Thursday, January 31, 2008

Barack Obama supports cannabis decriminlisation

Some interesting drug policy debates are suddenly opening up in the US presidential race, as detailed in an article in today's Washington Times, with Barack Obama confirming his position in support of decriminalising cannabis possession:

Last fall during a nationally televised presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama hesitantly raised his hand and joined with most of his Democratic rivals to declare that he opposed decriminalizing marijuana.
But as a candidate for the U.S. Senate four years ago, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession, according to a videotape of a little noticed debate that was obtained by The Washington Times.

"I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws," Mr. Obama told an audience during a debate at Northwestern University in 2004. "But I'm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana."

Asked about the two different answers, Mr. Obama's presidential campaign said he in fact has "always" supported decriminalizing marijuana as he answered in 2004, meaning the candidate mistakenly raised his hand during the presidential debate last fall.

That position leaves Mr. Obama as the lone presidential candidate among the four leading challengers in either party who supports eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana. Mr. Obama's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, opposes decriminalization, Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.

Obama: Decriminalize pot. Jan Heberkorn Jan 31,2008
Obama's clarification on this issue throws down a gauntlet for Democratic candidate rival Hilary Clinton. If she attacks him for being 'soft on drugs' or for flip-flopping, Obama could recite to her Bill Clinton's valedictory interview with Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone's Dec. 28-Jan. 4, 2001 issue) when he also advocated decriminalisation and criticised mandatory minimums.

Rolling Stone: Do you think that people should go to jail for possessing, using or even selling small amounts of marijuana? Is that appropriate?

Clinton: I think, first of all -

Rolling Stone: We're not publishing this until after the election.

Clinton: I understand that. I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be.

Interestingly this particular Rolling Stone interview was conducted in Oct. 6, 2000 when Clinton was still in office and could, in theory, have acted on his convictions, but it was not published until his final days in office. If challenged by Hilary, Obama could potentially contrast his courageous and principled stand today with Clinton's cowardly, closeted beliefs as President, portraying the issue as Clintonian weaseling of the past vs. Obama's new way of doing politics for the future. Since the two Clintons are effectively running as a tag team against him, it seems fair to bring up Bill Clinton's legacy, and thus if Hillary attacks Obama, she would also be attacking her husband. Could get feisty.

In another recent sign of shifting political sands across the pond the issue of Obama's former drug use, which he had openly described in published writing, became a political issue but not in the way that might be expected. It was raised by one of Hilary Clinton's aides, apparently seeking to make political capital, only for the attack to backfire and result in the aide's resignation, as reported on CNN:
One of Sen. Hillary Clinton's top advisers is stepping down after saying Sen. Barack Obama's admission of past drug use would hurt his chances in a general election matchup.

"I would like to reiterate that I deeply regret my comments yesterday and say again that they were in no way authorized by Sen. Clinton or the Clinton campaign," Bill Shaheen, co-chairman of the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire, said in a statement announcing his decision.

Earlier Thursday, Clinton personally apologized to rival Obama for Shaheen's remarks.

Obama accepted her apology, according to David Axelrod, the top political strategist for the Obama campaign....

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight ... and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," Shaheen [had] said. "It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."
Contrast this contrition and political positioning with the current policy debate in the UK, where the clashes between key political players are all about who is keenest to actually increase prison sentences for cannabis possession. Yes mass-criminalisation of young people has become the latest currency in the UK's party-political 'tough on crime' bidding war. Even in the US (the spiritual home of precisely the kind of old-school drug war rhetoric and posturing that characterises much of the current UK discourse) the debate, and legislation, appears to be making some progress (cannabis is already effectively decriminalised - now a finable offence only - in a number of states, and mandatory minimums are being reduced and/or abolished).

When we are actually lagging behind the US in drug law reform debate you really have to wonder where our leaders are trying to lead us.

UPDATE July 2008: Obama has obviously now won the democrat nomination, so the Clinton issues are now behind us, to be replaced with more familiar Republican /Democrat policy tensions that will, if history is any guide, pull Obama to the political right. However in a recent Rolling Stone interview Obama hints that he is open to a paradigm shift in drug policy away from some of the extreme Drug War responses and refocusing on public health.

Smoking stuff bad for lungs shock

When the endlessly tedious cannabis classification debate makes one of its biannual return visits to the political landscape the media can't seem to help themselves but scout around for 'cannabis bad for you' stories. This is not to say cannabis isn't bad for you, obviously it can be, as can all drugs, but it does tend to create the impression of a flood of new research proving just how awful cannabis is (when actually it's just a flood of media coverage), just at the moment when the Government are supposed to be reviewing just how awful cannabis is and making policy decisions accordingly. Given the Government's predilection for knee jerk responses to media panics, this isn't an especially useful phenomenon for fans of rational evidence-based policy.

