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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 9th January 2012

Though I’m well aware I may be having a Red Nissan Micra moment, it does seem that debate about the need for a change in drug policy is moving into the mainstream. That is not a clear cut conclusion because there are still plenty of signs that no-one is listening.

I’ll start with the negatives, partly because they may be part of the past rather than the future but also so I can end on a more positive tone.

Yesterday, I wrote about the outbreak of anthrax associated with infected heroin in late 2009 and 2010. I did one of my unscientific surveys of the interest in this matter. Google News archives show 640 results for the search terms ‘anthrax’ and ‘heroin’ but 17,700 results if the search terms are ‘anthrax’ and ‘senate’ mostly related to the delivery of infected mail, resulting in 5 deaths, during 2001. My point is anthrax is news unless illegal drug users are involved.

Also on heroin, I read an article saying that making heroin available on prescription would be beneficial to those who work as prostitutes to fund their purchases. The case seems overwhelming, yet, the same case was made in 1998 by a young Ben Goldacre and, whilst a student essay is unlikely to change the world, Goldacre has reprinted it on his website since his rise to prominence.

So, in the face of those examples that show the ‘serves them right’ attitude is strongly associated with illicit drug users, why do I think there is reason for optimism?

Partly because the subject of drug policy is no longer buried in pages of limited circulation scientific journals. The latest edition of ‘The Lancet’ contained three papers on the subject of Addiction, each of which concluded that current drug policy isn’t helpful. And, the journal decided that this was important enough for it to forego its commercial interests and make all three of these papers freely available online.

I noted last Friday that Hughes and Stevens had pointed out the dangers in allowing evidence to be discredited and now one of the Lancet paper’s, Room & Reuter’s ‘How well do international drug conventions protect public health?’ has pointed out that there is a dearth of reliable evidence because the illegal status of drug use makes collecting evidence very difficult.

And, I have another reason for optimism. This is not the place to go into the detail of an obscenity trial that took place in London last week. The trial, however, produced quite a number of voices saying that much as the practices being described might seem unattractive that didn’t seem to justify legal interference with those who did find them acceptable. And when the jury returned a clean sweep of ‘not guilty’ verdicts it seemed that this notion of not interfering with individual preferences had been given legal precedent.

The weekend’s newspapers contained a number of articles suggesting that obscenity law is out of step with what the public feels about interference in personal choice. Though given as ‘sources’ the articles suggest that those involved with film censorship and enforcement of obscenity laws feel that the current legislation is unworkable.

It may be too great a step to read across from this case to drug policy but, at its heart, current drug policy is about deciding what individuals may or may not do. Of course, the uncertain definition of what constitutes an obscenity makes it easier for juries to influence outcomes. Drug laws are more clearly defined. Nonetheless, we can hope that juries will begin to see through attempts to over-prosecute drug offences by, for example, trying to make someone who gave a friend some of his home-grown Cannabis sativa out to be a major supplier.

I’ve long believed that change will come. I now think it may come rather quicker than seemed possible.