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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 28th March 2012

The optimistic part of me thinks UK Members of Parliament work very hard to fulfil their functions. I say this because, today, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has published the first batch of written submissions made to its inquiry into government drugs policy. It runs to 728 pages and over 340,000 words so it is a big read even if, like the committee members, you’ve been able to read the submissions as they arrived from January to March.

The pessimistic part of me, however, worries that some of the committee members could have passed the full submissions to a researcher asking for each 2,500 word (maximum) document to be reduced to an easy to read 100 words.

I confess that in the time I’ve had available, today, I have cherry-picked certain submissions to read so I have no idea what gems I may have missed. That said I do know I’ve missed out on seven submissions that are not included in the published document. The guide for submitting evidence to select committees does say it is possible to request, but not demand, that one’s evidence remain confidential. It would have been nice for the HASC to give some indication of why the material has been withheld.

A number of the submissions are from people or organisations I’ve written about before. So, we have Kevin Sabet, not content with being, in part, responsible for the application of the drug policy that has caused such widespread harm in the USA, putting forward his views of what the UK is doing wrong.

As usual with Sabet, he presents himself as a moderate in the centre-ground before putting forward opinions that are part of the lexicon of the archetypal prohibitionist. This he does by the use of incomplete truths. He suggests that researchers found that no-one convicted of possession of cannabis received a custodial sentence but does not go on to explain that the research was not looking at this point.

Similarly, when discussing Portugal, he claims ‘there has been a surprisingly few number of rigorous analyses on the policy change’. The Hughes and Stevens paper was published online on 2nd January (I wrote about it on 6th January) and Sabet’s submission is dated ‘January 2012’ so it is not credible to suggest that he was unaware of it when he made his submission. The problem for Sabet is that the Hughes and Stevens paper is a rigorous analysis of the policy change and concludes that the results of the reform were ‘nuanced, albeit largely positive’. We know that is a point Sabet doesn’t like because he similarly ignored it at the conference I wrote about on 9th March.

On the USA, he says that ‘less than 0.7% of all state inmates were behind bars for cannabis possession only’ but doesn’t explain that the criminal justice system will often bring a charge of intending to supply against someone whose ‘possession’ offence includes a small number of growing plants.

But, in his conclusion, he goes from incomplete truth to outright lie. He says ‘the international experience with legalization’ when there is no such experience since these substances have not been legal for a very long time. Unless, that is, you accept his premise that the situation with alcohol and tobacco shows what would happen with the illegal substances but, also like Sabet, you cut the analogy short of concluding that, as with alcohol, prohibition doesn’t work.

I’ve suggested, call me cynical, that the main purpose of the HASC inquiry is to demonstrate that moving drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health is a mistake and, therefore, reformers who want to see drugs dealt with as a health issue are, probably, wasting their time. But, from the submissions I’ve read, today, it does seem that it is the prohibitionists who are treating the committee with disdain.

I assume the submission by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) was written by Kathy Gyngell. It comprises, mostly, a copy of her blog entry condemning the temerity of the HASC in daring to ask whether existing policy is right. I’ve written about that before so I won’t say any more about the CPS submission.

Peter Hitchens also has an odd view of what sort of written submission will impress the committee. Of course, he repeats his mantra that there is no war on drugs but there should be one but he does it by quoting extensively from his forthcoming book. I know he has done this because he finishes his submission ‘(extract from Manuscript of my own forthcoming book, ‘The War We Never Fought’)’. It takes a very special sort of arrogance to believe that giving evidence to a parliamentary select committee is the perfect opportunity to promote a forthcoming commercial venture.

The submission by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs makes a number of important points. It calls for alcohol to be dealt with in exactly the same way as the illegal drugs and it points out that the newly implemented Temporary Banning Orders (TBO) for novel substances are flawed by their very nature. A TBO can be granted before a full review of evidence is available. The TBO last for twelve months and after that time the substance must be moved into one of the established classes or not classified. As the ISCD points out, not classifying would amount to declaring a substance to be safe so it is inevitable that substances placed under a TBO will end up classified. The only question is which class will be applied but the well-known position of the ISCD is that the classification system is not evidence based and has no relationship to actual harms.

Just scrolling through the document, quickly, I noticed a number of submissions by individuals, some quite short, setting out their reasons for using Cannabis sativa to treat medical conditions. It is encouraging that ordinary people are willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to the harms caused by current drug policy.

I haven’t, yet, read the ACMD’s submission but I did read this blog about it.

I did search the document for any reference to Catha edulis, khat, but only found one in the submission from Sarah Graham Solutions and that just an ‘in passing’ note. I would have thought someone might have felt the way drug policy is being applied in a current situation was worth consideration but, there again, I didn’t so I’m to blame as much as anybody.