Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas comes early for gangsters as three more drugs are criminalised

Three drugs were prohibited yesterday; a synthetic cannabinoid often sold as ‘spice’, the synthetic stimulant benzylpiperazine or BZP, and the synthetic sedative gammabutyrolactone or GBL which also happens to be an industrial solvent. All have been brought within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, GBL and BZP becoming class C drugs (subject to penalties of up to 2 years prison for possession or 14 years in prison for supply) whilst ‘Spice’ becomes a Class B (subject to up to 5 years in prison for possession or 14 years for supply).

legal yesterday, up to 5 years in prison for possession today

There’s a lot one could say about this move, but first it should be made clear that these drugs are clearly not without risks and there is no reason to argue with the harm assessments of them presented by the ACMD to the Government that informed the decisions (although the B decision for spice is distorted by the recent cannabis politics more than relative harm rankings). Legal status does not imply safety and never has, the 'legal highs' alcohol and tobacco highlighting this point very clearly.

However, what can be disputed is whether the move will have any positive impacts. In reality there are three likely outcomes – all of which reflect the fact that changes in legislation do not impact on overall demand for the intoxication/experiences these drugs provide:

  1. Users of these formerly ‘legal highs’ will revert to the ‘illegal highs‘ that spice etc provided an alternative or substitute for. So we can reasonably expect a rise in cannabis use (instead of spice) as well as stimulants, including ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines (instead of BZP and GBL). Whether this substitution has a positive or negative impact on risks and overall health harms is not clear, but the young people involved will certainly face increased risk both from interacting with an illegal market controlled by criminals, and from the law itself: the real risk of a criminal record or spell in prison. Criminal suppliers will be the obvious beneficiaries.

  2. Some users of these formerly ‘legal highs’, assuming they are preferred to the illegal alternatives, will continue to use them but now obtain them by via illegal sources that will inevitably emerge to meet any remaining demand if the profit opportunity presents itself. It is hard to gauge to what degree this will occur (probably not at all with spice/cannabis but reasonably likely to some extent with BZP/GBL), and it is worth noting that the use of ketamine has increased since 2006 when it was prohibited and its status changed from ‘legal high’ to ‘controlled drug’. Again criminal suppliers are the obvious beneficiaries, not young people, who in this case are indisputably worse off.

  3. A void will be created in the market that will be potentially filled by new drugs brought to market by the same back street chemists and largely unregulated business interests responsible for bringing us GBL, BZP, Spice etc. Of course it is the absence of legal regulated supply of cannabis, ecstasy etc. that created the market opportunity for these (formerly) 'legal highs' to emerge in the first place, and this latest ban will just repeat the dynamic. The inevitable next generation of ‘legal highs’ (including mephedrone for example) may or may not be less risky than their predecessors and we will certainly know even less about their risks - the young people consuming them without any useful risk information eventually providing the risk data for the ACMD to make their next assessment (assuming it is ever quorate again).
The experience with GBL illustrates this last point well, having only emerged following the prohibition of GHB in 2003. GBL and GBH are effectively the same drug (GBL rapidly turning into GBH in the body within minutes of consumption) the difference being that GBL is an industrial solvent (also widely available as a cleaning product) and almost certainly more risky (as well as being widely available - so hard to see how it can practically be restricted, although this is a separate issue).

Looking at the bigger picture then it is clear that prohibition created the problem with these ‘legal highs’ in the first place, and prohibiting them now is highly unlikely to deliver public health benefits (demand being met through other channels or substitute drugs) but will potentially create increased risks and overall social and health harms. The primary beneficiaries are the criminal suppliers who will see their markets expand as supply shifts from legal to illicit sources, and the Home Secretary and Government who get a few 'get tough' headlines from their 'crackdown'.

It is notable that at no point was legally regulating the market in these or any other drugs rationally explored at Government level. The Impact Assessments that went along with the consultations for GBL and BZP only looked at prohibiting them under the MDA or leaving them in the admittedly unsatisfactory unregulated market niche they occupied until yesterday. Neither is a good option – but the third and obviously sensible choice of strict legal regulation was never even considered. This was for transparently political rather than rational or pragmatic reasons.

This failing is particularly striking in the case of BZP as New Zealand had previously established a legal regulatory model (a ‘Class D’ appended to their A-B-C classification system) for the legally regulated supply of BZP. Transform had alerted the ACMD and Home Office to this system in 2006 when the BZP issue first rose to prominence – and whilst the ACMD apparently held meetings with their New Zealand counterparts no suggestion was made for it to be implemented (although former ACMD chair David Nutt has subsequently suggested a exploration of such a system for legal regulation of cannabis availability would be sensible). We expect politicized drug war myopia from the Home Office, but The ACMD – nominally a non-political and independent scientific entity - have no such excuse and must take some responsibility for the negative policy outcomes of their classification recommendations with these drugs. Good science in harm evaluations becomes largely meaningless when it translates into criminal justice policy and a hierarchy of prison sentences, the impacts of which go entirely un-evaluated.

Transform have proposed clear and detailed models for regulating different types of drugs
that we hope will feature in future discussions, as a first step they must be an essential element of Impact Assessments when such decisions are being made.

Monday, December 14, 2009

US takes a long hard look at the war on drugs

Last week a Bill in US Congress made surprisingly smooth progress through the House of Representatives on its way to the Senate. The House bill establishes a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission which will have two million dollars to investigate and research independently of the political process - "to review and evaluate United States policy regarding illicit drug supply reduction and interdiction".

The following is from the Miami Herald (10 Nov), U.S. may take new look at `war on drugs'

"Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean. In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between," said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who chairs the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee. ``Clearly, the time has come to take a fresh look at our counternarcotics efforts.''

What's interesting about the planned independent drug policy commission is that the idea didn't come from a pro-legalization advocate, nor any leftist or libertarian crusader. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), opposes decriminalization of drugs for non-medical use, and is as mainstream as members of Congress come.

But Engel's frustration over the results of the U.S. war on drugs is symptomatic of Washington's growing skepticism about U.S. anti-drug policies these days.

The following is from the news agency Inter Press Service, US: Reconsidering War on Drugs:

The premise of the commission is not, of course, that we’re doing great but that our policies aren’t working and we need a rethink," says John Walsh, who works on drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He says actions like this "speak to the level of frustration" over the impotence of past drug policies.

"You need to take it to the level of an independent commission to get it out of the crevices of politics," says Walsh.
WOLA released its own recommendations Tuesday on new directions these policies could take. Their report says past policies that have focused on eradication of coca and opium crops are counter-productive unless they are preceded by rural development. "Proper sequencing is crucial: development must come first," it reads, or else, without alternative livelihoods firmly in place, people will have no choice but to return to growing crops for illicit markets.

