Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide

13Jul/130

Things I’ve stumbled across recently, part 2

Via a commenter on the Adam Smith Institute's blog, I also stumbled across this essay by CS Lewis, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

In it, he criticises the view that the purpose of the penal system is only to cure (or, I suppose, rehabilitate) and argues that it should actually be based on whether punishment is actually deserved.

This stood out for me:

"When you punish a man in terrorem, make of him an ‘example’ to others, you are admittedly using him as a means to an end; someone else’s end. This, in itself, would be a very wicked thing to do. On the classical theory of Punishment it was of course justified on the ground that the man deserved it. That was assumed to be established before any question of ‘making him an example arose’ arose. You then, as the saying is, killed two birds with one stone; in the process of giving him what he deserved you set an example to others. But take away desert and the whole morality of the punishment disappears. Why, in Heaven’s name, am I to be sacrificed to the good of society in this way?—unless, of course, I deserve it."

It's much the same point that I've tried to make less eloquently here with regard to drug prohibition: that it is unjust to punish someone for an act not inherently meriting punishment simply to try to make people behave as we might wish them to.

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13Jul/130

Things I’ve stumbled across recently, part 1

I came across this story the other day, on the possible link between cannabis use and psychosis, with particular reference to dopamine.

It's about a scientific study that looked for any differences in dopamine levels in cannabis users compared to nonusers, since conditions such as schizophrenia are linked with excess dopamine production. But it found that cannabis use was actually associated with lower dopamine levels than average – which could be indicative that those with a predisposition to psychosis are more likely to continue to use cannabis as self-medication.

The problem, as usual, is that the direction of causation isn't easily established, so it's hard to really tell. (Although the headline claims the study "confirms smoking pot makes you less motivated", dopamine also being associated with

I'd suggest that there's only one way that this could be settled for good: some  good old-fashioned animal testing, and a novel take on the smoking-chimp trope.

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13Jul/130

Downtime

Ah yes. This. The inevitable "sorry for not posting much lately" post. Every blog I've ever kept has had one of these eventually. And frankly they make for both terrible reading and writing.

But anyway. I have been busy with other stuff. Among this stuff has been online poker. And the thing is, the parallels with drug prohibition are striking. (If obvious.)

The US banned the game two years ago. And the tale sounds awfully familiar: puritanical lawmaking that purports to make something better while actually making it worse, hypocrisy relating to a very similar preexisting legal industry, conflict between state and federal law.

But this time the rest of the world didn't follow. And it's already beginning to turn around, with legalisation happening on a state-by-state basis. Again, much like drugs.

And that's the other reason for such a paucity of blogging of late: I think (whisper it) we might actually already be winning. If very, very slowly.

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26Feb/132

Argument and evidence and everything in between

Peter Hitchens argues for strengthening the law to deter "immoral" drug use


Whatever else one thinks of Peter Hitchens’s stance on drug policy, he is at least sincere. His steadfast opposition to any kind of liberalisation is based on puritan moral disapproval of intoxication, whereas one suspects that the refusal of those who could change the law to actually do so is at best expediency and at worst cowardice.

Hitchens’s latest book, The War We Never Fought, argues that drug use is wrong and therefore must be properly punished and deterred by the law, and that current penalties for possession are so soft that the “war on drugs” effectively doesn’t exist.

Hitchens sets out his stall early, the book’s preface rejecting the idea that the freedom to choose which chemicals one ingests is comparable to the freedom of speech, because to use illicit drugs is to willingly become a serf. And yet we are all at liberty to use our freedom of speech to argue for changes that would make us worse off – as the both of us must necessarily believe the other is currently doing.

It’s immoral to “stupefy” oneself, he argues, adding that drugs “break the link between hard work and reward”. The latter charge is also levelled at rock music, which I shall remember with a chortle the next time I buy gig tickets with money from my second or third source of income – or, for that matter, when I next strum the custom Stratocaster copy that I spent six months building. Then again, the same could be said for all forms of entertainment that don’t directly address wider social issues. Hitchens goes on to compare modern society with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “contraception universal, family relations in many cases abolished, all the inhibitions surrounding sex removed, an ill-educated mass kept content with (legal and illegal) drugs and with sport and entertainment, old age hidden from sight and - increasingly - ended by deliberate neglect or disguised euthanasia, death a process conducted offstage among strangers, history forgotten, Christianity reduced to community singing, reading books a quaint minority pursuit, education indoctrination, the nation state fading into oblivion, science fumbling busily in the womb, sometimes killing, sometimes manipulating.” Sport and entertainment are hardly the greatest evils of our time. Anything that lightens the load on the slow trudge to the grave is fine by me, and each of us has our own tastes and preferences. And however unappealing it may be to Hitchens's ears, even rock music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