With the UK in the throws of the latest cyclical bout of reefer madness, lazy journalists have been busily typing 'cannabis' into their pubmed search engines and seeing what turns up that can possibly be turned into a 'cannabis really bad for you' headline. These usually take the form of either cannabis drives you mad, or cannabis is 5 time more carcinogenic than tobacco, with more recent variations about the 'new' super-potent 'skunk cannabis' that is *insert number between 10 and 50* times more potent than the old stuff from the 60s. There's various discussions about this elsewhere on the blog (search for 'cannabis' in the little box at the top of the page)

The BBC have jumped on the bandwagon with a report on their health website today titled 'warning over cannabis lung harm' highlighting two new studies that, unsuprsingly perhaps, link smoking cannabis with lung harm. As it goes the report is better than many, not least because they were good enough to include a quote from me attempting to put some of the more shock-horror conclusions into context. The piece is also distinguished by featuring the worlds worst ever cannabis picture, surely staged with some Wood Lane grass cuttings and an old bird's nest?

a birds nest, yesterday

More seriously, I was pleased to successfully slip in the issue of smoking harm reduction. Its something that almost never gets mentioned in the cannabis lung damage discussions; of course smoking cannabis is bad for your lungs, so don't smoke it. If you are going to consume cannabis you can dramatically reduce lung damage using a vaporiser or eliminate the risk entirely by eating it in a some form of cooked preparation.

I can count the number of times this obvious bit of harm reduction advice has featured in a 'cannabis smoking bad for lungs shock' story on one hand. Actually one finger, but its a start.

further reading:

This blog offers some useful critique of the New Zealand study covered in the BBC report

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Support for reform: The Unusual Suspects

Drug law reform is often pigeonholed as the preserve of Guardian reading liberal-lefty types. The reality, as a recent blog post on the Canadian shotgun blog (part of the Western Standard) highlights, is that there are many more unusual suspects - of conservative political leaning - who also have strongly held and often vocal views in support of drug policy and law reform. The shotgun blog provides a interesting list of some of these, including individuals such prominent conservative commentator William F Buckley, conservative newspaper the Ottawa Citizen, and conservative think tank the Cato institute.

The list also includes a quote from the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman.

‘There is, in my opinion, no government policy that is as immoral as drug prohibition...’
(Friedman and Freedom, March 15, 2002). Whilst he arguably came more from a libertarian than conservative perspective his stance, about which he wrote many times still surprises many. (Friedman’s views on drug prohibition are considered in this piece by Johann Hari in the Independent from 2006 posted on the blog)

America’s Cato Institute, a public policy think tank, is yet another supporter of reform.

‘In spite of the greatest anti-drug enforcement effort in U.S. history, the drug problem is worse than ever. What should be done now? ... The status quo is intolerable--everyone agrees on that. But there are only two alternatives: further escalate the war on drugs, or legalize them. Once the public grasps the consequences of escalation, legalization may win out by default.’ (Thinking about drug legalization, May 25, 1989)

Back in the UK we also have number of supporters from possibly surprising corners of the political and intellectual map.

The Economist, a UK publication with a circulation of 1.2 million (over half being in the US) is respected and widely read by those with a serious interest in economics around the world from all political persuasions, despite its generally right leaning economic perspective. It has been and outspoken advocate of legally regulated drug markets for decades.

“The role of government should be to prevent the most chaotic drug users from harming others – by robbing or by driving while drugged, for instance – and to regulate drug markets to ensure minimum quality and safe distribution. The first task is hard if law enforcers are preoccupied with stopping all drug use; the second, impossible as long as drugs are illegal."
The Economist, editorial. From Issue entitled: ‘Time to legalise all drugs’ – 28/06/01

In stark contrast to the populist drug war rhetoric regularly deployed by current shadow Home Secretary David Davis, the now Conservative party leader David Cameron was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002 during its detailed inquiry into UK drug policy and supported the recommendation that:
“the Government initiates a discussion within the [UN] Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma” (paragraph 267).
He also, notably given the current political shenanigans, supported the calls for reclassification of cannabis from B to C, and ecstasy from A to B.

Conservative front bencher and former cabinet member Alan Duncan MP, is also a proponent of reform:
"The only completely effective way to ameliorate the drug problem, and especially the crime which results from it, is to bring the industry into the open by legalising the distribution and consumption of all dangerous drugs, or at the very least by decriminalising their consumption."
‘The Legalisation of Drugs' in ‘Saturn's Children'. Read the complete chapter here.

Of course support for a more rational approach to drug strategy can be seen across the political spectrum. There are in fact supporters of pragmatic reform from all parties.

Clearly the reform argument does not fit easily into either the right/left political divide nor an libertarian/authoritarian one. Some of the false assumptions about the political fault lines in this debate are explored in Transform’s recent publication ‘After the War on Drugs Tools for Debate’:

‘Some advocates of reform envisage replacing prohibition with a libertarian regime, others with more draconian forms of social control. The reform argument itself is non-partisan – it is simply a pragmatic position led by evidence of effectiveness and public health/harm reduction principles. Calling for legally regulated drugs markets is actually the rational and moderate position between the ideological poles of absolute prohibition and free market libertarianism.’

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Controlling illegal stimulants: a regulated market model

A very useful discussion of the principles and practical considerations around how stimulants might be regulated in the post-prohibition era has appeared in the latest Harm Reduction Journal (published 23 Jan 08)which is, brilliantly, open access, and available as a pdf.

The paper, titled 'Controlling illegal stimulants: a regulated market model' is by Mark Haden, a public health specialist based in Vancouver, and member of the Health Officers of British Colombia that produced the groundbreaking report 'A public health approach to drug control' in 2005 (that has been very influential in the development of Transform's recent work and various current projects).

The Harm Reduction Journal website invites reader responses, as of course does this blog, in the comments section below.

