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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 24th April 2012

The Homes Affairs Select Committee (HASC) inquiry into drug policy is becoming the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve written three times before  about the written evidence submitted to it; 28th March, 30th March and 8th April. And I’ve written about the hearings themselves a couple of times; 24th January and 5th March.

Today, the HASC held a further session of taking evidence from live witnesses. It began with Russell Brand and Chip Somers from the charity Focus 12 that helped Brand recover from his addiction. As usual with these celebrity appearances, it was all about anecdote rather than evidence with Brand clearly believing that what happened to him is the general experience of drug users. Calling in ‘celebs’ may help to keep the committee in the public eye but I hope their contributions don’t distort the final report.

Because I couldn’t watch the session live, I’d already seen reports of Brand’s contribution so I didn’t sit through all of it when I turned to the recording.1 In the later part of the session, one of the MPs referred to Mr Somers who, it seems, had said that if young people discover that something you have told them about drugs is a lie they will disregard everything you tell them. That is one of my hobby horses about how we deal with young people and psychoactive substances.

I didn’t go through the whole of the opening segment because I wanted to get to the interesting part where the committee took evidence from Peter Hitchens, Kathy Gyngell and Mary Brett.

If you are not familiar with these three then you can see what I’ve said about Hitchens in blog entries from 16th March, 19th March and 28th March. Gyngell features more frequently with appearances in blogs on 19th June, 23rd September, 2nd December and 8th December in 2011 and 10th January, 3rd February, 28th March and 8th April this year.

Mary Brett appears only in the blog from 30th March.

To a large extent, their performances today were very much as you would expect. Hitchens demonstrated his arrogance with a barely veiled smack on the wrist for committee chair, Keith Vaz MP, because, if Hitchens had his way, people would not be permitted to even talk about changes in drug policy. It was quite clear Hitchens had nothing but contempt for Vaz because of Russell Brand’s appearance earlier in the same day.

Gyngell, as usual, made unsupported statements but claimed them as irrefutable evidence. The one that stood out for me actually made her joint appearance with Peter Hitchens farcical.

Hitchens frequently repeated his line that drugs have been, in effect, decriminalised. Though he picks on Cannabis sativa, marijuana, to justify this claim he did, at one point, say that the same was true of Class ‘A’ drugs. He didn’t respond when Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, pointed out that while Hitchens was right to say that around 80,000 (I’ll call them) interactions between the police and the public involving substances scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 resulted in cannabis warnings (the existence of such warnings forms the main basis for Hitchens’ decriminalised claim), that meant that the other 80,000 interactions a year were dealt with in other ways that could not be called decriminalisation.

Gyngell claimed that any move to decriminalisation would lead to an explosion of use and cited smoking as an example saying that 1 in 5 people are regular smokers and removing the legal sanctions would see drug use at that level. Yet, ‘decriminalised’ cannabis has, according to the British Crime Survey for 2010/11, a last month prevalence of 3.8% amongst adults. That’s less than 1 in 25; rather different from the 1 in 5 Ms Gyngell claimed.

They can’t both be right. Either the current laws are working to suppress cannabis use so Hitchens talk of it being ‘decriminalised’ is using an emotive term to bolster a flawed argument or Gyngell is scare-mongering with no evidence by suggesting there is a massive demand for illegal substances that would emerge if they were legal.

Of course, there’s every reason to believe that they are both wrong.

Poor Mary Brett sat quietly for most of the session except when directly questioned. Where Hitchens and Gyngell were vying with each other to get the most speaking time, Brett had no interventions to offer and little to add when asked to comment on responses already given by the other two.

When she did answer direct questions, she was anxious to stress that she was only interested in cannabis and that she was a leading expert on it after studying for many years. She was keen to focus on the question of strength and pointed out that the Dutch are trying to keep the THC content of cannabis served in coffee shops below 15%. She clearly didn’t see that the notion of having known product strength is an argument in favour of regulation and that criminal dealers want to have the smallest amount of product so will always go for the highest strength they can get.

Brett makes a big play of being in touch with young people and knowing what they want. When the question of whether drug policy should be evidenced based and whether young people should be told the truth was raised, she said she always gave her students an appropriate amount of scientific information for their age. “Because it was a boys’ school they were interested, of course, in the scientific side anyway”.


It would seem that Kathy Gyngell doesn't think much of the HASC or the way its proceedings are being reported because she's cracked off 2,000 words for the Mail Online2 to make sure her views get across.

I'll only say that she's repeated a favourite trick of not citing the latest evidence or story. So, she finishes her piece with what President Santos said last December about the connection between cocaine use in Europe and the USA and the suffering caused in his country but she completely ignores that fact that he has since then called for decriminalisation to be freely debated.

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