The reference to people “stupefying” themselves with drugs seems to be something of an overstatement: most use of illicit drugs is to enhance leisure time, or to aid with relaxation after a long slog at work – just as this blogger’s evening slug of bourbon or Friday-night pub-visit are. (Hey, if I do my best to Make a Difference during the week I’m entitled to wind down with a few beers and the Hollyoaks omnibus at the weekend. Although, actually, I’d be perfectly entitled not to engage with society at all in the first place. Drug use and social activism are hardly mutually exclusive anyway, as I’m confident veterans of the CND and members of the recent Occupy movement would attest.)

So the effects of moderate use of most drugs aren’t as great as they’re made out to be. This is not to say that chemical escape never used to completely detach people from the world around them: it clearly is, and as much as it might pain any of us to witness this witlessness, the casual wasting of the gift of sentience, that still doesn’t make it a place for the criminal law. Madame Justice’s sword is too large and indelicate an instrument to be used trying to whittle the crooked timber of humanity into more agreeable contours, and whenever it’s tried her scales tip the most wildly, ending up as unbalanced as a Mail editorial. It’s wrong to punish someone simply for living their life in a way that we find distasteful. Using the law to enforce personal moral standards is a practice that belongs to Iran or Saudi Arabia, not to the UK. And as as a deterrent, given that the ‘crime’ has no direct victim (a distinction Hitchens fails to make when comparing drug-possession offences to burglary), then sacrificing a handful of those who transgress against an artificial law in order to put off others treats people not as individuals with hopes and dreams and priorities of their own but mere eggs to be cracked to make a more palatable omelette.

That distinction between a direct victim and those who might suffer secondary knock-on effects is an important one. Hitchens rejects liberalisers’ ‘harm principle’, retorting to JS Mill with John Donne. Since we don’t exist in a vacuum, the families and friends of drug users have to be protected. But it seems unlikely that anyone unconcerned about wrecking his own health or ruining his family’s lives will be especially fearful of the law, and that’s quite aside from such a notion making each of us not free people but slaves to the whims and opinions of others – an attitude that, to me, doesn’t seem too many kilometers away from cultures who force their children to marry against their will. If harm, of whatever type, results from drug use then intervention may be appropriate, just as being both drunk and disorderly is an offence but merely being intoxicated is not. But preemptive sanction via the criminal law is disproportionate and the end, in this case, doesn’t justify the means.

That’s one reason to suspect that a harsher deterrent wouldn’t work. Hitchens says that, because penalties are so soft, it’s never really been tried in this country, and the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was the start of a process of de facto decriminalisation. “[B]y 2007, the bulk of cannabis cases that the police even troubled themselves to record would be dealt with by a ‘warning’ that involved no criminal record of any kind, a long way from the maximum of ten years’ imprisonment,” he writes, adding in a later chapter that out of 162,610 cannabis offences attracting the attention of police in England and Wales in 2009, 19,137 were dealt with via cautions, 11,492 with Penalty Notices for Disorder, 86,953 through cannabis warnings, and only 22,478 cases went to court. There are still vast man-hours devoted to trying – around half of all stop-and-searches in the capital are aimed at finding drugs – and in 2009, 1226 people were sentenced to immediate custody for personal possession offences. Try telling them this is a war we “never fought”. Moreover it seems paradoxical both to claim that drugs are already effectively legal and fear that further liberalisation will reduce the UK to a nation of zombies.

The section on alcohol and tobacco actually observes, but doesn’t acknowledge, that culture plays a greater role in choice of recreational substance than the law does: alcohol, and alcoholism, are commonplace in Iran despite severe penalties that begin at lashes and end with capital punishment for repeat offenders. (And its majority Muslim population presumably believe that their punishment doesn’t end with death but carries on after it into eternity.) This, Hitchens says, is because alcohol was a part of Persian culture before the rise of Islam. He adds that, unlike with other drugs, it would be difficult to enact a ban on alcohol in the UK now because it’s already currently legal – but surely it’s really because drinking is an intrinsic part of British life, and people just wouldn’t stand for it. As an example, handguns were once perfectly legal in this country – and Hitchens has previously noted their ready availability up to the early 20th century – but increasing restrictions and then a ban on ownership were accepted because the UK has never had a gun culture comparable to that in the US. Can the law be harnessed to to change the culture? I’m doubtful. It usually works the other way around. Hitches notes, too, that the increase in popularity of cannabis predates the weakening of penalties in the Misuse of Drugs Act and attributes it to a cultural revolution.

