Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Ipswich murders and the drugs debate

The terrible murder of five street sex workers in Ipswich over the past fortnight has provoked a burst of media debate on the prohibitions of both drugs and sex work - and the potential impacts of our current criminal justice oriented policies that attempt to control the respective trades.

The media coverage has been fascinating and varied. There have been a number of opinion pieces that have argued directly for licensing of brothels and the prescribing of heroin.

Mary Ann Seighart in a Times article 'Drugs: why we should medicalise, not criminalise' writes that:

"Drug addiction is a medical condition; it should not be treated as a criminal offence. The crime that results from drug addiction is a direct result of the drugs’ illegality. The organised criminal gangs, with their violence, corruption and money laundering; the street gangs, with their gun crime, stabbings and intimidation; the muggers, burglars, car thieves and shoplifters, who steal to fund their habit; the dealers who try to create new addicts; and finally, the prostitutes who put their health and lives at risk; all this crime and suffering could be wiped out if the drugs were available, free, on prescription"

Transform, get a nod when she then goes on to say that

"In European cities, where heroin is available on prescription, property crimes by drug-users have dropped by as much as a half. And think of the effect that widespread prescribing would have on turf wars, gang violence, gun crime, street dealing and prostitution. An excellent report from the Transform drug policy foundation* also points out: “The largest single profit opportunity for organised crime would evaporate, and with it the largest single source of police corruption.”

Transform estimates that the prison population would fall by between a third and a half, ending overcrowding and the need to build more jails. Billions of pounds spent enforcing prohibition and coping with its consequences would be saved. Hundreds of thousands could be treated as patients rather than criminals. The number of drug-related deaths would fall dramatically. And desperate young women could be rescued from pimps, potential rapists and murderers."

A similar pro reform piece appeared by Deborah Orr in the Independent. She focuses on sex work, but has been a long time supporter of drug law reform. The Guardian, as mentioned in the previous blog entry has run online articles on both sides of the drugs debate, with Nick Davies, whose articles on heroin were so influential back in 2001, arguing for more heroin prescribing, and John Harris, who flags up the difficulties in making crack legally available. This week the Guardian printed a well argued piece by Simon Jenkins that focuses on the political cowardice getting in the way of reform.

Inevitably there has been a reaction to this talk of 'legalisation' from other opinion writers who see it very differently.

Will Self (who is Deborah Orr's husband) argued in the Evening Standard that the 'legalise' drugs and prostituion position was over-simplistic. This seems a bit harsh given that he appears to be basing this on other columnists without reading the detailed work done by people in the public health arena, academia and drug related NGOs. But there you go, journalists can be a bit lazy and opinionated. David Aaronavitch in the Times down a similar route but becomes a self appointed expert on the basis that he has read the Home Office consultation paper 'Paying the Price'.

Melanie Phillips has also inevitably stepped up to represent the reactionary moral-indignation position with a familiar sounding tirade against the evils of pragmatic drug law reform. As ever she studiously avoids the reality of widespread dug use and dodges well known facts (some pointed out in the online comments below her article) like; cannabis use has fallen since it was reclassified or; Holland has a far lower rate of cannabis and heroin than the UK. Her initial tack is to argue, strangely it must be said, that replacing criminal markets with legally regulated ones wouldn't reduce crime or get rid of illegal markets. Secondly she argues that legality would condone and encourage use - as if somehow prohibition has reduced/eliminated it. She assumes her self-appointed moral high ground by calling for the continuation and ramping up of policies that have, for decades, done the exact opposite of what she seeks. The reformers, we are told, would 'institutionalise harm and enslave millions in a post-moral degraded universe' - yet that is exactly what the criminal justice approach she advocates has already achieved.

There is something particularly troubling about those, like Phillips, who argue there is any moral justification for increasing harm to vulnerable individuals as a way of discouraging certain behaviours in others. Not only does the past 40 years provide no evidence that this is an effective strategy, but it is profoundly unethical.

Yet Phillips, for all her dodgey stats and intellectual wrongness, does at least make a good argument and attempt to see it through. This cannot be said for the utterly vile Richard Littlejohn who appears to deliberately court controversy by being as unpleasant as possible. In a recent Daily Mail piece Spare us the 'People's Prostitute' routine... his bile takes the familiar reactionary route of blaming the victims, but doesnt stop there. He then dances on their graves:

"the deaths of these five women is no great loss. They weren't going to discover a cure for cancer or embark on missionary work in Darfur. The only kind of missionary position they undertook was in the back seat of a car."

Despite a few grains of truth in the Littlejohn piece ('they did it for drugs'), he doesn't appear sophisticated enough to actually take his spleen venting to any sort of conclusion. He doesnt call for anything, or recommend any policy response - he just says vile things about some poor murdered women, and their families, and then levers in some unrelated insults at the Prime Minister.

So where does all this opinion lead us?

The media debate, despite emerging from tragedy and despite the efforts of some Mail columnists, has overall been a valuable and suprisingly mature one. It has provided a useful platform for those advocating pragmatic regulated alternatives to the illegal markets created by various prohibitions.

It would be wrong to suggest that a particular law or policy is directly 'to blame' for the murders. Clearly the killer could have targetted women in brothels who were legally recieveing drugs on prescribtion had he chosen to. However, these events have focused attention on the way the laws on drugs and prostitution drives these markets underground and far from eradicating the problems, makes them far worse, fuelling crime and maximising riskes for the people involved - in this case putting vulnerable women directly in harms way. So whilst not directly to blame, it is unarguable that wrongheaded prohibitions can create high risk environments that make violence more likely, and the reporting of this story has made this point very clear.

The Government has not emerged with any credit whatsoever, in particular regarding its shelving some of pragmatic recommendations made by a long and detailed Home Office consulation on prostitution that reported in 2004. The Observer front page headline concerned the fact that No 10 'blocked move to legalise prostitution' because of fears about the media reaction to such moves. Quite revealing, and one suspects, not disimilar to No.10s reaction the the drugs report produced by No.10's own Strategy Unit in 2003 (which they tried not to publish).

There is something going on here with this debate that suggest progress to me. The concept being promoted by the Government and the likes of Melanie Phillips is that drugs and sex work are morally unacceptable and on that basis alone their prohibitions are justified. On the other hand there appears to be a growing public and media awareness that policy needs to be pragmatic, accepting of reality, and be based on evidence of effectiveness rather than just moral indignation. The latter position appears to have come out on top this time round, and just for once, the Government are being portrayed as irresponsible for not legalising something.

Paying the Price - Home Office consultation document
Paying the price - final report

Monday, December 18, 2006

Guardian Comments On Prohibition

This pithy comment from the Guardian divides the prohibitionist camp into the ignorant and the political.
Whereas this second comment from the Guardian says the legalisation argument flounders on the extremity of dangers imposed on society by crack.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Australian Justice Minister Seeks to Ban Language

This story highlights the control freakery of those in power in Australia. Prior to a crisis meeting on ice, the justice minister, Chris Ellison, has called for the use of the terms "party drugs" and "recreational drugs" to be outlawed. So it's no surprise that he is against injecting rooms despite the fact that these have proved to be effective in reducing crime and rates of addiction as has been amply demonstrated in the Canton of Zurich.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

End Drugs Prohibition and Sign Our Petition

This petition goes directly to Downing Street, so please sign up and make our case for ending prohibition heard!

At last! polonium 210 in cigarettes hits the news

I have been researching this story for a number of years – that cigarettes contain radioactive polonium and lead – but never made any progress getting it into the news. A few times I have contacted science correspondents and never received a reply. I guess it just seemed like too much of a wacko-conspiracy theory, a bit like exploding cigars and Fidel Castro.

And then… the Litvinenko murder happens and polonium appears in the news as a major story, for the first (and probably last) time ever. And now the story I have been twittering on about to my generally disbelieving colleagues for years hits the news - at long last.

So what’s it all about?

Basically there has been various research done over the past 30 years or so to show that there is radioactive polonium-210 and lead-210 present in cigarettes. This fact whilst little known, is well acknowledged in the scientific community and beyond dispute.

