Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A response to Ian Oliver's anti-legalisation comments in the Independent

As the drug law reform position gathers mainstream momentum the number of people willing to publicly defend prohibition and critique regulatory policy alternatives is dwindling, along with the number of comment pieces attempting to make that case. Following former head of the UKs Anti drugs Unit Julian Critchley's piece in the Independent last week it was perhaps both inevitable and appropriate that space was given to one the old guard to attack Critchley's position and defend the prohibitionist status quo. In this case the honour fell to one of the brave few still willing to stand the their drug-war ground, Dr Ian Oliver, former Chief Constable of Grampian Police, now public speaker (for a mere 1-3K) , and author of 'Drug Affliction' , which the single (five star) review on Amazon describes as 'essential reading' (reviewed by Dr Ian Oliver).
You would hope that Dr Oliver, with his undoubtedly distinguished police career would have a pretty sophisticated and nuanced understanding of drugs policy, but if so it is not evident in his Independent comment piece, titled 'legalising drugs would only make matters worse' . Instead we are presented with a string of credibility-straining unreferenced 'facts' and a case against the legal regulation of drugs seemingly based largely on his own invented reality, bizarre inferences, and what I can only describe as a 'quirky' take on economics, maths and logic. A curiously distilled version of the Oliver's arguments can be seen in the BMJ discussion forums here.

(update 21.08.08: an edited version of Olivers Independent piece also appears in the Guardian's Comment is Free online today)

I welcome contributions to the debate such as these. Oliver's response, however well intentioned he may be, provides a striking contrast to Critchley's piece and I sincerely hope people will read both side by side, highlighting the yawning gulf in understanding. It also gives us the opportunity to pull apart the hopelessly lame arguments that prohibition's defenders continue to parrot despite the overwhelming intellectual and evidential case against them (see below - responses in small italics). I actually hope more of Oliver's colleagues will put righteous pen to paper and produce similar missives as they only invite ridicule and are quite brilliantly effective at undermining what little credibility the crumbling prohibitionist narrative still has, especially when so obviously juxtaposed against an eloquently put case for reform such as Critchley's.

Legalising drugs would only make matters worse
Recently, A great deal of media attention has been focused on a call for the legalisation of drugs by a former civil servant who was responsible for the Cabinet's anti-drug unit. In The Independent last week, Julian Critchley said that legalisation would be "less harmful than the current strategy" and that an "overwhelming majority of professionals in the field" agree with that view.
Now he has become a teacher, his dangerously naive views appear to be more harmful than an inadequate UK drug policy, and he must associate with a limited group of professionals if his assertion is not gross exaggeration. The majority of people in the UK do not wish to see drugs legalised, and only 6 per cent of the global population between the ages of 15-64 use drugs; this is hardly justification for legalisation.

Nor is this the justification Critchley makes. He argues for reform on the basis that the current policy is not only ineffective but makes things worse - and that our drug policy 'is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by evidence'. The fact that a position does not enjoy majority support does not nullify the arguments for it and appealing to the authority of opinion polls so early in the piece displays the intellectual weakness at the heart of the analysis. Whilst it is true that most people do not use illegal drugs , there are massive problems associated with significant minority who do - more specifically the sprawling criminal markets that supply them.

The UK has the highest rate of drug misuse in Europe and the abuse of illicit drugs is a major social problem, not least because of the public health implications.
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the policy status quo Oliver advocates
Aids/HIV and other blood-borne diseases are global pandemics and there is a huge ignorance in the UK about these.....
There is no HIV transmission or AIDS directly caused by any form of legal drug use. None. The use of prescribed heroin with clean needles is not associated with any HIV transmission, so let us be completely clear on this: drug related HIV transmission amongst injecting drug users is very specifically a result of prohibition and the use of dirty drugs with dirty needles in unsafe environments it promotes. Oliver is apparently defending the policy that has caused the widespread misery and death he is simultaneously condemning, whilst criticizing those who propose proven approaches that entirely eliminate the problem. This thoroughly unpleasant and offensively stupid argument was similarly pushed by Joseph Califano in the Financial Times and the BMJ recently, and - to their shame - the Home Office, particularly bizarrely given that they are currently funding a pilot study of Swiss-style heroin clinics in London.
and sexually transmitted infections, which are also linked with drug abuse.
er, predominantly alcohol abuse. But anyway the legal status of the drugs in question is irrelevant.