The section on how current British drug law came to be as it is is interesting, however. Despite rarely agreeing with him, I rather like Hitchens’s output where it combines history and matters of (actual) morals. (See for example this blog entry on Britain’s participation in the second world war. Favourite sentence: “[T]he fact that we were fighting *beside* one evil empire *against* another evil empire robs our war of any general moral purpose.”) Here he tells of a Labour cabinet divided along class lines between the radical university-educated members and the socially conservative working-class ones.

The former won, obviously, and apparently left Britain "demoralised", unable to exercise self-control without an external shackle in the form of the law. Hitchens writes of "the British people's increasing determination – led by a libertine and selfish middle class – to throw off self-restraint in their personal behaviour". But conduct that primarily concerns only ourselves is fundamentally different to that which inherently concerns others. But a tendency to weekend hedonism doesn't automatically make one a bad person; drug users can still be generously charitable, and the licentious can still give up their bus seats for the elderly and infirm. If they're "immoral" for what they choose to do in private then I don't much care as long as they're not robbing, raping or murdering anyone. To even place them on the same moral axis is to wrongly conflate vice and sin.

But then, cannabis, Hitchens says, is not only immoral – it's dangerous too. He compares those who deny its role in causing mental-health problems to those who once refused to accept tobacco-smoking as a cause of lung cancer, despite the evidence for the latter being much stronger and the correlation far tighter. He does observe, however, that one possible reason for the lack of definitive evidence is that the conditions in question aren’t well-defined in the same way that cancer is – a diagnosis of schizophrenia having much more to do with the judgement of a doctor than it does to, say, a biopsy. It’s an interesting point, one I hadn’t considered myself, and probably bears more research. But to describe cannabis as “one of the most dangerous drugs known to man” seems like the most absurd hyperbole.

In any event, research alone can’t settle this argument, which, Hitchens admits, comes down entirely to one’s moral stance. “Do we think the use of these drugs is wrong?”, he writes. “Do we think the law can be effective in limiting their use? My answer to both these questions is ‘yes’. The crucial moral and cultural divide, which is at the heart of the debate about drugs, lies here.” I simply happen to disagree, and since, as Hitchens acknowledges, personal moral standards are enforced with the weight of the criminal law in virtually no other area of life, then if we “never fought” the war on drugs that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to start doing so – it means that the phantom armies should disband and go home, and the two sides agree formal terms.

As one might expect, the book is impeccably researched and entertainingly written. Just take its arguments with a pinch of salt – or perhaps something a little stronger.

Buy The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs on Amazon

20Jan/130

The deterrence precondition

Critics of the UK’s strict gun-control legislation (myself included) point out that since those restrictions are only obeyed by the law-abiding, it leaves firearms in the possession of criminals (to commit crime and do harm) while taking them away from good, honest citizens (to protect themselves and their families).

‘When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns,’ goes the cliché, and it’s tough to believe that anyone unafraid of the prospect of a life sentence for murder is going to be particularly scared by the mandatory five-year term for possession of a prohibited weapon. The National Ballistics Intelligence Service estimates there are 30–40,000 illegally held weapons floating around the UK, and another couple of thousand per year are intercepted at the border.

There’s a similar consideration in the case of drug prohibition. The thought of ending up in a courtroom will only put off those people who are naturally risk-averse. Drug users, by definition, are not risk-averse. If they’re willing to take the chance of damaging their minds, of dying on a cold nightclub floor after an overdose, or of ending up selling their bodies to fund an addiction, then they’re not going to be overly worried about getting caught by the police. If they’re not worried about the possible consequences from which the criminal justice system is trying to avert them then they’re not going to be deterred by that system itself – unless it does them greater harm than drugs would do in the first place. And that would be unjust.

22Oct/123

Right and honourable

Peter Lilley

Tory MP makes the case for cannabis legalisation at Adam Smith Institute event

Cannabis should be legalised in order to break the link between it and hard drugs, according to Conservative MP Peter Lilley.

Lilley – the MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and a former cabinet minister – repeated his longstanding call for legalisation at an event on 15 October organised by the Adam Smith Institute.