There is a lot of debate about the possible health impacts of this radioactive content but it is clear that it does enter the lungs in smoke and there is a reasonable case made by a number of authors that this is the direct cause of some, possibly even most, smoking related lung cancer. It is important to note that there is considerable controversy about the extent of the carcinogenic effect of the radioactive content of the cigarettes as this exchange of letters in New England Journal of Medicine from 1982 clearly demonstrates.

Various estimates put the level of radiation absorbed by a pack-and-a-half a day smoker at the equivalent of 300 (Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene) to 800 (The Office of Radiation, Chemical & Biological Safety at Michigan State University) chest X-rays every year – other reports suggest it is much higher, some up to 22,000.

High profile figures have got involved in this debate over the years: The US Surgeon General C Everett Koop stated publicly in 1990 that tobacco radiation is probably responsible for 90% of tobacco-related cancer.

Researchers have induced cancer in animal test subjects that inhaled polonium 210, (Yuille, CL; Berke, HL; Hull, T. 'Lung cancer following Pb210 inhalation in rats.' Radiation Res, 1967. 31:760-774) but were unable to cause cancer through the inhalation of any of the non-radioactive chemical carcinogens found in tobacco.

Some researchers suggest that the radioactive particles are relatively low risk if the exposure is averaged out over the entire exposed surface – but that with inhaled smoke the particles are concentrated in localised regions, the bronchial epithelium (points where the lung airways divide) exposing small numbers of cells to comparatively high levels of radiation – magnifying the carcinogenic effect.

It is clear that the radioactive polonium and lead is present in cigarettes, is being consumed, and a risk – potentially a very serious one - does exist. Marmorstein, J. ('Lung cancer: is the increasing incidence due to radioactive polonium in cigarettes?' South Medical Journal, February 1986. 79(2):145-50), notes that In 1930 the lung cancer death rate for white US males was 3.8 per 100,000 people. By 1956 the rate had increased almost tenfold, to 31 per 100,000.13 Between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled, commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers. Whilst this is not an established causal link, given the terrifying extent of the death rates, It is amazing that this issue hasn’t received more attention.

It now gets more interesting conspiracy fans.

The key source of the radioactive content in tobacco is thought to be phosphate fertilisers. The radioactivity is concentrated in the plant, particularly the tiny sticky hairs on tobacco leaves, as the water is drawn from the soil and evaporates. The radioactivity is also present in lots of farmed foods but it is when the tobacco leaves are smoked and inhaled that the particular lung cancer risk emerges.

This was apparently known to major tobacco companies as far back as 1974, and by 1980 a means to remove the radioactive content was also known – by using ammonium phosphate as a fertilizer, instead of calcium phosphate. This idea is rejected on the basis of expense. This is clearly revealed in the two publically available leaked ‘smoking gun’ memos (reproduced below from the www.tobaccofreedom.com website) from Philip Morris in 1980.

The key quotes are:

"210- Pb and 210 -Po are present in tobacco and smoke."

..."For alpha particles from Po-210 to be the cause of lung cancers in unlikely due to the amount of radioactivity of a particular energy necessary of induction. Evidence to date, however, does not allow one to state this is an impossibility."

“The recommendation of using ammonium phosphate instead of calcium phosphate is probably a valid but expensive point”

So what can we conclude from all this?

Well, obviously tobacco companies primary concern is not public health, they are motivated purely by profits. If there is a model for irresponsible corporations – they are it. No surprise there. They denied tobacco was linked to lung cancer despite overwhelming evidence for years.

More worryingly perhaps is that Government’s in the UK, the US and everywhere else have failed to act on this – either by commissioning the appropriate research or by banning the use of the offending fertilisers. Ultimately it is the governments responsibility to monitoir these issues. They have had 20 years since this has been in the public domain and done nothing. Only now when some unrelated Russian political murder brings this obscure substance into the public eye are we beginning to get a hint of a debate and the potential for change. Lets be under no illusions, this saga is a grotesque failing of our public health infrastructure and a total scandal and disgrace for all governments concerned.

On a broader front serious issues are raised about tobacco control generally and why it has historically been so lax. Things are now improving – with long overdue controls on advertising and smoking in public spaces - and the public health impacts of smoking beginning to fall from their post war high. This is the result of more effective public health education and better legal regulation – something that should obviously underpin effective policy on all drugs. Cigarette tobacco can still have up to 15% non tobacco content and there are 400 or so permitted additives, most of them pretty obnoxious looking (the list is available from the Tobacco Manufacturers Association). Tobacco products should have ingredients listings the same as any other product we put in our bodies:


Similar lessons need to be applied to alcohol control, still far too unregulated, particularly regards marketing and packaging, contributing to the rapid current rise in alcohol related ill health. Why no health warnings on alcohol products? why no ingredients listings? why do we so rarely see alcohol content in units on alcohol products?

Organic tobacco is fairly widely available which apparently doesn’t use the offending fertilisers. Its not good for you but may be marginally less bad. Alternatively, you could go all Swedish and use ‘snus’ or ‘bandits’ – tobacco which you hold in you mouth rather than smoke. It can give you mouth cancer but is generally far less risky (they have half our level of smoked tobacco in Sweden and half the level of lung cancer).

It is incumbent on the Government to regulate dangerous drugs properly. This must include basic harm reduction measures such as making sure tobacco full of radioactive carcinogens isnt being consumed by millions of people on a daily basis.

LATEST: 12.12.06

In a rather depressing development, apparently a government TV ad that highlights the fact that cigarettes contain polonium-210 has been pulled because of...wait for it...sensitivities to the Litvinenko family. How totally ridiculous. Just as we are about to be told something that has been known for decades, they decide to pull the ad for the most absurd of reasons.

Surely the sensitivities of the tens of 1000s of who have lost relatives to lung cancer, or may do in the future, are more important. Im quite sure Litvinenko would not want this ad being pulled as part of his legacy, and nor would his family. The Litvinenko story is an opportunity to broadcast this story and achieve something positive, not squirrel it away.

(mock cigarette packet photo from www.adbusters.org)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Losing Hearts and Minds in the War in Afghanistan

Despite widespread popular distrust of the use of herbicides in Afghanistan ("Afghans are deeply opposed to spraying poppies"), John Walters, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy is pressing the Afghan government to use the ground-sprayed herbicide, Roundup, on the illegal poppy crops. No mention is made in this article of any recompense or alternative crops which the Afghans might grow as profitably as opium nor of the inflammatory effect that wiping out people's livelihoods tends to create. Perhaps this will come later.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Talks in Scotland

The Scottish Herald here describes the campaigning by Jack Cole, spokesperson for the American based organisation Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in Scotland. Cole was invited by the chairman of the Strathclyde Police Federation who has noted that an ever increasing number of his members are calling for a root and branch reform of existing drug policy. This has elicited a restrained and even at times encouraging response from Tom Wood, the chair of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams. He very tentatively praised the police for their "courage" in inviting someone with such "radical" thoughts. However in the language of officialese "courage" often actually means foolhardiness. It's therefore hard to to reach a firm conclusion as to the real official response to Jack Cole's campaign. Nevertheless it's encouraging that LEAP are on the campaign trail in the UK.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Drug policy debating bonanza in the Times

The Times has embraced the recent flurry of drug policy stories with more enthusiasm than any of its broadsheet rivals. The ‘paper of record’ ran a pretty decent leader on the prohibition / legalisation debate, highly critical of the obvious failings of prohibition (it doesn’t work, it causes crime etc) and at least reasonably sympathetic to the ‘legalisation lobby’.

The leader, however, cautions that:

“It is tempting to hope that legalisation might cut out much of this violence and crime, by removing most of the profit margin from the drugs barons. However, while the legalisation lobby makes a persuasive case, there is a lack of clarity about how exactly its ideas would work in practice. If harm reduction is the aim, can one be sure that harm reduction would really be achieved? Reducing prices might remove incentives for criminals to supply the market. But would it not also result in an increase in addicts, because drugs would be even more easily available more cheaply? Would the act of legalising in itself send a powerful signal that Parliament is condoning drug taking? And might regulated companies acting above-board not be even more effective at marketing these substances than the drugs barons have been, with their access to more conventional methods of advertising? And if half of all beds for drug treatment are empty, as we report today, is the Government really doing all it can to treat addicts successfully?”

