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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday, 28th March 2013

An article in Spiegel Online should be good enough to settle, once and for all, what has happened in Portugal in the past 12 years but it won’t because, as we will see, people cling to out-dated notions.

The article is based on an interview with João Goulão, the head of Portugal's national anti-drug program. Goulão is very straightforward about what was expected and what has been achieved.

I’ve written about Portugal before, most recently when Melanie Phillips cherry-picked from the available information in order to make her case against the findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee. And it is that I wish to write about today.

I don’t intend to summarise the Spiegel article; you can read it for yourself and I suggest you do. Rather I want to contrast the pragmatic approach of João Goulão with the way prohibitionists deal with the issue.

Goulão openly admits that the limits set to distinguish between personal use and dealing were arbitrary. Notionally, they were set at the amount an ordinary user might consume in ten days but Goulão acknowledges that "At the point when we designed the law, we had hardly any data to draw on." He is quite open about admitting "We weren't the least bit certain this would work."

That uncertainty persists to today when he says "We haven't found some miracle cure" and makes no greater claim than "Decriminalization hasn't made the problem worse."

It would be easy for him to focus on one of the clear benefits of the policy, that the number of new HIV infections amongst injecting drug users has fallen significantly, or to claim that the fall in prevalence amongst teenagers is a result of the policy but doing so means trying to understand the nuances of other statistics that suggest things have not gone as well. Increasing prevalence amongst adults, for example, may be explained by a greater willingness to report drug use in surveys or can be compared to higher growth rates in other countries but to do that opens the door to others to pick on numbers that support their arguments in favour of the status quo.

There is a range of possible outcomes from this policy change but there is no doubt that the start point of that range is that things are no worse than they were and that ought to be enough to make every government look at alternative policies intended to reduce the harms resulting from substance use in a prohibition environment.

It won’t be because, of course, there are plenty of people who want to ignore what has happened in Portugal. Kevin Sabet, after visiting Europe for the annual UN-backed Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting, felt he was qualified to offer the UK advice on how to respond to the HASC report and that from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. On the relevance of other countries’ policies to the UK, Sabet says ‘And then there is the famous Portugal example, grossly mischaracterized by almost everyone in the drug debate.’ I wonder if that ‘almost’ is supposed to show that Sabet is to be excluded from those misrepresenting what has happened in Portugal. He goes on, ‘And their record of success is mixed: overall drug (including cocaine) use has risen there and drug-deaths are also slightly increasing, but more people are entering and completing treatment than before.’ So, unlike João Goulão, Sabet decides to go with cherry-picked statistics with no assessment of their meaning to try and support his position.

The Spiegel piece includes comment from others involved in Portugal including Manuel Pinto Coelho the ‘go to guy’ for every prohibitionist who wants to claim that Portugal has made matters much worse. Coelho tells the reporter "It's important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal." He wants a return to a full-on ‘war on drugs’ but is increasingly a lone voice from the past. ‘These days, Pinto Coelho earns his living running diet clinics.’

But it was another opinion attributed to Pinto Coelho that led me to another country and another substance. ‘His greatest concern is that his country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world.’ That really shows how out of date he is. There are still some fringe organisations clinging to the notion that you can create a drug-free world if only you enforce really tough laws but their views can be discounted just as those few calling for completely open access to any substance by anybody have no role in the determination of future policy.

For prohibitionists trying to present themselves as mainstream, the notion that the UN policy was intended to end all drug use is something they ignore or deny. Just as they claim there is no ‘war on drugs’ they claim a ‘drug-free world’ was never part of UN policy. It was.

I began by saying people cling to out of date notions and I said Pinto Coelho’s mention of a ‘drug-free world’ sent me to another country and another substance.

The Scottish government has published its tobacco control strategy under the title ‘Creating A Tobacco-Free Generation’. Now, moves to reduce the harm caused by tobacco have to be welcomed and controls on the availability and promotion of the smoking of the leaves of Nicotiana tabacum, tobacco, go a long way to show how a regulated market can reduce the harms caused by psychoactive substances. But, ‘tobacco-free’?

It is true that the title refers to a tobacco-free generation so the policy might be aimed to stopping young people becoming smokers but chapter 2 is entitled ‘Targets for a Tobacco-free Scotland’. The idea that you could completely eliminate use of tobacco is as stupid as the UN’s hope of achieving a drug-free world but, reading on, one finds that the Scottish government believes it can decide on the meaning of words. ‘[W]e have defined ‘tobacco-free’ as a smoking prevalence among the adult population of 5% or lower’.

Clearly this is a gift for prohibitionists. The 2012 UNODC World Drug Report begins ‘About 230 million people, or 5 per cent of the world’s adult population, are estimated to have used an illicit drug at least once in 2010’.

5 per cent, eh? That’s the figure the Scottish government is aiming for to make Scotland ‘tobacco free’. Wow, prohibition works! The world is drug-free.

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