The legalisation of drugs would lead inevitably to a greater number of addictions...
There is no evidence that punitive drug laws are an effective deterrent to use and plenty of evidence to show that they are a marginal or negligible factor in drug taking decisions which are largely determined by a complex array of cultural and socio- economic variables. Drug use has risen consistently during prohibition, indeed faster than any time in history: Making the case for prohibition keeping drug use down it a tricky one, not that this stops Oliver (see below). For a more detailed discussion on the impact of drug law reform on prevalence see chapter 5 of 'After the War on Drugs Tools for the Debate'.

Critchley directly addresses this point with the example of the fall in smoking following more effective regulation and public health led interventions over the past two decades – a point Oliver entirely fails to engage with. increased burden on the health and social services,...
Again – no evidence is provided to support this assertion. Prohibition is very effective at maximising drug harms by encouraging high risk behaviours amongst users (injecting, sharing needles etc), and ensuring drugs are of unknown strength and purity and used in dangerous environments. It actively increases drug harms to users. With such pressures removed overall harm would fall under a regulatory system in which lower risk behaviors (including non-use) could be encouraged through re-direction of enforcement spending into proven public health interventions: education, prevention, harm reduction and treatment.

.....and there would be no compensating diminution in criminal justice costs as, contrary to the view held by legalisers, crime would not be eliminated or reduced.
This is ridiculous. Even the Home Office – hardly the most emphatic supporters of legalisation – acknowledge that crime would be reduced. Currently we spend over 4 billion a year enforcing the drug laws, in turn creating somewhere between 11 and 16 billion in crime costs. We know from the experiments with heroin prescribing, in which problematic illicit drug users are brought within a legal regulated system, that their offending drops dramatically as does related illicit market activity. The crime costs associated with alcohol prohibition in Al Capone’s era largely disappeared when alcohol was re-legalised and regulated.

Perhaps it is not widely known that there is a global movement to overturn the United Nations Conventions and secure the legalisation of all drugs driven by people who see huge profits to be had from marketing another addictive substance.
An example of the daft evil-legalisation-conspiracy theories popping up with increasing frequency (as meaningful intellectual arguments prove increasingly hard to cobble together). It is a now familiar and rather sad gambit of those on the defensive in a public drugs debate to accuse the opposition of being corrupt or having sinister financial backers – usually being in the pay of Big Pharma or an evil anonymous billionaire. To note: If I have a sinister paymaster, the cheque has yet to arrive, and I honestly have no motive beyond our mission statement. Transform is a registered charity funded largely by charitable trusts (details freely available), the staff receive pretty measly salaries (grumble grumble), our many volunteers none, and unlike Dr Oliver, our books are all free online, and we don’t charge three grand for speaking engagements.
Critchley remember, whose article Oliver’s cut and paste rant is supposed to be a response to, is evidently not funded by anyone, indeed he only returned to the media spotlight reluctantly (8 years after leaving his post) because someone happened to spot an obscure blog comment post and alerted the media (wasn’t me boss). Oliver’s deliriously stupid and unfounded accusations do, of course, conveniently divert attention from having to actually engage with most of Critchley's arguments or analysis. So if you have a specific accusation about us Mr Oliver, I want to hear it. Otherwise, shut up, grow up, and lets stick to the policy debate please. With us – not some phantom enemy.
We also see a comparatively new arrival in the paranoid prohibitionist conspiracy canon, the equally risible suggestion that there is some sort of legalisation Illuminati attempting to ‘overturn’ the UN conventions, with unspecified and unstated aims left to the readers imagination, but we presume to be some sort of end of days global-hedonistic-anarchy-Sodom and Gomorrah type thing. (But who knows?).
Needless to say it’s all prize winning twaddle which would probably also be mildly offensive if it wasn’t so ridiculous. At Transform, its true, we do occasionally don hooded capes, sacrifice chickens, drink the blood of virgins and chant Latin incantations around candle lit pentagrams – but that’s just team building and nothing to do with our policy or campaigning work.
Of course there are a many individuals and NGOs seeking to reform and adapt the UN drug conventions and related institutional structures so that they are better able to deal with the challenges faced today – challenges that are dramatically different to the era in which the conventions were conceived and drafted (going back to the 40's). Indeed the need to make the conventions ‘fit for purpose’ has been highlighted at the very top of the UN drug control infrastructure. This UN drug control reform debate is both entirely appropriate (indeed encouraged and funded by the UNODC - an organisation whose initials Dr Oliver likes to put after his name having done consultancy work for them) and urgently needed given the all to obvious failings and unintended negative consequences of current global approach Oliver apparently wants to defend (consequences also acknowledged within the UNODC system itself).
Amongst the reform minded NGOs are some, including Transform, that seek UN level legal reforms that allow greater flexibility within the system for individual countries – or groups of countries - to opt out of some of the rigid prohibitionist strictures, if they democratically determine it to be in their best interest. This is a freely, widely and publicly stated position and Transform, amongst others, are welcomed by the UN to the debating forum to make their case, having been awarded ECOSOC special consultative UN status in 2006. We seek to reform and improve the obviously failing UN drug control systems, not to 'overturn' them.
Research has demonstrated that the dependency rate for "legal" drugs among those who chose to use them would be around 50 per cent, the same as tobacco, which is why major companies are turning to developing countries in order to encourage smoking.