Most of these concerns are perfectly reasonable – and if these are the only obstacles to real reforms then the future is indeed looking bright. Transform are working hard with our colleagues in the UK and around the world to show how legal regulation of drug markets can ‘work in practice’, including how drug production and supply, specifically marketing can be appropriately controlled – far more effectively than with the completely deregulated criminal markets we have today. A detailed report on exactly this is due for pulication in 2007. To read discussion on the impact of policy changes on prevalence (beyond prohibitions transparent failure to reduce it), and the idea of using criminal law enforcement as a way of 'sending out messages', take a look at Transform’s report ‘After the war on drugs – Options for control’ which has a chapter addressing these very concerns. The leader’s final point about treatment beds is a bit randomly tacked on the end and has nothing to do with the legal status of drugs.

In an attempt at balance perhaps, the Times has also run a piece from a prohibitionist advocate, Patrick West, who is very against prescribing heroin to addicts - he want them locked up: it is unambiguously titled ‘The best treatment for heroin addicts? Arrest them’ . It’s a pretty sorry attempt at a counter-argument, more of a reactionary rant really, full of factual howlers and ill thought out arguments. He kicks off with saying Brian Paddick called for cannabis 'legalisation' in Brixton – Er, no he didn’t, he called for a shift in enforcement resources to more dangerous drugs, and non arrest for minor cannabis possession offences - which has now become national policy and cannabis use has fallen.

He then goes for the nonsensical old chestnut that:

Those who seek to legalise narcotics cry “the war on drugs has been lost”. One might as well also argue that “the war on murder has been lost” or that “the war on rape, theft, fraud, larceny and pyromania has been lost”. Like drug abuse, these are malaises that will always be with us, and no sane person believes they will ever be totally abolished.

You begin to think you’re listening to someone from Nixon’s 1970's ‘war on drugs’ when he starts talking about ‘narcotics’, and then out comes the old ‘why not legalise murder’ argument just to confirm it for you. The response to this simplistic and shortsighted argument is that murder is a so-called ‘crime’ in the classical sense because it harms others, whereas consenting adult drug use clearly is not.

Deftly avoiding such tricky distinctions we then hear West’s solution to the problem: “the most caring and the practical thing to do would be to prosecute and imprison users — to stop their habit.”


Not content with advocating what we have already been doing, with disastrous consequences, for over 40 years, he is apparently completely ignorant of the fact that there are more drugs inside prison walls than there are outside. This is of course mainly because ‘caring’ and ‘practical’ views like his have led to prisons overflowing with drug addicts and drug dealers.

We are then confidently informed that: “Contrary to the media myth perpetuated by movies such as Trainspotting, the typical heroin addict is as likely to be a sensitive, fragile, middle-class graduate as an aggressive, working-class misfit from the roughest of council estates,” which is just incorrect. There are indeed heroin users form all social strata, but all the research, undisputed by anyone I’ve encountered before (see for example the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report – ‘Drugs and the Environment’) shows very clearly that problematic use is most concentrated in socially deprived communities.

His obvious confusion about addiction then takes a further nosedive into the ridiculous with the comment that: ‘Most people develop a life-debilitating heroin problem because they know that the arm of the law won’t seize them if they do.‘ which makes so little sense and is so far from reality that it hardly warrants a response. For the record the recent Science and Technology Committee inquiry was unable to find any evidence at all that the classification system was any kind of deterrence (in particular to problematic use of Class A drugs) and when challenged, the Government was unable to produce any resarch– not a single piece – to show any different.

The final section of his piece reveals that he has relatives that have died from heroin overdoses – a tragedy that has apparently prevented him from viewing the issue with any sort of rational objectivity. He slams advocates of pragmatic responses as ‘cold and callous’ (worse still: sociology students) before concluding with ‘the best way to prevent people illegally taking heroin is to prosecute those who do.’ Well Patrick, we’ve been doing exactly that since 1971, during which time the prisons have filled up with heroin addicts (the UK has Europe’s highest prison population), heroin use has risen from around 15,000 problem users, to around 300,000 (we have the highest level of drug use in Europe) and heroin users are dying in large numbers (we have the highest level of drug deaths in Europe), not to mention committing over half of all UK property crime. More of the same? Maybe, just maybe we should think about trying something different.

Now OK, perhaps I’m biased, but there was another opinion piece in the Sunday Times by Simon Jenkins, that argued the complete opposite to the West piece – it was titled ‘The really tough way to control drugs is to license them’. Ill leave you to decide for yourselves, but were I coming to this issue afresh and read both articles I suspect I would find the Jenkin’s take on this issue substantially more persuasive.

This is a live debate and reformers are winning it hands down.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Everyone is talking about heroin and cocaine again

It’s been a busy old week for drugs stories. First Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, starts a media firestorm with his comments in favour of heroin prescribing, and then a report from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction starts another one, when it reports that the UK has Europe’s highest cocaine consumption.

No bad thing – both these stories have fuelled important and in many ways positive debate, firstly about heroin prescribing and secondly about the striking failure of UK drug policy regards cocaine. Neither actually ‘news’ as such but we can’t complain, even if some of the coverage doesn’t reflect particularly well on some of the media outlets.

Heroin prescribing is nothing new, and nor is senior police calling for it. Former Chief Constable Francis Wilkinson wrote a book about it and got almost identical headlines more than five years ago, whilst North Wale’s serving Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom has been saying the same thing, and getting the same headlines for years. There are plenty of others. The more annoying thing about this weeks reporting is that, in the quest for a juicy headline, it has suggested that heroin somehow needs to be legalised or that prescribing it is a new idea. Obviously heroin has been a legal licensed medicine since it was invented over a century ago, has been prescribed to addicts as far back as the first world war, and still is.

And its not even as if the Government needs that much persuading – David Blunkett announced an expansion of the existing heroin prescribing service back in 2002, and the Government authorised a number of pilot Swiss-style prescribing drop in centers ages ago, which have been operating over the last few years. The Times tried to make this non news into a scoop under the headline ‘Hardened addicts given free heroin in secret NHS trial’ – when clearly it was neither secret nor a new idea. They also note in a facts section at the end titled ‘ the price of addiction’:

£15,000 a year needed to fund an addiction
£45,000 The cost of the crimes committed each year by a heroin addict

This 45K figure was very naughty: rich heroin users don’t have to commit any crime to support their habits, and nor do those on prescriptions.

For some decent information on Heroin prescribing there was a useful review of the evidence from around the world produced recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and there is a good essay by Dr Ben Goldacre from 1998 that has recently re-emerged online that’s well worth a look.

As for the cocaine story, this was just a rehash of the ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ news that journalists, with quite amazing regularity, wheel out each year when the annual reports are published by the British Crime Survey and EMCDDA that just confirm what they said last year. In the intervening months we can usually rely on sporadic ‘loads of people taking cocaine shock’ stories hung on either a ‘celeb/model takes cocaine shock’ exposé, or the investigative journalist (with nothing better to do) favorite ‘cocaine traces found in bar/ school/ parliament/ convent /*insert unlikely place* toilets’. Broadsheet journalists in particular love the ‘cocaine shock’ stories because it gives them a chance to sneak some celebrity tat into their news pages, basically offering a free ticket to hurtle down market and appeal to Heat readers - The Independent on Sunday’s non-news cover story last Sunday being a case in point.

Still, at least the media arent talking about cannabis for a change, and these stories do give critics of the UK Drug Strategy – that in 1998 pledged to reduce the use and availability of Class A drugs by 50% by 2008 – a great opportunity to point out that it is doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to (ie cocaine is cheaper, more available and loads of people are using it) despite the billions of pounds still being thrown at it. Assuming Gordon Brown is the next PM – you have to hope he’s paying attention.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The one reason I will miss Milton Firedman

A nice opinion piece in today's Independent from Johann Hari - a long time advoicate of drug law reform andsupporter of Transform (you can read his archive of drug articles here)

Normally we would just post a link but since he rang up to check a few facts in the piece, I hope he wont mind us posting the complete article. For the record Transform doesnt have a view on Milton's political position beyond the drugs issue, but he did once send us a very nice letter offering his support.

