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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BMJ attempts to tackle the drug law reform debate

The British Medical Journal, which along with the Lancet, is arguably the UK's most prestige medical journal, has this week run two articles in its regular Head to Head section, titled 'Should drugs be decriminalised' (with a cover teaser titled: 'Should street drugs be decriminalised'). The two articles, printed on facing pages, were produced by Dr Kailash Chand, a General practitioner arguing the 'Yes' position, and Joseph A Califano from the The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University arguing the 'No' position. Chand approached Transform for some help with some of his references, which we provided, and we also offered some editorial suggestions on his draft, some of which he heeded, some not. Transform do get a mention which was very welcome and we are also referenced several times by Chand. I'm not a fan of these polarised debate pieces if the truth be told (see this extract from Transform's 'Tools for the debate' publication for more discussion of this) but seeing the debate in such a prominent journal isn't to be sniffed at.

So how did they do?

Chand's 'yes' piece is somewhere between OK and good, but lacks a certain sophistication I would have liked to see in a BMJ article, and I can't help thinking it would have been better if Transform had been approached for it in the first place. That said, compared to the stinker that Califano has produced Chand's piece starts to look like a Pulitzer prize winner.

Regular blog readers may recall that Califano produced an article for the Financial Times in August defending the prohibitionist position (in response to two pro-law reform articles in the FT by Willem Buiter and Mathew Engel). His article was given a pretty solid kicking in the FT 'Economist's forum', an invite only forum for the 'world's top economists' that I somehow managed to blag my way into and join in the fun tearing his rather ridiculous rant to shreds.
(see blogs: FT legalisation debate hots up, and Prohibitionist rant trashed in FT economists forum).

He has apparently learnt from this experience, moderating his rhetoric somewhat and fine tuning some of his more dubious facts, but is still a long way from redeeming his article that remains riven with factual inaccuracies and sleight of hand, intellectual flaws and conceptual weakness. If he is really the best that the prohibitionist establishment can put forward to defend their position then the debate may be nearer to its end game than any of us had imagined. Truly, it is rather pathetic to behold.

I have submitted a fairly detailed rebuttal to Califano on the BMJ rapid response page which they have been good enough to publish, and there are several other interesting responses including one from Ian Oliver that is so bizarre it needs to be read to be believed. There are also responses to Chand's piece, to which I have also contributed, more in response to to his doubters (some of whom see fit to make some unpleasant insinuations about Transform) than to his original piece.

It's a massive issue for the British medical establishment and I would have hoped for something a little more sophisticated from the BMJ than yet another rather tired and unproductive prohibitionist/legaliser clash, but, especially with the follow on debate online, its all for the good I suspect. At least they are talking about it.

And the rapid response section is still open to submissions if you have something fresh to chip in.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I am now a crime statistic

Last week, on the way home from work I was mugged at knife point by two teenagers, on a dark street corner in Easton, Bristol. And yes, they were wearing hoodies and baseball caps. I did the sensible thing and just handed over what they wanted, my mobile and bag, which unfortunately contained my laptop and digital camera. It will all get covered by insurance but I lost quite a lot of work and and about 1500 irreplaceable photos of my baby daughter's last six months which I'm quite upset about.

So, now I'm a crime statistic have I gained some new insight into the subject I spend so much time writing about? Not really. I suppose I can now maybe appreciate how unpleasant being a crime victim makes you feel, how powerless and angry, and I suspect my confidence about walking around at night has taken a knock (20 years living and working in Bristol and this was my first mugging).

My overiding response has been that it was just really depressing. I don't think it was drug motivated, although it could have been. The perpetrators were young, the older perhaps 18, but the younger couldn't have been much over 13 or 14. The idea that they would threaten a stranger with a knife, risking everything for what I can only assume would have netted them a few pounds I just find quite dark.

Oh well, life goes on.

Finally, one thing I realised later was that along with the laptop they also snatched something of real value: several copies of 'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate', although I'm not sure how much they would get for that down at Cash Converters. Who knows, maybe they read it instead.

I am also just recovering from a hideous week long bout of flu/plague/typhus so expect normal Transform blog service to resume after the recent quiet patch.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Lords savage drug strategy consultation, and debate prohibition

Monday's Lords drugs debate provided some overdue parliamentary critique of the Government's woefully inadequate drug strategy consultation, as well as providing a forum for an all too rare debate on prohibition and legalisation/regulation. Apologies for the length of this post, but there was a lot of good material to cover.

The debate begins with Lord Bassam, representing the Government, reading a pre-prepared speech of rose tinted Home Office propaganda, heavy on the familiar mix of meaningless process success and statistical sleight of hand, amongst which we learn that:

"extraordinary progress has been made in delivering this strategy, with challenging targets often exceeded or achieved early."

