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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 27th January 2012

I’ve been reading ‘Drug Legalisation: An Evaluation of the Impacts on Global Society’. It describes itself as a ‘Position Statement’ and appears on The International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy (ITFSDP) website. It is not, however, the sole work of the ITFSDP. At the end of the statement it says it is ‘issued’ by nine groups (I won’t list them all here). The ITFSDP is best known for its mouthpiece, David Raynes, who latest pronouncement came in a letter to the Telegraph, following Richard Branson’s appearance before the HASC, in which he seems to blame the rise in drug use on those who have dared to discuss drug policy.

The challenge with evaluating a document like this is the need to avoid making a personal attack on the author. In this case, that is easy to do since the statement gives no indication of who has authored it. That does, however, mean that one cannot assess the qualifications of the author and, given that no references are given, it is impossible to determine the value of the ‘evidence’ behind the statement. It would be wrong to assume that David Raynes had a role in its drafting though its many flaws do match his usual style.

On 6th January, I wrote about the paper from Caitlin Hughes & Alex Stevens showing that arguments made from the extreme edges of an issue can lead to distortion of the truth and this ‘Position Statement’ is very much at the extreme edge of the prohibition case. I want to try and examine it from the centre.

I’m glad not to know, for certain, the name of the author because it is necessary to say that the writing is extremely poor. It uses various tricks to try and influence the reader’s reaction but they are so transparent as to be laughable.

*The idea that drug policy reformers are using their wealth to make their case received a most bizarre outing on Thursday evening’s BBC1 programme ‘Question Time’. In response to a question about Sir Richard Branson’s evidence to the HASC inquiry into drug policy, Melanie Phillips claimed that there had been a trillion dollar campaign arguing for reform.

The programme is available from the BBC iPlayer for the next twelve months and it is worth seeing for yourself. The question is asked at 31 minutes in and Melanie Phillips starts her tirade at 39:45. In addition to the obviously stupid claim about the funds spent by reformers, Ms Phillips says much else that is laughable. I won’t go into it here but I’ve checked the definition of ‘fair dealing’ under copyright law and I hope the BBC will accept that I’m using this copyright image for the purpose of ‘criticism or review’ of what Ms Phillips had to say.

Mark Steel shows bemusement at Melanie Phillips bizarre opinions.

Mark Steel shows despair at Melanie Phillips' bizarre opinions.

Under the sub-heading ‘The flawed proposition of drug legalisation’, the statement begins ‘Various well funded pressure groups*’. The reader is expected to take two things from this phrase. First, that those who are seeking changes to the control regime are able to use their money to get their point of view across. And, second, that by comparison the groups behind the statement are just simple folk who are doing their best to get their message out with the resources to do so in a highly polished way. The message is ‘please forgive our unprofessional approach, we’re simple ordinary people’.

This is very quickly followed by the first of a great many distorted arguments setting out positions said to be held by the reform campaigners and then knocking them down. The idea that the acceptance that drugs are not going to go away and must, therefore, be dealt with so as to reduce their adverse effects is made to sound as though all reformers want everyone to be using drugs as a ‘legal right’.

There is then a section that amounts to saying ‘drugs are illegal because they are’. Lengthy quotes are given from UN conventions and the role of various UN agencies is described to try and suggest that nothing can be done to change the laws on drugs because they are essential to the UN. Obviously, since the nations forming the UN passed the conventions in the first place, they can decide to amend them. ‘Drugs are illegal so shut up’ is not a very convincing argument. 

The statement is full of argument presented as fact, a common tool for those who can’t produce evidence to support their position. Thus ‘It is frequently and falsely asserted that the so-called “War on Drugs” is inappropriate’ makes no attempt to explain why such an assertion is false. Note, also the quotation marks around ‘War on Drugs’ intended to convey that there is no such war.

Actually, not all of the writing is poor. There’s a very interesting sandwich point. The best known example of sandwich points was when staff working for former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, needed to give him bad news and wanted to avoid one of his famous angry outbursts. They would give him a piece of good news, followed by the bad news, followed by another piece of good news. The hypothesis, which someone should do their PhD on if no-one has already, is that the second point of a three point statement is least remembered. The sandwich argument here is that;

'The groups supporting legalisation are: people who use drugs, those who believe that the present system of control does more harm than good, and those who are keen to make significant profits from marketing newly authorised addictive substances.'

So, you’re either a drug user or a would-be drug dealer and, hopefully, no-one will think too much about that second group. Because believing that something is doing more harm than good is the concept that is central to any reform campaign from the anti-apartheid movement to a group of villagers wanting a lower speed limit.

If not all the writing is poor, some of it is truly awful. After the skewed definition of would be reformers we are told that ‘[t]hey foster the erroneous belief that drugs are harmless’. Since a great deal of reform campaigning is based on ‘harm reduction’ it is clear than only the very lunatic fringe believes that all drugs are harmless.

Then comes the suggestion that reformers hope their ‘pseudo-persuasive arguments’ will be accepted by people who are too busy to research them for themselves and will accept them at face value. Have these people never heard of irony: criticising people for trying to dupe others with unevidenced assertions in a statement full of unevidenced assertions.

One such assertion is that reformers believe that changes to the current regime will ‘solve the drug problem completely’. How did we get from the opening paragraph’s ‘These groups claim that society should accept the fact of drugs as a problem that will remain’ to those same groups saying reform is a complete solution?

We’re only on page 2 of a 6 page document but I want to go through every ridiculous statement because most of them are so stupid that it seems important to point them out. To do that task justice without making this entry too long for most readers, I’ve decided to split this over two days.

There must be sensible arguments in favour of prohibition but it seems that none of them appear in this ‘Position Statement’.

Click here for the second part.