Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cannabis making politicians go all weird. Again.

Just what is it about cannabis that makes certain politicians act so bizarrely and disconnect from reality is such spectacular fashion? And this is without even smoking it (although actually, most of them have). Moreover, there appears to be a sort of dose-response effect in evidence: The more senior they get, the more deranged they seem to become. Look at how Cameron has metamorphosed from a pragmatic backbencher and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2001 calling for cannabis to be reclassified from B to C, into a classic reactionary-right drug warrior, now as party leader, calling for it to be moved back from C to B. And see how Gordon Brown, who never made a peep about drug policy before becoming PM, is now grabbing any opportunity to wheel out his new tough line advocating mass criminalisation of young cannabis users (no child left behind) as a way of asserting his prime-ministerial strength and moral fortitude. Rational thought, it appears, is the first casualty of a drug war.

As anyone who has been following the seemingly endless (we are now in year 7) cannabis reclassification shenanigans knows, last week Gordon Brown strongly implied that he planned to reclassify cannabis from C back to B regardless of what the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommends at the end of this month (but with all the serious money, and BBC leaks, on them calling for it to stay in C). In case you don’t know the ACMD are the 30 or so Government appointed scientists and experts from the drugs field who have recently completed their marathon 4-day literature review and public consultation on the B/C question.

Brown’s position on this question was echoed by another recent example of how politics and emotive anecdote are trumping rationality, pragmatism and science; a Daily Telegraph op-ed last week with the willfully ignorant headline (seeming to almost revel in the idea of bad science led policy making):

This veritable beacon of endarkenment thinking comes from Debra Bell, whose ‘Talking About Cannabis’ website and campaign (built around her experiences of her son’s cannabis problems) is the perfect example of precisely why science based policy decisions should be made by committees of experts and not distraught parents. Whilst Debra and other parents or carers who have been through similar personal tragedies deserve our sympathy and should of course be heard (and to give the Council credit, Debra was amongst those invited to present to the hearings in March), policy decisions, such as drug classification, that are very specifically based on science based literature reviews and objective harm rankings, should be left to the scientists.

poster from a from a previous generation's cannabis panic, US 1938.

The classification system is – as Transform have long argued - horribly flawed, outdated, and ineffective, but when it comes to the science based harm rankings that at least nominaly constitute the basis of the ABC system, that is, for better or worse, what the ACMD do. In fact it’s almost the only thing they have time for, not least because they have to do virtually the same cannabis review of the virtually the same literature (and, surprise surprise, come to virtually the same conclusions) every couple of years, just to satisfy the tabloid driven political whims of successive political leaders.

As the blog has already highlighted, it is bizarre, not to mention intellectually offensive, to ask a panel of your own appointed experts to review a body of evidence and make recommendations (at considerable tax-payers expense – how many tens of thousands did the recent review cost?) only to declare you will overrule their decision if it doesn’t go your way before its even published. Brown’s almost Mugabe-like denial of evidence could not be clearer. Ignoring or overuling the Council's finding would be one thing, but incredibly Brown was proudly making his intentions clear before the ACMD had even begun their deliberations, let alone report back to him, on the expensive and time consuming review that he ordered be undertaken.

Evan Harris, a Lib Dem MP and consistent exponent of science and evidence based policy making (he sat on the Science and Technology Committee that produced 2006’s report on the classification system), made this point loud and clear during a debate on classification on last week’s BBC Radio 4 show ‘Any Questions’:

“to ask the experts to do the work and say in advance that you are not going to accept their view is I think corrupting the whole idea of whether you are going to have proper evidence based policy and what matters in drugs policy is what works to help to protect the health of people and we know that education works not gesture politics by politicians thinking that the classification of a drug is a sign of machismo, it isn’t, it is a failed policy the one that Gordon Brown wants to pursue and the experts will tell him that.” (Applause)

Harris also notes that:
"education does work and what we do know that criminalizing young people, forcing it underground and giving criminals the ability to make money in the black economy is not the way to tackle the problem. In Holland where they did decriminalize they had much lower domestic use of cannabis than we have here where we have criminalized so I am interested in what works"

You can listen to the show here - Or read the transcript of it here (the debate continues in Any Answers – also available on BBC listen again)

Helen Mary Jones, Plaid Cymru’s Health spokesperson, also on the show, went as far as to say that it is:
‘very dangerous for politicians to ignore expert advice when they have asked for it’.
It is notable that if Brown does overrule the ACMD’s decision, having specifically requested their opinion it will be a first in the Council’s 37 year history.

