Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Brown on cannabis - it gets worse

On Monday the blog considered the fact that Gordon Brown was blithely steamrollering over the drug strategy consultation process by making announcements about his intentions before bothering to hear the views of the public or experts in the drug field. Views requested by his own Government.

"we are about to make changes in the cannabis law"

Specifically, the issue of views on cannabis classification have been added to the consultation document, although apparently this came late in the document's drafting process in response to the born-again tabloid canna-panic and various opportunistic Tory pronouncements calling for a move from C back to B.

Now there is something wierd about all this even before Gordon enters the picture. Drug classification is a strictly technical matter that, at least in theory, considers a range of social and health harms associated with a given drug as a way of determining if it should be A, B or C. There are all sorts of things wrong with this system (as discussed in detail here) even if it worked properly (which it clearly doesn't as the Science and Technology committee concluded in some detail after a lengthy and in depth inquiry last year). However, the system of determining drug classifications as is remains very clearly the remit of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and its Technical Committees, as established under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. After years of criticism the ACMD has finally revealed its new drug harms 'matrix' by which it will in future be making these classification decisions, as published in the Lancet earlier this year (and discussed on this blog here).

Never before has their been a even a small public consultation on a specific drug classification change, its simply not a decision for the public (although anyone is, of course, free to make representations to the Committee and/or now attend meetings). It is unprecedented, and evidently has nothing to do with the technical drug harm classification evaluations undertaken by the eminently capable ACMD technical committee, and everything to do with party politics. The ACMD has now done two such detailed cannabis evaluations (2001, 2004), both supporting the committee's long held view that Class C is the appropriate place for cannabis to be in terms of relative harms.

Now just to remind those who may have been misled by some shoddy reporting or opposition party /Daily Mail wittering:
  • Class C does not mean 'legal' (you can still get 2 years in prison for possession or a whopping 14 years - the same as for class B - for supply)
  • it does not mean 'decriminalised' (only that there is presumption against arrest for possession in most circumstances - which there was, de-facto, under class B anyway)
  • It certainly does not that it is 'safe' (read the ACMD reports detailing potential risks and harms).
Class C means only that it is relatively less risky than drugs in class B, like amphetamines, or class A like heroin and cocaine, as assessed by the ACMD and their fancy harm matrix thingy. It's a daft and grotesquely malfunctioning system but at least its conceptually easy to grasp for anyone with half a brain. To be fair to the Government they have been very clear about this in all their public pronouncements.

The late-doors cut and pasting of cannabis re-classification (or re-re-classification) into the consultation process, and the apparent negation/bypassing of long established structures for making classification decisions that this represents, is transparently political positioning on the part of the Government and the Home Office. Rational policy making, and intelligent debate based on evidence has once again been sidelined by populist drug war politics.....

The media are in one of their cyclical reefer madness frenzies (as documented on this blog here, here, here etc.) and the Tories, the Government's only realistic political threat at this point, are making hay wheeling out all the old school drug war moralising about sending out messages, accusing the Government of being 'soft on drugs', and vocally calling for reclassification back to B (notably without providing a shred of evidence or even argument as to how this would be a good idea or bring about any useful outcomes).

So, as discussed previously, the Government have once again kicked the issue off the political agenda as the next election looms by referring the issue back the ACMD for the third time in 6 years. Observant drug policy watchers will note that this is EXACTLY what happened before the last election: A few reports about cannabis related harms emerged (as they have done on a regular basis for all drugs for the last 100 years or so, because scientists sensibly like to research understand these things), then they were massively hyped and misrepresented by lazy journalists and opposition drug warriors. The then Home Secretary Charles Clarke didn't want it to become a big election issue so lobbed it back to the ACMD. Just to reinforce the sense of de ja vu, Clarke (like Brown) did this very publicly, with the then unprecedented release of his letter to the ACMD along with a press release (the whole saga is detailed and discussed here in Transform's submission to the second ACMD cannabis inquiry in as many years).

Needless to say many in the ACMD were, to put it politely, less than delighted to be having to trawl through the same stuff for the second time in two years, and unsurprisingly they came to the exact same conclusion they had before, and doubtless they will again.

So to Gordon Brown, who in his first breath as PM announces that (with nothing to do with media canna-panic scaremongering, the Tories, or the imminent election HONEST) he is going to refer cannabis back to the ACMD yet again. But this around time he is so concerned, and keen to publicly demonstrate this concern, that re-reclassification is also inappropriately squonked into the public drug strategy consultation document. BUT, unlike the previous (but one) Home Secretary, Gordon has gazumped both the ACMD and the consultation process long before either have reported. He has publicly claimed:
'I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about'.
Worse than this, we now learn (sorry for missing it at the time) that on September the 6th he said:
"We have made changes, for example, in casinos, we are about to make changes in the cannabis law, we are about to make a review happen in 24 hour drinking, all these things, it’s by listening to people, by hearing what they say”.
(Gordon Brown with Ed Balls at the 1st Citizens’ Jury in Bristol being interviewed by BBC Political editor Nick Robinson - unfortunately no longer available on the BBC media player)

So that's pretty unambiguous then: The decision is already made. The contempt he has shown for the consultation process and the ACMD review process makes something of a mockery of the bit about 'listening to people' and 'hearing what they have to say'. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens when the ACMD repeat their support for a Class C classification against Brown's wishes. Last time around there were threats of mass resignations if the committee was over-ruled for transparently political reasons - something that has never before happened. Brown has potentially made some considerable trouble for himself - and we must hope the the Committee can hold its nerve.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that cannabis is still just a political football for the major parties to kick between each other, but there is something profoundly depressing about the way this saga has has unfolded and exposed the shamelessness of the political process and the shallowness of the ever more ludicrous claims that drug policy is evidence based. Moreover the cannabis classification issue continues to dominate political discourse on drugs in a way that it is almost entirely negative.