The one reason I will miss Milton Friedman
Johann Hari, The Independent, 23 Nov 2006
He offered the most devastating slap-downs of the “war on drugs” ever written

Even in death, the right misses the point. Milton Friedman – the Messiah of Monetarism, saviour of small-state conservatism – is about to be buried, but his mourners have conspicuously failed to laud his one great argument.

In the past week, his conservative obituarists have concentrated on the slew of issues he got wrong, lathering praise on his demonstrably false belief that a limp, slashed-back state delivers greater social mobility and a broader middle class than a mixed social democratic economy. Just compare Sweden to Texas to test that one – or look at the collapse in Latin American growth since Friedmanomics forced out Keynesianism. Yet on one issue, Friedman applied the forensic brilliance of his brain to a deserving purpose. Over forty years, he offered the most devastating slap-downs of the “war on drugs” ever written.

Friedman was a child when alcohol was criminalised in America. The Prohibitionist crusade to banish the “demon rum” and dry out the United States lasted until he was in his twenties. The lessons lasted his lifetime. He saw that even when you use force – the police and army – to try to physically prevent people from using a popular intoxicant, you don’t actually reduce its use very much. “I wasn't very old and was not much of a drinker but there was no difficulty in finding speakeasies,” he explained. The most generous estimate is that alcohol consumption fell by a fifth initially, and then rose to pre-prohibition levels as people discovered surreptitious channels for a mouthful of moonshine.

But while prohibition didn’t succeed in the fantasies of its fans that it would “end alcoholism”, it did succeed gloriously in one respect. It handed a massive, popular industry to armed criminal gangs, who succeeded to ramp up the murder rate up by 78 percent and make a mockery of the rule of law. “We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, of the gang wars...” Friedman wrote. “Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse - for both the addict and the rest of us.”

Friedman saw – way ahead of almost any other commentator – how prohibiting cannabis, cocaine and heroin would spawn a thousand Capones. He warned, “Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.” The old Chicago gangster famously gunned down six of his alcohol-hawking competitors on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. But in the age of drug prohibition, there are equivalent dealer shoot-outs every minute of the day in South Central Los Angeles – and Hackney, and Bogata, and Kabul. People without recourse to the law will protect their property with hard ammunition. Late in his life, Friedman calculated that 10,000 people were dying every year in the US alone as a direct result of these killings, equivalent to more than three September 11ths. Most were bystanders caught in the cross-fire.

And by globalising this Puritan war on drugs, the US government has globalised this gangsterism. Friedman warned that the war on drugs has “undermined the very foundations of Colombian society” and “condemned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Colombians to violent death.” I have just returned from Mexico, which is rapidly Colombianizing, with whole areas controlled by dealers who bribe or out-gun the police force and terrorize the local population. The same thing is happening on a huge scale in Afghanistan. “By what right do we destroy other people’s countries just because we cannot enforce our own laws?” Friedman asked.

But armed gangsters are not the only species of crime generated by prohibition. In his careful, methodical style, Friedman proved that criminalising drugs causes an explosion in muggings and burglary, making us all victims of this war at some time in our lives. How? A kilo of heroin passes through six different dealers in the supply chain before it reaches the veins of a Londoner. Each link in the chain demands a fat fee for risking jail. This means heroin costs 3000 percent more than it would in a legal, risk-free market – and a heroin addict must steal 3000 percent more to buy it. 3000 percent more grannies mugged, 3000 percent more homes burgled.

That’s why so many police officers are now coming out in favour of unpicking hardline prohibition and prescribing heroin to addicts, with Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, joining the queue yesterday. They know from the experience in Switzerland – an ultra-conservative country that now nonetheless prescribes heroin – that it a silver bullet (or syringe?), bringing crime rates crashing down.

This does not mean Friedman was in favour of drugs. One of the biggest problem with the legalization brand is that it is still contaminated by the legacy of idiots like Timothy O’Leary, who though drugs use was an active good, an act of liberation. (Go visit a heroin addict in rehab and tell them how liberated they are). By contrast, Friedman thought (rightly) that heavy drug use – whether it was alcoholism, cannabis-addiction or junkiedom – was a human disaster. He once told Bill Bennett, Bush Snr’s drugs tsar, “You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favour are a major source of the evils you deplore.”

Friedman proved, for example, that prohibition changes the way people use drugs, making many people use stronger, more dangerous variants than they would in a legal market. During alcohol prohibition, moonshine eclipsed beer; during drug prohibition, crack is eclipsing coke. He called his rule explaining this curious historical fact “the Iron Law of Prohibition”: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated the substance will become.

Why? If you run a bootleg bar in Prohibition-era Chicago and you are going to make a gallon of alcoholic drink, you could make a gallon of beer, which one person can drink and constitutes one sale – or you can make a gallon of pucheen, which is so strong it takes thirty people to drink it and constitutes thirty sales. Prohibition encourages you produce and provide the stronger, more harmful drink. If you are a drug dealer in Hackney, you can use the kilo of cocaine you own to sell to casual coke users who will snort it and come back a month later – or you can microwave it into crack, which is far more addictive, and you will have your customer coming back for more in a few hours. Prohibition encourages you to produce and provide the more harmful drug.

For Friedman, the solution was stark: take drugs back from criminals and hand them to doctors, pharmacists, and off-licenses. Legalize. Chronic drug use will be a problem whatever we do, but adding a vast layer of criminality, making the drugs more toxic, and squandering £20bn on enforcing prohibition that could be spent on prescription and rehab, only exacerbates the problem. “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts,” he said. “But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”

Some people imagine that after drug prohibition ends, drug use will become rampant, with Chigwell housewives shooting up next to the chintzy ironing board. No historical analogy is perfect, but with one of his extraordinary dense statistical analyses, Friedman showed that the fears at the end of alcohol prohibition – that everyone would be glugging gin the moment they could freely buy it – proved to be false. In fact, alcohol use went back to pre-Prohibition levels, and has been falling since, with a brief spike in the Second World War. He also showed that the vast majority of criminals who had bartered in alcohol did not simply move into another form of crime, but went legit when the temptations of such a profitable criminal market disappeared.

Today, an end to drug prohibition seems like a distant fantasy. But in 1924, even as vociferous a wet as Clarence Darrow was in despair, writing that it would require “a political revolution” to legalize alcohol in the US. Within a decade, it was done. We are approaching a tipping-point in the drugs debate, when failure becomes undeniable. As we wait, I can still hear Milton Friedman in one of his last interviews: “In the meantime, should we allow the killing to go on in the ghettos? 10,000 additional murders a year? In the meantime, should we continue to destroy Colombia and Afghanistan?”

POSTSCRIPT: You can send comments on this article for publication in the Indie to letters -at- independent.co.uk or j.hari -at - independent.co.uk

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Does ANYONE know about clause 2 of the Drugs Act being axed?

The New Statesman's Human Rights Q&A column by their legal expert Sadakat Kadri (a barrister from Doughty Chambers) comments this week on a question put to him about cannabis law enforcement:

"Every now and then, I start to panic that the police are about to smash my door down. It’s weird, since they never have, but if they did, hypothetically, and happened to find some cannabis, what would it mean? The drug laws always seem to be changing. It’s doing my head in."

Kadri's response is sensible stuff, but unfortunately he has missed a recent update on Clause 2 (concerning possession/intent to supply thresholds) of the recent Drugs Act 2005, leading to a mistake in his answer. He states that:

"The Drugs Act 2005 stipulates that if someone is caught with more than a certain amount of cannabis, juries must find him or her guilty of intending to supply it - a crime punishable by 14 years imprisonment. The threshold remains undecided, but John Reid is reportedly thinking of setting it at five grams. Clearer heads may yet prevail, but a fifth of an ounce will otherwise become conclusive proof of dealing. Your fears, though somewhat delusionary, therefore have a basis in reality, and it would be prudent to minimise the weight of cannabis in your possession at any given time."

Whilst the advice about minimising the amount you are in possession of makes sense, this has always been the case and isn’t affected by the Drugs Act 2005 since the situation regarding the thresholds (Clause 2 of the Act) has actually changed again recently when the clause was quietly shelved back on the 13th of October.

