Monday, April 29, 2013

Unitarians vote overwhelmingly in favour of Royal Commission on Drugs

Last week, at the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches' General Assembly meeting at Nottingham University, the Unitarians became one of the first faith groups in the UK to speak out on the drugs issue and call for a Royal Commission on Drugs or an independent inquiry into drug policy. The reolution was passed with overwhelming support;  154 voting in favour, 3 against and 1 abstention.

The vote followed presentations from David Barrie, Chair of Make Justice Work, and Jane Slater, Head of Operations at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

The motion stated:

“This General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches asks the UK Government to establish without delay a Royal Commission or an interdepartmental public inquiry to: 
1) examine the present UK drug-related health and crime situations and compare those in other countries 
2) examine and review the efficacy of current UK legislation in relation to drugs both those which are illegal and those which are legal 
3) review options for alternatives to the current criminal justice-based approach, drawing on the experience of other countries, including the appropriateness of the medicalisation and decriminalisation of drug substances and the treatment of addictions.”

The Unitarians are now embarking upon a campaign to persuade the government to set up a Royal Commission or interdepartmental inquiry, which would give alternative approaches the consideration they deserve and represent an important first step away from counterproductive prohibitionist policies.

The Unitarians now join a growing list of public figures and organisations who want to see a review of UK drug policy:

  • Nick Clegg DPM, personally
  • Bob Ainsworth MP, former Labour Home Office drugs minister and secretary of state for defence
  • Peter Lilley MP, former Conservative Party deputy leader
  • Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party leader
  • The Home Affairs Select Committee
  • The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform
  • Liberal Democrats (almost unanimously at Conference 2012)
  • Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood
  • Carel Edwards, former Head of the European Commission's Anti-Drug Coordinating Unit
  • Professor John R Ashton CBE, Chair UK Public Health Association
  • Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, outgoing President of the Royal College of Physicians 
  • Professor Richard Wilkinson, Author of 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better'
  • Professor Neil McKeganey, Centre for Drug Misuse Research, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Ben Bowling, Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, King's College London
  • Dr Nick Heather, Emeritus Professor of Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Northumbria University
  • Dr Linda Cusick, Reader in Substance Use, University of the West of Scotland
  • Professor David Nutt, Chair of Neuropsychopharmacology, Imperial College London, and Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs
  • A range of other organisations including the Prison Governors Association, Health Poverty Action, The Howard League for Penal Reform, and Human Rights Watch.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

News release: Prison Governors Association criticises the War on Drugs and calls on government to explore alternatives

News release 25/04/13

This week the Prison Governors Association became the latest organisation to sign up in support of an international initiative that calls upon the government to “quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches”.

50 Years of the War on Drugs – Time to Count the Costs, is a global project that has the support of nearly 70 NGOs around the world and two former presidents.

Eoin McLennan-Murray of the PGA said:

“The blanket prohibition on class A drugs allows criminals to control both the supply and quality of these drugs to addicts who turn to crime to fund their addiction.  The Prison Governors' Association believe that a substantial segment of the prison population have been convicted of low level acquisitive crimes simply to fund that addiction. 
The current war on drugs is successful in creating further victims of acquisitive crime; increasing cost to the taxpayer to accommodate a higher prison population and allowing criminals to control and profit from the sale and distribution of Class A drugs. A fundamental review of the prohibition-based policy is desperately required and this is why the Prison Governors' Association are keen to support the 'Count the Costs' initiative.” 

Martin Powell, co-ordinator of the Count the Costs initiative said:

"We are delighted the Prison Governors Association - whose members witness the day to day futility of the UK's current enforcement-led approach to drugs - is supporting the global Count the Costs initiative. Increasingly, those involved in picking up the pieces of our failed war on drugs want to see alternatives to prohibition explored. The coalition should heed the PGA's call, and commission a comprehensive policy review as a matter of urgency."