This is the abstract:

Prohibition of illegal drugs is a failed social policy and new models of regulation of these substances are needed. This paper explores a proposal for a post-prohibition, public health based model for the regulation of the most problematic drugs, the smokable and injectable stimulants. The literature on stimulant maintenance is explored. Seven foundational principles are suggested that could support this regulatory model of drug control that would reduce both health and social problems related to illegal stimulants. Some details of this model are examined and the paper concludes that drug policies need to be subject to research and based on evidence.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Richard and Judy back drug legalisation

Following the publicity around Chief Constable Brunstrom's recent report critiquing the failings of prohibition and calling for legally regulated drug markets (much of which is *blows trumpet* informed by Transform's literature), support has now come from an unlikely but welcome quarter: none other than Richard Madeley writing in the Express under the Richard and Judy Byline. Yes, that Richard and Judy, 'the nation's favorite TV couple'. Madely makes his point 'defending' Brunstom's 'call for the legalising of drugs' , and negotiates his way around the sensitive issue of drug deaths (from a parents perspective) with real sophistication.

Somehow this one slipped past me a week or so back ( probably because I only dip into the Express when I want to read made up stories about Madeleine McCann or Diana-Death conspiracy theories, i.e. never) . Still, in many ways this is even more remarkable than Transform bagging a double page cover story feature in Take a Break magazine. If the nation's favorite TV couple can pull in the Prime Minister to play 'you say, we pay', and push a book onto the best sellers list just by featuring it on their Book Club (Tools for the Debate, Richard?) who knows what they an do for pragmatic drug law reform?

What with the nation's number one TV presenter, Jonathan Ross, already a Transform Patron, Take a Break, and now Richard and Judy, we are getting so mainstream we are in danger of getting washed away. Mustn't grumble of course, but I rather miss that aura of radical chic from the old days...

There's little to add other than to say, Richard, I could have written that myself. Over to you*:

"How awkward it is to have to begin the new year defending the apparently indefensible... in the form of eccentric police chief Richard Brunstrom’s latest headline-grabbing “gaffe”. I refer, of course, to his call this week on Radio 4’s Today programme for the legalising of drugs.

Brunstrom reckons all currently banned substances – everything from Ecstasy to heroin – will have been decriminalised inside 10 years. He added that Ecstasy is “safer than aspirin”, for good measure.

“Idiotic”, “Mad”, and “Captain Calamity” were just some descriptions of the head of the North Wales force the following morning. Parents of young people who died after taking Ecstasy queued up to castigate him – quite understandably. If my child had perished because of drug abuse, I would be first in line calling for Brunstrom’s head.

Which doesn’t mean I would be right. It is pointless here to get into a statistical debate about the dangers of aspirin versus Ecstasy.  Both preparations can kill: Ecstasy by fits following dehydration and other factors, aspirin usually from internal bleeding.

Ecstasy kills around 50 people every year – although many more have a close encounter with the Grim Reaper in their local intensive care unit.

But considering the colossal number of (mostly) young people who swallow Ecstasy tablets in nightclubs up and down Britain every night of the year, the toll is comparatively small when set against those killed or maimed in drink-driving crashes.

Don’t get me wrong, I think taking Ecstasy is stupid.

Prolonged use may well cause memory loss. But being against the law hasn’t stopped it from becoming endemic – which means the criminal supply of Ecstasy and other drugs is endemic too.

This is at the root of the gang culture that grips virtually every city in Britain and is largely responsible for the proliferation of guns on our streets. The analogy with Thirties prohibition era Chicago is inescapable.

Personally, I’d feel safer taking a palmful of aspirin than even one Ecstasy. But as a social policy, the criminalisation of drugs must surely be recognised for what it is:  an abject failure. Cocaine, heroin, speed and, yes, Ecstasy, have never been more widely available or cheaper to buy.

Their illegal sale on an industrial scale nourishes a huge, sprawling and hydra-headed criminal underclass.

All Richard Brunstrom – with,  by the way, the broad support of his police authority – is really asking is for a sensible debate on how we move on from the failed drug policies of the past.

He may be a ridiculous honorary druid with an irritating penchant for speed cameras and absurdly sensitive to weak jokes about the Welsh, but he’s doing something rarely seen in our chief constables.

He is thinking out of the box. That is brave and bold and deserves thoughtful consideration, not calumny."

I hope the Express will forgive me for reproducing more than a usual sized snippet/quote here ( I haven't used Judy's section).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

ACMD cannabis classification review submission (round 3)

Tediously enough the ACMD will yet again be reviewing cannabis reclassification next month (for the third time in 5 years) and Transform today publishes its written submission (also for the third time in 5 years), as a prelude to the oral evidence session on Feb 5th to which we will also be giving evidence (for the second time in 5 years - they didn't do one last time around). Our latest submission considers how the political and media backdrop to the latest review has distorted both science and policy thinking around this issue, as well as offering a broader critique of the classification system and the flawed and outdated science on which it is nominally based. The discussion and recommendation sections are reproduced below. True cannabis policy wonks can read the full submission in all its nerdy glory here (pdf).



The debate around drug law reform remains intimately entwined with the wider populist law and order debate. The question of how cannabis should be policed has often become confused by emotive anecdotes and misrepresented data concerning the harm associated with cannabis use, or debate around the moral rights and wrongs of drug use generally. It is vital that the ACMD, as an independent body of expertise, is not drawn into the political gamesmanship, or swept along by the sporadic media and politically fuelled drug panics that have cast a long shadow over the UK's failing drug policy for the past two generations.