Introduced by: Rep. Eliot Engel

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act of 2009 HR 2134


The Commission shall review and evaluate United States policy regarding illicit drug supply reduction and interdiction, with particular emphasis on international drug policies and programs directed toward the countries of the Western Hemisphere, along with foreign and domestic demand reduction policies and programs. The Commission shall identify policy and program options to improve existing international and domestic counter-narcotics policy.

This is of particular interest to me because I met with a staffer from Rep Engel’s office when I was in Washington a few weeks ago, following my visit to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Conference in Albuquerque. During the meeting, which I attended with Bill Piper from the Drug Policy Alliance, Eliot Engel's staffer suggested that if it went under the radar, it could clear the Committee by December. Amazingly, they managed it.

The DPA kindly arranged a number of meetings with Senators and Congressmen in a power packed schedule over two days. In short but punchy meetings I:

  1. Presented After the war on Drugs – Blueprint for Regulation

  2. Mentioned the potential political synergy between the US and UK if David Cameron gets in. Both Obama and Cameron, before becoming leaders of their respective parties, went on the record critiquing the war on drugs (and both former users).

  3. Showed that the head of the UNODC has identified the drug control system as a major cause of harm

  4. Suggested that the US review drug policy, as per our calls for Impact Assessment.

The pitch was universally well received, but had special support from both ends of the political spectrum, in the persons of Congressmen Rohrabacher and Kucinich.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Senator Jim Webb, who has his own bill, scrutinising the whole of the US criminal justice system, (with a particular section on drug policy) making its much slower way through Committee stage: National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.

Unfortunately the Webb Bill, hit the media and the radar, and has been mauled by those trying to water it down with substantive amendments.

See below for my itinerary on Capitol Hill:

WED 18 Nov 2009

  • 10am – Meet w/ staff for Senator Cardin (D-MD). He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee

  • 11am – Meet w/ Senator Webb (D-VA). He is the sponsor of the criminal justice commission bill. Also is a member of the Armed Services Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, and the Joint Economic Committee

  • 2pm – Meet w/ staff for Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Engel is the sponsor of a bill to create a commission to examine the efficacy of eradication and interdiction efforts. He also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee

  • 3pm – Meet w/ Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). Cohen sits on the House Judiciary Committee, supports drug policy reform

  • 4pm – Meet w/ Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Rohrabacher sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee

  • 4:30pm – Meet w/ Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). Paul sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Join Economic Committee

THUR 19 Nov

  • 12:30pm – Meet w/ Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Kucinich is a former presidential candidate who chairs the subcommittee with oversight over the drug czar’s office

  • 1:30pm – Meet w/ staff for Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA). Specter chairs the Senate Crime Subcommittee. A former Republican who just changed parties earlier this year

  • 2:00 – Meet w/ Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is on DPA’s honorary bar.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy launched

On Human Rights Day 10.12.09, Transform Drug Policy Foundation welcomes the launch of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy. The launch announcement is copied below.

‘Individuals who use drugs do not forfeit their human rights...Too often, drug users suffer discrimination, are forced to accept treatment, marginalized and often harmed by approaches which over-emphasize criminalization and punishment while under-emphasizingharm reduction and respect for human rights.’
Navanethem Pillay
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, March 2009

Today, Human Rights Day(10 December 2009), is the occasion for the launch of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy.

The Centre is dedicated to developing and promoting innovative and high quality legal and human rights scholarship on issues related to drug laws, policy and enforcement.

It pursues this mandate by publishing original, peer reviewed research on drug issues as they relate to international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law and public international law, and fostering research on drug policy issues among postgraduate law and human rights students at universities and colleges around the world.

The Centre’s work is supported by a prestigious International Advisory Committee as well as two Institutional Partners.

At present, the Centre has established two ongoing projects:

  • The International Yearbook on Human Rights and Drug Policy is the first and only international peer reviewed law journal focusing exclusively on human rights and drug policy. We are now accepting submissions to the first edition of the Yearbook to be published in late 2010.

  • The Human Rights and Drug Policy Project is a joint initiative with the Irish Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, National University of Ireland, Galway. This Project will establish a Doctoral Studentship in Human Rights and Drug Policy, as well as a programme of activities designed to promote research on drug policy issues among other university human rights programmes. Applications for the Doctoral Studentship are being accepted until 18 December.

For more information, please visit or email

Project Directors: Rick Lines & Damon Barrett

International Advisory Committee: Dr Massimo Barra (founder, Villa Maraini Foundation, IT); Dr David Bewley-Taylor (Swansea University, UK); Prof Neil Boister (University of Canter(University of Essex, UK); Dr Ursula Kilkelly (University College Cork, IRE), Prof Manfred Nowak (UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment); Rebecca Schleifer (Human Rights Watch); Prof William A Schabas (Irish Centre for Human Rights); Baroness Vivien Stern (International Centre for Prison Studies, UK); Prof Gerry Stimson (International Harm Reduction Association)

Institutional Partners: International Harm Reduction Association; Irish Centre for Human Rights

The heroin and cocaine trade: clear on the problem - unclear on the solution

Foreign Policy magazine have produced an excellent graphic/schematic , by Beau Kilmer and Peter Reuter, showing the inflationary price effects of the illicit market as heroin and cocaine transit through the criminal chain from producers to users in the West (the first page is below - the full article with references is here).

What is lacking, however, is any comment or analysis of the fact that it is very specifically prohibitionist policies (combined with high, and growing, demand) that fuel this extraordinary price inflation. There is also no mention of the fact that there are parallel legal markets in both coca/cocaine and opium/heroin (for medical and other legal uses) that do not demonstrate this same dynamic, and do not feature any criminal activity whatsoever, at any point in the production and supply chain. These existing legal markets are described in some detail in Transform's latest publication 'After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation'

Unlike the analysis in the Foreign Policy piece that argues, rather lamely, that 'Answers are hard to come by in the quest to fight drugs' , the existing and functioning legal markets for heroin and cocaine, combined with the regulatory models for opiates and coca products discussed in Blueprint, do offer a basis for serioous discussions on ways to effectively combat the illicit trade and its associated problems - and also provide a sound foundation for addressing the longer term public health challenges of problematic use.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Czech Govt Allows 5 Cannabis Plants For Personal Use From 2010

From the Wall Street Journal today we learn that the Czech Republic is to join the growing list of countries decriminalising adult personal possession and use of small quantities of cannabis, and in the Czech case various other plant based drugs:

The interim Czech government, led by chief statistician-turned-Prime Minister Jan Fischer, Monday took another step towards making casual marijuana smoking a worry-free affair.

Fischer’s cabinet defined what constitutes “small amounts” of cannabis for personal use, clarifying the country’s new penal code that from next year decriminalizes cultivation and possession of the plant by individuals.

