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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 23rd September 2011

Some days, I write this blog by staring at a blank screen and seeing what words appear on it. Other times, I’ve got an idea in my mind based on something that has been attracting my attention for a while. The other thing that stirs my choice of topic is actually what happened on the day.

Today, I should have been writing about my visit to Lincolnshire to run an all-day course on poison plants. Unfortunately, the course didn’t happen. It was being organised by a farmer who offers a wide range of courses to supplement her farm income. Most of the courses offered are of the ‘How to’ variety. ‘How to make your own fencing using willow’, ‘How to have a kitchen garden in limited space’ and the like.

And I think that was the problem. In my experience, people are very interested to learn about poisonous plants either in order to avoid them in the garden or just out of fascination for the stories told about them. I’m not so sure they would want to record their credit card details against a course that could be seen as being ‘How to…’ when it comes to poisonous plants.

Not going down to Lincolnshire gave me the time to look at the latest offering from the Centre for Policy Studies, the right-wing think tank that provides a vehicle for Kathy Gyngell’s particular brand of distorted thinking on drug policy.

Ms Gyngell has been looking at the report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP). This body is made up of very eminent people including;

•César Gaviria, former President of Colômbia
•Ernesto Zedillo, former President of México
•Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil
•George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece
•George Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States
•Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations
•Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, Germany
•Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve
•Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs
•Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway

You’ll see from this list that these are people who have had actual experience of delivering policy and have intimate knowledge of the workings of drug policy. I’ve mentioned their report before 3rd June but here’s a link to the Commission’s website if you want to read it for yourself.  It is only 24 pages in total so you don’t need to set a whole day aside to study it.

The report gets straight to the heart of the matter. The Executive Summary begins ‘The global war on drugs has failed’.

Ms Gyngell tries to discredit the report by attacking the numbers given for annual prevalence.

I set out not to undertake a line by line critique of Ms Gyngell’s work but I must mention one point as it typifies her approach. She reproduces the numbers given by the GCDP and says ‘The paper did not give precise references’. The report (there is a difference between a report and a paper but we won’t go into that here) says ‘an analysis of the last 10 years alone1,2,3,4 shows a large and growing market. (See chart above.)’ This makes it quite clear that references 1,2,3,4 are the source of the numbers used in the chart and, if you follow the references you see that he GCDP’s numbers are best estimates in accordance with the sources.

The irony is that Ms Gyngell cautions against accepting data that is based on other work that you hope readers will not have troubled to access. Yet, she hopes readers will accept her word for the lack of reliability of the GCDP numbers.

But, as I said, I’m not intending to go line by line through Ms Gyngell’s work which has been released into the gap between the Liberal Democrats annual conference, which called for an independent panel to examine the workings of the Misuse of Drugs Act, and the Conservative party conference and, so, must be seen as intended to stiffen up the right-wing of the coalition.

Rather, I’ll accept Ms Gyngell’s statement that UNODC has said ‘best estimates of the
number of cocaine and opiate users show prevalence rates for annual opiate use remaining
stable at around 0.35% and for annual cocaine at 0.36 %, in the population age range 15-64, between 1998 and 2008’.

The choice of years is significant because, in June 1998, the UN General Assembly met in Special Session to discuss drugs. ‘The Session culminated in the adoption of a Political Declaration committing some 150 states to the achievement of significant and measurable results in reduction of illicit supply and demand for drugs by the year 2008’ (quote taken from the Vienna Non-Governmental Organization Committee website).

‘Significant and measurable’. Yet, accepting Ms Gyngell’s figures, we can see there has been no reduction in prevalence at all far less a ‘significant and measurable’ one.

Ms Gyngell is agreeing with the stark statement at the beginning of the GCDP report ‘The global war on drugs has failed’.

It is quite possible that Ms Gyngell would agree with that but her conclusion is that of the stereotypical addict. A ten year programme intended to reduce substance use has failed so what’s needed is another ten years of even greater effort to enforce existing drug laws. A key feature of harmful addiction is the perception that the desired effect hasn’t been achieved so an increase in dosage is required.

Of course, the harm caused by Ms Gyngell’s addiction to failed drug policies happens to other people and not to her.