The aim of drug policy should be to reduce the harm drugs cause, both to users and the wider community. Current policy is demonstrably failing to do this and it is only by rational consideration of the evidence, both of prohibition's failure, and of policy alternatives that we can take positive steps toward this goal.

There is an ongoing debate about the extent of cannabis risks, and research has often been selectively used to bolster the case for and against legislative reform (reclassification and/or legalisation/regulation). From Transform's perspective the debate around health risks is a distraction from policing and law reform issues:

  • An effective drug policy would accept the reality of widespread cannabis use and implement measures that reduce harm to users and the communities in which they live

  • The dangers presented by cannabis, in its various forms, point towards increased and better prevention and education for young people and potential users as part of a co-ordinated, evidence based public health strategy for reducing drug harms. This should be based on well established harm reduction principles and public health education methodology, including a clear message that the best way to avoid harm is not to use at all

The classification debate is a distraction from the bigger debate around prohibition – one we believe the ACMD is obliged to engage with in a structured and meaningful way. Drugs need to be legally regulated because they are dangerous, not because they are safe, indeed the greater the dangers of using cannabis, the greater the importance of strict legal regulation and control of cannabis markets. If the Government is serious about getting rid of illegal dealers and reducing the harm associated with cannabis use the only effective course of action is to have legally regulated and appropriately licensed outlets. This would:

  • Largely remove the illegal profits, collapse the illegal market, and put illegal dealers out of business

  • Allow more effective prohibitions on sales to minors

  • Enable quality control of the product and health warnings, potency and dose information, and harm reduction information on packaging and at point of sale

  • Free up scarce resources (and potentially generate tax revenue) for public health based prevention, education and harm reduction initiatives

To the objective observer the intellectual problems with the classification system are as obvious as its abject and ongoing failure on all meaningful indicators. The Government's response to criticism, which now includes detailed and thoughtful work from the Police Foundation (2000), the Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Science and Technology Select Committee (2006), the RSA (2007), and even the ACMD (Pathways to Problems 2007) and its technical advisers writing in the Lancet (2007), has been nothing more than contemptuous and is entirely lacking in intellectual or empirical credibility. The Science and Technology Select Committee's 2006 conclusion that the system was 'not fit for purpose' was altogether too diplomatic.

There is certainly potential for ranking different drugs along the various vectors of drug harm that might usefully include; toxicity, addictive potential, particular risks for specific populations (e.g. sex, age group, mental health) safety critical activities (e.g. driving) or behaviors (e.g. injecting, poly-drug use, pregnancy). However, this sort of information does not lend itself to the broad generalisations of a simplistic ABC system, however well thought out the placing of individual drugs may be. People need honest and accurate information about drug risks so they can make informed decisions; the ABC system singularly fails to deliver.

More significantly, the debate over which drugs should be in which class is a distraction from the more profound problem that the ABC system exists primarily to determine a hierarchy of criminal penalties, and there is no evidence whatsoever to demonstrate that this approach has either criminal justice or public health benefits. The Government's refusal to honour the promise Charles Clarke made to the House of Commons in January 2006, to hold a review of the classification system is transparently a politically motivated one. Their 'belief' that the system is effective, when the opposite is demonstrably the case is simply not acceptable and should be a profound concern to everyone in policy making, law and the wider drugs field.


Short term

  • That the ACMD maintain their long held position that cannabis should be a class C drug under the current system.

  • That the long promised review of the entire drug classification system (not merely the classification of individual drugs within it) be undertaken with some urgency. This should include a detailed consideration of the effectiveness of an ABC hierarchy of criminal penalties for different drug in achieving desired criminal justice and public health outcomes. (A call for such a review has also come from Drugscope and the Home Affairs Select Committee, the RSA, the Science and Technology Select Committee, and indeed the ACMD)

  • That the ACMD make strong objections to the way in which its role and authority is being undermined by Ministers announcing reclassification decisions regards cannabis before the ACMD have reported back[1]. The ACMD should further ask why the classification issue was included in the recent strategy consultation document, when such decisions are clearly the remit of the ACMD (which already consults extensively).

Medium term

  • That the ACMD deliberations consider the specific harms created by prohibition, and disentangle these from the harms created by drug use per se. Specifically; prohibition related crime, the mass criminalisation of young - often vulnerable - individuals, and the exacerbation of drug harms to users (when drugs are produced and supplied through illicit channels).

  • That the ACMD actively consider the policies of decriminalisation and legalisation/regulation of cannabis and all other currently illegal drugs in line with its remit in “preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse” and “restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising arrangements for their supply”.

[1] Gordon Brown is on the record saying that “we are about to make changes to the cannabis law”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Transform in...wait for it...Take a Break magazine!

With the Guardian, lets face it, you're often preaching to the converted. It felt like it was time to try and broaden our horizons, and take the the drug law reform debate to a wider audience. And where better to start than Britain's number one selling women's weekly: Take a Break.

For non Take a Break regulars, here's some info from their website to put you in the picture:

Captivating real life stories, prize puzzles and competitions and classic weekly elements, combine to give readers an interactive and involving big value package.

Take a Break has comfortably been the biggest selling women's weekly in the UK for over 14 years. One in eight women in the UK read Take a Break every week and it sells 2 copies every second, making it the 4th largest women's weekly in the world. Take a Break also publishes a number of brand extensions totalling over 22 million copies per year

Take a Break's mix of real life, fashion, beauty, food, home, travel and competitions attracts a hugely varied readership. Readers can be anything from 18 to 80; they are likely to own their own home and to be married, and many have children. Its universal appeal is confirmed by the strength of its reader relationship. It is read exceptionally thoroughly, has very strong reader loyalty and is read for longer than any of its competitors.

