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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 18th January 2013

Yesterday, I wrote about the issues, specific to Catha edulis, khat, that are of concern if the UK government announces, next week, that the plant is to be scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The decision will not, however, be based solely on khat itself but will be taken in the context of the wider situation concerning psychoactive substances both legal and illegal. It is impossible, of course, for me to be able to measure the weight that will be given to the various aspects of the decision but, overall, I fear the government will favour prohibition.

Catha edulis, khat

That fear is based on the Prime Minister’s reaction to the Home Affairs Select Committee(HASC) report on drug policy. Though he didn’t actually use them, the words attributed to James Callaghan, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’, have become the lasting legacy of his time in office. I wonder if the same will happen to David Cameron’s statement ‘We have a [drugs] policy which actually is working in Britain’.1

Anyone who thinks that is blind to the various calls, from a diversity of sources, for the harms caused by current policy to be addressed. Doing nothing is, of course, the easy choice. It needs a brave politician to lead change and bravery is not something Cameron knows very much about.

The inertia of the status quo is huge and the BBC’s reporting of the expected announcement on khat is a good example of that2. Headlined ‘Khat ban calls ahead of government report’ it quotes those calling for a ban and you have to wait until the 24th paragraph for Dr Axel Klein to be quoted saying that a ban would be counter-productive.

There is no doubt that the case for reform is being expressed much more frequently. Since December 2012, in addition to the HASC report, we’ve seen the release on YouTube (for a limited run) of Breaking the Taboo, the UK release of ‘The House I Live In’,  a report3 from The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) calling for regulation and decriminalisation of existing illegal substances as a means of slowing the development of new NPS, and a report from the British Medical Association (BMA)4 on the need to deal with problem drug use as a health issue that points out the additional harms done by prohibition.

Catha edulis, khat

I just want to mention a couple of things that struck me from those last two items. The APPG report makes a number of recommendations but the one that I think is important to the khat debate says;

‘That the ACMD become an independent decision making body. The organisation would oversee risk analyses; coordinate the research they need; and make decisions on a scientific basis as to the correct classification for each drug, beginning with new psychoactive substances. Politicians would focus on the political decisions concerning the roles of treatment and criminal penalties, and the levels of penalties to be applied.’

In other words, if the ACMD says there is no need to schedule khat, that should be the end of the matter.

The other thing that struck me was in the BMA document. (Full disclosure – it is 341 pages so I haven’t read it all). It notes that ‘There is a shortage of robust evidence relating to the benefits of the present prohibitionist framework in terms of deterring use or reducing availability’ but goes on to note that for some people ‘the lack of research into the effects of criminalising illicit drug use and possession does not, in itself, lead to the position that new or amended regulations are required’.

The reason I find that comment so interesting is that the report begins by acknowledging the assistance provided by Professor Neil McKeganey and Professor Robin Room. Professor McKeganey is, of course, one of those who does not let a lack of research showing that prohibition works prevent him from continuing to promote it. In a piece in the Scotsman about the APPG report5, he echoes Cameron’s position that all is fine and no change is needed before setting up the usual strawmen about regulation.

Catha edulis, khat

There is undoubtedly an increase in calls for a change to drug policy and those calls are also increasingly being made in the mainstream media.6,7 Simon Jenkins asks if the PM has got the guts to make changes and it may be that David Cameron will try and show bravery by ignoring the calls for a ban on khat and following the evidence.

Away from drug policy, it may be much wider political considerations that produce the final decision. Following the ‘half-term report’ from the PM and Deputy PM on the progress of the UK’s coalition government, it was inevitable that the media would look for issues where that coalition is most fragile. On Europe, for example, Cameron has clearly moved to placate his right-wing at the expense of support from the Lib-Dems. Nick Clegg and the other Lib-Dem ministers should all be opposed to scheduling Catha edulis so it could be that Cameron will throw them a political bone by agreeing with them on what, in the overall political spectrum, is a fairly trivial matter. 

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