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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 30th May 2013

A couple of days ago, the 2013 European Drug Report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was published. After reading the summary, I sat and wrote a piece extracting one or two points from the report and drawing conclusions from them that, it seemed to me, are generally applicable.

But, when I reread it several times, I realised that it wasn’t saying any new about the subject of psychoactive substances, the people who use them or the harms that can result from that use.

The two key points I drew from the report have been said before and are always ignored by everyone who supports prohibition and, sadly, some of those involved in providing help to problem users. Knowing that they will be ignored, again, I’ll mention them more briefly than my first attempt.

The first comes from the very start of the report. The summary is headlined;

‘Today’s drug market appears to be more fluid and dynamic, and less structured around plant-based substances shipped over long distances to consumer markets in Europe.’

I’m not sure whether the EMCDDA appreciates the full meaning of that statement. I would rewrite it as ‘People who want to change the workings of their brain are more concerned about achieving the desired changes than the origin of the substance used to make those changes’.

No law, no control regime, no enforcement regime, no treatment system will ever stop some people from wanting to use psychoactive substances. That simple truth is ignored by governments and the UN because acknowledging it undermines the whole basis of the existing approach.

The second point concerns people entering treatment. The EMCDDA estimates that around 3 million people in Europe use Cannabis sativa, marijuana, at least 20 times per month and calls that ‘daily’ use. It says that, in 2011, 60,000 people entered treatment, for the first time, because of problematic cannabis use. All numbers associated with drug use are inherently unreliable. There are people whose use of cannabis is problematic but they have not entered treatment and there are people who are coerced into entering treatment, as an alternative to imprisonment, whose use is not problematic. So, it would be wrong to say that 60,000 people are problematic cannabis users but, whether the true number is 120,000 or 30,000, what is clear is that the overwhelming majority of regular cannabis users have no problems as a result.

With MDMA, ecstasy, the figures are even clearer. EMCDDA says 1.8 million ‘young’ adults reported ‘last year’ use of ecstasy but less than 600 people entered treatment for the first time in 2011. Making a comparison with cannabis is complex because the 3 million for cannabis is all users and ‘daily’ use. The nearest I can get, by taking figures from The Crime Survey for England and Wales (formerly the British Crime Survey) and assuming the rest of Europe has similar patterns of use, is that around 1 million adults use ecstasy at least once a month.

3 million cannabis users producing 60,000 treatment entrants versus 1 million ecstasy users with less than 600 treatment entrants is a pretty good indication that ecstasy is much less harmful than the rarely harmful cannabis.

The clear conclusion is that the existing classification system has no scientific basis. Again, this is not a new conclusion and it is another one that gets ignored because governments don’t want to evaluate the scientific basis of the control regimes for fear that they will demonstrate, beyond doubt, that those regimes are unnecessary.

There is a reluctance to accept that the overwhelming majority of drug use is for fun with no harmful consequences. That reluctance is not just limited to governments. Even some of those who present themselves as reformers are committed to the notion that all drug users need treatment.

I feel I should apologise to you, the reader, for wasting your time. If you support the notion of an objective assessment of the present laws on drugs with a commitment to make whatever changes that assessment suggests, there is nothing new in the above. If, however, you are a supporter of the existing regime, nothing will shake your view that drugs are illegal because they are harmful and the proof that they are harmful is that they are illegal.

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