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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 1st October 2013

I’ve been having another look at WhatDoTheyKnow and the information it has on Cannabis sativa, marijuana. Though the FoI information I wrote about before came up in a search for ‘cannabis’ it was about drug ‘Stop and Search’ in general so I thought I’d look for information specific to cannabis.

There was a reason for doing this now and writing about it today. This evening, at the University of Kent, there is to be a debate between Prof. Alex Stevens and Peter Hitchens about drug decriminalisation. I think I wish I could be there but I can’t be sure.

My uncertainty is because it is clear that Hitchens will trot out his usual distortions of the situation and fail to engage with Prof. Stevens who, I’m sure, will stick to balanced, nuanced evidence. There were those on Twitter who felt that Prof. Stevens is wasting his time trying to debate with someone who views his opinions as truths and who resorts to insult as a means of avoiding engagement in debate. But, the response was that bad ideas have to be challenged and I can see that argument. I can’t help suspecting, however, that Hitchens has already drafted his piece about the damage ‘leftie’ universities are doing to young minds.

Back to WhatDoTheyKnow. One of Hitchens’ key planks is that the war on drugs hasn’t been won because it hasn’t been fought and this is clear because cannabis has been effectively decriminalised since 1970. I thought I’d look and see what information there was to contribute to that point.

I should begin by saying that the Freedom of Information Act does not result in information being freely available. Requests for information are treated completely literally. In one instance, I made a typing error and requested data covering one day rather than one year. Instead of querying whether my request was that specific, the body concerned happily responded that it held no data for that day. Job done, request completed, a new request goes into the response time queue.

No-one at the body providing the information will ever offer more than is requested. There’s no saying ‘You’ve asked about A but you’ll find B is also helpful so we’ve provided that’.

This means it is quite difficult to get at the truth of data provided to different requests about the enforcement of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in respect of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

Hitchens maintains that people found in possession of cannabis only get a slapped wrist rather than being punished.

I found two relevant responses. The first shows that, for the period 01/02/11 to 31/01/12, the MPS dealt with 51,269 ‘Possession of cannabis offences’. The second shows that, for a different 12 months (01/03/2012 – 28/02/13), the MPS made 17,110 ‘Arrests for Cannabis’ and those arrests resulted in 8,538 formal charges.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to say that (ignoring the different timings) 51,269 detected offences resulted in 17,110 arrests because the first figure is for possession only whereas the second includes all offences relating to cannabis. Because this is a response to a FoI request, the MPS hasn’t volunteered a more detailed breakdown. It is impossible, therefore, to be sure of the proportion of cases dealt with by means of a cannabis warning rather than arrest and charge.

Using the broadest of brushes you could say that fewer than 20% of the people found with cannabis end up appearing in court so Hitchens’ argument that the war on drugs is not being fought may look stronger if you are predisposed to believe that the criminal justice system is the way to manage the drug market.

That, of course, does not alter the fact that his assertion that there was a deliberate decision not to be tough on drugs in 1970 is completely untrue. If you didn’t see it at the time, here’s my presentation of the evidence that the government went against advice and increased the maximum penalties concerned.

The problem tonight will be the usual one between a scientist and a purveyor of nonscience. Prof. Stevens will accept that there is doubt about everything; Hitchens will claim certainty throughout.

After writing, yesterday, to challenge the nonsense about ricin in ‘Breaking Bad’, I have to conclude that it is right to challenge wrong ideas so I’m now sure I would like to be there this evening. I hope someone takes a video camera.

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