Different populations of drug users (by drug, geography, demographics, social class, sex, ethnicity etc) display dramatically different behaviors and experience dramatically different levels of harm. Legal status has little or nothing to do with addiction rates, and to suggest that when illegal drugs are brought within a legal framework addiction rates for all drugs will magically change to 50% - on the basis that 'that’s what’s happened with tobacco’ (again referring to some mysterious unreferenced ‘research’ ) is, well, non-congruent with any conventional understanding of addiction science that I'm aware of.

Recently, a TV programme discussed the issue, and several members of the public phoned in their views, most of which were responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs.

Supporters of legal drug regulation are all ‘responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs’. Unlike many who share Oliver’s punitive prohibitionist position, however, they are able to make a distinction between use and misuse, or problematic and non-problematic use, (the mainstream public, media and political discourse does not struggle to make this distinction with alcohol) and also think that proven public health interventions are likely to be a better way forward than mass criminalisation of young people.

However, it was alarming to hear several people say that they thought that legalising drugs would be the most effective way of dealing with the problem. All of these good people believed that such action would defeat the traffickers, take the profit out of the drug trade and solve the drug problem completely.
No, not ‘solve the drug problem completely’, rather dramatically reduce the problems specifically associated with the illegal market. Legalisation and regulation does not claim to be a silver bullet or a panacea – merely reduce the carnage directly created by prohibition and the criminal control of a multi billion pound market in dangerous drugs. Also worth pointing out that random phone ins on an unnamed TV show do not necessarily represent the extensive body of expertise in the drug law reform movement.

There was no consideration given to the fact that there is a thriving black market in the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco,...
The criminal market for tobacco is around 20% of the total market, and most of that is smuggled and at least produced legally in the first instance, even if tax and excise is being avoided. The illegal market for alcohol is pretty insignificant as it is so cheap and available anyway. Would Dr Oliver prefer 100% of the illegal market to be controlled by violent criminal profiteers, or 20%? Even if we conservatively use the tobacco market breakdown as our model, with a global illicit drug market turnover estimated at £300 billion a year, we would still be looking at £240 billion a year worth of criminal opportunity being eliminated and brought within the legal sphere. Illegal markets would not disappear entirely but the extraordinary profits on offer to organised criminal networks under the current system would dramatically fall. Its basic supply and demand economics. Drugs like heroin and cocaine are worth - literally - more than their weight in gold because only because of prohibition. Without it they are just basic low value processed agricultural products.

..and no awareness of the huge administrative burden that would be created by setting up a government department to tax and administer drugs if legalisation had occurred.

