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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 6th January 2012

I started out to write this entry about two completely disparate items I’ve read that have a common theme but I now have to add a third showing that the shared hope of the first two is already being subverted.

This is a story about what’s wrong with the way we discuss issues, what could be done to put it right and why people who don’t want sensible discussions are already undermining that solution.

I’ll start with the subject furthest away from my normal concerns, both physically and intellectually; dairy farming in Australia. Since my Google alert for ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris, took me to it some months ago, I’ve been a regular reader of The Milk Maid Marian blog. This entry about the different opinions of vegans and dairy farmers struck me as having a much broader relevance. She quotes another writer on this topic who says there is ‘an “us vs. them” mentality that limits the opportunity for meaningful discussion about complex food issues’.

At the risk of sounding as though I blame the media for everything, I do think that the notion that news is entertainment has a lot to answer for. TV, especially, wants two people with absolutely fixed views at the extreme opposite ends of any subject to harangue each other and make outrageous claims. I’d love to hear someone say ‘That’s a very good point. I’ll have to rethink my position’ but that won’t happen for as long as issues are ‘debated’ by those who aren’t even listening to the other’s view.

This, it seems to me, leads to people making their pronouncements more extreme because they realise that is the only way to get airtime and that point came across in a paper I read about drug policy in Portugal.

In 2001, Portugal stopped prosecuting people for simple possession of substances covered by the UN Single Convention and, instead, diverted users into healthcare or education programmes. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of interest in what such a policy delivered and a number of studies have been made of the results.

Now a new paper by Caitlin Hughes & Alex Stevens looks at two reports, written by people at opposite ends of the drug policy debate to see if either of the claims made - that Portugal’s policy has been ‘a resounding success’ or ‘a disastrous failure’ – is justified by the available data.

I’m not intending to summarise the whole paper so I’ll just say that Hughes and Stevens conclude that both the report written by G Greenwald for the libertarian Cato Institute and the work of M Pinto Coelho for the Associação para uma Portugal livre de drogas (Association for a Drug Free Portugal), a prohibitionist body, overstate their conclusions by cherry-picking data to suit their pre-existing stance on the issue and, in some cases, stating as fact that which is not. Greenwald, for example, says that Portugal had the ‘absolute lowest lifetime prevalence rates for cannabis [in Europe]. . .’ when three European countries have lower rates. Pinto says that Portugal had the highest number of new cases of HIV in Europe amongst injecting drug users but omits that, for the period chosen, data from two countries with much higher rates in previous periods is not available.

Hughes & Stevens’ paper will be dismissed by the prohibitionists because both authors have ‘form’ for calling for changes in drug policy and because their overall conclusion is that Portugal’s policy change has been positive but not the ‘resounding success’ claimed by the Cato Institute.

But, the central point of the paper is that debate on issues should take place in the centre where it may be harder to claim clear dominance of one policy over another. They also point out the danger of claiming to want policy to be evidence based if it can be shown by opponents that you are distorting or over-stating the evidence. For prohibitionists, destroying the credibility of evidence destroys the argument for evidence-based policy.

Then, just as I was punching the air at this vindication of my view that you should not overstate any issue, whether it is the potential for mass poisonings caused by ricin from Ricinus communis or the number of horse deaths resulting from Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort, or the effects of psychoactive substances, I came across this commentary about this piece from the New York Times.

The NYT op-ed piece was written by Kevin A. Sabet who was a senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011 and now describes himself as a drug-policy consultant. On his own website Sabet says ‘I have argued stridently against legalization’ and, last October, at the time of the broadcast of Ken Burns’ documentary ‘Prohibition’, Sabet wrote a piece for The Los Angeles Times arguing that alcohol prohibition wasn’t all bad.

In his latest piece, Sabet tries to position himself as in the centre of the argument about drug policy. He tries to position a number of former US Presidents, who have fully supported and even increased the ‘war on drugs’ as moderates so that he can place himself in that category. And he condemns the way the discussion on drug policy is between extremists on both sides. As David Sirota’s excellent commentary points out, Sabet’s piece is full of terms like ‘moderate’ and ‘centrists’ and says that policy mustn’t be in ‘the hands of extremists’ in order to try and get across his ‘moderate’ credentials.

Yet, for me, anyone who still says the criminal justice system has a vital role in reducing the harm caused by drugs is very far from being moderate.

I heard Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter and campaigner, say the other day that the language of Marx is no longer useful but the issues remain the same. It seems Kevin Sabet has recognised that the language of extreme prohibition is no longer useful and has moderated it to slip under the radar.

Those of us who hope for issues to be discussed sensibly will regret that the centre ground is being hijacked by extremists who know that their arguments are increasingly being questioned.