Circulation 1,018,423
Adult Readership 3,138,000
Female Readership 2,734,000
Median Age 44
Target Market C1C2 women aged 25-55 with children
Frequency Weekly
Launch date March 1990
Price 78p
On sale every Thursday

Take a Break, and other similar women's weekly titles (of which there are several), are more used to running 'my drugs hell' type stories, so it was quite a bold move on their part, unprecedented in fact, to run a straight policy feature on the critics of prohibition and advocates of moves towards legalisation/regulation. Read the full article here (pdf). A pretty good scoop for us as far as it goes; that's 3 million readers remember.

We worked hard with them on this, and they've done a great job in including key points we were keen to highlight:
  • that prohibition creates crime, harming and endangering young people rather than protecting them
  • that prohibition merely exacerbates the social problems of deprived and socially marginalised communities and is an active obstacle to addressing such problems in the longer term
  • that the 'war on drugs' has dramatically failed as a policy but has effectively handed control of dangerous drug markets to gangsters
  • that a pragmatic pro law-reform position is compatible with being 'anti-drugs',
  • and that 'legalisation' (not a useful term in many contexts) is described in terms of a range of regulatory options for different drugs (rather than an unregulated free for all)
There was other stuff that would have been good to see in there, perhaps notably some sort of economic analysis about how prohibition is so quite so effective at creating crime and mayhem, but you cant have everything and all in all its a concise and useful piece that will no doubt raise a few eyebrows in dentists' waiting rooms across the country over the next week or so. There's an online debate too which could be interesting.

But before we get too excited that it heralds a long term shift in editorial position its worth noting that below the article is a red box reading:
'MY MUMS ON DRUGS' have you a parent - or other relative- who does drugs? Do you have a picture of them doing it? Send us your story and photos. Fee paid.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The year is 2022 and drugs are legal.....

With a growing list of high profile public figures, from ex-Ministers to Chief Constables, talking not just about the conspicuous failings of prohibition, but actively advocating (or at least calling for a rational debate on) moves towards the legal regulation of drugs, (see Transform's supporters of reform page for a more comprehensive list) Druglink magazine felt that there was something missing from the coverage of the drug law reform debate. It certainly seemed reasonable to ask: well, what would a post-prohibition Britain look like?

Inevitably perhaps, Transform were approached to provide a description of this vision of the future, and despite some initial trepidation you can read my effort here (in pdf format), reproduced with permission from this month's Druglink magazine.

It proved quite a tricky task, not just to move from the more familiar briefing-writing mode into more descriptive prose, but also trying to envisage not exactly how we might want it to be, but how we thought it is actually likely to be. Hopefully I've managed to convey this by focusing on three models of legally regulated supply for; cannabis: based on the Dutch coffee-shop model; heroin, based on the Swiss heroin clinic model; and cocaine, based on a more speculative licensed pharmacy/druggist model. In the space provided there was a limit on what could be covered and discussed, but an outline of the benefits and limitations of some potential regulatory models have at least been put on the table for discussion. Comments and feedback are obviously welcome. For me that was the whole point of the exercise; to get people thinking and talking about regulation in more than vague abstract terms.

For those interested there is plenty more detailed discussion of regulatory frameworks available on the Transform website here, and this Druglink piece also serves as a curtain raiser for Transform's next major publication: 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for a Regulated Market', a detailed consideration of the options for the legal regulation of different drugs in different environments, currently in production and due for publication later in the year......

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dutch parliament to debate reform of UN drug conventions

As covered on the blog back in December a group of Dutch policy makers, including former and serving mayors, police chiefs, and ministers (including one former PM) have drafted and signed a resolution calling for the Dutch Government to resolve the contradictions in the Netherlands cannabis policy by discussing the restrictions that the UN conventions put on legal regulation of cannabis production and supply. An official translation of the resolution provided by the TNI website is copied below (unfortunately the more detailed discussion document is still only available in Dutch).

The resolution will be debated in the Dutch Parliament next week (details of this debate will be posted here). So whilst Dutch policy makers continue to openly and rationally explore more just and effective responses to the reality of drug use in society their UK colleagues continue to tie themselves in knots over whether or not to increase penalties for cannabis possession from two years in prison to five.


The Hague, October 31, 2007 A group of representatives from politics, public administration, the criminal justice system and police and drug policy experts gathered on October 31, 2007, in The Hague, to express the urgent need to end the negative consequences of the current policy of leniency regarding the sale of cannabis.

Participants confirmed that many countries worldwide experienced similar negative effects related to their own cannabis policy. This means that there is a shared responsibility to look for adaptations in the current system of international conventions that are an obstacle to further developments in national Dutch cannabis policies.