"we have seen a sustained reduction in drug use and the harms caused by illegal drugs"
Transform have challenged many of these claims, here on the blog (see for example: Drugs minister gives a masterclass in drug policy spin and evasion and how to spin drug prevalence data: a beginners guide) and in recent briefings prepared for the consultation (Transform's Submission to ‘Drugs: Our Community, Your Say' (Drug Strategy Consultation Paper 2007 and Drug policy 1997-2007 - The evidence un-spun)

Evidently we are not alone in this critique, as Lord Mancroft opens the response to the Home Office minister. Discussing the consultation document:
"it contains no concrete strategic proposals of any sort, and merely invites readers to agree with the details of the plan. There is a bit of fine tuning here and there, but, to tell the honest truth, there is nothing of any substance. Indeed, the foreword by the Home Secretary could quite easily be interchanged with the forewords written by the previous three authors of drug strategies—David Blunkett, Jack Straw and Michael Howard. I looked them up and read them; they are almost the same."
Lord Mancroft then continues, pointing out that (a 'truly appalling figure') that the percentage of people leaving treatment drug free has fallen, and that drug deaths have increased (contrary to government claims)

"It is unarguable, however, that by any measure—overall drug use, drug-related crime, drug-related deaths, level of drug seizures, cocaine use, or whatever—the UK has the worst drug problem in Europe by a long measure and the second worst in the world after the United States. If the Home Secretary, as she writes in her foreword,

"draws confidence from this progress",

she and I have very different ideas of what constitutes progress."

Moving on to a broader critique of the failings of prohibition, Mancroft poses a question to the Minister:
"I would like the Minister to explain, when he comes to answer this debate, why the Government think that it is better for my kids or anyone else's kids to buy drugs at an artificially inflated price—probably paid for by crime—of unknown strength and purity, which increases the risk of overdose, from criminals who are often armed and dangerous. The Minister could also tell us why the Government think that it is a good idea to follow a policy that benefits only criminals, international drug dealers and the Taliban."
concluding thus;

"Yes, we can and should improve the quality and quantity of treatment and education. Yes, we must develop evidence-based prevention programmes. Yes, we can criticise the current system as too wasteful and too bureaucratic, with too many targets and too much central control. We can legitimately level those criticisms at all areas of government. But these issues are on the periphery. There is only one point to make. This drug strategy has not worked and cannot work. That is not because any Home Secretary is weaker or tougher than the last; it is because you cannot address health and social problems using the criminal justice system as your main weapon. We cannot devote the necessary resources to reducing the demand for drugs when we are pouring money into the criminal justice system at home and a mad foreign policy abroad, simply to deal with the unintended consequences of a policy designed 30 years ago to prevent drug use by restricting supply.

In other words, government policy has created a free-for-all in drugs, where only criminals benefit and the whole community—young people in particular—suffers as a consequence. Nothing in the current proposals leads one to conclude that this Government either understand this or have the courage to address it."

The next speech comes from the cross bencher Lord Cobbold. He picks up on similar themes to Lord Mancroft observing that:

"The [consultation] paper deals with all the issues on which there is general agreement: the importance of harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation, education for the young on the dangers to health and the need to reduce re-offending. However, the problem is not in the areas where there is agreement but in those where there is disagreement, and the most important of these is the issue of prohibition. The consultation paper contains no rehearsal of the arguments for and against the present policy of prohibition; indeed, it seems to be a taboo subject.

Prohibition was expected to rid the world of drugs by now. It has manifestly failed, and the Government cannot possibly argue that it has been a success."
Then, following a more detailed consideration of the Government's weak and infrequent arguments against moves towards either decriminalisation or legalisation and regulation he notes:
"In his speech to the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago, Gordon Brown said that he would be sending out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised. Note the word "never". This statement is distinctly depressing and amounts to an open-ended licence to the criminal gangs that control the trade. We can only express the hope that Gordon Brown can be persuaded to change his mind and, as part of the 10-year policy review, at the very least support an open, independent, international inquiry into the pros and cons of legalisation and regulation versus prohibition."
Both Lords Mancroft and Cobbold have been long time supporters of Transform's position, and indeed attended the parliamentary launch of Transform's new publication 'After the War on Drugs, Options for Control' , very much designed for precisely this sort of intellectual engagement. The next speaker was Lords Richard, with whom we have not had previous contact, but who resumed the mauling of the consultation;
"I am disappointed with the Government's consultation paper. It asked a large number of questions, all on the periphery of the argument, and failed to ask the really important ones"
He gives a similarly blunt assessment of Lord Bassams rather absurdly rosy view of the past ten years:
"On any view of the matter, the Government's drugs policy has transparently failed"
he continues:

"I recommend that noble Lords look at the document issued by the North Wales Police Authority in response to the consultation paper we are considering today. Its view is clear, and interesting not only for what it says but whence it comes: that that police authority should urge the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its replacement with a "misuse of substances" Act based on a new "hierarchy of harm" that would also include alcohol and nicotine. It also advocates that the police authority should seek affiliation with the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which is campaigning for the repeal of prohibition and its replacement with a legal system of regulation and control. These are bold recommendations, coming from a police authority.