As of Jan. 1 ordinary Czechs can grow up to five marijuana plants or have several marijuana cigarettes in their pockets without fear of criminal prosecution. Previously what constituted a small amount was not specified and the police and courts loosely interpreted the penal code case by case, often resulting in incarceration of home growers.

New Drugs Report from DEMOS

A new report from DEMOS, titled CONNECTING THE DOTS includes a chapter on drug policy in the UK.

A chapter entitled 'Addicted to heroin', suggests that drug policy is complex and includes some discussion of the legalisation issue:

It includes the following:

"The most profound difference highlighted by a systems
approach is how the issue of heroin use is conceptualised, from
‘prohibitionist’ and ‘harm reduction’ to ‘addiction’ and
‘legalisation’. The prohibitionist perspective regards illegal drugs
as bad and criminalises drug use and possession; drugs policy is
seen as a matter of upholding the law’s authority. This is the
origin of ‘the war on drugs’ and is the basis of the strategy to
reduce supply and the laundering of ‘drug money’. Framing the
issue in a prohibitionist way can often mean that people and
agencies advocating alternative policies are regarded as being
‘soft on drugs’ – which remains a politically potent accusation.

This particular section cites Transform:

"The legalisation perspective argues that prohibition has
never worked and has always increased criminal activity. This
perspective presumes that there will always be people who wish
to experiment and use different drugs and that the safe way to let
them do this is to make drugs legal – but subject to regulation
and control. The claim is that such an approach would largely
remove the high level of criminal activity, seriously reducing the
health impacts. Many advocates of this approach also advocate
addressing the link between drug use and deprivation, poverty
and mental illness.52"

Monday, December 07, 2009

Reformers are not 'pro-drug' Mr Costa

Last week I received a response from Antonio Maria Costa - Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime - to a letter requesting that he desist from calling advocates of legalisation and regulation 'pro-drug'.

Here is one example from his 2009 paper 'Organized crime and its threat to security - tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control':

"The crime and corruption associated with the drug trade are providing strong evidence to a vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists to argue that the cure is worse than the disease, and that drug legalisation is the solution."

This is from the executive summary to the World Drug Report 2009:

"Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment?"

Mr Costa chose not to reply, only to respond.

Here is the letter I sent. The response is below.

Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director
United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime
Vienna International Centre
PO Box 500
A 1400 Vienna

06 October 2009

Dear Mr Costa,
Re: ‘Pro-drugs’ comments

Thank you for your letter replying to mine of 1 Dec 2008, clarifying that it is organisations like Transform to whom you are referring when you suggested at the NGO event Beyond 2008, that our position could be summed up as “No to Marlboro, yes to skunk”. You use the term “pro drug lobby” regularly to describe those calling for drug law reform, for example in the preface to the World Drug Report 2009.

I would like to raise some significant concerns with you about the use of the phrase “pro drug” in reference to organisations such as ours. This term is used pejoratively to portray supporters of legalisation and regulation in a poor light. We believe it to be inappropriate for the head of UNODC to single out a particular group of NGOs and caricature our position in this way. I would ask you to read some of our materials on our web site and consider anew whether we are indeed “pro drug”. My guess is that your use of the phrase arises out of a misunderstanding of what we stand for, combined with what is commonly referred to as a false binary. We are indeed, strongly opposed to some of the positions held by those in the anti-drug movement. However, you then make the false assumption that we must therefore be “pro-drug”.

I wish to state categorically that we are not pro drug. We are neither pro nor anti drug, rather we are in favour of strong government regulation. In our collective experience it is unhelpful for us to position our organisation as being for or against the existence or use of drugs, whether they be licit or illicit. The UK Government is not pro alcohol and tobacco, just because it maintains support for their legally regulated sale.

We support and promote drug policies that are effective, just and humane; that support the UN’s three pillars – human development, human security and human rights. Transform, you, and indeed all those involved in the UN process share the common goals of reducing the harm caused by drugs (and bad drug policies) to individuals, communities and nation states. Given that this is the case, the most appropriate way to achieve that is to engage in meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders who take an evidence-based approach. Using pejorative and un-evidenced language, in suggesting that we are pro-drug, is partisan and inappropriate, coming from the head of the agency tasked with promoting inclusivity in the engagement of those in civil society in the drug policy making process. Since gaining ECOSOC consultative status, we have been made to feel singularly unwelcome at UN events where repeated slurs have been made on our work.

Lastly, portraying us negatively does nothing to promote our engagement in the UN process and gives a poor impression of the agency charged with facilitating civil society input at the UN.

We respectfully ask that you write to confirm that you will in future desist from using this kind of un-evidenced and pejorative language.

Should you wish to meet to discuss this further, I would be happy to do so.

I thank you for taking the time to consider this request.

Yours sincerely

Danny Kushlick

Head of Policy and Communications

cc. Mr. Andrei Abramov, Chief, NGO Branch, ECOSOC
Simon Smith, United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations in Vienna
Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, UNAIDS
David Turner, Vienna NGO Committee
Alun Jones, Chief of Communications and Advocacy, UNODC

Here is Costa's response:


1 December 2009

Dear Mr Kushlick

I would like to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 6 October 2009, regarding our use of the term 'pro-drug'. I have taken note of your statement that your organisation is neither pro nor anti drugs, but rather in favour of strong government regulation and would give this my full consideration.

Yours sincerely

Antonio Maria Costa
Executive director

Friday, December 04, 2009

Transform submission to the Home Office review of the ACMD

Transform have prepared a response to the Home Office review of the ACMD available in pdf here*. The introduction is copied below.

Introductory Comments

Transform is supportive of the concept of an independent expert Government advisory body on drugs and drug policy. In such a highly emotive and politicised policy area as drugs, the existence and independent functioning of such an entity becomes all the more critical; able to objectively review and speak to the evidence and make pragmatic recommendations on key questions based on science and rational analysis, rather than politics or ideology.

Whilst Transform have been impressed by the consistent level of expertise, thoroughness and rigor of the ACMD’s outputs, we have also been critical of them on a number of fronts, both analytical and procedural. Some of these criticisms are outlined – with proposed solutions – in this submission.

However, it has become clear that the ability of the Council to function properly is critically, undermined by the nature of its constitution within the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), and its corresponding operation within the ambit of the Home Office. The discussion and proposals made in response to the questions posed by this review can hopefully offer some short term improvements, but are essentially band-aids for the wider malfunctioning of a system in urgent need of root and branch reform.

We have touched upon the more profound systemic problems with the ACMD, the classification system and the MDA throughout the following discussion as they inevitably frame other responses – but have not explored them in the depth they deserve as they are clearly beyond the remit of this narrowly defined review.

