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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 17th November 2011

I frequently say that lying about drugs is counter-productive if your lies are not the only source of information. What I usually have in mind by this is the way a lot of drug education aimed at schoolchildren runs counter to both the experience of those who have already used drugs and those of their peers who tell them that the official information is nonsense.

But there is another area where lies are frequently employed and that is with official statistics about drugs. I’ve chosen to use the word ‘lies’ because, in my book, knowingly presenting misleading information in order to elicit a particular response is lying.

I’ve seen a number of examples of this in the past week or so and, rather than blog about each in detail, I thought I would give a brief mention to a number of them just to convey the extent to which misinformation is used to sustain policy. Since I can’t be as brief as I hoped, I’ve spilt this post over two days.

I’ll start with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the federal agency whose ‘mission is to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction’. From October 31st to November 6th, NIDA held its second annual National Drug Facts Week. As part of that week, NIDA published an updated version of its booklet ‘Drugs: Shatter the Myths’.

It begins by asking ‘Is marijuana addictive?’ and answering its own question ‘Yes’. But then it immediately says that ‘around 1 in 11 people who use it become addicted’. I’m not even going to bother getting into the question of the difference between ‘addiction’ and ‘dependence’ because there is no need. If 10 out of 11 people could quit smoking without any problems, no-one would call nicotine ‘addictive’.

Most of the rest of this leaflet that, remember, is part of NIDA’s mission to bring ‘the power of science to bear’ relates anecdotes about individuals as if they are the general experience of a substance.

Then there is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I just saw its 2010 publication ‘Speaking Out Against Drug Legalisation’. This is an attempt to counter the arguments in favour of an end to prohibition with the ‘Top Ten Facts on Legalization’. I mentioned, just a few days ago, that ‘top ten’ lists are often rather odd and the DEA’s ‘facts’ are certainly that. Although its title says it is about ‘Drug Legalization’ is is mostly focussed on Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

It begins by claiming to explode ‘Popular myths’ and, in doing so, creates some of its own. Apparently, according to the DEA, the 40,000+ deaths in Mexico in recent years are the result of a battle over ‘whether Mexico will be governed under the rule of law, or the rule of the gun’. And, apparently, ‘Enforcement efforts make a positive difference in reducing drug-related violence’.

And then there is: ‘Claims that prohibition didn’t work overlook the fact that most historians agree that national prohibition succeeded both in lowering consumption and in retaining political support’. ‘Historians’ (though, of course, the DEA doesn’t name them nor give a link to their work) think that the growth in organised crime began in the mid to late 19th century and had nothing to do with prohibition of alcohol.

But it is when it gets to its ‘Top 10 Facts on Legalization’ that the DEA really hits its stride. Fact 1 is that ‘Significant progress has been made in fighting drug use and drug trafficking in America’. That’s not even worth commenting on. Fact 5 is that the US doesn’t spend a lot of money on drug control.

Fact 9 is that Europe’s more liberal policies wouldn’t work in the USA. It claims that ‘since legalization of marijuana’ (I’ll leave the ‘What legalization?’ question for another time) in the Netherlands ‘heroin addiction levels have tripled’. I don’t know how the DEA defines ‘addiction’ in this case. ‘Problem’ opioid use averages between 3.6-4.4 cases per 1,000 people for Europe as a whole and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) says, in its recent annual report, that the Netherlands is one of the countries with the lowest level of problem users. So, we can assume that means well under the 3.6 average. According to the UNODC, problem users in the USA run to 5.8 per 1,000 people.

Fact 10 is that America’s prisons are not full of people charged only with possession of cannabis, marijuana. That, of course, ignores the fact that simply having a growing cannabis plant, even if it is for personal use, means the offence becomes ‘sale/manufacture’ rather than ‘simple possession’. And it ignores substances like cocaine, powder and crack, where imprisonment is more likely. Overall, the USA arrests around 1.5 million people a year for drug offences and jails about a third of them.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at seizures in the USA and the UK. In the USA, claimed seizures of cocaine exceed worldwide production estimates and, in the UK, the government has tried, and failed, to put a positive spin on the latest data by selecting a period that gives the numbers it wants.