the new PM makes a fool of himself, and any vague pretense of evidence based policy making goes out the window once and for all

More Independent on Sunday reefer madness exposed
Oct 07. A case of grotesquely misrepresented research and shock headline-mongering. The authors of the research question thanked us for this one, the IOS have failed to apologize or print a correction (also belongs under bad science)

Smoking stuff bad for lungs shock
Jan 08. Another one of those reheated drugs bad for you-shock stories.

Millions quit cannabis following reclassification
May 08. Satire – pulled in tonnes of hits after 'going viral' on social networking sites

ACPO's baffling u-turn on cannabis classification

The BBC reports today that The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has moved its position from supporting 2004's reclassification of cannabis to now supporting its re-reclassification back to B, but their stated motives for this change of position simply don't add up.

From the BBC report (there is no ACPO press release available at the time of writing) we learn the following regards ACPO's justification for its apparent change of position:

Tim Hollis, chairman of ACPO's drugs committee, said downgrading cannabis had sent out the wrong signals.

ACPO is also concerned about the number of cannabis "factories" that have sprung up across the country.

Mr Hollis said organised criminals now viewed the UK as a potential place to produce cannabis.

He said: "Some people are targeting the UK because they see it's financially worthwhile.

"We've got to increase the risk of being raided by the police and send a clear message out that cannabis is a drug, we do take it seriously, and we will tackle those people who try to trade in drugs."

Police say any reclassification would not necessarily change the way that they currently police possession of cannabis, although that may be reviewed in the light of any reclassification.

Mr Hollis said the emphasis should be on targeting dealers, rather than criminalising people who use cannabis recreationally.
Now the baffling part about this is that when the classification of cannabis was changed from B to C in 2004 there was also a change made to the status of all class C drugs, such that penalties for supply offenses were increased to parity with class B - incurring a maximum sentence of a hefty 14 years, and on that basis there is no reason why making cannabis B again should make the slightest difference in terms of deterrence to producers or dealers; penalties will be unchanged.

Indeed ACPO have been very specific in their January 2007 guidance on use of cannabis warnings where they state, underlined to emphasize the point:
Dealing in any amount of Cannabis is a serious offence that can result in up to 14 years imprisonment. A Cannabis Warning should not be considered where there is evidence of dealing or possession with intent to supply the cannabis to others.
Moreover, when the reclassification change was made, the police also insisted that possession of class C drugs be made an arrestable offense (it previously wasn't). From a policing perspective exactly the same enforcement options were available for possession (warning, caution, arrest, prosecution) after reclassification as before. Hollis specifically says that 'the emphasis should be on targeting dealers, rather than criminalising people who use cannabis recreationally.' Yet the change would not target dealers and will, in practical terms, serve only to increase penalties for 'people who use cannabis recreationally'. Its all a bit confusing.

A cannabis factory (BBC)

It is the decision of the individual police forces how they deploy their resources, and ACPO gave no indication that they were going to ease off cannabis dealing or production post reclassification even if their was a change regard small scale personal possession (something Hollis claims would not change anyway if there is a move back to B). So if they want to go in harder or put more enforcement resources into busting dealers and searching out and closing down 'cannabis factories' then that is their choice. Transform would argue it is a waste of time and valuable resources that is only likely to have negative consequences, but it certainly does not require reclassification if that's what they want to do.

There can, therefore, be no sensible justification for reclassification on policing grounds.

There is also no evidence, (literally none produced by the Home Office, ACPO or anybody else for that matter) that changes to a drugs classification have any impact on drug using decisions, or on the decision of any given criminal to enter the market or not. The evidence for classification changes 'Sending out the wrong message' (or any messages) is non-existent. To repeat: There is absolutely no evidence to show that the changes in the cannabis market toward domestic production (trends underway long before 2004) have anything to do with classification and everything to suggest classification is largely if not entirely irrelevant. The same can be said for levels of use - which have (according to the BSC and DoH surveys) been falling slowly but steadily for a number of years un-bothered by the classification changes.

The cannabis classification debate is almost entirely a symbolic and political one. It allows political point scoring in parliament and some moral grandstanding by self righteous newspaper columnists, but on the ground, in practical terms for the police its basically an irrelevance. It may save some time, but that is about it.

So you have to suspect that this ACPO announcement is similarly political rather than practical in nature. Maybe they are under pressure from Number 10 - as happened with support for the unfortunate Drugs Bill/Act of 2005. This wouldn't be much of a surprise given Prime Minister Brown has already declared that he plans to reclassify regardless of advice he receives. Or maybe they have just been swept up in the current spate of reefer madness, and its tabloid cheerleaders at the Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday? Who knows. It certainly isn't about shutting down cannabis factories.