I have not come to any conclusions easily or quickly. If the drug strategy were working, then it would clearly be much better that it should be allowed to work successfully. But it is not working successfully, and we must now accept the reality of its failure and start asking ourselves what alternative policies we could substitute which might be more successful. I am not in a firm position to suggest many such policies. My inclination now is much the same as that expressed recently by the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, in somewhat bold phrases:

"If people are addicted to heroin, give them heroin. I'm not suggesting you sell it at newsagents, but if you were to offer it to addicts in a medically controlled setting, there would be no criminal market".

That argument seems to me to be unanswerable."

Nice to see Transform getting a nod. The baton is then picked up by Lord Ramsbotham former chief inspector of prisons, who is good enough to quote extensively from Transform's consultation critique (Describing Transform as 'not just a back-street organisation' - thanks for that David -'it is extremely serious, involving a number of people coming together to discuss the problem, which they have done for many years' ). On the consultation he concludes:

Finally, my conclusion that prohibition has been excluded is derived from the fact that it is not mentioned in this consultation document at all; nor is legalisation or prescription. It assumes that this policy, which has been pursued and has failed, is to go on. I therefore do not believe that this consultation document is a worthy one on which a future strategy should be based. Too much of the evidence is suspect. Most particularly, I do not believe that all the things that have been proven to work, even though they cost money, have been included. I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lord Cobbold that a commission, rather than a consultation document that does not include proposals, is needed to go into not only the aspects which the Government choose to include but all the aspects that are known to people, including the problems of the prohibition, legalisation and prescription of drugs. The latter must have a role because, as sure as anything, what is happening now is failing, and we as a country cannot afford to go on allowing that to happen."
The debate then shifts more towards treatment provision with some useful contributions from Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe and Lord Adebewole (also director of leading treatment agency, Turning Point). Lord Jay then returns to the issue of drug supply considering the Senlis proposal to license Afghan opium production for medical use (and idea that Transform have actually been critical of), before concluding:
"None of this is easy but, to say the least, it is not obvious that the present policy of prohibition is working or will work in the future. Surely the Government now need to look, perhaps via a commission, as some other noble Lords this evening have proposed, with international partners and with a genuinely open mind at alternative approaches to supply, in particular in relation to the opium production in Afghanistan."
Another surprise was when Lord Errol enters the ring, opening with:

"I want to start with the old saying that laws seldom prevent what they seek to forbid. The real problem is the politicians' public posturing to try to get headlines that they are being tough on things, without thinking of the effect. That means that changes can be very tricky, because I can imagine the newspaper headlines screaming out the moment someone wants to take one of the more sensible approaches that have been recommended by several noble Lords, including the noble LordsBlogger: Transform Drug Policy Foundation: Media Blog - Create Post, Lord Cobbold and Lord Mancroft."
later noting:
"I am very much in favour of decriminalisation."
After a couple of other less interesting speeches, mostly repeating ground already covered, Lord Bassam returns to the stage for the unenviable task of defending the Government position. Inevitably he falls back on repeating his initial assertions, flim-flam and meaningless platitudes. On the prohibition debate he responds, I suggest rather hollowly:
"I think that most legalisers would acknowledge—they appeared in the confines of this debate—the harmfulness of many currently controlled drugs. Some called for an evidence-based approach to the law relating to the prohibition of such drugs in the hope of a move towards a regulated supply of those drugs. Although we understand that point of view, we as a Government have to make a judgment on what is best for public health. Central to our thinking is our responsibility for protecting the health and welfare of the British public. We have taken the position that prohibition is the best means to do that and we have been unequivocal in our stance of having no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs for recreational purposes."
At this point he in interrupted and gives way to Lord Mancroft:
"The noble Lord has said, "This is the Government's position and the Government are not going to budge from it". Fine, I understand that, but can he answer a very simple question: why?"
Among the reasons given in reponse are:
"we believe that our policy is not only right but evidence-based and that we are making progress"

"Legalisation is not open to us in view of our international obligations."

