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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 10th July 2012

I’ve spent a week trying, and failing, to overcome my despair at what was said at the meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) inquiry into drug policy on 3rd July. I’ve written about this inquiry a number of times. The most recent piece has links to all the previous items.

Happily, today, there were witnesses who helped me to feel a little more positive about this inquiry, though for reasons I’ll come to, it is only a little.

But first, let’s dispense with last week’s despair. UK Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, told the committee that the UK is ‘plainly losing’ the war on drugs1 but saw no reason for any change in policy. Usually, it is former ministers who, once out of office, say that drug policy isn’t working so it is a major step forward for a serving minister to say it but following that admission by saying that there is no reason to change policy is staggeringly disappointing.

My despair deepened, on Thursday, when Clarke’s comment formed the basis of a question on BBC TV’s ‘Question Time’. The panellists, all bar one, undertook the usual game of setting up red herrings to justify their positions on drugs. So there were all the usual strawmen about reform leading to drugs being promoted to young people, the assumption that all drug use is harmful and the refusal to accept that alcohol and the illegal drugs should be looked at as one. The ‘bar one’ was John Lydon, former ‘Sex Pistols’ singer, whose comments about drugs were facetious and served to reinforce the arguments of those who assume that people like Lydon and Russell Brand are typical of all drug users.

But the worst performance came from Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary who fired Prof David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I realise this is going back over very old ground but, for as long as Johnson persists in lying about what happened, I think it is important not to let lies be the last word. Johnson said he fired Nutt because he was a ‘government spokesman’ on drugs.

No, he wasn’t.

Prof Nutt was a government advisor, and an unpaid one at that, whose role was to present evidence on drugs to government and advise them on what actions to take based on that evidence. Johnson wants people to believe Nutt did something wrong by talking about evidence whereas Johnson was wrong by not having the balls to say he was rejecting the advice.

Johnson moved on to try and use prevalence versus harm to discredit Nutt’s equasy argument. Johnson said it was ridiculous to suggest that horse-riding was more dangerous than ecstasy because on the estates in his constituency you didn’t come across many horse-riders. Johnson was, of course, trying to suggest that all drug use is harmful but, in fact, by stressing that many more people use ecstasy than ride horses whilst deaths and injuries are higher for the latter, he was demonstrating David Nutt’s point.

I’ve spent longer than I meant dealing with last week’s session so I’ll turn to what happened today. I think that is important because, as expected, the mainstream media has shown no interest in the evidence given by people who are closely involved in the harms caused by drugs and know what they are talking about whereas they were happy to write about the celebrity witnesses from previous committee sessions.

First up at today’s session2 were Danny Kushlick, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and Niamh Eastwood, Release. Ms Eastwood began by saying that the new report from Release3 looks at what has happened in twenty countries around the world that have introduced some form of decriminalisation. In summary, what has happened is that the sky has not fallen in as many prohibitionists predicted.

Kushlick’s opening remarks were that he had given evidence to the committee in 2001, when David Cameron was a member, and he was disappointed that, in spite of that committee’s conclusion that drug policy should be re-examined, things had become worse in terms of the harms being caused by current policy.

Though the HASC is expected to produce a report supported by the majority of its members, if not all, the hearings do give individual members a chance to press their own agendas. Thus Lorraine Fullbrook, Conservative MP for South Ribble, said that on the committee’s visit to Colombia they had heard a lot of people calling for change but no-one seemed able to say what change would look like. She was a bit taken aback when Kushlick pointed out that Transform produced a book in 2009 called ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’4 setting out ways of regulating different substances to take account of their potential for harm.

Kushlick also pointed out that there is already a large industry producing medicines from opium grown under regulations so changing from prohibition to regulation is not a step into the dark.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, said that alcohol had become more problematic as it became more available and thought the same would happen with drugs. Danny Kushlick compared drinks companies, who have been allowed to push their products to young people for many years, with the organised drug gangs who do the same with the illegal psychoactives. He said that better regulation was required for alcohol as well as drugs.

There were some useful points brought out about drug dealers being champions of prohibition and the shift in public opinion seen by the recent YouGov5 poll for the Sun6 but Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, misrepresented the results of the survey by suggesting that 78% of people still believe drugs should be illegal. I checked back with the video because this seemed to me to be important. What Mr Ellis said was that the survey found that 78% of people think ‘killer’ drugs should remain illegal. The survey actually found that ‘With regard to hard drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine’ 79% believe ‘The sale and possession of such drugs should remain a criminal offence as now’.

Two things are worth noting here. The question asks about sale and possession. Many people who believe that users should not be prosecuted for possession nonetheless believe that sale is a much more serious matter. And secondly, the examples of ‘hard drugs’ are at the very hardest end. Note crack cocaine is specified not just cocaine.

But what Ellis did was to describe ‘hard drugs’ as ‘killer drugs’. He hopes to be able to stand by that number whilst knowing that prohibitionists think all drugs are ‘killer’ drugs.

Ellis was very clearly pursuing an agenda. He kept asking questions and then interrupting the answers once it became clear that Kushlick had a rational answer to his point. He wanted to establish that lower priced alcohol had increased crime so the regulation argument that drugs would be cheaper under regulation would lead to increased crime. Unfortunately, the format didn’t enable Kushlick to bring out that alcohol is what causes the crime rather the acquisition crimes associated with funding drug habits.

This point did come out in the following session where Tom Lloyd, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, pointed out that alcohol use leads to increased crime and that he, and he suspected many police officers, would sooner deal with people intoxicated by the illegal substances rather than alcohol.

I said at the start that I felt only a little more positive after today’s session. That limit to my optimism comes about because the format of the hearings makes it difficult for people to develop their arguments and allows the members to adhere to their prejudices and make misleading assertions that go unchallenged. I’m still doubtful that the committee’s report will move the process of ending prohibition and moving to regulation forward.

The final witness of the morning was Trevor Pearce, Director General, Serious and Organised Crime Agency. Mr Pearce said that 30% of the UK cocaine market was being seized. That seemed high to me and to Alex Stevens who tweeted wondering what the evidence was for that. I did a quick and dirty review of the numbers in the World Drugs Report for 2012 which suggest that cocaine seizures in the UK amount to less than 5% of the total market. I’m not intending to call Mr Pearce a liar, though demonstrating the success of SOCA is, of course, in his interests, so I’ll limit myself to saying that this confusion demonstrates, again, how unreliable statistics about drugs are.    

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