Participants argued that the Netherlands, in cooperation with other nations, should aim to revise the current framework of international law in order to achieve a more credible and effective alternative that is not just based on repression for the existing cannabis policy at the national level. The signatories of this resolution,

I. concluded that the current cannabis policy:

A. is based on an outdated international law framework created in the 1960s which is not appropriate to tackle contemporary problems resulting in a stagnation of the development of just and effective policies;

B. is being implemented by a policy of tolerance (“gedogen”) on the basis of a justified lenient interpretation of the current international law framework and that this policy of tolerance is a practical solution but at the same time temporary response which on the long term will discredit the credibility of public authorities;

C. is inconsistent and difficult to explain to citizens because use and sale of small quantities are not prosecuted in practice while production and large scale distribution are still prosecuted; is also inconsistent with policies regarding substances with a similar health risk such as alcohol and tobacco;

D. is ineffective in several aspects: despite positive facets such as the separation of markets between soft and hard drugs and the limited involvement of criminals in the retail market, other policy options such as legal possibilities to control the quality of cannabis (THC content and pollution) and other measures to reduce health risks are lacking in the current system, which is still facilitating significant illicit gains at the level of production and wholesale and is encouraging in-house cannabis growing;

E. is causing considerable and unbalanced administrative and judicial burdens and continuous criticism of some countries and UN drug control agencies.

II. concluded furthermore that:

A. attempts by the Dutch parliament and local authorities to address the inconsistencies in the current tolerance policy – such as proposing to tolerate production of cannabis for the supply of coffee shops – have been rejected by subsequent national governments on account of incompatibility with international agreements;

B. there is a need for an international debate to explore the possibilities for an international framework that allows more room for manoeuvre by national governments to execute a consistent policy;

C. more and more countries feel the need to reformulate their policies to achieve better protection of public health and combat organized crime;
D. cannabis is grown and commercialised worldwide and is used by over 170 million people, consequently the production and distribution is a common problem for the international community;

E. the 10-year review of the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs and the Ministerial meeting in 2009 devoted to this evaluation, offer an excellent possibility to put the issue on the international agenda.

III. urge the Dutch government to:

A. start an international debate with other likeminded countries in order to work out a credible and effective alternative for the current policy on cannabis;

B. promote actively with those likeminded countries the formulation of proposals that can be presented in the context of the upcoming UNGASS evaluation;

C. provide for human and financial resources to implement these efforts;

The Hague, 31 October 2007

signed by
  • Mr. A.A.M. van Agt, former Prime minister 1977-1982
  • Dr. E. Borst-Eilers, ex-minister of Health, Welfare and Sport
  • Drs. A. Apostolou, former member of Parliament
  • Kathalijne Buitenweg, MEP GroenLinks
  • Mr. R. Dufour, president Stichting Drugsbeleid
  • Drs. G.B.M. Leers, mayor of Maastricht
  • Dr. R.L. Vreeman, mayor of Tilburg
  • Mr. Th. C. de Graaf, mayor of Nijmegen
  • J.A.H. Lonink, mayor of Terneuzen
  • Dr. J.P. Rehwinkel, mayor of Naarden
  • W.J.M. Velings MOI, chief of police, region Limburg Zuid
  • F.J. Heeres MPSM, chief of police, region Midden- en West Brabant
  • Mr. A.D.J. Keizer, former policy official of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport
  • Mr. drs. V. Everhardt, drugs and alcohol prevention expert
  • Dr. M. Jelsma, Drugs & Democracy Programme, Transnational Institute

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Drugscope debunks misleading Telegraph canna-panic stats

An excellent piece of debunking of some canna-panic silliness in the Telegraph from Drugscope is reproduced below. Such sensationalist and misleading media coverage does nothing to further the debate on sensible responses to the health harm associated with cannabis use and only serves to encourage counterproductive knee-jerk Government enforcement responses, whilst providing a shock headline to help shift units. Very disappointing from the Telegraph which has in the past been quite pragmatic and progressive on the cannabis issue. Ho Hum.


On Friday 11 January the Daily Telegraph published a front-page news article under the headline: Abuse of cannabis puts 500 a week in hospital.

The Daily Telegraph piece referred to National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) figures cited by Minister of State for Public Health, Dawn Primarolo, in a response to a Parliamentary Question about the numbers of people treated for cannabis.

DrugScope sent a letter on Friday 11 January to the Daily Telegraph in response to this story; as yet they have declined to publish it. Our response is reproduced below.

Dear Sir,

The front-page headline on Friday’s Daily Telegraph (Abuse of cannabis puts 500 a week in hospital, 11/01/08) misrepresents figures given by Dawn Primarolo, Minister of State for Public Health, in her response to a Parliamentary Question this week.

We have ascertained that the figures supplied by the Minister do not relate to actual hospital admissions; the source of the figures, the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) does not collect data on hospital admissions and this was evident in the Minister’s response.

The figures instead relate to those who have come forward to community-based drug treatment services seeking some form of help, advice or treatment relating to their use of cannabis. DrugScope understands that even if ‘treatment’ consists of no more than an informal chat with a drug worker, this would still have been recorded in the statistics quoted by the Minister.

Some of those clients may of course have gone on to receive treatment in hospital for conditions relating to their use of cannabis. However, figures provided to DrugScope by the Department of Health reveal that rather than 500 hospital admissions a week, the figure was nearer 14 per week (in 2006/07) for individuals with a primary diagnosis of mental health problems due to the use of cannabis. This is 14 admissions too many, but still way below the figure quoted by your correspondent.

In addition, the number of hospital admissions in 2006/07 with this diagnosis (750) was lower than in 2005/06 (946) - and it should be noted that the same individual could have been admitted to hospital more than once in any one year.

The public do need to be aware of the potential risks related to cannabis; it is not a harmless drug. But public information about the drug must be based on sound data and where that data exists, the media has a responsibility to be scrupulous in its presentation.