Luckily, following the scrutiny of the Science and Technology Committee and the Lancet publication from key members of Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs Technical Committee (tasked to rank drugs according to relative harms) classification decision making has recently become a lot more transparent. It is, at least in theory, scientifically determined according to a 'harms matrix', and isn't decided by the police, by public consultation, by hysterical tabloid reporting, or by knee jerk politics.

If you are not yet bored witless by the cannabis reclassification debate, please see:

Cannabis reclassification revisited (Transform briefing to the ACMD 2005)

Cannabis reclassification (Transform briefing to the ACMD 2004)

Drug Classification Transform's submission to the 2006 Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into the drug classification system

Monday, November 19, 2007

UNODC ramps up the weird drug warrior rhetoric

Antonio Costa gave a speech in Spain last week that raised the bar for weird UNODC fire and brimstone rhetoric, featuring the familiar deployment of scientific terminology like ‘evil’ and ‘junkies’, along with less familiar appearances for Britney Spears, the word ‘fuck’, and unspecified ‘curses’.

Antonio Costa: picture from Costa's Corner on the UNODC website

He covers a lot of ground so it is well worth giving it a read; I’m interested to hear peoples thoughts. In the mean time here are a few highlights, with some commentary.

In his opening salvo Costa notes that:

“….the whole drug scene in Europe is actually biased in favour of cocaine, making it the drug of choice as depressants are progressively abandoned: heroin is consumed by people on the margins of society, loitering in parks, near underground stations, or congregating around grubby treatment centres.

…Cocaine has a different image. It has stylish names: the fair lady, the candid queen, the seductive sugar. It is white not dark; sniffed not injected; consumed in trendy discos not in cities' gutters; it is the mental fuel of society's winners, not the dope of losers.”

In these two sentences alone, there is a world of wrongness.

  • cocaine use is rising, no doubt, but if we are looking for the ‘drug of choice’ then surely alcohol, cannabis and nicotine should warrant a mention, given their use eclipses that of cocaine by a substantial margin.

  • Depressants are not being ‘progressively abandoned’ – heroin use may have leveled off in the last few years but it isn’t falling. Meanwhile alcohol, another depressant is showing no signs of waning popularity.

  • ‘grubby treatment centres’? Are they all grubby? What are you implying? With this one phrase he skillfully manages to be rude to 1000s of treatment workers across an entire continent.

  • I have never heard of cocaine referred to ‘the fair lady’, ‘candid queen’, or ‘seductive sugar’. Not once. Maybe something has been lost in translation, but ‘a gram of seductive sugar please’. Nope, sorry, that’s clearly completely made up. Who writes this stuff?

And there is something else missing from these sentences and indeed the entire speech: Any mention of crack.

Now crack cocaine is cocaine. It’s the same drug, it comes from the same plant, and has the same effect, albeit with a small molecular change (easily achieved with a microwave and some bicarbs) that allows it to be smoked, the effect being to speed up and intensify the cocaine hit. In the UK and in much of Europe the crack and heroin markets have largely merged, as have the using populations. The illicit heroin scene provided a ready made distribution network for crack and a ready market of potential problem users. Heroin and crack, as the staff of grubby treatment centers will tell you, is used in the same ‘city gutters’, by the same ‘losers’ as heroin. And increasingly it is injected too, not infrequently, mixed with heroin. It may not fit in with the rather strange class war theme of Costa's speech, but it is a peculiar oversight.

Costa then, in reference to the powder cocaine using 'white collar' 'winners', talks about Europe’s cocaine junkies’. Now, firstly, it is simply not appropriate for the head of the UNODC to be using pejorative terms such as ‘junkies’. It’s not a technical term, it’s not helpful in this context, and it reinforces stereotypes and fosters social exclusion.

The second thing is that unlike crack, most powder cocaine use is not characterised by addiction or chaotic use. Of course there are some problem users (often also problem drinkers) and some compulsive, addictive patterns of use, but they represent the small minority, with crack use representing the majority of cocaine related problematic use. Powder cocaine is associated with health risks undoubtedly but there is no inevitability about addiction and most users are able to make rational decisions, using occasionally, moderately and not causing significant problems to themselves.

After telling us about the dangers of cocaine to the user Costa then moves onto demonstrate how European cocaine use causes harm ‘further a field’. This is classic prohibitionist sophistry, blaming a range of problems in producer and transit countries on the drug users rather than the policy of prohibition that creates the illegal markets in the first place. There’s a whole list of these secondary harms provided, which reads like a roll call of prohibtion's negative consequences:

‘They [European cocaine users] destroy nature in coca growing countries, as pristine forests are replaced by coca plantations.’