The Drugs Act 2005 does contain the thresholds clause, but as Khalid points out, the quantities that would move a possession offence to an intent to supply offence, controversially, weren’t specified at the time of its passing into law). There was an external consultation convened on these thresholds in March 2006, nearly a year AFTER the law was passed. In response to the consultation pretty much everyone asked said that the idea of thresholds was stupid in theory, and unenforceable in practice.

To anyone cunning enough to have scrutinised the Drugs Bill 2005 BEFORE it became law this was no surprise. Even though there was – outrageously - no official consultation on the clause before it became law, many experts had none the less advised that it was a very bad idea. Among those ignored were:

Drugscope (representing over 900 member organisations in the drugs field) and Turning Point (the UK 's leading treatment agency):

“We oppose Clause 2, Proof of intention to supply a controlled drug, and call for it to be removed.”

“In our view this is an unnecessary complication of the law and takes away court discretion.”

Release, the UK’s leading drug law advisory service, produced a similarly detailed briefing making many of the same points:

“We are fundamentally opposed to this provision which we consider to be unnecessary and unworkable”

The Law Society also provided a further detailed critique concluding:

“The presumption will therefore have little legitimate effect, but may allow miscarriages of justice to occur”

Transform also submitted its own detailed briefing produced for the Government consideration and parliamentary scrutiny of the Drugs Bill in early 2005, providing yet another detailed critique of clause 2.

Anyway, the consultation paper has now been published, and it’s a pretty good document as it goes, albeit arriving the wrong side of the law being enacted. The upshot of its analysis, lurking at the end of the report is a short statement to the effect that the clause is not being commenced because everyone said it was daft. So the thresholds will not be implemented after all.

The Government’s non-commencement this clause was met by almost total media silence, the only coverage I came across was a brief mention in the Guardian on the day it was published. This silence was largely due to some rather clever spin on the Government’s part (blogged on briefly here), which managed to distract attention away from the issue with an announcement about Methamphetamine being reclassified as Class A. So effective were the Governments efforts for this story to not be reported (because it makes them look like the policy was ill thought out and passed with undue haste – which it was) that not even the New Statesman’s ‘legal expert’ had heard about it, and if a top lawyer didn’t know what the law was, what hope is there for anyone else?

This media silence was in striking contrast to the huge kerfuffle that broke out when the proposed thresholds were initially announced, with tabloid headlines screaming about it being legal to carry 2000 spliffs worth of cannabis, ten wraps of cocaine, and so on.

There’s various lessons to be learnt from this sorry saga:

  1. That consultations on law changes are best undertaken BEFORE the law changes take place (You’ll excuse the gratuitous use of capitals again, but what seems so obvious to most, apparently isn’t so obvious in the Home Office). For the record Transform’s briefing on the flawed process by which this clause came to be enacted is here . Lessons have clearly not been learnt from the almost identical farrago with reforms to section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act a couple of years back.

  2. Policy and Law changes should not only be consulted on properly (as per the Government’s own guidelines on such changes), but they should also be subject to a proper Regulatory Impact Assessment (as per the Government’s own RIA guidelines), which this clause also mysteriously managed to avoid. Moreover, policy and law changes should pass into the law following proper Parliamentary scrutiny and debate, not as the result of party horse trading on Bills in the ‘wash-up week’ before a General Election, as was the case here.

  3. That the Government can’t be trusted to bring peoples attention to changes in policy that might put them in a bad light, but can be relied upon to trumpet ill-thought out knee-jerk policy changes on drugs if the tabloids are likely to report it as being ‘tough on drugs’ (note: it doesn’t matter if the law change actually ever occurs as long as the headlines are secured – see also: random drug testing and sniffer dogs in schools).

  4. That the media can’t be trusted to check through long nerdy Government documents and report on complex policy issues in an intelligent way, (even following up on stuff they have already run as headline news), especially when there are much sexier stories about scary sounding drugs like methamphetamine .

  5. And finally, given all of the above, it is down to you folks in the drugs field, boring enough to have read this far, to hold the Government and media to account when they are completely incompetent, or otherwise fail in their responsibilities, which is unfortunately quite often.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Australian Liberals call for drug crackdown

Australian newspaper The Age reports in an article titled ‘Liberals take hard line on ‘soft’ drugs’. (November 20, 2006) that:

Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said a Liberal government would take a tough line on drugs and seek to change the culture surrounding "recreational drugs", which he described as the scourge of our society.

"The message to the community is: we are not going to tolerate it any more. Drugs are dangerous, dabbling in drugs is dangerous, and young people need to get the message," he said. "We are not going to cope if we continue to simply put around the message that it's OK to dabble or it's OK to use recreational drugs — there is no such thing."

Along with these comments he calls for the old fall back of many a drug-warrior trying to sound tough; minimum sentences for drugs dealers - which have failed in every respect in the US except boosting prison numbers to unprecedented levels. He also calls for the banning of ‘large cigarette papers’ and bongs, a frankly laughable suggestion about as likely to stop cannabis consumption as banning pint glasses is to stop people drinking beer. Just picture 1000s of Aussie cannabis users looking at their stash and small cigarette papers in bafflement and despair. A prize-winningly idiotic addition to the prohibitionist armoury, already overflowing with them.

But enough of that silliness, there’s a couple of more important points worth making about his quote above. Firstly, whilst tough talk of ‘putting out messages’ will have a familiar ring to UK audiences, being exactly the sort of thing we would expect to hear from the John Reid or David Davis, we would probably not expect to hear such knee-jerk drug war clichés from the Liberal Democrats, who have historically been a bit more sophisticated on such issues. So it is curious to hear this sort of old-school populist gubbins about getting ‘tough’ on ‘scourges’ from a nominally liberal party, particularly one that has as it’s first belief:

“The inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives”

Secondly, it’s always interesting to contrast self-proclaimed anti-drug crusader's attitudes to ‘drugs’ and to alcohol (also of course, a drug). I have no idea about Ballieu’s position on alcohol, although he no doubt has a sup from time to time
Politicians in
Australia aren’t apparently shy of posing for the cameras with a glass or their favourite recreational drug, nor for that matter are UK politicians, even quite well known ones:

what message does this send out to the kids?

Yet in the UK with its rapidly growing problems of binge drinking liver cirrhosis amongst young people and Australia with its high profile problems of ‘grog’ amongst many deprived aboriginal communities, alcohol could much more appropriately be called a ‘scourge’. The contrast between public proclamations on legal and illegal drugs appears to be more to do with how the different political rhetoric received by the public and media rather than the fact one drug is somehow OK whilst others are thoroughly wicked and awful. This alarming lack of consistency is all about politics and nothing to do with evidence based public health policy making. See http://www.tdpf.org.uk/Policy_General_Whythisbutnotthis.htm

You have to hope that Mr Baillieu’s intention that “$4 million would be spent teaching students about the dangers of cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines” is matched by a commitment to spending on students favourite drug – alcohol, which causes levels of harm that eclipse all illegal drugs combined. He might also want to include some info on the dangers of prohibition, and how a criminal record for consuming certain drugs could seriously damage the future career prospect of Australia’s brightest hopes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Piperazines - what to do with an emerging 'legal high'?

The piperazines are a 'family' of drugs with similar chemical structures. Some amongst this group of drugs are used medically (including famously, Viagra) and others, (currently unlicensed as medicines and also not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act) are in an as-yet unclassified legal wilderness and have found a market on the (annoyingly named) 'legal high' recreational drugs scene for their stimulant effect, similar to amphetamines or ecstasy, although of lower potency.

The emergence of such drugs has only recently grazed the media with some reporting in the Guardian and a recent edition of the New Scientist as well as some coverage in the dance music scene media.

Transform has produced a detailed briefing on these drugs, considering what the options might be for dealing with them without resorting to a heavy handed crackdown. Specifically this briefing looks at the experience in New Zealand where the drugs have been widely used for a number of years (without, reportedly, any significant public health harms) and where the government have opted to license the drug for sale under a new Class D classification - amended to to their existing ABC system similar to the UK's. The new 'Class D' acknowledges risk but puts in place a series of licensing criteria (age controls, packaging, dosage etc).