Martin Barnes

Chief executive,
DrugScope SE1

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Challenging prohibitionist myths and misinformation

After a short break The blog returns to the serialisation of Transform's latest publication :After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate. (see below for, previous sections)

Once some common ground has been established on the aims and principles underlying drug policy, the next logical step is to critique prohibition based on these agreed aims and principles. Generally speaking, this is not especially difficult, as prohibition has failed on almost every indicator imaginable. The key here, given that you are being listened to in the first place, is simply to make sure you have the basic facts and analysis at your finger tips.

Bear in mind, however, that no policy which has been such a spectacular and consistent failure could have been sustained for so long without a monumental propaganda effort to prop it up. As you critique prohibition you will need to be aware of the forest of misinformation , myth, and statistical chicanery that defends it, so that you can cut through it when necessary.

There are numerous myths perpetuated by the defenders of current drug policy, most of them aimed at supporting the case that prohibition is effective. Quite simply, it isn’t, as even a cursory examination of the facts reveals.

Prohibition was intended to eliminate drugs from the world and has achieved the exact opposite. On a consistent basis, over more than two generations, drug production has risen, drug consumption has risen, drug availability has risen (whilst prices have fallen), and drug related health problems have risen. Crucially, in addition, prohibition has directly created a raft of new problems associated with criminal markets locally and narco-states globally. Once an illegal market has become established, prohibition has not worked anywhere, ever. Moreover it has been universally and quite spectacularly counterproductive on all meaningful indicators.

The myth of prohibition’s effectiveness is constructed from a series of assertions that can very easily be demolished:

1. Prohibition reduces availability

This is perhaps the most easily-refuted claim made for prohibition – so much so that you rarely hear it anymore. Nevertheless, the goal of reducing the availability of drugs remains a key pillar of the UK national drug strategy, and indeed of the entire UN international drug control apparatus.

Reducing availability remains the sole aim of supply-side enforcement at the international, domestic and local levels, absorbing billions of government spending each year. The simplistic rationale for this strategy is that if drug supply can be stopped then no one will take drugs and the drug problem will disappear. However, drug markets are demand-driven, and supplying them is a staggeringly lucrative business. Consistently, over several generations, and in countries across the world, there has been a clear trend of drug supply and use steadily increasing. Drugs are cheaper and more available today than at any time previously, something that even official analysis from the Home Office, the ACMD, and even Tony Blair’s own confidential report produced for him by his Number 10 Strategy Unit12 does not dispute. Never let anyone claim that supply side enforcement is effective without a very robust challenge – the evidence against this assertion is clear, overwhelming and acknowledged by all credible sources, official and independent.

2. Prohibition reduces use / is an effective deterrent

This myth is entwined within the previous one, that prohibition reduces drug availability; but it also depends on the concept of using enforcement to ‘send out the right message’ on drugs, namely that they are harmful to health and you shouldn’t take them. The concept of criminal law as a deterrent to drug use is absolutely central to the entire prohibitionist paradigm, and yet the assumption has little or no evidential foundation.

This is a point that you can raise with great confidence whenever the deterrent issue arises:

  • Drug use has risen faster under prohibition than at any time in human history.
  • International comparisons show no correlation between the harshness of enforcement and prevalence of use. The UK, for example, has one of the harshest regimes and the highest level of drug use in Europe.
  • Different states within the US and Australia have very different enforcement regimes for cannabis possession – from very punitive to de facto decriminalisation. Comparing the different states shows there is no correlation between enforcement and prevalence.
  • In the UK it is mostly Class A drugs, with the harshest penalties, which have seen the most dramatic rises in use. Heroin use in the UK has risen by at least 1000% since 1971, cocaine use has doubled in the last ten years. Similarly ecstasy use went from zero to several million pills a week being consumed in a matter of years in the late 1980s.
  • The Home Office has never undertaken any research to establish the extent of enforcement related deterrence, despite it being at the heart of the Misuse of Drugs Act and all subsequent policy thinking. The research that does exist suggests enforcement related deterrence is, at best, a marginal factor in influencing decisions to take drugs.
  • In his oral evidence to the recent Science and Technology committee, Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee stated: “I think the evidence base for classification producing a deterrent is not strong”.
  • The Commons Science and Technology Committee reported that: “We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification."

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7

Print copies are also available, please contact Transform

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Brunstrom on drugs (again). Transform comment in Indie and Mirror

Richard Brunstrom, the Chief Constable of North Wales has again hit the news over his views in support of drug law reform. The media don't seem to know quite what to make of him, torn between an intelligent engagement in the debates he highlights, or tearing into him with personal attacks. The most recent spasm of media coverage followed an appearance on BBC's Today programme

It provoked a flurry of media coverage, the Mail predictably leading the charge with its personal attack cover story and a total failure to engage with the actual policy debate being raised.

Whilst the Mail only quoted bereaved parents, and staunch anti-reform campaigners Mary Brett, and Peter Stoker (Transforms request for a response slot going unanswered) the Independent at least welcomed some alternative views inviting Transform to submit a discussion piece for the Indpendent blog, reproduced below:

In calling for the legalisation and regulation of drugs again, chief constable Richard Brunstrom has suggested that aspirin is more dangerous than ecstasy. Whether or not this is the case isn’t clear (apparently the Department of Health could not supply the number of those who die as a result taking aspirin each year). However, as Mary Brett (Europe Against Drugs) tells us in the Mail, “This was an extremely stupid and irresponsible comment. Aspirin is taken as medication to help people get better. Ecstasy is taken to upset the chemical balance of the brain deliberately”. Thanks Mary (she’s a teacher you know).