Eoin McLennan-Murray:

Martin Powell, Count the Costs Co-ordinator: 07875 679301

Notes for Editors:

Supporters of the Count the Costs initiative include:

Human Rights Watch, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the International AIDS Society and the Washington Office on Latin America.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Former President of Brazil

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, Former President of Mexico and Director of the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalization

Michael Kazatchkine, Former director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

Sir Richard Branson, Founder and chairman of Virgin Group

For the full list of supporters see:

At the PGA Conference in 2010 the following motion was passed:

“This conference believes that the current “War on Drugs” is expensive and ineffective and mandates the NEC to engage with the prisons minister to consider other ways of tackling the drugs problem both within prisons and the wider community.”

A recent letter organised by rap mogul Russell Simmons attracted a wide range of signatories, including:
Susan Sarandon, Justin Bieber, Harry Belafonte, Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Ron Howard, Mark Wahlberg

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Academic refutes 'soft on cannabis' media claims

On 5 April the Daily Mail published this news article: The price of going soft on cannabis: Labour's experiment 'pushed up hard drug use and crime'.

The public letter reproduced below and here (PDF) from Dr Nils Braakmann of Newcastle University emphatically refutes the way that the Mail and a number of newspapers reported his research.

Contrary to the news reports, his research (which were only provisional findings presented at a conference, not yet published in a peer reviewed journal) did not show that reclassifying cannabis from Class B to Class C led to an absolute increase in cannabis use or crime. He says that he never looked at this, and the research results: "should not be interpreted as evidence that the declassification was “bad”. "

He goes on to say:

"...our estimates do not contradict potential aggregate crime reducing effects of cannabis depenalisation. As stated earlier, it is quite possible that the aggregate or regional effects of cannabis depenalisation are positive."

The Daily Telegraph piece making similar inaccurate claims for the research has now been removed, but the other reports mentioned in Dr Braakmann's letter, including by the Daily Mail, remain online. The report was cited again in the Mail on Sunday in this article from 21 April.

It was robustly challenged by Ewan Hoyle of Lib Dems for Drug Policy Reform on in an article titled 'The sloppy journalism that misrepresents cannabis use'.

Prof Alex Stevens of the University of Kent also challenged another piece of research discussed in the coverage, carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which relates specifically to the experiment with tolerant cannabis policing in Lambeth (London), and was cited by the Mail and the Telegraph as further evidence of the negative impact of cannabis depenalisation.

This story provides yet another example of how the need to support a particular policy perspective can distort objective science reporting. Whilst a common theme in science reporting generally, drug policy has a particularly poor record.   