We would, however, hope that one of the recommendations to emerge from this process is for the review of the classification system, promised to Parliament by the then Home Secretary in January 2006 and then dropped by his successor, be revisited and undertaken with some urgency. The proposed review enjoyed, as far as Transform is aware, universal support in the drugs field, as well as from two Select Committees, and indeed the ACMD itself. The reasoning given by Government for abandoning the review - that it ‘believes that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively and has stood the test of time’ - is entirely unacceptable given the widespread consensus beyond Government that the system is not fit for purpose.

*The online version has some small typo/corrections to the submitted version

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Transform FOI vs Home Office suppression of research - Part V (in The Economist )

The following article is the latest installment in Transform's long running campaign to get the Government to release its publicly funded research into the effectiveness of UK drug policy . It appears in this week's Economist magazine here. For more background see the links after the article.

Secret evidence on drugs policy

Inconvenient truths

Dec 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition

The most creative attempt yet to get around freedom-of-information laws?

STRETCHING the law on the disclosure of public documents has been a competitive sport among civil servants ever since the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was passed in 2000. It requires public bodies to reveal information on request, but provides 23 get-outs, designed to protect secrets that ought to stay under wraps because they threaten national security, personal privacy and so on. The rules are often interpreted in a creative way.

Now The Economist has discovered a contender for the most inventive interpretation to date. After thinking about it for nearly two years and trying out various exemptions, the Home Office has refused to release a confidential assessment of its anti-drugs strategy requested by Transform, a pressure group. The reason is that next March the National Audit Office (NAO), a public-spending watchdog, is due to publish a report of its own on local efforts to combat drugs. The Home Office says that to have two reports about drugs out at the same time might confuse the public, and for this reason it is going to keep its report under wraps.

This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better. The department argues that releasing its internal analysis now “risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [NAO] report”, because its own analysis is from 2007 and predates the NAO’s findings. The argument uses section 36 of the FOI act, which provides a broad exemption for information that could “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

The information commissioner, who polices the FOI act, declined to comment because the case was still open. But his predecessor, Richard Thomas, who stepped down in June, questioned the novel defence. “Certainly my office was always quite sceptical of anything which said publishing information is going to confuse the public. If that’s the case, normally you need to put out some extra material alongside it to provide adequate explanation. It’s not a reason for withholding something.”

Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the parliamentary Justice Committee, which oversees the FOI act, was sharply critical of the Home Office’s excuse. “That’s really scraping the barrel. On those grounds you would have to ban the various hospital reports that are coming out at the moment [see article] because the public are confused about that too. It’s not an argument for censorship, it’s an argument for an even more open and clear debate.” The Home Office was making “a quite ridiculous attempt to hide from freedom of information,” he said.

The legality of the decision is also in doubt, after the department admitted that its refusal to release the document had not been approved by a minister, as is required by law. A Home Office spokeswoman called it an “administrative error”. Retrospective ministerial authorisation was being sought as The Economist went to press.

Legally or not, the Home Office will be able to hang on to its report for now because the FOI act takes so long to enforce. The commissioner’s office is said to be ready to order the release of the report now. If it does, the Home Office has 28 days to launch an appeal, which could take a year. In the meantime, drugs policy will continue to be shaped—or not—by research that the public paid for but may not see.


Previous coverage/background from the Transform blog:

There will be more discussion and background on this story next week.......

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Transform debates Nixon Drug Tsar on BBC World Service

I had a great opportunity today to discuss global drug policy on the BBC World Service (broadcast internationally) with Dr Robert Dupont, the first director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the second US Drug Tsar from 1973 to 1977 under former presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It was a refreshing change to have a decent amount of time to talk through some of the issues around drug policy reform in a little more detail - the segment on the Newshour show was 25 minutes, presented by Mary Ann Sieghart

You can listen to the discussion online here
(for the next 7 days), beginning around the 26 minute point.

I had a brief chat with Robert afterwards (he was phoning from the US). He congratulated me on doing a 'great job' (on the show) and was very interested in beginning a dialogue, giving me his email. I've promised to send him a copy of the new Transform publication 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation'; it'll be interesting to hear what he thinks.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Transform's 'Blueprint for Regulation' discussed on CNN international

Last week's launch of Transform's new book 'After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation' has received a large volume of high quality media coverage in the UK (see here) and Internationally (a full round up will be posted tomorrow along with detail of the US, Australia and Mexico launch events).

This week Steve Rolles was invited onto CNN international show Connect the world , to discuss the new book in the 'connector of the day' slot (it is broadcast to 200 million households although what that means in terms of actual viewers isn't clear, although going by the spike in web hits presumably lots). The clip below unfortunately does not include the 90 second trailer film that outlined the arguments in the book and introduced Transform and the author.

The Connect the day blog post for the slot also attracted, at time of writing, 210 posts, overwhelmingly supportive of the Transform position, and gratifyingly more than the levels of interest that the blog normally pulls in for the more usual showbiz guests .

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Transform discuss new book on BBC's Today Programme

On Saturday Steve Rolles appeared on BBC Radio 4's flagship current affairs show, the Today programme, to discuss drugs policy reform, specifically Transform's new book 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation' (launched last week). Interviewed by John Humphrys, Steve was joined by Tom Wainright from the Economist. You can listen to the audio on the BBC Today website here.

Other media coverage of 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation'

pic: the Guardian

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Landmark book shows how to legalise and regulate drugs

UK Parliamentary launch of 'Blueprint for Regulation'
Grannd Committee room, House of Commons

Blueprint launch press release

Transform Drug Policy Foundation today launched the internationally groundbreaking new book 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation', at 11.15am GMT, 12th November 2009, in the Grand Committee Room, House of Commons. It will also be launched in the US (see below for details), mainland Europe, Central and South Americas, Australasia and Asia.

For the first time anywhere, ‘Blueprint’ provides a detailed roadmap showing how to legally regulate all currently prohibited drugs by proposing specific models of regulation for each type, coupled with the principles and rationale for doing so. These include doctors’ prescriptions, pharmacy sales, licensed premises and off-license sales.

Speakers at the House of Commons include: Ms. Robin Gorna, (Executive Director, International AIDS Society), Professor Rod Morgan (former Chair, Youth Justice Board) and Dr Ben Goldacre (Guardian ‘Bad Science’ Columnist).

There is growing recognition globally that the prohibition of drugs is a counterproductive failure. However, a major barrier to drug law reform has been fear of the unknown – what could a post-prohibition regime look like? In answering that question, Blueprint demonstrates that legally regulating drugs is not a step into the unknown, but a tried and tested approach to control drug production, supply and use.

