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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 10th December 2012

The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has published the report of its extensive inquiry into drug policy. ‘Drugs: Breaking the Cycle’  was published at one minute past midnight today though, thanks to the Mail on Sunday claiming to have a leak rather than breaking the embargo, it had been widely discussed on Sunday.

I must begin by confessing that I was wrong. I’ve written about this inquiry five times before, see box for links, and on 28th March I said that I feared that the HASC might focus too much attention on the question of whether drugs should be a health or criminal justice problem and have a tendency to come down on the latter side because they feared losing an important area of policy.

December 2nd 2011 Call for evidence as inquiry announced.
28th March 2012 First batch of written evidence published.
30th March 2012 Mention of David Nutt in the written evidence.
8th April 2012 Further thoughts on the written evidence.
24th April 2012 Oral evidence from Hitchens, Gyngell and Brett.
10th July 2012 Two further oral evidence sessions mix despair and hope.

It is to its credit that it shaded its position on this issue suggesting (Recommendation 15, page 129) a joint responsibility with a single civil servant co-ordinating the two ministries involvement. I suppose that makes me half wrong but I don’t think anyone really thought the committee would be brave enough to say that the criminal justice system should have no role in what adults choose to use.

From a political standpoint, what is noticeable is how many times the report refers back to the 2002 report from the same committee on the same subject. The politics of this is that David Cameron, then a new MP now Prime Minister, served on that committee and supported its conclusions that a Royal Commission should be set up to examine the workings of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since becoming PM he has hidden behind the fiction that higher strength Cannabis sativa, marijuana, is sufficient cause to throw out previous beliefs about policy.

As I mentioned, the Mail on Sunday carried the ‘leak’ of the report on its front page and on the Mail Online. Only those working for the Mail will know whether there is a sufficiently high Chinese Wall between the reporters of the Mail on Sunday who prepared the story and those of the Daily Mail who had embargoed early access to the report to mean that the Sunday story was written without sight of the report itself and, therefore, did not breach the embargo.

Being just a little picky, however, there is clear evidence that the Mail broke the embargo. Melanie Phillips, naturally, had plenty to say and said it at 2312 on Sunday evening, 49 minutes before the embargo was lifted. Paragraph 3 of her piece makes it clear she has read the report.

Trivial, I grant, but of more interest than anything Phillips has to say in the piece. Journalism textbooks should be able to deal with the topic of cherry-picking in three words ‘See Melanie Phillips’. She says of the HASC that ‘the list of witnesses it called to give evidence reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the pro-legalisation world’ and calls the many witnesses who provided written and oral evidence supporting current or tighter prohibition ‘relatively few voices’. (Those 'relatively few voices' included Peter Hitchens, Kathy Gyngell and Mary Brett; three people whose claim to be heard is based on vacuous celebrity equal to Brand's.)

On Portugal, she quotes only Manuel Pinto Coelho’s condemnation of its approach without mention of the Hughes and Stevens’ paper that is recognised as an objective assessment of both sides of the debate on Portugal and finds, on balance, that the policy has worked.

The HASC did make one big mistake and that mistake is going to haunt the reform agenda for a long time. It is hard to find any other reason for calling Russell Brand as a witness than that it would guarantee media coverage of the committee’s work. Certainly, as one individual with experience of using illegal drugs Mr Brand’s opinion has no more validity than any of the other 230 million users worldwide (UNODC estimate).

Because Mr Brand is a buffoon, he is an easy target for Phillips and prohibitionists. The Mail Online, in its version of the Mail on Sunday story, uses no fewer than five pictures of the comedian and Ms Phillips’ piece, which tries to make it seem that all the evidence heard by the HASC was from similar people to Brand, has two.

There has, of course, been extensive coverage of the report, today, and I was particularly struck by an interview on BBC Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme with a former problem user who made a point of stressing that his opinion did not have any added validity just because he had used the substances being debated.

The Independent, whose online report  is dated Sunday 9th but with no time given to see how far ahead of the embargo it appeared, was the first to give a reaction from the government and claimed that it had ‘ruled out any shift in drugs policy’ though its quote from an unnamed ‘Government spokesman’ specifically claims ‘we have no intention of downgrading or declassifying cannabis’ and trots out the usual ‘Drugs are illegal because they are harmful’; the glib statement that, of course, invites the question about alcohol and tobacco.

We’ll have to see if that knee jerk response becomes the settled position. The minister interviewed, also on Today, did add ‘at this time’ after saying there was no intention to change policy.

The recommendation that everyone seems to have focussed on is that a Royal Commission should ‘consider the best ways of reducing the harm caused by drugs’ (Recommendation 26, page 132). Another focus of attention is that the report stands by the committee’s view that cannabis should be in Class C but stops short of making a recommendation for a further change in classification.

For me, recommendation 25 on page 132 is more significant; or rather, the paragraph in the main body of the report that precedes that recommendation.

Paragraph 130 on page 50 says;

‘We return to a recommendation made by our predecessor Committee as part of its inquiry in to the cocaine trade in 2009.

‘‘We therefore support calls for a full and independent value–for–money assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation and policy.’

‘The Government refused to accept this recommendation, saying that

‘‘The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as amended, responds to the three UN Drug Conventions.’

Recommendation 25 seems to be a way of asking, again, for a value for money assessment something that Transform, in particular has been seeking for some years.

Reactions to the report seem to have covered the full spectrum from optimism about the future to disappointment that the committee didn’t call for complete legalisation of cannabis immediately.

We’ll have to see what emerges over the months and years ahead but I sincerely hope there will not be 2022 report saying the same things for a third time.


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