"If we make the supply of cannabis illegal, then those who choose to use it are driven into the arms of the hard-drug pushers, who have a vested interest in persuading them to move on from soft drugs to hard drugs," he said. "And it's significant that in Holland the hard-drug users tend to be an ageing cohort – there are not new recruits of those who move on from cannabis to hard drugs, because they can get their cannabis, if they want it, from legal sources where no-one tries to persuade them to move on to heroin or cocaine."

Held at Church House Conference Centre in Westminster, the evening was a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Milton Friedman, an advocate of the legalisation of all drugs on pragmatic grounds.

"He was very clear-cut about his views on this," Lilley said. "I agree with him essentially – at least where cannabis is concerned. There are only two logically coherent policies: prohibition enforced at all stages, or legalisation."

Rejecting the compromise of decriminalising personal possession while retaining laws against supply and cracking down on 'evil drug dealers', he added: "If you're going to prohibit you must prohibit not just its supply but also its use. If a drug is inexorably addictive, it enslaves and takes away the free choice of a user, then it's a danger to society and it's as important to deter the user as it is to punish the dealer. Conversely, if cannabis use is a harmless lifestyle choice, then its provision can scarcely be evil."

Lilley said that although health arguments were commonly used by both sides of the cannabis-legalisation debate, they ultimately fail as a justification for criminalisation since there are far greater threats to health, such as gluttony, which are perfectly legal. He said that, like Friedman, he sees it as a moral issue, in which the unintended adverse consequences of prohibition – such as gangsterism and corruption – are worse than the drug problem that the policy is intended to solve. He added that while he believes that drug abuse is immoral, it's not the place of the state to enforce ethical standards.

"It's important that those of us who believe in legalising drugs recognise that that's not the same thing as declaring their use to be moral or virtuous, or the moral aspect irrelevant," he said. "But actually we ought, in a free society, not to rely on the law but to rely on morality, and to be prepared to state and to reaffirm moral values rather than saying that either something is so wrong that it has to be against the law, or it's not against the law therefore it's right and virtuous and no moral judgement can be cast upon it.

"Adultery is against the moral law but is not against the legal law. Gluttony is against the moral law but is not against the legal law. It ought to be frowned upon by all of us if people get stoned out of their minds, whether on cannabis or alcohol. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we should prohibit the sale or use of either. We should distinguish between use and abuse, between getting out of your mind and having a relaxing glass of wine, as many of us are doing now – and the sooner I shut up more of us will be able to."

This blog understands that the prohibitionist counterargument to concerns about the unintended negative consequences of prohibition would be that if demand were properly deterred, there would be no supply of drugs and none of the accompanying organised crime.

The other speakers were ASI director Eamonn Butler on proposals for a negative income tax and King's College lecturer Adam Martin on the case for free trade.

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4Oct/120

The Lister offence

A new series of cult space-based sitcom Red Dwarf begins tonight. As the last human being alive, three million years into deep space, accompanied by a robot, a computer simulation of a dead crewmate and a dude that evolved from his pet cat – none of whom have any legal rights – just about the only crime that it is possible for series protagonist Dave Lister to commit is... [drum roll]... a drugs offence.

In those circumstances, would it still even be a crime?

(See also "Breaking the law alone in a room" at Jack of Kent.)

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24Sep/120

The healthcare paradox

Just a little thought that occurred earlier while pondering the US elections.

One can almost understand a ‘war on drugs’ in big-state UK, where the existence of the NHS is used to justify, or argue for, all sorts of restrictions of liberty.

But in the US, its spiritual home, it makes little sense at all. There’s a huge aversion to socialised medicine there, because one’s health is one’s own business and not that of the government. And yet that very same government arrests people by the boatload in order to protect their health from themselves.

It absolves itself of responsibility for its citizens’ health generally, but seizes jurisdiction by force in this specific case – another example of where the issue of drug use receives undue exceptional treatment.
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This post originally misspelled "exceptional" as "exception". This has now been corrected. I'm not pissed, promise.

28Aug/123

Up in smoke

Some pubs were beginning to voluntarily go smoke-free. Credit: E.D. Plug

The ban on smoking in pubs was only a small limitation on choice – but was it even necessary?

The 2005–6 academic year was a time of mixed fortunes for this blogger, the 15 months or so between university courses taken up with a hotpotch of odd-jobs, temping and a couple of bits of work experience aimed at giving this writing stuff a proper go. Among the many things that changed were drinking habits, away from rowdy student-oriented pubs to more peaceful establishments for a quieter pint or six.

A particular favourite looked like – and probably was – a converted front room. It served niche bottled beers and had a selection of board games. Crucially, it was non-smoking – voluntarily, before the ban was enacted. It became possible to wear the same jeans on consecutive days without feeling and smelling like a walking carcinogen.