Transform Head of Research and the book’s author, Steve Rolles said:

“Like it or not, drugs are here to stay, so we have a choice - either criminals control them, or governments do. By the cautious implementation of a legally regulated regime, we can control products, prices, vendors, outlets, availability, and using environments through a range of regulatory models, depending on the nature of the drug, and evidence of what works. Under prohibition we have no control whatsoever, the consequences of which have been disastrous.”

“Governments that ignore the evidence and maintain the failing status quo are being negligent, reckless and irresponsible. With the regulatory systems proposed in this book now available, national and international policy makers must conduct comprehensive Impact Assessments to count the costs and benefits of prohibition, and compare them with legally regulated control. At the least, this will enable government and taxpayers to assess how well scarce resources are being spent. At best, it will trigger a genuine debate on alternatives to the futile war on drugs, leading to the replacement of prohibition with an effective, just and humane system of legal regulation.”

Craig McClure, former Executive Director of the International AIDS Society and author of the book’s foreword said:

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to show that criminalising drugs has led to a dramatic increase in drug-related harms, and that controlling and regulating their production and distribution would go a long way towards reducing those harms. A range of Latin American governments have already moved, or are moving, towards decriminalisation of drug possession and are shifting to a public health model to prevent and treat misuse of drugs. They are no longer able to tolerate the damage done to their societies by the War on Drugs.

“This is not a radical book. In fact, it is the prohibitionist model that is radical, being based exclusively on a moral judgment against drug use and drug users, and not on an evidence-based approach to reducing drug-related harms. Underscoring a century of prohibitionist policy is a deep-seated fear that moving from prohibition to a regulatory approach will lead to a ‘free-for-all’ situation. ‘Blueprint’ outlines clearly that this fear is irrational, and that reform of any kind will be vastly superior to the status quo.”

“‘Blueprint’ envisages a world in which non-medical drug supply and use is addressed through the right blend of compassion, pragmatism, and evidence-based interventions focused on improving public health. These have been missing from the debate for too long. The time for change in global drug policy is long overdue. Nothing less than the future health of individuals, families, communities and societies is at stake.”

Professor Rod Morgan former Chair of the Youth Justice Board said:

"Much of what we call the drug problem is caused by the fact that prohibition gifts the market to criminals. Government regulation and control would help stabilise transit and producer countries, significantly reduce property crime and the prison population, improve the wellbeing of drug users and their families, protect young people and vulnerable communities and save billions of pounds that could be spent on dealing with the root causes of problematic drug use."


Notes for Editors:

US Launch: US press conference with panel and Q&A at the Drug Policy Alliance Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 12 November 2009, 11:00 hours MST. Audio line for journalists available. call UK 0117941 5810 for deatils

Friday, November 06, 2009

Transform launch new guide to legal regulation of drugs

Transform is pleased to announce that our latest publication, 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation' will be launched at an event in the House of Commons on November the 12th, with simultaneous launches taking place in the US (at the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque), Australia and Mexico. December will see further launch events in Brazil and the EU parliament.

There is a growing recognition around the world that the prohibition of drugs is a counterproductive failure. However, a major barrier to drug law reform has been a widespread fear of the unknown—just what could a post-prohibition regime look like?

For the first time, ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ answers that question by proposing specific models of regulation for each main type and preparation of prohibited drug, coupled with the principles and rationale for doing so.

We demonstrate that moving to the legal regulation of drugs is not an unthinkable, politically impossible step in the dark, but a sensible, pragmatic approach to control drug production, supply and use.

  • Hardback copies are also available. Exec summaries are available in print and pdf format in English, Portuguese and Spanish.
  • UK and international media contact: UK 0117 9415810
  • For more coverage follow Transform Twitter

Media coverage (updated 13.11.09) newest first

MPs table motion calling for drugs policy based on scientific evidence

PRESS NOTICE: from the Parliamentary Drugs and Alcohol Treatment and Harm Reduction Group

Chair: Lord David Ramsbotham
Secretary: Mike Wood MP
Vice Chairs: David Burrowes MP, Paul Flynn MP, Paul Holmes MP


MPs table motion calling for drugs policy based on scientific evidence

MPs from the Cross-Party Group on Drugs and Alcohol Treatment and Harm Reduction (DATHR) have today tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling on the Government to base its drugs and alcohol policy on scientific evidence. The call comes in the wake of the forced resignation of Professor David Nutt as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

Mike Wood MP, DATHR Group Secretary, said:

"Following the debacle over Professor Nutt, there is a widespread concern now that the Government is moving away from an evidence-based drugs and alcohol policy. An open debate about the dangers of legal and illegal drugs should be welcomed by the Government."
Dr Evan Harris MP, Lib Dem Science Spokesman and former public health doctor, said:
"Ignoring scientific advice and evidence about the harms and effects of a drug classification has serious consequences for public health and for the over-criminalisation of young people. The key priority in these areas must be what is effective not political or populist posturing"

Notes to Editors:

The cross-party group on Drugs & Alcohol Treatment and Harm Reduction was established in October 2008 and brings together MPs and peers from all political parties and none with practitioner organisations delivering services to drug and alcohol users.

For further comment or interview:

DATHRG Office: 020 7219 1626

The EDM reads:
EDM 2244: Policymaking on Drugs and Alcohol

That this House believes that Government policy on drugs and alcohol misuse
and harm should be based on scientific evidence; and further believes that
the failure to do so will increase the risk to public health, and in
particular to young people.

Mike Wood
Paul Flynn
Paul Holmes
John McDonnell
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Lynne Jones
Neil Gerrard
Peter Bottomley

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tripping over Nutt

The Nutt episode has revealed the limits of the Home Office's criminal justice approach to drugs policy

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) in 1971 on a premise that was thought radical at the time - an independent panel of heavy-weight experts from a range of fields would offer policy advice on drugs not just as a criminal justice issue, but as a social phenomenon too.

Sadly, for most of its existence the ACMD has been used by the government, as one member Dr Les King put it: ‘ a rubber stamp, a poodle'. That changed with the appointment of Professor David Nutt. He is outspoken, principled, and not easily cowed by authority figures, as well as being a leading specialist with impeccable scientific credentials. That combination proved too much for the home secretary, Alan Johnson, who sacked him for telling an inconvenient truth - government policy is not evidence based.

In fact it is an evidence-free zone. Both internationally and domestically, we see drug supply and availability increasing; use of drugs that cause the most harm increasing; health harms increasing; and massive levels of crime leading to a crisis in our criminal justice systems. Illicit drug profits are enriching criminals, fuelling conflict and undermining security and development in producer and transit countries from Mexico and Guinea Bissau, to Afghanistan and Colombia, with the gravest impacts falling upon the poor and marginalised. Yet particularly at a time of economic stricture, it is crucial that drugs expenditure is cost-effective and humane, which it often manifestly is not.