True up to a point, but the problem has historically been made much worse by Andean eradication programmes, wholeheartedly endorsed by the UN drug agencies, which have sprayed with toxic chemicals across many millions of acres without any discernible impact on production – which just moves elsewhere. The effect has been to multiply the environmental damage and deforestation related to coca cultivation. Were it legally produced it would still potentially be an issue (although there’s no reason to think it would still be produced predominantly in the same regions) but no more so that deforestation for soya, meat, or bio fuel production.

“They endanger lives by financing terrorism - as occurred in the deadly Madrid bombings where drugs (hashish) were swapped for explosives.”

Odd to use an example of hashish to illustrate his point on cocaine but regardless, legal drug production, including legal cocaine production (which does go on you may be interested to learn) is not funding terrorism anywhere, and never has. Nor does the 50% of global poppy production which is entirely legally produced for the medical opiates market. The other 50% unfortunately…

“They condemn Colombia to a fate of FARC insurgency, urban violence and environmental degradation.”

Again – these problems are created directly by prohibition (and the illicit profit opportunities it creates) as overseen, enforced and evangelized by the UNODC.

Costa then goes on to describe in some detail why West Africa has become the new transit route for Europe-bound illicit cocaine, and all the problems this is now causing the region. Again it is not only an extraordinary indictment of the systematic failure of the UN drug control apparatus and the system of global prohibition he oversees, but worse, it is the direct result of that system.

There’s a terrible irony in speeches such as this, when these apocalyptic tales of the prohibition’s spectacular failure are delivered by those apparently oblivious to the fact that they are responsible for them. Costa talks of the specter of drug abuse in Africa as another ‘European curse on a continent already so dramatically damaged by centuries of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and racism.’ Prohibition should be added to the list. 'Orwellian' is an overused term perhaps, but appropriate here I suggest. The UNODC is an important entity and you want to engage with them on a meaningful level to discuss policy options. But they really don't make it easy with this sort of thing which makes them look increasingly like some sort of 'ministry of drug truth' straight out of 1984.

Following this Costa flows seamlessly into some peculiar and embarrassing pop-cultural analysis. Seemingly written by someone else, it is a media-friendly list of celebrities, divided into the good and bad depending on whether they have renounced drugs or not after they’re respective ‘my drugs hell’ revelations. We learn first that:

‘Nobody makes movies about blood coke.’

Er, yes they do. From Scarface, to Traffic, Maria full of grace, and Blow, through to the brand new American Gangster, there are loads of films about cocaine related misery and crime. But I digress. Next we learn that:

‘Worse than that: models and socialites who wouldn't dare to wear a tiger fur coat, show no qualms about flaunting their cocaine use in public. Look at Kate Moss who still receives lucrative contracts after she was photographed sniffing.’

Actually Moss, whilst a notorious fur wearer, has never flaunted her cocaine use in public. Clearly aware of her image she always denied using and was incredibly discreet, (never commenting on her use before or since) and was, if you cast your mind back, revealed by a secret-camera tabloid sting of her using in private.

Then, and perhaps most strangely of all, Costa quotes a new Britney Spears lyric: ‘Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! F*** it’ , which is apparently glamorising cocaine use. I wouldn’t normally use swear words in the blog, but if Costa is wheeling them out at the UN, I feel that gives me a bit of license. Now I’m happy to agree that entertainers glamorising drug use in their artistic output is pretty pathetic, especially when aimed at the youth market which it mostly is, and should be actively discouraged. But Britney is a strange example. Of the four activities Britney describes only one could be really be construed as relating to cocaine. Maybe the punctuation was wrong when Britney's lyric was reported and that she in fact said "Eat it! Lick it! Snort it? Fuck it." It was, in fact, an anti-cocaine message for her young fans telling them to "fuck" cocaine and diverting them to sweets and lollipops. I jest, but who knows. Not Costa I suspect.

It is perhaps the sort of weirdness we should expect when an older establishment figure (he is 67) is put in charge of a social policy arena largely concerned with an anti-establishment youth culture of which he has little comprehension. It all rather reminded me of watching the familiar spectacle of grannies trying to dance to hip-hop at weddings, just less funny.

And finally back to the beginning where Costa refers to cocaine use as a ‘curse’. We are used to drugs being described in biblical terms, it fits rather well with the crusading drug war metaphor with archaic terms such as ‘evil’, ‘scourge’ and ‘plague’ are regularly deployed. I'm not sure I have come across ‘curse’ before though. Wikipedia tells us that a ‘curse’ can ‘be said to result from a spell or prayer, imprecation or execration, or other imposition by magic or witchcraft, asking that a god, natural force, or spirit bring misfortune to someone’. I tend to think of things like Tutankhamen and the mummies tomb, rather than plant based stimulants, but there you go.

Wikipedia also describes a curse as ‘the effective action of some power, distinguished solely by the quality of adversity that it brings.’

Sounds a bit like prohibition to me.