Recollections of it were prompted by a section on tobacco in Prof. David Nutt’s new book, Drugs Without the Hot Air, and specifically the part about whether banning smoking in pubs limits people’s freedom. It does, but only in a small way that’s probably proportionate to its aims, and the making smoking less of a 'normal' thing to do has probably contributed to the fall in cigarette consumption. But I do wonder whether it was necessary, given the voluntary moves towards going smoke-free that some boozers were already making anyway. (Our group’s new haunt wasn’t the only one nearby: there was a city-centre Wetherspoons that had also pre-empted the change in the law.)

What I would have suggested instead would have been to let pubs apply for a licence to allow smoking on their premises, for a smallish fee, with only a certain number of these permits granted in a certain area. It would have raised revenue while maintaining at least some freedom of choice.

Tastes and preferences change, and these days, for what it’s worth, I think I’d often choose to go into a smoking pub to avoid a pulmonarily mixed bunch of people getting separated, with half outside for most of the night and the rest indoors. I’d rather stay with my mates, and not have the flow of conversation interrupted. For the ironic thing about the smoking ban is that it was aimed at protecting the health of people who have proven that they care less about the small risk to their health than they do about going to the pub.

As for that favourite bar, it later closed.

28Aug/120

The comedian remonstration

The other week's documentary by comedian and one-time heroin buff Russell Brand has gone down about as well as a weak package in west Baltimore. The programme championed the abstinence-based recovery that worked for its presenter and slammed methadone schemes for 'parking' addicts on what is, after all, just another drug.

But I think he misses the point about what methadone treatment does (and what diamorphine prescription may do even more effectively), which is to allow dependent substance users to live normal lives – to go out to work or pick the kids up or whatever, without having to focus on scoring. In taking diamonds in the rough, polishing them back up and allowing them to shine again, it meets the basic requirements of any drug-treatment programme. It makes addiction no different to any other medical condition for which regular medication is required. It would be great if every patient could be cured, but, sometimes, alleviating symptoms is the most that can be done. Abstinence isn't suitable for everyone, and can have some pretty dire consequences for those who try unsuccessfully: they're at substantially increased risk of overdose. Overpromoting it risks making the best the enemy of the good. The issue is really not that any one form of treatment is 'better' than another: it's that silly political games are played with it – with people's lives – and that therapy is rarely tailored to the individual service user.

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A version of this post, hastily typed on my phone, originally appeared as a comment on a friend's Facebook page.

11Aug/121

The justice addendum

Further to the previous post, and last night's Newsnight appearance by this blog's favourite prohibitionist, one further remark.

Yes, it’s true that, by breaking the law, drug users criminalise themselves, and share some responsibility for their fates. But then so did Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde when they engaged in private sexual behaviour that was nobody else’s business but which was nonetheless illicit. So too did Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death for adultery in 2006. Rosa Parks, taken to an Alabaman police station in 1955 after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, and told by the attending officer that he didn’t know why black people were pushed around “but the law’s the law and you’re under arrest”. And Steve Thoburn, the metric martyr, given a conditional discharge in 2001 after being convicted of using scales not stamped by a Weights and Measures Inspector – another case of the use of coercion to force one group’s set of standards on another. Or William Penn, hauled before a court in 1670 after illegally preaching a Quaker sermon, and ultimately let off by a jury who recognised that breaking the law isn’t inherently deserving of punishment if the actual offence committed is trivial or oppressive. That all of these people chose to break known laws doesn’t make prosecuting them any less of an injustice.

5Aug/120

Bad language

Prison sentences: not OK. Photo credit: Maare Liiv

If drug-law reformers are to win the argument, we need to say what we mean

If the minds of politicians are an immovable object, our arguments as reformers sometimes seem less and less like the irresistible force that they should be. But is this partly down to a failure of language?

This blog is as guilty as anyone. The problem we face is that little of the existing terminology accurately describes what we really want to say. I don’t simply mean the widespread confusion between “decriminalisation” and “legalisation”, or the misconception that 'The L Word' would necessarily entail a free-market free-for-all.

What I’m thinking of is something else entirely. Consider the commonplace obfuscation that Orwell mentions in his essay Politics and the English Language:

“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Much the same is true for debate on our drug laws. Neither the word “prohibition” nor the phrase “war on drugs” fully evoke what a criminal-justice approach actually means in practice. (And nor, in fact, does “criminal-justice approach”.) The formulation preferred by the Drug Equality Alliance, “war on some people who use some drugs”, probably comes the closest, and at least refocuses the discussion on the people affected by the policy, but the words still ultimately dissipate into the breeze rather than concentrating themselves into the force of a gale.