That is why we have been urging the ACMD to call for a comprehensive review of policy, in the form of an independent and comprehensive impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act. An impact assessment comparing the costs and benefits of current policy with all the alternatives, from stepping up prohibition, through Portuguese-style decriminalisation, to legal regulation would be a process behind which all stakeholders genuinely interested in evidence-based policy could unite, helping break the emotive, polarised deadlock in the debate around drug policy reform. In the longer term, it would ensure greater transparency and trust in the decision-making process, and most importantly help to determine which mix of policies is most likely to deliver the best outcomes.

In the UK, it is now a requirement for all new legislation to have an impact assessment done before it comes before parliament, but this was not the case in 1971 when the MDA was enacted. As we stated during a recent meeting with the prime minister, we believe it is time to correct that anomaly. The UN should also carry out a similar exercise at international level to incorporate impacts on producer and transit countries.

Given this is such an eminently sensible call, why hasn't it happened already? For the same reason Professor Nutt was sacked - the government doesn't want the evidence made public because it knows what it would show. As Bob Ainsworth said when we put a similar request to him when he was drugs minister: ‘Why would we do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?'

Accepting the evidence will demand a much more fundamental reform of how drugs policy is handled by the government than tweaking the MDA. Just as with terrorism where security concerns are paramount and there is huge resistance to considering the root causes of radicalisation, the Home Office perceives everything in a criminal justice light. In American psychologist Abraham Maslow's analogy, when the only tool it has is a hammer, it sees all challenges as nails. Ultimately, we need to de-securitise drugs policy, get the lead on it out of the Home Office, and into the normal kind of cross-departmental framework within which other elements of government social policy operate.

This article originally appeared on the Progress website here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Double Standards from the Evening Standard on cannabis classification?

There was a welcome outbreak of common sense in Yesterday's Evening Standard, a paper more often prone to reactionary drug war posturing, in its leader editorial on the David Nutt furore:

Spin and drugs

The row over the firing of drug expert David Nutt was almost inevitable. Professor Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was dismissed at the weekend; Home Secretary Alan Johnson accuses him of running a campaign against official policy.

But Professor Nutt made his comments about the Government's policy on cannabis under extreme provocation.

The ACMD was set up in 1971 as an integral part of the Misuse of Drugs Act year: its purpose is to advise ministers on the latest scientific thinking on drugs, and the intention of the Act was for that advice to inform policy.

So it was that cannabis was downgraded from a class B to a less dangerous class C drug in 2004, on the ACMD's advice.

In 2008, however, the Government reclassified cannabis as class B, despite the ACMD's objections - not because of the science but largely thanks to a media hue and cry over the alleged dangers posed by strong "skunk" cannabis.

If that is to be the basis of policy, it is hard to see what the point of the ACMD is any more.

The bigger worry is what this suggests about ministers' attitudes to science and to spin.

Gordon Brown likes to portray himself as less obsessed with spin and headlines than his predecessor.

That was always implausible but when such cynical objectives override science, and a policy that affects many people's lives, that is truly depressing.

A decent commentary, but couldn't help from prompting me to cast my mind back to the 'media hue and cry over the alleged dangers posed by strong "skunk" cannabis', and the particular papers that were the main culprits behind it. Ahem:

Follow the latest developments and coverage on the David Nutt/ACMD story in the miniblog (right)

or on

pic from Oct 15th 2007

Monday, November 02, 2009

David Nutt is sacked from the ACMD

There's a lot of important issues raised by the ACMD chair's sacking, and the subsequent reaction. Transform have been actively engaging in the debate in a range of broadcast media, including 5 live radio, and BBC and Channel 4 news. We will have more to say on all this as the story develops over the next few days but in the mean time follow the media coverage in the Miniblog (on the right) or on Twitter.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

HASC discusses calls for an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act

One of the members of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) raised the issue of carrying out in Impact Assessment (IA) of the Misuse of Drugs Act during a witness session as part of the current inquiry into the cocaine trade. Undertaking such an IA has been one of Transform’s key recommendations in our written submission and oral evidence to the HASC inquiry.

Anne Cryer MP addressing the Advisory Ccouncil on the Misuse of Drugs Chair, Professor David Nutt:

'Can I ask you about the current legislation which is the MDA and associated legislation. The actualy act was approved by Parliament in '71, so that's 38 years ago. Do you think the time has come to have an Impact Assessment of that legislation and how it's applied today, is it still fit for purpose?'
Professor David Nutt:
'Well as I said in answers to other questions, it’s not perfect. I think as a construct, it is good. I think if it was made more evidence-based, if the act truly represented the harms of drugs, rather than having some other political overwriting - messages written into it - then I think it would be very powerful. So I think my council would be very comfortable with people wanting to review it.'
Anne Cryer:
'So you would support a total assessment of it?'
David Nutt:
'I would be very happy with that, yes.'
Professor Nutt, additionally, in reply to a series of questions question from David Winnick MP about whether it was time for a debate around the efficacy of prohibition, and whether drugs should be legalised, said:
'I think a very mature and wide ranging debate about the effects of regulation and legality on drug use is worth having."

You can view the whole session here (The section transcribed above starts at 1 hour and 17 minutes).

Transform have held a meeting with the Prime Minister requesting that he instigate an IA of the current legislation, but has yet to have any confirmation that such an IA will be launched . Now that the issue has been raised by the HASC, Transform are optimistic that it may be in the inquiries final recommendations due to be published in the New Year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Transform give oral evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee cocaine inquiry

Transform gave oral evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the cocaine trade this morning - which is available to view online, in full here.*

The session, which was 45 minutes long involved Transform's research director Steve Rolles , alongside Neil McKeganey from Glasgow University, being questioned by the committee on various aspects of cocaine production, supply and use.

Transform's contributions were essentially in line with the written submission from earlier on the year available here.

Immediately following on from the Rolles/McKeganey session, was a second set of witnesses, Mitch Winehouse (Amy Winehouse's dad and drugs worker Sarah Graham. A third set of witnesses followed immediately afterwards - Evan Harris MP, John Mann MP and Lord Mancroft. All interesting but the final session particularly worth checking out.

There's plenty to discuss about the session and the inquiry more generally - but it should perhaps wait until the inquiry report is published in the new year and we know what they actually have to say.

Media coverage

predictably, most focused on the Amy Winehouse angle, but Transform's contributions did get some coverage:


*annoyingly requires either windows media viewer or installation of the Microsoft Silverlight viewer

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Time to count and compare the costs of legal and illegal drugs

A new report published by the Scottish Government this week called 'Assessing the Scale and Impact of Illicit Drug Markets in Scotland' estimated that 'the total economic and social cost of illicit drug use in Scotland is estimated at just under £3.5bn.'