Commenting on the substance of Brunstrom’s remarks, the Mirror leader said: “Clearly, 40 years of prohibition has been a disaster. Our country is awash with drugs. Criminals are raking in billions… and billions are being wasted on the largely futile “war” on drugs.”

These vastly different views encapsulate precisely the fault lines in the debate on the future of drug policy: one, knocking Brunstrom for having the temerity to question the absolute success of UK (and global) drug prohibition; the other going right to the heart of the matter – prohibition doesn’t work. Indeed, the Mail followed the news piece with a relentless ad hominem attack on Brunstrom, with no analysis of his views on drug policy.

Happily, at least the debate is being kept alive in the media, with some excellent pieces being penned over the last few years. Sadly, the media is the only place where this issue is receiving an airing. For most politicians and Whitehall officials, questioning the status quo on drug policy is taboo (with some surprising exceptions) and the vast majority of NGOs, professional bodies and Government Quangos remain totally silent on the issue. To me it beggars belief that organisations and individuals that work with those most negatively affected by prohibition fail to speak out. That includes: development organisations that work in the drug producer countries, those in prison reform, drug treatment organisations, drug policy think tanks, criminology academics, and the legal field.

Brunstrom suggests that legalisation and regulation will take ten years. Transform is in agreement that this is probably a bare minimum. But in that time, the UK drugs trade will have made £70 billion for gangsters (globally that figure will be over £3 trillion). At the same time, UK families will have paid close to £200 billion of crime costs, either as tax payers or as victims. The illegal trade will have ruined, for another decade, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Caribbean and blighted every major urban environment in industrialised countries.

However, politicians will continue to trot out the “tough on drugs” propaganda for a combination of easy votes and the maintenance of our special relationship with the US. The UK public meanwhile, will continue to be swindled out of billions to support a failed regime. The challenge from the media will not be enough to force politicians to expose prohibition to significant scrutiny and explore alternatives. Those who know the score have a choice - stay silent about the massive social costs of a counterproductive policy that benefits only organised crime and cynical politicians or to speak the truth. Brunstrom’s courage should inspire others to follow his example.

Danny Kushlick is Director of Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Visit for more information

The Independent today ran a reasonably balanced news piece considering the issues around ecstasy risks and its legal status, which also featured a quote from Transform. The Mirror also engaged more usefully by inviting views from Transform (Danny Kushlick) and the NDPA (Peter Stoker), so that unlike the Mail coverage, different views could be aired. A so-called 'debate'.


Yes, says Danny Kushlick, Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Drugs will be made legal through licensed outlets or doctors within 10 years because that is the rational and most effective, just and humane way of dealing with the production, supply and demand for drugs.

All drugs are potentially dangerous but no substance is made safer in the hands of criminals and unregulated dealers.

Prohibition is counter-productive. And when it is ineffective it corrupts everything it touches.

It has corrupted Afghanistan, Colombia, South-East Asia, the Caribbean and most cities of industrialised nations in the West.

If that's success, I would hate to see what happens if we fail.

Supporters of prohibition have gifted a £320billion-a-year trade to the Mafia. In the UK, it takes £16billion a year to deal with the costs of crime alone.

The public can only be duped into believing it works for so long.

When people realise that it is a self-inflicted nightmare they will stop supporting the politicians who support prohibition.

No, says Peter Stoker, National Drug Prevention Alliance
All the evidence shows that every country that has tried relaxing drug laws regrets it and almost all have had to push the law back to where it was.

You can see with cannabis in Britain that the same thing is happening now. Every day we get some evidence about how harmful it is. If we are going to shift the classification it should be to where it is seen as more harmful.

How dangerous a drug is does not just relate to how many people die from it, but the wider impact it has in the form of crime and destroying people's lives.

It's not just the person who uses it that suffers, the impact of drug use ripples out across a much larger circle. As far as Ecstasy goes, if Richard Brunstrom thinks it's a safe substance he should talk to the parents who have lost children to it. We have enough trouble in Britain with two legal drugs - tobacco and alcohol.

The majority of the population are against current illegal drugs - they don't want them to be made more readily available.

The Mirror made its position very clear in a leader column, continuing its progressive line on the failure of prohibition and the need for reform.

Agonising on ecstasy

Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom is at it again.

He says ecstasy is safer than aspirin and predicts drugs will be legalised within 10 years.

Is this yet another unhinged outburst from a publicity-hungry police chief? Or could he actually be talking some unpalatable sense?

Clearly, 40 years of prohibition has been a disaster. Our country is awash with drugs. Criminals are raking in billions... and billions are being wasted in the largely futile "war" on drugs.

Brunstrom's comparison of ecstasy and aspirin is simplistic, not least because most of the medicine's fatalities are suicides.

But there's something in what he says - alcohol and tobacco are just as dangerous as ecstasy. And lumping the "dance" drug in with cocaine and heroin weakens warnings about "harder" narcotics.

But this is fiddling around the edges. We need a fundamental rethink of Britain's approach to drugs.

The current policy, as Brunstrom and many other experts argue, isn't working.

He may not be popular with certain tabloids or politicians, but Brusntrom's position is certainly challenging a lot of people to think about this issue, and if people are thinking, talking and engaging then it can only be positive in the long run.

see also:

North Wales Police Authority endorse call for the legalisation and regulation of drugs