First, though, what “prohibition” does not mean. It does not mean protecting people from themselves and locking them away for their own good. Protecting people from harm by doing them harm – to their liberty, their state of mind and their career prospects – is clearly a nonsense. This is quite beside the fact that there are more drugs inside prisons than outside them, with 10% of heroin addicts first having tried the stuff while in the nick.

No: the drug laws are only aimed at protecting people right up to the point that they fail. For once you actually cross that arbitrarily drawn line, you become expendable. On paper at least, you can be locked in a 10ft by 6ft cell for up to seven years in the hope that it puts other people off taking drugs.

It’s not really a punishment either, since no offence that merits one has been committed. What it is is a sacrifice. After that minor trangression of an artificial law, like a dissident packed off to the gulag you’re no longer valued as an individual but only in terms of your use to the collective, as an example not to follow. And so your future is cast aside in order that others might flourish.

Perhaps such a construction should be used in the next set of polling questions. But for now, there is no single word or short phrase that immediately and implicitly reveals what is obvious when this is spelled out: that those ends simply do not justify those means.

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6Jul/120

What has Ken Clarke been smoking?

Ken Clarke recognises that the UK is losing its war on drugs: good. He says that the government plans to keep on sending its young men over the top anyway: bad.

Anyway, this part of his statement was particularly striking:

"My purely personal view is I'd be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation on youngsters who start experimenting. The really key thing is to work out what can get fewer young people to start experimenting with drugs...

"One thing that does put them off is they could get into trouble with the police if they do it. Once you tell them they won't get into trouble, I've always felt that more of them would experiment."

This may be the case with decriminalisation, although this new report by Release found that usage rates around the world change little with various decriminalisation models.

But if Clarke has possibly overestimated the effect of a deterrent, he's certainly contrived to ignore what would happen if this country went a step or two further than decriminalisation.

With drugs legally regulated, it would be harder for minors to get hold of them in the first place. Those that did use drugs underage would still "get in trouble with the police", just as they do now for drinking alcohol. And that isn't much of a deterrent either.

4Jul/122

Bong on the fourth of July

“[M]ankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed...”

One of the most pertinent sentences in one of the greatest political tracts ever written. And probably an explanation of the failure, on the part of so many western governments, to admit that drug prohibition has gone wrong, and to revise their approach in due accordance with the evidence before their eyes.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not a blind support, nor fear of the tabloid press and the effect on subsequent elections, that keeps the failed policy in place.

Maybe it’s simple inertia.

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20Jun/120

The drug war’s bystanders take flight

Drug-war violence has left many Mexicans looking for an emergency exit. Photo credit: Hernan Crespo

On World Refugee Day, this blog looks at how America's war on drugs has displaced Mexicans from their homes

Over the past five and a half years the war on drugs in Mexico has been transformed from figurative to literal. And just like any other armed conflict, some innocent bystanders are killed and others are fleeing from their homes to get themselves out of danger.

Following a contested election result, President Calderón launched headlong into a military offensive against the cartels just days after taking office in December 2006. His plan to counter the traffickers badly backfired, and the number of people killed in the ensuing violence recently ticked over past the 55,000 mark, most of them in the northern border cities such as Ciudad Juárez – a principal supply route for the US drug market that stands right alongside the Texan city of El Paso on the Río Grande.

The authorities claim that 90% of victims are in some way connected with the cartels, whose reach is sombrero-brim wide. It's hard to tell for sure. In this reinvented wild west the banditos are issuing the sheriffs' badges, and, with Madame Justice's scales so heavily tilted under the weight of incompetence and corruption, as the murder rate has increased the number of successful prosecutions has hit bottom – only one percent of crimes lead to a conviction.

Amid general lawlessness and the occasional atrocity, a growing number of people have concluded that they can no longer stay where they are if it means living their lives in fear. Around 200,000 of them are thought to have left northern Mexico, half moving to more tranquil parts of their own country and the rest crossing the border into the US. For the former group it may not be long before blood is once again lapping at their ankles as cartel violence starts to flood the rest of Mexico. Even once-popular tourist destinations are affected, and fewer American college kids are now spending their spring breaks going loco in Acapulco. Those seeking refuge with their northern neighbour, meanwhile, will quickly find that the law is not on their side: asylum is usually only granted to people being systematically targeted on grounds such as race and faith. Applications have almost doubled from slightly more than 3000 in 2007 to 6000 in 2011, but 98% of them are denied.