Billions saved annually from criminal justice enforcement expenditure would eclipse any regulatory administrative expenses by a vast margin, and the billions generated in tax revenue would also feed positively into the equation.

There was no awareness of the devious ways in which drug traffickers would circumvent the legislation and no thought given to the huge increase in addiction/dependency that would automatically follow such an ill-advised move, with the tremendous damage that would be visited on the health services in perpetuity. The tax demands would rocket as a consequence.
Harm would fall, as would health costs, as already outlined. Financial savings across government would be huge.
It is always asserted that legalisation would take the profit out of drug trafficking and would result in a huge drop in crime but, short of the Government distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain their drugs would continue to do so if they became legal.
Under a legally regulated system the Government is in the position to determine pricing and the balance would have to be struck between keeping prices low enough to discourage illicit market activity and high enough to discourage use – the ongoing dilemma faced with tobacco pricing policy. None the less this is a a key intervention that Government are completely powerless to do under the existing unregulated criminal free for all Dr Oliver advocates. Drugs supplied under a medical prescription model to small minority of long term problematic users (this model already exists and functions both effectively and legally) would indeed be effectively free, but would only represent a small part of the total market. Worth noting that almost zero crime is committed by tobacco and alcohol addicts to support their habits. Oliver again misunderstands basic economics; Expensive drug habit = stealing, cheaper drug habit = less stealing.

It is seldom made clear which drugs the legalisers are referring to and to whom they should become available.
It’s perfectly clear if you can be bothered to read the relevant documents rather than inventing your own reality based on TV show phone ins. The lack of clarity is your own private domain of willful ignorance.

Is it the position that they wish to legalise "crack" and will all people, regardless of age and mental condition, be able to buy them?

Obviously not. You clearly don’t understand the concept of 'regulation' .

The cumulative effects of prohibition and interdiction, combined with education and treatment during 100 years of International Drug Control, have had a significant impact in stemming the drug problem.
Im sorry, but comments like this are basically beyond satire. LOOK AROUND YOU and tell me again that you think prohibition has been effective.

Legalisation would be likely to convince people that any legal activity cannot be very harmful,...
Again, utter nonsense. A key element of future policy is that part of the redirected enforcement expenditure would be spent on educating key vulnerable populations about drug risks, and encouraging responsible lifestyle choices. There is nothing about pragmatic law reform that precludes a stong anti drug message, indeed it is the enforcement of prohibition that devours the lions share of precious drug policy resources better spent on evidence based public health measures, as well as actively preventing the development of social and cultural norms around safer, more responsible drug use (or indeed abstinence).

... increase the availability of drugs...
legal regulation allows some degree of control over the availability of drugs, currently we have none at all as prohibition has abdicated all control to violent gangsters and unregulated street dealers.
...increase the harmful consequences associated with drugs and remove the social sanctions normally supported by the legal system.

Rubbish. See above.

All drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, can be dangerous if they are taken without attention to appropriate medical advice.
Obviously true – and equally obviously why they need to be appropriately legally regulated rather than left in the hands of criminals and street dealers.
Instead of calling for legalisation, it would be far more sensible, as Nick Harding suggested in his article about cannabis use in yesterday's Independent, to seek improved policies. The compassionate and sensible approach should be that we do everything possible to reduce addiction and drug abuse, not encourage it.
No one in drug law reform movement is opposed to sensible prevention measures if they can be shown to be effective, in fact the entire thrust of the movement is to realign policy towards public health interventions that can be shown to work and away from criminal justice measures that are proven to be futile and counter productive.

For more on the drugs debate, and how to respond to frequently raised concerns about drug law reform please see Transform's recent publication: After the war on Drugs; Tools for the Debate.


Anonymous said...

Good responses.

It particularly infuriates me when people with arguments as ill-thought out as these, say;

"Well, if drugs were legalised, people of all ages/mental states/etc would be able to get hold of them"

The very point of legalisation and regulation being that sales CAN be controlled.

And the assumption that everyone would be on drugs all the time, at work etc.

Like with alcohol of course...(??)

Utterly frustrating.

Anonymous said...

