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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 15th October 2011

One complaint you hear a lot about the media these days is that too much time is spent speculating about what is going to happen rather than reporting on what has. Especially with political matters there always seem to be stories about what tomorrow’s announcement/report will say. You’d think there wasn’t enough actually happening to fill the papers and programmes.

This makes it a little surprising when a story that could have been reported before suddenly breaks and you would think it was something new. This is what happened when the WHO’s survey of cocaine use and its effects was suppressed by the UN after pressure from the USA because the survey’s results showed that cocaine was not nearly as harmful a substance, for the majority of users of powder, as the ‘party line’ on the drug war stated.

Some years after the survey results were ‘buried’ someone got hold of them and made them available online but it was several months before anyone seemed to notice them and start to report on what this meant for prohibition.

Now, in the last 36 hours or so, there has been a lot of coverage of a letter that was written on 1st July but seems to have escaped nearly everyone’s notice. The letter is from Professor Les Iversen, the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), and is to the Office of the Sentencing Council for England and Wales which, according to its website, ‘promotes greater consistency in sentencing, whilst maintaining the independence of the judiciary’.

I’m not sure why the ACMD didn’t release its letter before (it was published on its website on 12th October) and I’m not sure why no-one seems to have noticed that the motion passed by the Liberal Democrats at their conference in September gives a direct quote from the ACMD letter. It may just be that the ACMD was about to release its annual report, which it did on 13th October, and someone realised that its response to the Sentencing Council, referred to in that annual report, hadn’t been published on its website.

Three other documents were published by the ACMD on 12th October so this does look like an administrative catch-up ahead of the annual report. If that is the case then ACMD members may be unprepared for the coverage the issue is now beginning to attract.

The Sentencing Council had been looking at sentences for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act and asked the ACMD to comment on its proposals. The Sentencing Council’s consultation sent to the ACMD (and, probably, other bodies) asked 15 questions and attached to Prof Iversen’s letter was the ACMD response to each of these.

The link, above, will take you to the answers to all fifteen but it is the last one that has caused all the interest. Question 15 asks ‘Are there any further comments that you wish to make?’ and the ACMD’s answer is much more than you would expect to a wrap-up question like that.

Here’s the heart of the answer; ‘The ACMD also believe that there is an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who have committed an offence by possession of drugs. For people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses (as can happen now with speeding motor car offenders).’

Let’s paraphrase that to make sure we’ve read it right. The ACMD is saying that anyone whose only offence is to be in possession, for personal use, of a substance classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act should not be processed through the criminal justice system but should be offered the opportunity to undertake an education/awareness course intended to reduce the chance of them committing future offences. The ACMD is basing this position on the very successful ‘speed awareness’ courses offered to motorists as an alternative to fines and penalty points for speeding. The ACMD says it believes such an approach ‘may be more effective’ both in reducing re-offending and in reducing costs.

Or, to put it another way, the ACMD is saying that Portugal’s approach to dealing with users of drugs should be, more or less, adopted here.

What also seems to have passed most people by, at the time, is that the ACMD made the same recommendation to the Home Office in October 2010 as part of its contribution to the Home Office review of ‘drugs strategy’. Then, the Home Office rejected any notion of what it called ‘liberalising our drug laws’ though no-one has ever said that speed awareness courses, also a policy area covered by the Home Office, amounted to a liberalisation of the motoring laws on speeding.

It is no surprise, given the evidence from Portugal and other places, that the ACMD believes punishing people for simple possession is not reducing demand and it is certainly no surprise that papers like the Daily Mail have responded based on prejudice rather than reason. What may be more surprising is that a Telegraph blog, by Tom Chivers, assistant comment editor, calls the government chicken for its out of hand dismissal of the proposal. And even the main Telegraph online simply reports the Home Office rejection without the hysterical language used by the Mail.

What really surprises me, however, is that the ACMD has made this recommendation even though it knows the Home Office rejected any consideration of such a plan last year. When Prof David Nutt was forced out of the ACMD by the previous government and when the new ACMD chairman, shortly after his appointment, announced that the committee was recommended that mephedrone be classified as Class ‘B’ while the meeting to discuss this was still in progress, it seemed as though the ACMD was set to become a tool for giving apparent scientific credibility to whatever drug policy the government had decided to pursue.

I don’t for one moment believe that we are about to see a change in policy but I am encouraged that the ACMD appears to be willing to stick to its views even when told by its master that those views are unwelcome. If this means the government has to base its drug policy on 'because I say so' rather than 'because the science (according to the ACMD) says so' it becomes that little bit harder to sustain policies that harm everyone, not just drug users.