"There is no effective cost-benefit analysis of such a policy, if one could be made."

and more specifically:

"The impact of legalisation on levels of consumption globally is key to any meaningful cost-benefit analysis. Without accurate figures for this, it is impossible to ascribe meaningful figures to the likely public and individual health cost or properly to assess the impact on productivity and industry or on the level of industrial or traffic accidents. Such fundamental difficulties call into question whether the task is an appropriate use of research funding. The impact of drugs on health is the only legitimate reason for control, and there is overwhelming evidence that the widespread use of these drugs worldwide results in enormous social harm and economic costs associated with that use. That includes the many thousands of drug-related deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C through injecting drugs, and the mental health disorders associated with the use of drugs."
Now this is starting to get interesting. Whilst self evidently true that you can't measure the outcomes of policies that have not been tried there is a great deal of speculative but informed cost benefit analysis that can be done by comparing outcomes from different responses to illegal drugs in different countries, in different states within countries, as well as comparing outcomes from illegal and legal drugs (some drugs are illegal in some places and not others for example). We have over a hundred years of lessons learnt from our experience of legally regulating 1000s of drugs - its not quite the leap in the dark the Government like to portray it as.

It is also worth noting that the suggestion that we can't move towards any form of legalisation because its illegal under UN law is bizarre and quite wrong (as discussed in chapter 5 of 'Tools for the debate' see p.55). If a law is unjust and ineffective the Government should challenge it in whatever arena required; UN conventions can be withdrawn from, recast and redrafted if and when the political will exists. Notably, decriminalisation of personal use, as has de-facto happened in numerous countries across Europe and beyond , is quite possible within the UN conventions.

The point on drug harms and drug deaths is also disingenuous. Prohibition demonstrably fails to reduce drug harms, rather it actively increases them, with blood borne diseases amongst injectors being the most visible and tragic manifestation of this. No one has ever contracted HIV from injecting of legal pharmaceutical drugs with clean needles in a clinical supervised setting. I repeat - not one. Bloood borne diseases amongst injectors are entirely the result of prohibition, a policy that, moreover, arguably helped fuel the explosion in injecting drug culture in the first instance.

Bassam makes the familair argument (again see 'Tools for the debate' chapter 5, page 47) that use of drugs, and therefore harm, would rise under a legal regime - citing tobacco as an example. Its not a good example as far as it goes - whilst use of almost all illegal drugs has risen consistently (with some small fluctuations) in the modern prohinitionist era since the 60s, smoking has fallen equally consistently over the same time period. the fall in smoking rates has been in response to effective public health education and sensible regulatory controls not a heavy handed enforcement approach.

Interestingly, Bassam make some concessions:
"We acknowledge that there are apparent benefits to an alternative system to prohibition, such as taxation, quality control and a reduction on the pressures on the criminal justice system"
before adding:
"but in our view these are outweighed by the costs to the physical and mental health of individuals and society that result from dependence on, and addiction to, what are mind-altering drugs."
finally he says something that perhaps we can all agree on:
"Many of the problems related to drugs are underpinned by poverty, unemployment and the erosion of family and community life. They are not created simply by prohibition."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Transform Parliamentary reception to launch new publication

Last Wednesday Transform held our annual reception and officially launched our latest publication ‘After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate’ in the House of Commons with the support of Paul Flynn MP. There was a good turn out, with a distinguished audience including the peers Lord Turner, Lord Cobbold, and Lord Mancroft, the MPs Brian Iddon, Lynne Jones, Evan Harris, and Edward Garnier (from the Tory front bench) who made a brief appearance. Also present were with Henry Hoare, Transform Patron and senior partner at Hoare’s Bank, representatives from the National Audit Office, the Drummer from Blur and aspiring politician, Dave Rowntree, as well as a selection of key journalists, civil servants, academics, NGO representatives and Transform funders, colleagues and friends.

Paul Flynn opens proceedings at Transform's reception in the Attlee Room,
in the new Portcullis House extension to the Houses of Parliament

Paul Flynn introduced the evening and spoke, amongst other things, on the importance of shifting the Government’s resources away from the criminal justice system and into public health and treatment, and his experiences as the point man parliamentary drug law reform in the Commons. This was followed by a presentation from Steve Rolles, Transform Information officer and author of the new Transform Publication 'Tools for the Debate’ introducing the broad themes and highlighting a selection of key passages to illustrate how the book can be used to engage in and take forward the debate on drug law reform. The presentations were rounded off by Danny Kushlick, Transform Director, with a review of some of Transform’s key recent achievements to date, and plans for the future.

The evening then turned into a lively question and answer session, which included discussions on how to deal with critics, and Transform's vision for the future: what a controlled and regulated market might look like. The evening concluded with an opportunity for some networking over a glass of splendid House of Commons wine.

An MP3 of the presentations and question and answer session is available: please email