Whilst piperazines themselves are not a particular concern, this represents a very real step forward in drug policy thinking for the future - offering one of the worlds first new licensing systems for recreational drugs (not currently covered by the UN conventions). The UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will be considering this drug and the Class D concept in the near future and there exists a real possibility for a new and pragamatic 'third way' option to emerge in the UK, operating between absolute prohibition and the essentially unregulated 'legal highs' industry. It wouldn't be the answer to the problems of prohibition but would certainly be a step in the right direction and usefully help demonstrate how other drugs might be more effectively regulated in the future.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Criticism of Cannabis Reclassification

The Herald is here highlighting the growing incidence of mental health problems which seem strongly related to heavy cannabis consumption. Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research at Glasgow University, the British Journal of Psychiatry and Swedish and Dutch studies are mentioned in linking heavy cannabis use with psychosis or depression especially amongst younger people. The article rightly deplores the relative lack of research on this drug and criticizes the inevitable political point-scoring that will likely occur at the next election between the authoritarian and the liberal over the drugs issue instead of a focus on the science and on practical outcomes such as giving teenagers more warnings over the dangers of cannabis.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Classification and Deterrence - where's the evidence?

In the first of series of blog posts considering the Government's response to the The Science and Technology Select Committee's report 'Drug Classification; Making a Hash of it?' we consider what is arguably the most significant finding of the Select Committee and the most stunningly inadequate of the Government’s responses.

The Science and Technology Select Committee report 'Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it?' conclusion/recommendation 34:

"We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification. In view of the importance of drugs policy and the amount spent in enforcing the penalties associated with the classification system, it is highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the system’s effectiveness".

The Government’s response, in full:

“Reject in Principle

The Government fundamentally believes that illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour. The exposure to criminal sanction, in particular through sentencing, influences perceptions and behaviours. It believes that the illegality of certain drugs, and by association their classification, will impact on drug use choices, by informing the decisions of dealers and users. Imposing penalties on the offence of possession is intended to deter use, particularly experimentation by young people. Whilst the Government accepts that there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure, there is some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey that the deterrent effect of harsher sentencing was greater among those admitting to the supply of a Class A drug, compared with other offences.The Government will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened.”


Perhaps the best place to start is to note that whether the Government ‘fundamentally believes’ that ‘illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour’ is not the point. This is not about ‘belief’, however fundamental it may be. This is an issue of sound science and evidence based policy. The Select Committee very clearly points out: ‘we have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect’. The Government produce nothing to challenge this beyond their ‘belief’ in the existence of such an effect and yet they reject the conclusion regardless. This deserves some more detailed attention.

With apologies for some trumpet blowing here, Transform’s evidence to the Select Committee was quoted directly in their final report:

Transform Drug Policy Foundation asserted that the ABC classification system was "based upon the false assumptions underlying historical prohibition of specific drugs". Steve Rolles, information officer for Transform, also told us: "there is no research at all—not a single piece of research ever done by the Home Office that I am aware of—into the effectiveness of the classification system as a deterrent and the independent research that we do have—what little there is—suggests that at best it is a marginal impact on drug taking decisions". The Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker was unable to provide us with any specific evidence to the contrary.

The Government’s written response (see above) does not offer any new evidence to the contrary either, even though they have had several months to find some since Vernon Coaker was unable to do so earlier in the year. They merely restate that the Government ‘believes’ illegality will ‘impact on drug user choices’. There is a vague reference to ‘some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey’ but no details are given, and they are clear that ‘there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure’.

This is a very long way from an adequate response to the Committee’s conclusion and is frankly insulting as a basis for rejecting it.

It is important to be clear what we are talking about here. The deterrent effect is the absolute cornerstone of the classification system and indeed the entire criminal justice based policy we have in the UK - the policy of prohibition - on which billions of pounds are spent each year. The concept of enforcement / penalty related deterrence is precisely why we have a hierarchy of penalties superimposed on the hierarchy of harms (the ABC classification system), and why drug policy is run by the Home Office and not by the Department of Health (which runs policy for alcohol and other legal drugs). That the Science and Technology Select committee was unable to find any evidence of a deterrent effect is remarkable enough. That the Government – challenged by the Committee – were then unable to produce any credible evidence - not a shred - of a deterrent effect is quite simply astonishing. It can only call into question the entire classification system and indeed the enforcement focus and punitive nature of UK drug policy generally.

This is not even the first time that the issue of deterrence relating to criminal penalties has been raised by a Select Committee. The Home Affairs Select Committee were concerned enough about the issue to raise it back in 2001 in their report; ‘The UK’s Drug Policy: Is It Working?’ (to which, incidentally, they concluded: no). The Committee specifically asked for a response to the question ‘what would the effect of decriminalisation be on the demand for drugs?’. Whilst Transform might have phrased the question a little more precisely, the initial Home Office submission ignored it completely and just trotted out current Government policy, failing to address the question in any way. The Committee, somewhat affronted, demanded an answer to the question it had actually asked. They received the following short response:

“As some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality (e.g. "forbidden fruits"), the evidence suggests that a great many are deterred by the law. Nineteen per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults surveyed by MORI on behalf of the recent Police Foundation Inquiry, mentioned the law as the reason for not taking drugs. And the respective prevalence rates for controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco are also illustrative.”

The relevant section of the Police Foundation Inquiry report that the Home Office are quoting, actually says this:

“The most frequent reasons given by both children and adults for people not taking drugs were 'health reason' (33% and 51%) and 'just don't want to take drugs’ (27% and 56%). By comparison only 19% of children and 30% of adults mentioned 'illegality' and 12% of children and 17% of adults cited 'fear of being caught by the police'.”

So even five years ago, the only research evidence that the Home Office could scrape together to support the contention that illegality deterred use was a poll from the Police Foundation Inquiry report that showed less than a fifth of children mentioned the law as a reason for not taking drugs, less than one in eight children or one in six adults mentioned ‘fear of being caught by the police’, and there were two other reasons given, health concerns and lack of interest, that scored much higher as reasons for not taking drugs. Bear in mind also that the Police Foundation Inquiry that commissioned the quoted survey was, at the time, not only the most critical report ever produced of UK drug policy, but also one that concluded;

"such evidence as we have assembled about the current situation and the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years all point to the conclusion that the deterrent effect of the law has been very limited".

Furthermore we hear the Home Office suggest that in fact ‘some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality’. This clearly suggests the opposite of what they are nominally arguing for although, to be fair, they do not provide any evidence for this point either. The evidence they cite regarding alcohol (use of which is rising) and tobacco (use of which is falling) does not illuminate anything much. These are drugs that have been with us for Millennia and Centuries respectively and have had the best part of a hundred years of largely unregulated aggressive commercial marketing behind them. It is also faintly amusing to read the phrase 'controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco' given that it is actually alcohol and tobacco that are controlled and illegal drugs that have no controls at all - we abdicated control to gangsters and street dealers when we the decision was made to prohibit them.

The significant point here is that this has been a live issue for a number of years and in that time the Government has been able to assemble precisely zero credible evidence that lends support to the deterrent effect, and has undertaken or produced precisely zero published research to try and rectify this.

As Transform pointed out in its written submission to the Committee:

‘The [classification] system is based on the un-evidenced assumption that criminal penalties are an effective deterrent and that stronger penalties are a stronger deterrent’

There was no evidence to support this basic assumption when the policy was put in place 35 years ago and the Government's response to the Committee demonstrates that none has emerged subsequently. Transform further noted in its written submission to the Committee:

There is also no evidence to show that key target groups understand or pay any attention to the classification system or related announcements from the home secretary when making drug taking decisions. It can only be assumed that no research is commissioned on these key topics as it would expose policy failings.
The little independent research that has been done in this area suggests that the law and enforcement are, at best, marginal factors in drug taking decisions - especially for the most excluded groups; young people, those with mental health problems and those from socially deprived communities – who are most vulnerable to problematic use. Studies in Australia and the US have compared levels of cannabis use between different states with different enforcement regimes for cannabis offences (from harsh penalties to effective decriminalisation) and found no causal link between penalties and incidence of use.”