Dr Nils Braakmann's letter
11 April 2013 
To the interested public, 
Some further comments on the press coverage and contents of my research on cannabis consumption, consumption of other drugs and crime. 
I am the lead researcher on the cannabis research piece that received (somewhat distorted) coverage in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph on Friday, April 5, 2013, and the Daily Star on Saturday, April 6, 2013.  
Several members of the interested public have contacted me to ask questions about the research in question. The following is a brief reply to these questions. It is also an extension to our initial reaction to the press overage published on on Friday, April 5, 2013. I also recommend the excellent comment and summary of our findings (as well as those by Adda, McConnel and Rasul) by Ewan Hoyle. 
First and foremost, this research is in its early stages and was presented in front of a professional audience at the Royal Economic Society annual conference on Friday. It was never intended to reach an audience beyond professional scholars at this conference. The paper is not publicly available, we never made any press release and we never talked to any journalist.  
My personal opinion is that research should only influence public policy or public opinion after undergoing peer review, not necessarily because all peer-reviewed research is correct, but because (a) peer review ensures that the work has at least received some outside scrutiny and (b) only after peer review and the final publication of a piece of research can we be sure that the respective study will not change anymore (of course, results can still be overturned by later research – and often are as human knowledge progresses).  
As such, I am deeply unsympathetic towards premature press coverage of work in progress. Of course, I understand the freedom of the press to cover any story in the public domain, but I think it is vital that the press and the public are aware that academic conferences are not press conferences. Discussion of early-stage academic work at conferences is a necessary step in the development and maturing of academic papers, but results are often still preliminary and work at this stage will regularly undergo changes. As such even competent and best-case coverage of such work always runs the risk of commenting on results that might not be there in the next revision of an academic paper. 
In this case my work has also been misquoted and misrepresented by sections of the press. While I would still prefer not having to discuss the results in the open at this point in time for the reasons explained above, I feel it is important to be clear about the things we do, the things we find and in particular the things we do not find: 
1) Contrary to press reports, we do not find any absolute increase in cannabis consumption, (a) because we never looked at absolute increases in cannabis consumption and (b) because as far as I know there has never been any absolute increase in cannabis consumption. 
2) We also do not find any absolute increase in crime, essentially for the same reasons. 
3) We also do not evaluate the 2004 declassification. Our interest was whether cannabis consumption might lead to increased criminal behaviour among consumers. The obvious difficulty here is to rule out that criminal behaviour causes cannabis consumption or that things like lifestyle changes cause both cannabis consumption and criminal behaviour. The 2004 declassification provides a relatively clean experiment to answer this broader question as it should only influence cannabis consumption but not the other things. Our basic idea is that the declassification and the associated changes in punishments has different effects on different groups of people: There are some people who did not consume cannabis under the old punishment regime but start doing so after the declassification. For some of these people, deterrence through the earlier tougher punishments mattered. We compare the behaviour of the previous non-consumers with the behaviour of people who already smoked cannabis prior to the declassification. The 25% reported in the press is the relative difference in the change in annual consumption between those two groups (note that this is slightly simplified and the actual piece is more technical). It arises as previous non-consumers have increased their consumption post-2004, while previous consumers decreased theirs. 
4) As pointed out by Professor Alex Stevens from the University of Kent there is a risk that these changes just reflect that consumption for non-consumers can only increase, while it can change in both ways for the other group. We are aware of this possibility and are currently looking for ways to investigate and possibly get around this issue. One reason why we present research at conference is to have an informed conversation with other academics about such problems and look for solutions. 
5) Again somewhat simplified: We find similar changes for (low-level) crime and behavioural problems. We do not find anything for cannabis consumption and the consumption of other drugs. 
6) We make it very clear in the paper that our study does not say anything about the overall effect of the 2004 declassification and our results should not be interpreted as evidence that the declassification was “bad”. To quote from the conclusion: “Overall, the estimates indicate that cannabis consumption may induce people to adopt a riskier lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with low-level criminal activities, such as criminal damage, anti-social behaviour, fighting and victimisation. One should keep in mind that our estimates do not say anything about whether individuals are turned towards a life of crime – in fact this seems somewhat unlikely given the choice of criminal activities and the overall picture that emerges from the estimates (after all hardened criminals do not necessarily spend their time spraying graffiti). […]  
Finally, it should be stressed that our estimates do not contradict potential aggregate crime reducing effects of cannabis depenalisation. As stated earlier, it is quite possible that the aggregate or regional effects of cannabis depenalisation are positive as found in Adda, McConnel and Rasul (2011).”
I hope this clarifies a few things. I am very happy to have a further discussion with the wider public on these results, but I would suggest that this should wait until a point in time when this research is finished and published. 
Kind regards, 
Dr Nils Braakmann

Monday, April 22, 2013

Transform is recruiting

We are currently looking for an Administrator, to work in our head office in Bristol (21 hours per week).

The main duties are to oversee the financial and operational administration of the organisation. For a full job description and person specification, please download the files below.

Now is a great time to join the drug policy reform movement, so if you think you have the required skills and would like to apply, please send your CV and cover letter to

The closing date for all applications is Friday 10th May at 12.00 noon

Interviews will take place on Friday 17th May 2013.

Job description (PDF)

Person specification (PDF)