It prevents discussion of more substantive problems relating to problematic use of illegal heroin and crack (and their international consequences), it wrongly conflates a scientific debate about drug harms with the debate about prohibition and legalisation/regulation, and it suggests that classification of a drug has some meaningful impact on the level of the drugs use and related social and health harms, which it demonstrably does not.


chrisbx515 said...

I am going to rant! It is quite obvious the government is only going to make drug laws more punitive and treatment more cohesive. It really has never been in any doubt and whilst blogging, lobbying, pointing out the futility in non evidence based drug laws and debating prohibition nothing - absolutely nothing will happen to change the current status que. 10 years drug strategy is up and the prohibitionist drug warriors are having such an easy root to victory it is depressing. We all make our contribution in trying to effect changes in policy but unless MPs like Brian Iddon and others like him are as vocal as the Jack Straws and Blinkered Browns the drugs wars can never be won. Lets face a truth – millions of people around the world took to the streets and protested at the war in Iraq , how many people were on the streets of this country saying no to war? The will of the people is not a concern, keeping people in there place is. Most politicians are only interested in their own survival and power. They are as corrupt as the system that they preside over and the same old rubbish arguments will carry on as long as everyone is making their cash from the billions of tax free pounds made from the unregulated drug markets

Steve Rolles said...

intellectually the debate is over - there is no empirical or rational case for persuing a policy that has demonstrably failed on all meaningful indicators for 2 generations. It is all about politics now. I think it is a matter of demonstrating that the political costs of maintaining the status quo (in terms of the prisons CJS crisis, street crime, HIV, Hep C etc) are great er the the temporary problems that would be caused by progressive phased reforms in the direction of legal regulation and a public health rather than prohibitionist paradigm.

I dont think this is impossible - it certainly happened with harm reduction and HIV - but it is certainly unlikely with and electionlooming at which point all drug policy announcements should come with a health warning. Hopefully there will be a window of opportunity after the election where more rational evidence based policy thinking can return. in the mean time - buckle up for a tough talking drug war showdown between the Govt and opposition as the vie for the floating voters in the daily mail camp.

daksya said...

I'm surprised that you express surprise at the nature of drug policy-making. In an email exchange with Danny quite a while back, I mentioned how unrealistic it was to expect cannabis regulation as early as 2007, as stated in your earlier document. Danny's counter was basically an appeal to optimism. Even the prediction of latest by 2012 seems out of reach now.

Steve Rolles said...

Perhaps - but there has been a widespread international movement towards de-prioritising, depenalising or decrinialising personal possession of cannabis (and other drugs) as has happened in much of western Europe, S.America, the Russian federation, and some states of canada, the US, and Australia. In that context, especially with the reclassification (a move in that direction)I think it seemed reasonable to speculate in 2004-5.

these things seem to move in cycles (in the UK coninciding with elections, in the US with shifts from democrat to republican), and can also move very quickly. The entire classification system is creaking under its own internal and itellectual contradictions and empirical inadequacies. the whole house of cards could come tumbling down regards the hierachy of punishments for personal use undedr an effective legal or political challenge as happened in Italy. Despite the dark cloud at present - which i think relates mostly to party positioning and the elction - I remain optomisitic, of progress in the short to medium term, not least because of the crisis in the prisons and wider criminal justice system, groaning under the strain of pointless drug convictions.

daksya said...

Cycles are worse in that they portend a Sisyphean task. Regulation, the endgame for Transform, seems to be outside the loop. I'm not trying to be pessimistic but I think the opportunity for ripe reception of reform advocacy is atleast a few years away.

On a tangential note, do you have a link/scan of a famous 1968 ad in the UK Times (I think) calling for pot legalization, and endorsed by some prominent folks, like Francis Crick?

Steve Rolles said...

we are realistic about the timescale. A number of our predictions have come to pass - others not. Sadly we are not omnicient (yet). The timeline in options for control and the history of prohbition is looking at 2020 as a realistic date for coutries to be able to extract themselves from the rigid prohibitions of the UN conventions and domestically determine their own drug policies. If you consider 10-15 years before many of the major social polciy shifts last century, votes for women, the civil rights movement, gay rights etc - people were probably feeling as pessimistic as you do now. Failed and unjust policy can't be sustained forever and there is a momentum building in the media, academia, the NGO and political sectors to expose and challenge it, as well as debate alternatives.

I dont have link to the cannabis ad but im sure a bit of net sleuthing would turn it up.

Anonymous said...

I like the optimism Steve R but the gig is up and the UN are ratifying the treaty. The 2006 UN WDR notes cannabis is the one drug that has undermined Single Narcotics Convention (note "single"). Highly coincidental then that the UN has spent so much time on influencing and distorting cannabis policy on a country to country basis. The states in Australia that you mention have now all overturned their prior liberal laws or, are in the process of doing so. South Australia, where you could grow up to 10 plants in 2000, is now legislating to have cannabis viewed legally at the same level as heroin. Amazing how things can change so quickly.
Western Australia, which introduced liberal laws in 2003, has announced that they are rolling back their laws this year.
The UK WILL no doubt reschedule to a Class B. One must not confuse rational drug policy with politics.

What is even worse is we will likely soon see Holland ban grow shops and seed suppliers. Certainly, all the indicators are there and the political environment is ripe for such broad sweeping changes in what was once the most cannabis liberal country in the world.
What is certain is that when the demonisation of cannabis has reached its conclusion organisations such as Transform will have suffered a major setback.

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