The fact that the massed ranks of Home Office civil servants and researchers can’t find any evidence from 35 years of data collection to show that the classification system works might suggest that, well, there isn’t any. Moreover, this striking lack of any evidence to show the classification system is effective is not deemed by the Government sufficient reason to even have a consultation on, or review of the the classification system, as recommended by the Select Committee. Not a change in policy – just a consultation. Just an open dialogue with independent experts who might be able to shed some light on this vexing lack of evidence. Maybe a little bit like the consultation on the classification system that the Home Secretary promised to the House of Commons in January this year.

But the Government has now reneged on this promised consultation, because it now ‘believes that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively and has stood the test of time’. (they even underlined the 'has' to emphasise the point). Maybe Transform, Drugscope, The Police Foundation, The Home Affairs Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee are missing something here, but ‘scientists’ or ‘statisticians’ might argue that the fact that trends in use of almost every major drug covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act have risen consistently since 1971, and the fact that drugs have become progressively cheaper and more available over the same period was not actually evidence of the classification system discharging its function fully and standing the test of time, but was actually evidence of the exact opposite. So can we have a consultation on this please? Maybe even the one that was fully drafted and ready to be sent out to experts across the country days before a new Home Secretary was appointed and apparently thought better of it? Apparently not.

Finally we are given a hint about how the Government intends to proceed on this thorny question, with its suggestion to the Science and Technology Committee that they ‘will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened’. This is a troubling turn of phrase. The Government should be doing objective research to see whether or not there is a deterrent effect, how it works, how strong it is, whom it effects and whether it justifies spending billions a year on criminalising and imprisoning lots of people - not seeking evidence to strengthen a pre-held ‘belief’ in such an effect. Call it cherry-picking, call it faith-based policy making, call it bad science; whichever way you look at it this is a course of action that would seem to jettison even the pretence of scientific method altogether and take the Government unambiguously into the realms of ideological propagandising, a place many would argue UK drug policy already inhabits.

The Science and Technology Committee asked for some evidence and received none. Transform have been asking for the same evidence for nearly ten years and still have yet to see any. Belief must be based on evidence, and if the Government can’t produce that evidence and then flatly refuses to engage in a dialogue on it, they shouldn’t be surprised when people stop believing them.

next ... Drug classification and 'sending out messages'

Lazy coverage of an important drugs story - a case study

And so back to the Government’s response to the Science and Technology Select Committee report on the Drug Classification…….

The media coverage of the Government’s response last Friday (13th October 2006) focused almost exclusively on the Government announcement that methamphetamine would be reclassified from Class B to Class A. It is important to point out that:

1) The Science and Technology Committee did not recommend that Methamphetamine be reclassified- they merely considered the process by which the decision was made; and..
2) The decision to reclassify methamphetamine was actually made months ago and was announced publicly by the Home Office Minister to the committee – and then published in the Committee’s report back in August – to near total media silence.

Neither of these facts were noted in any of last weeks media coverage, which focused almost exclusively on how awful and scary Methamphetamine is and by implication how sensible and indeed ‘tough’, the Government was being in reclassifying it.

This was a masterstroke of media spin on the Government’s part since it took control of the media agenda, turning it rather cunningly to their advantage on what should have been a day of highly critical reporting on the Government drugs policy. They knew that ‘scary new drug’ was a far more media friendly story than the minutiae of their detailed response to 50 different recommendations made by a Select Committee of nerdy science boffins, and they played it beautifully. It is to the great shame of almost all the media that covered this story so lazily and played along with this.

More significantly, the meth reclassification non-news story successfully distracted attention from the far more important issues raised by the rest of the of the Government response to the Sci-Tech Committee report, including the responses relating to things the Committee had actually recommended. The meth reclassification non-news also reduced coverage, to almost invisible, of the fact that clause two of the Drugs Act 2005 (the intent to supply thresholds that had caused media uproar only a few months previously) was being shelved. This was another drug story that potentially put the Government in a bad light, not because the descision to shelve Clause two was a mistake, but rather because they had only figured this out after it had been enacted (read the Transform briefing on this sorry tale here)

So, in a belated effort to rebalance the coverage somewhat, the Transform blog will, over the next few weeks be unpicking and critiquing some of what the Government’s response actually said.

first up will be the evidence (or otherwise) for the deterrent effect of classifying drugs.....

watch this space

Monday, October 16, 2006

More bad news from Afghanistan

Yet more depressing news from the front line in the "drugs war" as the Afghan counter-narcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, admits that neither opium production nor the Taliban insurgency can be defeated separately. This will be cheering news for the troops on the front line who have focused on defeating the Taliban separately without undertaking significant counter-narcotics operations for fear of further alienating the local Afghan people.

The reality is that even if the insurgency could be dealt with - and there is little to suggest it can be anytime soon - this would not mean that the opium crop could then somehow miraculously be eliminated. Eradication efforts have never succeeded on such a large scale anywhere - whether it is coca production in South America, opium production in Central and SE Asia, or cannabis production pretty much everywhere. The economics of the illegal market mean that whilst demand remains high and extraordinary profits are on offer to criminal entrepreneurs, eradication efforts will just shift production to another region. Afghanistan has particular problems because of its troubled history and lack of social and political infrastructure. These are exacerbated by its sprawling and remote geography that make it effectively impossible to police; remember that it is roughly the size of Europe, and for many poverty stricken farmers opium cultivation is an obvious choice. Eradication is simply not a practical suggestion.

In related bad news the BBC reports that the Senlis Council is being booted out of Afghanistan. The Senlis Council is a drug policy reform organisation that has been working hard to promote the idea of legalising the Afghan opium crop by buying it up for use in the medical opiates market . The idea is bascially that such a move would provide income and stability for Afghan opium farmers, removing them from the illegal market and preventing profits from flowing into the hands of military groups, whilst simultaneously helping respond to a chronic shortage of opiate drugs for medical use in Asia. This seems like a positive idea and even if it is not practical or very realistic, and would certainly not result in a long term fall in global opium production (which would inevitably just move to other regions in central Asia or elsewhere in the world) it has certainly been useful in promoting debate on alternatives to futile eradication programs. The idea has had a lot of high profile coverage including an editorial in the New York Times.

Given the disastrous failure of current efforts it would be a great shame if the Senlis were kicked out just for suggesting something new.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Government snubs Science Committee

So according the Times the Government's response to the Science and Technology Select Committee report - that concluded the classification system was un scientific, unsupported by evidence and unambiguously 'not fit for purpose' - is to.. ignore the substantive criticism that the classification system is unscientific and doesnt do what it is supposed to and try and bluff it out by trotting out the same old drivel about drug seizures.

I do hope the minister will come on TV later and make the case for unscientific un-evidenced drug policy formation. I was due to go on the Today program and BBC breakfast TV to give them a hard time about all this but was unceremoniously dumped because the head of the army pointed out that the war in Iraq was a counterproductive disaster (pretty much what i was going to say about the drug war). I did get to go on the Nicky Campbell show though so not a total washout media wise.

Meanwhile it seems the new law on intent-to-supply thresholds, to determine whether people arrested for possession are deemed dealers or not, is to be dropped. This follows a consultation undertaken after the law was passed. Everyone said it was a stupid and unworkable idea (as they had before it was made law), so some faintly good news, in an 'avoiding another bit of pointelss legislation' sort of way. Read Transform's briefing on the shocking process by which this legislation came into being here.

What do these stories tell us about drug policy thinking at Government level? Well, political expediency clearly rules. On the one hand we have a mostly brilliant report from the Science and Technology Select Committee - detailed, thoughtful and making a series of very specific and clear recommendations, completely blown out the water by a Government obsessed with appearing tough, and not willing to give any ground on pragmatic reform (or even review/discussion of reform) for fear of being accused of being soft. On the other we have a stupid piece of 'get tough' policy that everyone thought was stupid - and said so - but was as barrelled through parliament before the election anyway, now being acknowledged as stupid and being consigned to the dustbin.