In a debate in the House of Commons last week, similar points were put to the drugs minister, most pertinently by Transform supporter Paul Flynn MP who said that drug policy:
has been an evidence-free zone that is rich in prejudice, ignorance and denial’.
He was backed up by Tom Brake MP who made the point that:
‘we need to ensure that our decisions are based on evidence and science if we are serious about tackling… drugs’.
Much of the current hysteria regarding cannabis at present revolves around the increasing market prevalence of more potent cannabis, mostly indoor grown varieties that the media and political discourse now blanket terms ‘skunk’ (as if it is somehow an entirely different drug or plant to ‘cannabis’). In a letter to the Times Newspaper, Francis Wilkinson, former Chief Constable of Gwent (and a Transform patron), made the point that it is the economics of a completely unregulated market that fuel the emergence of the stronger forms of any drug.
‘More powerful strains of cannabis (skunk) have been developed as a direct result of it being illegal. More powerful means similar quantities for the same effect: more profit for the same weight. This trend towards illegal drugs becoming more powerful is universal: coca leaves chewed by the Andean Indians become refined cocaine and then the more dangerous crack; poppy seeds prepared and smoked become refined (but often impure) injectable heroin. The engine of these developments is the international drug trade’s desire for greater profits.’
This very point was prominently put to the ACMD cannabis reclassification hearings (in writing and in the oral presentation on the day) by Transform’s Steve Rolles, (as well as being raised by him on the BBC's Today program last week).

This is the final tragic irony of Brown’s emerging expertaphobia; The ‘skunk’ problem he proclaims to be seeking to address has actually been largely created by the very enforcement-led solution he now wants to intensify.


Anonymous said...

And Francis Wilkinson is wrong about the origins of stronger cannabis, one does not have to spend much time talking to users, observing their behaviour or watching their comments on the net to understand that stronger cannabis has always been praised and applauded by users as a holy grail. It has been thus ever since I can remember, even back to that seminal 70s book on cannabis by "Dr Sumach" which is still on my bookshelf. To understand the present it is always an advantage to be able to remember the past.

Steve Rolles said...

Of course some people prefer the stronger stuff, the same is true with alcohol. But just as in a pub people don't all immediately gravitate to absinthe, in dutch coffee shops where there is a selection of products strengths available, people don't always want the strongest one. far from it. The majority of drug users are perfectly capable of making decisions about how intoxicated they wish to get and will behave and consume so as to achieve the desired effect. this can mean using stronger or weaker varieties or moderating/increasing consumption depending on potency.

Francis's analysis is hard to argue with. More potent cannabis delivers higher profits for the same economic investment and same legal risks as the weaker varieties per unit weight of production. Hardly surprising then that an unregulated market will move in that direction, and it being unregulated the state is in no position to either intervene on controlling potency, or make health and dosage/potency warnings available on the packaging or at point of sale as it does with alcohol (albeit inadequately) and tobacco.

Anonymous said...

just as imbibing too much alcohol is unpleasant for most (other than those seeking oblivion) smoking too much cannabis is also an unpleasant experience for most people.
i like to relax with a few puffs on a neat joint at the end of the day, too many puffs and i feel not 'relaxed' but 'slightly disorientated or perhaps overly anxious'.

the parallel steve makes with alcohol is pertinent, i believe the principal is called self titration.
the difference between too much alcohol and too much cannabis is however quite marked.
alcohol because of its depressing effect on the central nervous system leads the user who has drunk too much to seek to compensate for the lack of stimulation that his or her brain is receiving by louder and more outrageous behaviour, whereas if i smoke too much i just worry that i havent got my tax returns in on time :)

MttJocy said...

Once again David it seams you are ignoring user behavior frequently the stronger forms are the same price or only slightly more expensive than the very weak stuff so people prefer it, do they smoke the same amount every time, no of course not, generally when presented with a much stronger strain they smoke less or smoke over a longer period of time to reach the desired effects, tip: most people don't like being sick and tend to prefer somewhere in between no effect and feeling sick, where in this curve depends on the user, some enjoy being more intoxicated than others.

This effect is very prevalent also with alcohol most people if presented with a choice of a liter bottle of vodka or say 12 cans of premium larger for the same price would probably go for the vodka as they get more doses for the same price. However if presented with an unlimited amount of beer or and unlimited amount of vodka they generally consume far less in volume of the vodka than the beer. Tell me, when was the last time you can think of where you or someone you know went to the pub and consumed 10 pints of vodka? It doesn't happen, why because guess what most people don't enjoy that level of intoxication the same happens with cannabis.

Anonymous said...

a review of Debra's diaries can be found here