The authors noted that 96% of these costs are accrued by problematic drug use. This doesn't come as much of a surprise to Transform.

What is interesting about the report is that it recognises, for the first time, that the models used to estimate the costs of illicit drugs could, and should, be extended to legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. The report lays out how such costs could be calculated and identifies the areas where alcohol and tobacco use costs are accumulated.

The authors note that,

'For alcohol, the five areas of health, criminal justice, social care, economic and wider social costs will also incur a cost as a result of alcohol use/misuse. Examining each cost area individually, many of the costs relating to recreational drug use could be estimated for alcohol use/misuse....

'A model for the social and economic costs for tobacco costs would include three of the five cost areas discussed above for alcohol use/misuse, namely health costs, economic costs and wider social costs. The biggest driving force throughout the model will be the health impact of smoking.'

Carrying out this research and then comparing it to the social and economic costs of illicit drug use would be a useful tool in disaggregating drug harms from drug policy harms - something Transform has long been calling for. It would also be an important step towards an impact assessment of prohibition versus legal regulation.

Problematic use of legal and illegal drugs - which creates the bulk of these economic and social costs - is caused overwhelmingly by poverty, deprivation and lack of wellbeing. David Liddell emphasises this point in today's Scottish Sun newspaper.
'The stark reality is there is no quick fix. The roots [of problematic drug use] lie overwhelmingly in poverty - and we are now seeing these problems running from generation to generation. It is little wonder there are strong links between being poor, drugs dependence and crime. Desperate people take desperate measures - they have very little to lose. We must think hard about how we breathe life into those ravaged communities.'

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Russian Drug Czar calls for fumigation of poppies in Afghanistan

On September 24, during his visit to the US, Victor Ivanov, Director of Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics (Russia's Drug Czar), gave a talk at The Nixon Center on "Drug Production in Afghanistan: A Threat to International Peace and Security." Ivanov discussed the effects of drug trafficking on Russia and the world and called for U.S.-Russian cooperation in eradicating the trade. His remarks can be read in their entirety here; a short summary of the event is also available.

Following the extracts from his speech below, is a press briefing from the White House showing that the US administration gave Ivanov short shrift.

In a speech that repeatedly calls for the liquidation and elimination of the Afghan poppy crop, Ivanov extolls the virtues of aerial fumigation. A plan which, to their credit, the Americans have opposed.

The speech is as revealing for what Ivanov doesn't say, as for what he does. Pointedly blaming the Afghans and Americans for the heroin being used in Russia, Ivanov refuses to acknowledge that the demand for heroin in Russia could have anything to do with Russia's domestic and foreign policy, either now, with regard to creating social conditions that drive their citizens into problematic drug use, or their previous interventions in Afghanistan itself.

History apparently began when the US went into Afghanistan in 2001 in order to achieve "Enduring Freedom"!

Well worth a read of the entire speech, Ivanov repeatedly refers to opium/heroin as a security threat. Failing to understand or publicly acknowledge that it is the prohibition that creates the threat, not the drug.

I have pulled out some quotes I think are worthy of specific comment:

Ivanov fails to see any irony in this statement:

"Along with that, being here, at the Nixon Center, is good reason to recall that the “War on Drugs” was declared exactly 40 years ago by President Richard Nixon. And that decision was certainly no coincidence."

Clearly Russia has had only peaceful and benign intent toward its neighbour over the millenia:

"Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that the instability and military confrontation of the last eight years created in the long-suffering Afghanistan perfect conditions for the rise of a global Narco-State which alone is producing more opiates than the whole world did ten years ago."

Afghanistan takes the full blame for Russia's dreadful habit:

"For Russia the task of liquidation of Afghan drug production is an unrivaled priority as it is Russia that has today become the main victim of this phenomenon.
More than 90 per cent of drug-addicts in our country are consumers of Afghan opiates. Up to 30 thousand people die of heroin annually."

The drug, not the regime of prohibition gets the blame here:

"It must be admitted that heroin ruins young statehoods and kills democracy.
This situation can be rightfully considered a unique global historical phenomenon and qualified according to the UN Charter as a threat to international peace and security."

Some sense here:

"However, what lies behind the global Afghan drug production?
Its main cause is the ongoing geopolitical tension in Afghanistan, induced by the growing resentment of the population, especially Pashto peoples, against foreign military troops which inevitably creates numerous centers of resistance and micro-conflicts."

And the solution to this geopolitical problem?:

"But the clue to solving the problem of Afghanistan lies in the hands of the United States."

"Refusal to eliminate drug crops, declared by Mr. Richard Holbrooke in Trieste as the basis of the new strategy to fight Afghan drugs, is misguiding [misguided ed].
In this connection, the Afghan drug issue should be made one of the main topics and tracks of Russian-American relations."

Be great if it was.

But first some more history:

"Next year, the whole world will commemorate the 65th anniversary of the great Victory over Nazi Germany. The creation of a Russian-American Anti-Drug Coalition by that time would have not only pragmatic, but also a deep symbolical meaning.
After all, it was by virtue of the prompt creation of an anti-Hitler coalition in 1941, immediately after Nazi Germany’s aggression against the USSR, that the defeat of Nazism and militarism became possible in 1945."

Because drugs are like Nazis...but more evil. What would be really interesting would be a Russian-American Drug Coalition, set up by next year that took a global lead toward a peaceful resolution of the war on drugs; not anti-drug, but anti-war...

And again, wrong analysis leads Ivanov to assess opium/heroin as the threat to international peace and security, rather than the war on drugs:

"Our analysis shows that in order to achieve this objective it is necessary to raise the issue of Afghan drug-production to the level of a threat to international peace and security. This would make it possible to turn the campaign against Afghan drug-production into priority for the international community and put the instruments provided by the international law to full use."

However, despite Russian pressure, US resolve to maintain its opposition remains strong. Here is an excerpt from the White House press briefing for 23 September:

Ian Kelly
Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
September 23, 2009

QUESTION: Russia, and particularly its drug czar, is urging the U.S. to go back to poppy eradication by air. What's your response to that?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. We did take note of that. Of course, Russia is one of the major destination countries for Afghan heroin, and of course, because of that, has been long concerned about international counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan. They've been active in the Paris pact, a consortium of nations committed to assist Afghanistan combat illicit drug production and trafficking.

As you note, Viktor Ivanov, who is the director of their anti-drug agency, is in Washington, and tomorrow will have meetings with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, with Director Kerlikowske, and here at State with David Johnson, who's our Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

In general, I think just to sort of lay out what our general policy has been, we believe that large-scale eradication efforts have not worked to reduce the funding to the Taliban. And we believe that it's also worked as a kind of a recruiting tool by driving farmers who have lost their livelihood into the hands of the insurgency. So we're supporting the Afghan Government's efforts to provide farmers with alternative means of supporting themselves.