I read Oliver's article with quite some frustration, and even began a deconstruction myself before becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of fallacies, omissions, twists and misunderstandings. Was glad to read that you've put things straight, and much better than I could have done.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a well written response to an appallingly argued case by Ian Oliver, although I’m a bit concerned about the sacrifice of chickens by Transform to encourage staff bonding, goats are far more effective.

What gets me about the article is the way all Oliver's calims are stated as proven fact with no room for uncertainty or doubt. I suppose this is the result of a policy built on faith rather than evidence.

Perhaps the reason the Independent printed this rubbish was in an effort to put the prohibition side of the argument following the drubbing it's received in recent weeks, but yeah, if this is the best they can do law reform can't be far away.

Sadly the Guardian today (Thursday 21st) has run a much edited version of the same article by Oliver. It's quite depressing that quality newspapers are willing to print this stuff.

Anonymous said...

"Dr" Oliver needs to learn that you don't have to be pro-drug to be anti-Prohibition.

Unknown said...

"several members of the public phoned in their views, most of which were responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs"

'Several members of the public' phoning in to a TV show is of course a well-respected and accurate method of polling nationwide opinions. Most organisations, in fact, are turning to this as their principal source of surveys, although 'a friend of mine thinks that' is arguably even more cost-effective.

Unknown said...

Excellent rebuttal, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Well written response - it's just a shame that the only people who get to see it are people who already understand the problem. I think most supporters of drug prohibition would dismiss it after reading the first few lines.

It's also a bit annoying that the media (in particular newspapers) are able to get away with printing such insane and unfounded articles. If Dr. Olivers article were referring to alcohol, tobacco or even morphine it would have been thrown in the bin long before reaching the press.

Anonymous said...

what is DOCTOR Oliver a doctor of?

Anonymous said...

His Phd is in 'public administration', not medicine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for taking the time and trouble to wade through this tedious piece of work to unpick all its falsehoods and shaky thinking.

Oliver's opening assertion that most people don't want legalisation really underlines the weakness of his whole case.

I dare say that a poll in Germany in September 1938 would have shown a majority in favour of excluding Jews from public life.

According to Oliver's logic, this would have made Hitler's policies acceptable!

What should count about an idea is whether it is +correct+ or not, not how many people agree with it.

Nothing that Oliver says establishes the validity of his support for prohibition.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering which publication will contain Oliver's response to the world wide conmdemnation of editor could be that stupid?

mickhumph said...

Well done Steve. Over the years I have noticed that the supporters of the status quo have become increasingly inept and incompetent in putting forward their case. I do hope that the BBC and others continue to call on Mr Oliver because his supreme incompetence does assist who would like to see all drugs brought under effective legal control.

mickhumphreys said...

Well done Steve. Mr Oliver will have to sharpen up if he is going to succeed. Meanwhile he is assisting the anti-prohibitionists by demonstarting the toital ineptness of his case. I hope that the BBC et al continue to invite him on to their programmes in their cpntinuing and fruitless efforts to find anyone who can make any case for the status quo.

Kenneth Eckersley said...

Drug addiction & dependency are as a direct result of drug usage.

Legalisation in any form would therefore without doubt increase usage.

This would clearly increase the burden on society and the economy imposed by addicts and their behaviour.

Personally, like Ian Oliver and most other taxpayers, I prefer NOT to be funding the results of legalisation.

Instead, I would like the money to be spent on training addicts to recover themselves from addiction, and thus become productive members of their community.

Kenneth Eckersley

Steve Rolles said...


legalisation would not 'undoubtedly' lead to an increase in use - especially if marketing and promotion were strictly controlled and resources from enforcemetn redirected into prevention and treatment. Prohition - it must be said - has been remarkably ineffective at reducing use. We have to be clear about the limits of policy. But we shoudl also be clear on the burden on the tax payer - both of enforcemetn and dealing with the health consequences of use in an illegal environment, and the crime created by prohibition (see Transforms 2009 Cost benefit analysis paper for a more detailed exploration).

The nature of drug use would also be dramatically different unde r a legal regime. the products would be safer, patterns of safrer use could be encouraged, and safer using environments established - prohitbiion does the exact opposite.