The Government couldn't care less whether the policy consulation process was completely topsy turvey - they got some tough sounding headlines in the election run up and can now dump the idea on the basis that its unwanted and unworkable - which they knew anyway.

more to follow....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Herald Highlights Problems of Prohibition Enforcement

This insightful article by the Herald from the 12 October 2006 clearly exposes the problems that arise after the successful rounding up of drug dealers by police. Although catching such a large number of dealers in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde makes great headlines for the police and supposedly makes the public feel safer, the practical consequences are that addicts are forced to pay more for lower quality drugs thereby further fuelling crime. The Herald is to be commended for making an effort to understand the practical consequences of prohibition and for suggesting that more resources should be devoted to a massive input of drug rehabilitation, a stance that almost flirts with legalisation.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hypocrisy of Italian Politicians Exposed

This article is a high profile scoop by an Italian television satirical programme called 'the Hyena'. The show revealed cannabis and cocaine on the skin of sixteen politicians' faces who thought they were having make-up applied for a debate on the country's budget but instead had drug-detection chemicals applied. Paolo Cento, a member of the Green Party which favours decriminalising drugs, rightly criticised politicians' hypocrisy who voted 'for anti-liberty laws whilst snorting cocaine'. The names of the politicians are not revealed.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

'So Macho' Reverend wants police to arrest more kids

I read in the Daily Mail yesterday that there is some sort of legal challenge being made 'in the High Court' to the ACPO guidelines, drawn up after cannabis was reclassified, clarifying that there should be a 'presumption against arrest' for possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Quite what this court action involves isn’t made clear by the Daily Mail report, by James Slack, but then a lot is left unclear by the story generally.

But before I tear into the Daily Mail report, a few words on the key protagonist. It is none other than the Reverend George Hargreaves, a 'senior church figure' and 'advisor to the Metropolitan Police' who is apparently 'backed by a £30,000 fighting fund'. Hargreaves is a Pentecostal minister with a particular brand of Christian politics that includes being strongly anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research and anti-euthanasia. He has also stood in various elections for various constituencies; for the 'Scottish Christian Party, Proclaiming Christ's Lordship' for the Scottish Parliament in 2006, the UK Parliament in 2005 for 'Operation Christian Vote' (and a by-election in 2004 - getting a handsome 90 votes), and the European Parliament in 2004. Way back in 1997 he contested Walthanstow for the Referendum party. It turns out that he has funded some of his political aspirations with a small fortune made from his former career as a pop song writer, apparently raking in £10,000 a month in royalties from penning the epic 80's disco smash and gay club classic 'So Macho', performed by the legendary popstrel, Sinitta. You know the one:

"I don't want no seven stone weakling nor a boy who thinks he's a girl
I'm after a hunk of a guy, and experienced man of the world
There ain't no way that I'll make do,
with anything less than I'm used to
If I have a man tonight he's gotta be right right right

So macho he's gotta be so macho
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on
He's gotta have big blue eyes, be able to satisfy
He's gotta big big and strong, enough to turn me on

I'm tired of taking the lead
I want a man who will dominate me
Someone who will love and protect me and take care of my every need
Now I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you

I am in need of a man oooh
I am in need of a man a man a man a man a man


I had the pleasure of debating cannabis reclassification and related policing issues with Hargreaves on Talk Sport Radio yesterday morning, on the awful John Gaunt show. The No1 pop smash writing Reverend seemed like a perfectly nice chap, even if we didn’t really see eye to eye on the drugs issue. He admits to being a 'hedonistic sinner' and 'jack the lad' in his pre-Reverend days. However, he doesn't seem to have a very forgiving attitude to the young sinners in his flock. He wants them arrested and prosecuted for their cannabis related wickedness, not let off with a caution, a policy which, according to the Mail, he claims has 'led to a surge in youths smoking strong skunk cannabis that was turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.' ' He is quoted saying:

'This guidance must be reversed. The only way to crackdown on the problem is to return to arresting and prosecuting people carrying even small amount of cannabis.'

'So Macho' Reverend George Hargreaves

No evidence is given by him in the report that reclassification, or the ACPO guidelines, have led to any kind of 'surge' in use. The Mail report also fails to mention that the two key official surveys of cannabis use, provided by the British Crime Survey and the DoH (flawed as they may be) suggest that cannabis use has remained unchanged or has actually fallen marginally since 2004. I’m not making the case for or against the reclassification policy here (you can read the Transform briefings on the subject here and here) , but Hargreaves and the Mail clearly are, and they have got their facts wrong:

Trends in cannabis use among people aged 16 to 24 years
Percentage reporting use:
--------In past year----In past month
Source: Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2004/05 British Crime Survey.
Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

I’m also not a doctor and I try and avoid getting dragged into the debate about cannabis and mental health. But what the various reports (from ACMD and other expert bodies) suggest is that, on the schizophrenia link specifically, it only effects a very small percentage of users, and that the published research shows that the link is ambiguous – whether cannabis use is causative or merely unmasks existing conditions is not clear. It's obviously not a completely safe drug, there's no such thing, and clearly no drug is risk free, but ‘turning many into dangerous 'schizophrenics.’ is not precision science, it is emotive scaremongering silliness.

From here the story goes into a bit of a nosedive:

“Earlier this week, the pastor blamed skunk for the mindless murder of Nyembo-Ya-Muteba by a gang of thugs.”

Is there any evidence to suggest this is true? Is there any evidence to suggest that cannabis was a factor? Should the Mail report unsupported hear-say before the police have investigated and made a statement, let alone charged or prosecuted anyone? Who knows what drugs any of the murderer or murderers had consumed. Maybe they were drunk; maybe they'd been sniffing bostik, maybe they were just murderous 'thugs'. I have no idea – and nor does Mr Hargreaves, or for that matter the Daily Mail.

Even if, hypothetically, the murderer/murderers turn out to have been stoned out of their minds, this still would not allow Hargreaves to link the murder to reclassification, or the enforcement of the new law (which he does even more overtly in yet another unambiguously titled Mail report: 'Cannabis downgrading blamed for psychotic killer gangs by vicar' ). Millions of people used cannabis before the changes, people have always been getting murdered - to suggest there is a causal link with a minor tweak in policing policy is completely spurious. There are some very real issues with young people misusing cannabis and it is no doubt sometimes a factor in antisocial behaviour, but Hargreaves' claims here have an air of hijacking a tragedy to further his own misplaced political objectives. The Mail apparently has no problem with this, not that its is the first time they have been guilty of dubious hype and nonsense reporting on the cannabis issue.

Anyway, we then hear from a regular Mail pundit on drugs issues, Mary Brett, neither a doctor, nor apparently, a statistician:

'What are the police waiting for? Since they talked about downgrading cannabis, admissions to mental health units have increased by forty per cent.'

A totally bizarre and unsupported claim for which no reference is given. She goes on:

'There has also been an increase in the number of users, despite the Government's denials, and there is also the awful violence.'

What increase? And this isn't about Government 'denials' - it’s specifically survey data from published and long established surveys that provide detailed notes on their methodologies. And precisely what violence is she talking about? Where does this stuff come from and why does the Mail publish it unchallenged? What evidence is there that cannabis use is a significant (or even insignificant) cause of murder or violence, or that reclassification has had any impact on levels of use or violence? I’m one of the most boring drug policy nerds on the planet and I’ve never seen any. What I have seen, however, was a recent detailed report by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee report which concluded that:

"We have found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government's classification policy, and have criticised the Government for failing to meet its commitments to evidence based policy making in this area."

Finally we learn from the Mail that:

"The Met's report declared the soft policy a 'success.' In an astonishing admission, it said letting-off more than 30,000 drug takers with a warning was good for 'police/public relations.' By not bothering to arrest the criminals, officers were having a 'positive effect in reducing friction between young people and the police.'

Why is this astonishing? Why is this an 'admission'? It’s just a statement of fact. It's just the police being honest and suggesting that it's a good thing for police relations that 30,000 more young people are not being branded with the stigma of criminality for something no worse than you or I having a few drinks down the boozer. I’m mystified why the Mail are having a go at the police anyway – they are just doing their job enforcing the laws handed down from Parliament, as they see appropriate with the limited resources they have – it has always been thus.

I despair reading this sort of thing, both the bonkers comments and the shoddy reporting. Drug policy is an important issue for debate - this really doesn’t help anyone. How about James Slack doing some accurate objective reporting and quoting a balance of opinions? To quote the 'So Macho' Reverend:

"I don't mean to be personal but a guy like that's more preferable
In my humble point of view than any of you"