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


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

I'm certainly not bored by the cannabis reclassification farce, and I don't imagine I'm unique.

Think about how many people use the stuff, or their children do. I'd like to suggest that you might rethink your attitude to what is going on.

Like you, I have been wondering how the ACMD are going to respond if their recommendations are ignored or over-ruled. You suggest that this might cause serious problems for the government. Wouldn't that provide a great opportunity for Transform? Might it not open the way for formal action against the government for maladministration? After all taxpayers pay for the ACMD.

Do you think Brown has thought this through or not? It would seem astonishing if he hasn't. Has he somehow fixed the ACMD in advance?

I wrote to the ACMD Chairman about this weeks ago, but haven't had the courtesy of a reply or even an acknowledgement. You are better placed than me to get some answers from him and other members of the council. Maybe you should be working now on tactics and strategy for the next few months, in preparation for the government's actions in the new year.

Take cannabis more seriously. It is the most widely used illegal substance, and the government are currently trying to make it more illegal. If we could succeed in getting it dealt with in a rational and just way, that could lead on to a more rational and just treatment of all drugs.

Best wishes, and sincere thanks for all the fine work you do.

Bernie R

Steve Rolles said...

Hi Bernie

I don't really know what Brown is think ing although I'm quite sure it is more to do with moral posturing and political positioning regards the Tories than it is about about effective policy making.

The ACMD, to their credit, when they actually address a given question are thorough and creditably independent. They are certainly not shy of critiquing populist government activity or challenging sacred cows as recent reports have shown. So i dont think they will have been 'nobbled' by government - there are far to many independent experts in their ranks. There would be mass resignations before that happened. I do have problems with some of the questions the ACMD dont address (like the efficacy of the classification system and prohibition more generally) but I dont think their advice on classification will be compromised. I suspect ACPO, for various reasons, are more susceptible to government pressure.

For the Government to over-rule the ACMD would take us into unchartered territory. Judicial reviews would be a possibility, resignations a certainty - and such blatant politicisation of nominally scientific and independent decision making would be expose the government to massive criticism and embarrassment. It is this exposure that I think makes it unlikely. I think Brown and team probably know the ACMD decision will likely be to maintain C. They can then say they have done the right thing in terms of responding to concerns, make some announcements about a big health education campaign (probably a good plan anyway) and leave things untouched whilst avoiding the worst of the political fall out.

My boredom with this issue doesn't reflect a lack of seriousness. Its more that i'm incredulous it is still such a massive issue, when there are far bigger crises in drug policy here and around the world that receive a fraction of the attention.

Anonymous said...

I suppose cannabis is focused on because its position is most clearly anomalous. It is among the less harmful substances, disproportionately punished, widely used.

It most clearly brings out the hypocrisies, the dishonesties, the unspoken assumptions.

If you want to break up a structure, going for a big weak element is often an effective approach.

Anonymous said...

Cannabis is a plant. How can a plant be against the law in the first place? It is ridiculous.

Am i the only one who has notices the government makes no profit from cannabis. A drug which has killed...NOBODY. The government does however make a nice profit from alcohol, the NUMBER 1 killing drug.
But i suppose that's OK because it is legal and is therefore "socially acceptable".

Cannabis is a mind altering drug. This can be a good thing, and fun.
But the mind which is being altered must be developed enough to understand. Which is why it should not be used by young people.

Legalize cannabis and give it an acceptable age limit. Reclassify it to B would be a very dumb move.

Also there are people out there who do drugs because they want to / don't want to and that is a personal choice. Then there are people who do drugs BECAUSE they're illegal.

Whenever a cannabis farm is discovered or the PLANT itself is talked about there is nobody saying what harm it has done. They simply say things like "cannabis is an illegal drug and is widely used, we need to show people this kind of action is unacceptable" So everyone PLEASE remind me never to buy a house with a garden.

Unknown said...

I agree with Mr anonymous above ^^^ you know what, if they made it legal, and even sold it like normal smokes over the counter then the government would save millions on policing the crap.

Anyway, what harm does it do if everyone drives their cars around at 1kmph, its FAR better than people drink driving and getting even more aggressive in public, which imho is more of a problem.

If the government wants tax fine, im sure that if it was a boxed product most people would just buy it over the counter anyway and they would still get their tax.

Look at it this way, the US spend billions of $$$ each year just stopping drugs from mexico, if they just made it all legal people wouldn't get their drugs from dealers but from nice boxed packages from the local chemist. On top of that, half the people wouldn't do it because its now legal, the kids would see how much it f**ks people up and not do it, and all the drug lords would go out of business.. its really a win-win situation.

Back to reality, who are we to comment im sure that the government is more than happy to keep throwing money (our money) into a bottomless pit trying to solve a problem that will never be solved their way.