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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 14th July 2011

News that five men had died in an explosion at what appears to have been an illegal distillery came on the day I read an article in a publication called ‘Addiction Today’ that included the author pointing out that there is a substantial illegal tobacco industry even though tobacco is available freely and legally.

Though, officially, the illegal production of alcohol at an industrial unit in Boston, Lincolnshire, is only ‘suspected’ at the moment, photos are already appearing online showing boxes of empty bottles and it is being said that the police ‘discovered chemicals at the site - suggesting that alcohol was being produced on the premises’.

I suspect, there will be plenty of people saying that ‘it serves them right’ and the Daily Mail has made sure to get the words ‘migrant workers’ into the headline of its online report just to further reduce any sympathy for the dead men, but this is a tragic event and people should remember that the UK legal system would have punished these men if caught but not by ending their lives.

But, where does ‘Addiction Today’ come into this and what is ‘Addiction Today’? Addiction Today Journal is the most widely-read, influential journal in the UK alcohol- and drug-treatment field. Well, that’s what its own website says, which I’m sure would be a surprise to the ‘Society for the Study of Addiction’ whose own journals ‘Addiction’ and ‘Addiction Biology’ have good claims to that ‘title’.

‘Addiction Today’ calls itself a ‘journal’, which implies that it publishes scientific articles that most people would expect to have been peer reviewed. What it is, however, is more like the magazine of the charity the Addiction Recovery Foundation (ARF). The ARF was formed in 1989 to promote the idea that the way to deal with drug problems is to get addicts completely off drugs. It claims to offer evidence-based guidance on recovery from addiction.

The article I read today was by David Raynes who represents something called the National Drug Prevention Alliance and it was supposedly ‘the truth’ intended to counter the recent report from The Global Commission On Drug Policy that began with the sentence 'The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.'

At one point, Mr Raynes says ‘the suggestion that legalisation would somehow remove criminality from drug supply is ridiculous’ and gives the estimate that over 20% ‘of the UK
tobacco market is smuggled, counterfeit or both’. Given today’s explosion, it is obvious that there are criminals involved in the production and supply of alcohol and, it might seem that, therefore, Mr Raynes is right in his view that ‘legalisation’ would not remove the criminals from the drugs business.

But, what Raynes is doing, as so often happens with those wishing to maintain the current drugs regime, is setting up an argument that is not being made by those who favour an end to prohibition and then demolishing it. No-one campaigning for reform is naïve enough to argue that replacing prohibition with regulation would, magically, end all drug-related crime. Obviously, those who have decided on a career based on making money criminally would find a way to continue some form of illegal activity.

Criminals are in the drugs business in order to make money from it. Problem drug users, addicts if you wish to use that term, are in the criminal business in order to get drugs from it. In other words, an end to prohibition would mean that those people who commit crimes purely to have the money to buy drugs would no longer need to do so. These people currently commit a great many crimes to service their needs and, whilst many of those crimes may be minor in terms of the value of goods stolen, each produces a victim of crime whose suffering is out of all proportion to the value of goods lost. 

It is those crimes that would, obviously, largely cease to exist in a regulated market and, the key point is that this reduction would free up police resources to be able to do a better job of catching those who are in the drugs business for money not drugs.

There are plenty of other ‘truths’ in Mr Raynes’ article but, unfortunately, unlike a ‘journal’, he offers no references to enable anyone to easily check the information he provides. So, when he writes that ‘At one stage, the Netherlands had more drug related murder than anywhere else in Europe’ you can’t turn to his source for the supporting data and you have to go looking for yourself.

Actually, with that claim it doesn’t take too long to come up with figures. In 2004, the total murder rate in the Netherlands was 1.17 per 100,000. At the time, the average for Europe as a whole was 5.4 and for West and Central Europe the figure was 1.5. By 2009, that rate had fallen to 0.93 and the Netherlands had a lower rate than, at least, twelve other countries in West and Central Europe. Now, that is for murder as a whole rather than ‘drug related’ murder but there is no reason to believe that the Netherlands has a disproportionate number of drug related homicides.

It may be that Raynes is working from the 1998 claim by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the then director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, that the Netherlands had a higher murder rate than the USA. It transpired that McCaffrey was including attempted murder in the Dutch figure but excluding it from the American.

It is not my intention to examine each of Raynes’ claims but I’d like to just look at a couple to do with Portugal. According to Raynes ‘Portugal has the most cases of injected drug related Aids, with 85 new cases per million citizens. Other EU countries average 5 per million.’ What he doesn’t say, however, is that since Portugal changed its approach to dealing with drug users that rate has fallen dramatically. It was because Portugal had such a high rate of shared needle-based HIV infection that the new drug regime was introduced in the hope, now proven, of reducing the harm done. In 2000, nearly 1,400 new HIV infections were reported but that had fallen to less than 400 by 2006.

And Raynes says that drug related homicides have increased 40%. 40% sounds like a pretty big number but the total homicide rate in Portugal is 1.5 per 100,000 and with under 11 million people that means around 160 total homicides a year. If every one of those were due to the drug trade then the 40% increase Raynes refers to would be about 45 deaths a year. Obviously, not every homicide is drug related so the actual figure will be much lower than 45 but, in any case, 45 is already much lower than the 110 fewer drug-related deaths in 2006 compared to 1999.

Doing something to reduce the terrible harm caused by drugs in the present prohibition regime is complex and needs careful thought and debate to make sure that changes have a positive action in reducing that harm. Such debate is not facilitated when those arguing for the status quo distort the truth and present assertion as fact.