A small number still get through with the help of NGOs, some of which are receiving regular requests from Mexican citizens who were quietly building moderately successful lives until getting caught up in cartel violence. Others avoid the formal process entirely. Rich Mexicans can simply get greencards for greenbacks: investor visas are issued to those putting $50,000 or more into American businesses.1 Others resort to crossing an increasingly heavily guarded border ex officio, dodging Predator drones and self-appointed neo-Nazi militias on their way. On top of man-made obstacles, the large number of cities on the US side of the line that have been walled off to outsiders means that the journey often ends with trekking through a scorching desert as well. One organisation based in Tucson estimates that the past six years have seen more than 1000 people die in the attempt in Arizona alone.

The US has shut their gates on a people whose problems they're partly responsible for creating. As well as starting the war on drugs in the first place, they've bankrolled the failing security approach through the Mérida Initiative, which has granted Mexico $1.6bn of law-enforcement funding since 2007. The apparent generosity is partly self interest, aimed at keeping drugs away from Uncle Sam’s own nieces and nephews. Narcotics and immigration are the American right’s twin bogeymen, but the attempt to root the one out of their kids' closets has left them with thousands of the other scratching at their windows – creating a refugee situation to rival any drug problem.

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1 This is slightly inaccurate. While E2 Business Visas are issued for investments at this level, the "direct to green card" option starts at $500,000.

NB I also wrote about this subject for New Internationalist. There's quotes and stuff so you should buy it.

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29May/120

The disease paradigm

One of the many things about this blog that might invite criticism is that I'm not, academically speaking, an expert. My approach is mostly that of one who trained as a  journalist, showing but not telling the overwhelming harm of prohibition. As it turns out, the instinctive armchair philosopher might be winning out and there's actually a fair bit of telling going on. Anyway, before training as a word monkey I studied for a master's degree in astrophysics, an analogy from which is brought to mind by something I read about today.

Einstein's general relativity holds that spacetime is curved, and that this curvature is responsible for the mutual attraction between massive bodies that we normally think of as gravity. Lightrays, for example, simply follow the shortest path between points – in flat geometry it's a straight line; otherwise, a curve. But GR is not especially easy to work with (believe me!) and, sometimes, little mathematical tricks and tools are employed to make things easier. One of these is a model in which space is flat and matter generates a gravitational field (sort of similarly to Newtonian gravity but which also affects massless particles and warps time).

The relevance to drug policy? The thing that made me think of this today was Tanya Gold's Guardian piece being discussed on Twitter, largely by Telegraph blogs editor Damian Thompson, whose book, The Fix, Gold criticises. (Unfairly, Thompson says – I expect his response will be most interesting. I haven't yet got hold of a copy myself, so wouldn't presume to judge either way.) The article's headline is: "Is addiction a moral defect or a mental illness". But how much does this truly matter? The fundamental nature of addiction disorders is intellectually interesting, sure. But perhaps what is most important in practice is whatever best allows dependent substance users to function in society – whichever paradigm gives the best results for a particular problem at a particular time. And you don't have to be Einstein to see that.

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28Apr/120

An audience with Prof. Nutt

Prof. Nutt spoke to a small audience of students at ULU in March. Credit: RAWKU5 at sxc.hu

The former ACMD chair remains strongly critical of government policy

Drug prohibition is responsible for creating an epidemic of addiction, for the deaths of drug users and for holding back scientific research into the benefits of drugs.

That was the view of the former Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs chair Prof. David Nutt at a talk held at the University of London Union and hosted by Students for a Sensible Drugs Policy last month.

In his talk on 13 March, Prof. Nutt said that the near-total removal of prescribed diamorphine for heroin dependency created a greater addiction problem, as addicts recruited other users to help fund their own habits. He blamed prohibition for the lack of quality control that results in fatalities such as those at Alexandra Palace in late 2011, and added that not being able to use certain drugs to facilitate psychiatric treatment has led to further unnecessary deaths.

In the week preceding the talk, there had been media reports of the potential benefits of LSD for alcohol addiction, which the result of a metaanalysis of old work. “This was not a study – this is one example of how science has stopped since the 1960s,” he said. “What’s sad about it is it’s taken 42 years since the last trial to come to a conclusion about its value.”  He suggested that thousands of people who’ve died as a result of alcohol addiction might have been saved.

