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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 16th March 2012

It’s been a busy week for those involved in drug policy. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has been holding its annual meeting in Vienna and, on Tuesday evening, Intellgence2 held a debate, in London and streamed live, on the motion ‘It’s Time to End the War on Drugs’.

CND ‘reviews and analyses the global drug control situation, considering the interrelated issues of prevention of drug abuse, rehabilitation of drug users and supply and trafficking in illicit drugs’ according to the UNODC website What that means is its annual meeting is a chance for the UN and individual countries to go on about what a great job they are doing implementing the UN conventions as they relate to psychoactive substances.

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) runs an ‘as it happens’ blog from the meeting and that is, probably, the best way to get an idea of what happens. Mostly, what happens is the usual nonsense. Yury Fedotov, the executive director of UNODC, gave his opening address without any mention of the spread of HIV amongst injecting drug users (IDUs) who cannot access clean needles. Then, when challenged on this omission, his defensive response was to say he didn’t need to mention it in his speech because everyone knows UNODC’s position. If it were true that there was no need for established positions to be presented than the CND would last five minutes not five days as it is all about repeating entrenched views.

Countries have displays in the venue so delegates were able to marvel at Iran’s claims about how much good it does for the world by executing drug users without due process. The Russians accused a charity trying to reduce the spread of HIV by providing clean equipment of illegally selling methadone, a claim the charity denies and says comes about because the Russian authorities turn their backs on the problems of IDUs.

And Guatemala made no reference to changes in international drug policy in spite of its president calling for just this only a week or so ago. It’s hard to determine tone in the short format of a tweet but I think there was a triumphalist tone to Kevin Sabet’s tweet saying ‘No mention of decriminalization or anything close to it from Guatemala’.  I was pleased Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) come straight back with a tweet about what USA VP, Joe Biden, must have said to Guatemala during his visit to central and South America in order to shut them up.

If the CND was effectively a rerun of all previous annual meetings then the debate organised by Intelligence2 was something new. A live debate being held in London, streamed via YouTube and with participants from around the world making their contributions via Google Hangout. Prior to the start of the debate an online poll gave people the chance to vote on whether they agreed that it was time to end the war on drugs. A similar poll was held in the hall. Online 92% of people agreed with the motion and in the hall the figure was 60%.

That meant the whole event was, to an extent preaching to the choir, and, perhaps due to an anxiety to show off the technology, there were too many contributors for the time available meaning points had to be made in sound bites with little chance for a contentious claim to be disputed.

A good example of this occurs at 1:54:15 when Peter Hitchens interrupts Sir Richard Branson. Hitchens is very fond of making ad hominem attacks so I shan’t follow his lead. It would be easy to describe him as stupid but it is far worse than that. He is a very clever man saying stupid things. It’s hard not to conclude that he is well aware that what he says is stupid but he is clever enough to know when to say it so as to fool some of the people.

In this case, he trots out the canard that cannabis is decriminalized in the UK simply because the police don’t go out hunting down users. The format does not allow for this point to be challenged with evidence of which there is plenty. My own local paper reported on Thursday the case of a man who invited the police into his home to follow up a road accident and, as a result, now has a criminal conviction because the police smelt the one cannabis plant he was growing for his own use.

There is an even better example of Hitchens’ technique. It’s worth watching  from the question at 1:48:28 to see the sort of personal abuse Hitchens deploys but the point I want to highlight is at 1:49:40 when Hitchens describes cannabis as ‘especially dangerous’. Now, it is true that earlier in the debate, more than once in fact, it was pointed out that the UNODC’s top estimate suggests there could be 225 million people in the world who used cannabis in the past year without coming to any harm at all but it really needed someone to challenge Hitchens’ assertion immediately. Due to the format that was not possible.

You might be led to wonder why Hitchens participated in this event. The audience, clearly, had no respect for anything he said. My view is that Hitchens knew exactly what reaction he wanted to get so that, when he returns to his own constituency, he can tell it that those in favour of reform are scornful of common sense and uninterested in reason.

Like a lot of journalists, Hitchens is not concerned about having a logically consistent approach. Speaking from the audience, early in the debate, he chastised Russell Brand for, in Hitchens' view, seeking to blame other people for his problems with substances and failing to take personal responsibility for his actions. Later, once he is on the platform, he ridicules Julian Assange's argument that individuals should be free to choose what to do with their own bodies by claiming that personal responsibility is not acceptable when it comes to drugs.

But the flaws in the event itself did not prevent some interesting points emerging.

In part, the prohibitionist arguments were ones that have been heard before; there is no ‘war on drugs’, the existing regime is working and legalisation would lead to an explosion of use. There was, however, one angle that was new to me and, given that a number of prohibitionist contributors used it, I think it was deliberately aimed at the expected audience.

This new point was to suggest that the reform argument is being made by large companies who want to exploit the opportunities for profit that a free market in substances would create. That part we’ve heard before but the new angle was to suggest that these companies are part of the 1% seeking to take advantage of the 99%; in other words the prohibitionists were trying to align themselves with the Occupy movement.

Steve Rolles of TDPF cut that argument down by pointing out that no-one was suggesting a free market. Rather, as set out in TDPF’s ‘Blueprint for Regulation’ a non-prohibition model would be based on discouraging harmful use not promoting it.

I wasn’t able to watch the whole debate; my broadband turned it into a jerky farce after about 85 minutes so I caught up with the rest later. I had read that the after debate polls showed online support up from 92 to 97% and support in the hall up from 60 to 65% but it was watching the recording that told me that the ‘anti’ vote in the hall increased by 15%.

This means that the 25% ‘undecideds’ before the debate spilt three to one in favour of maintaining prohibition. Of course, it is impossible to know how many pre-event ‘undecideds’ were actually in favour of prohibition but willing to listen as opposed to truly being on the fence. It is, though, worrying that the unchallenged assertions and blatant lies of the prohibitionist contributors seem to have been accepted by some of the live audience.

I expect there will be more such events but, I hope, that the organisers will, at least, limit the number of participants so points can be developed in more detail and, perhaps, limit the topic to a particular aspect of drug prohibition so that broad generalisation can be replaced by careful consideration of evidence.

It is a somewhat unfair comparison, given that one was a two hour debate and the other a full day conference, but the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston Texas event entitled ‘The War on Drugs Has Failed. Is Legalization the Answer?’ that I wrote about a week ago provided a much better opportunity for examining the situation in detail. YouTube now has all the content available.