And because of this new policy, we're reducing support for eradication. We do provide some targeted support for Afghan-led efforts where we think they will work on a case-by-case basis. But our assistance will focus on increased efforts for alternative crop development, and this is part of our overall strategy in Afghanistan of supporting the people and Government of Afghanistan to stand on their own.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Calls for reform grow

This month we have seen a plethora or articles in UK newspapers calling for an end to prohibition. There have been so many we thought we’d bring you the best of them in one blog.

The articles are written by a variety of people including a former chief constable, a well-known British philosopher and the former President of Brazil not to mention a number of journalists.

This increase in the number of articles in the British press reflects a change that is going on globally. As a number of Latin American countries move towards decriminalisation, it is sad that the UK government is so far behind in its thinking.

First up was Simon Jenkins in the Guardian who argued that the War on Drugs was ‘moral idiocy’ and praised the Latin American governments for their courage in admitting that current policy has failed.

He said,

‘The underlying concept of the war on drugs, initiated by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is that demand can be curbed by eliminating supply. It has been enunciated by every US president and every British prime minister. Tony Blair thought that by occupying Afghanistan he could rid the streets of Britain of heroin. He told Clare Short to do it. Gordon Brown believes it to this day.

This concept marries intellectual idiocy – that supply leads demand – with practical impossibility. But it is golden politics. For 30 years it has allowed western politicians to shift blame for not regulating drug abuse at home on to the shoulders of poor countries abroad. It is gloriously, crashingly immoral.’

Days later in The Observer, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, summarised the report he and the former presidents of Colombia and Mexico co-authored.

‘It is time to admit the obvious. The "war on drugs" has failed, at least in the way it has been waged so far. In Latin America, the "unintended" consequences have been disastrous. Thousands of people have lost their lives in drug-associated violence. Drug lords have taken over entire communities. Misery has spread. Corruption is undermining fragile democracies…

‘The core conclusion of the statement is that a paradigm shift is required away from repression of drug users and towards treatment and prevention. The challenge is to reduce drastically the harm caused by illegal narcotics to people, societies and public institutions.’

British philosopher John Gray got in on the act in The Guardian a few days later arguing that ‘the case for legalising all drugs is unanswerable.’

He wrote,

‘A decade or so ago, it could be argued that the evidence was not yet in on drugs. No one has ever believed illegal drug use could be eliminated, but there was a defensible view that prohibition could prevent more harm than it caused. Drug use is not a private act without consequences for others; even when legal, it incurs medical and other costs to society. A society that adopted an attitude of laissez-faire towards the drug habits of its citizens could find itself with higher numbers of users. There could be a risk of social abandonment, with those in poor communities being left to their fates.

‘These dangers have not disappeared, but the fact is that the costs of drug prohibition now far outweigh any possible benefits the policy may bring. It is time for a radical shift in policy. Full-scale legalisation, with the state intervening chiefly to regulate quality and provide education on the risks of drug use and care for those who have problems with the drugs they use, should now shape the agenda of drug law reform.’

Just days later, the Executive Director of the UNODC wrote an article in the Observer disputing these arguments. He initially focussed on the claim made by John Gray and many others including Transform, that the costs of prohibition outweigh the benefits.

Costa wrote,

‘Some even say that the costs of prohibition far outweigh the benefits (although there is no body count of people who haven't died thanks to drug control versus those who have been killed in the crossfire).’

He then went on to argue that,

‘Maybe western governments could absorb the health costs of increased drug use [that he assumes would occur once drugs were legalized], if that's how taxpayers want their money to be spent.

‘But what about the developing world? Why unleash an epidemic of addiction in parts of the world that already face misery, and do not have the health and social systems to cope with a drug tsunami?

‘Critics point out that vulnerable countries are the hardest hit by the crime associated with drug trafficking. Fair enough. But these countries would also be the hardest hit by an epidemic of drug use, and all the health and social costs that come with it. This is immoral and irresponsible.’

A few months ago we had a comment posted on the Transform blog refuting this argument.

‘Was it just me or did someone else pick up the massive contradiction underlying the WDR's main argument for continued prohibition? In section 2.1 of the report, the UNODC crowd pretty much concedes that a legalize-tax-and-regulate framework would work...but only in developed countries. Developing countries are thought unable to impose meaningful taxes and regulations on a legal drug industry, and therefore, would see their consumption levels explode. Thus, global prohibition must continue for the sake of poor countries (the condescension is almost unbearable).

‘Yet those same developing countries are expected to, simultaneously,: a) successfully interdict supply; b) reform police forces and judicial systems; c) fight corruption in the face of massive illegal profits; d) address the problem of slums and dereliction in cities; e) close open drug-markets; f) provide universal access to drug treatment; etc. etc. If the governments of developing countries are considered too weak to tax and regulate small national drug markets, why would anyone think them capable of performing that daunting list of tasks? The contradiction is so glaring that my eyes hurt.’

On the same day, and in the same newspaper, that Costa, wrote his piece, Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable, argued that the War on Drugs was a ‘not only very expensive and misdirected activity, but counterproductive and harmful’.

‘More recently, I have been working abroad and the problems that exist worldwide are recognised at the highest levels, with most acknowledging the harmful unintended consequences [including Costa himself] of the current approach. A huge criminal market (with enormous financial incentives) has been created using corruption and violence to make its huge profits.

‘Efforts to destroy crops only destroy peasant farmers' livelihoods and the environment, while the poppy fields and coca plants spring up elsewhere, with producers adapting to meet the demand. Growing other crops is futile if the demand for drugs remains.

‘Our limited resources are directed towards this futile "war" while public health, which is clearly the first principle of drug control, remains an impoverished baby brother.’

He went on to call on

‘police leaders throughout the world to challenge the status quo and focus resources on serious, organised criminals, not blighted users, and to focus on harm reduction not some pie-in-the-sky dream of a drug-free society. Where they lead, politicians will follow.’

In the same edition of The Observer there was a leader article calling for ‘a new drugs policy’ and arguing for an honest evaluation of the current drugs laws.

‘The entire framework of the debate must change. In Britain, we operate with laws that start from the premise that drug use is inherently morally wrong, and then seek ways to stop it. Instead we must start by evaluating the harm that drug use does, and then look for the best ways to alleviate it; and we must have the courage to follow that logic wherever it leads.’

This has been Transform’s position from the start. Now is the time to assess the impacts of the current policy and look to a future where drug use is not a moral issue but a public health issue where drugs are controlled and regulated by governments not gangsters.