Prof. Nutt conducted the first psilocybin trial in the UK, and only the second in the world, which showed that the changes it causes in the brain are similar to those desired to alleviate depression. He’s now trying to develop an MDMA (ecstasy) trial for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a problem in society but especially in the military. “Trauma produces dramatic changes in brain function,”. he said. “More US soldiers have died from suicide since coming back from war than died at the hands of the Taliban.”

He also claimed that Francis Crick and James Watson, the discoverers of the structure of DNA, had used LSD to help them think more creatively. “LSD was seen as a powerful tool for improving humankind – then the Vietnam War came along,” he said. He said that during wartime, the US government hadn’t wanted there to be an outbreak of freethinking, adding that in the UK, too, the Misuse of Drugs Act bans drugs not if they are harmful but if they pose a threat to “social order”.

Prof. Nutt was scathing about leaving the production of drugs to amateurs, suggesting that a high proportion of deaths from drugs were because people don’t know what they’re taking. “And I think that’s criminal,” he said. “The government is killing people. If people knew what they were doing there’s a good chance they will do it better and do it safer.”

He speculated that the deaths of clubbers at Alexandra Palace was because what they believed was ecstasy was most likely actually PMMA. He said that here were “two deaths that were completely avoidable if people knew what they were taking.”

Prof. Nutt praised the Swiss model of heroin-assisted treatment for addiction. “The issue of how you deal with heroin is an important one – now because the Tory government wants to redefine addiction as a lifestyle choice and remove treatment,” he said.

He claimed that in the 1960s, when the UK prescribed diamorphine for heroin addiction, there were only around 500 dependent users, most of whom had prescriptions. There had been a medical consensus that this was the best way to deal with addiction, but a political hostility to simply giving addicts drugs.

He added that this simply created a black market, which then expanded as new addicts were “recruited”. “We created the heroin market by getting rid of the policy of prescribing,” he said. Although there is still some prescribing it is less widespread and more difficult to access.

Prof. Nutt also spoke highly of the Netherlands’ drug policy as “rational”, adding that during his time on the ACMD, then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith forbade the group from talking to the Dutch. “You can see how it became difficult to pursue a proper scientific policy,” he said.

He told of his development of two comparisons of the relative harms of different drugs, first with the ACMD and then, after bening sacked, with the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The second scale ranked alcohol as the most harmful due to its social impact, and was slammed by Peter Hitchens.

Attacks in the press were nothing new to him, having seen accusations that one of his children had been smoking cannabis, based on a photo taken from his son’s Facebook, and being routinely smeared as “Professor Poison”. “That’s actually demeaning not just of me but also of the people who take drugs,” he said.

Prof. Nutt seemed sceptical of the possibility of prohibition reducing drug use, stating that: “The simplistic solution of saying to people about ‘don’t use cannabis’ isn’t going to work, and locking people up isn’t going to work.”

He also claimed that the editorial stance of prohibitionist newspapers had softened recently, suggesting that “even Daily Mail readers” can recognise that the UK’s drug laws have been disastrous.

28Apr/122

One doubt

In the not-too-distant future, when drugs are regulated and it's harder for minors to get hold of cannabis, what do they do then?

They're not going to suddenly no longer want to get intoxicated. There will be no miraculous transformation, like Harry Enfield's 'Kevin the Teenager' metamorphosing from an obnoxious adolescent into an upstanding young man the instant he gets laid.

So what will they do instead? And will it be more harmful or less?

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11Mar/124

The Hitchens prebuttal

Hitchens advocates a minimum penalty of six months' hard labour for cannabis possession. Credit: Henrik Jonsson/istockphoto

Will the arguments in his forthcoming book hold up?

Peter Hitchens’s publishers, Continuum Books, have handily posted a contents list for his next effort, The War We Never Fought, on their website.

Although one should obviously never actually review a book without having read it, one can still offer a pre-emptive rebuttal (prebuttal?) to the anticipated arguments. It's reasonable to expect these to be partly built on those previously made in his newspaper column and associated blog, and at several public debates over the past year or so:

1. It's my brain and I will fry it if I want to
Indeed it is, but I can’t help but suspect that Hitchens is going to argue differently, having assumed jurisdiction over millions of people’s bodies.

Whether on moral grounds or ‘for their own good’, the state has no more business telling people what chemicals one may put in one’s own body than they do in, for example, forbidding private sexual behaviour.

2. What about alcohol and tobacco then?
In response to observations about all the harm done by cigs and booze, Hitchens has rhetorically asked on several occasions how “the existence of two legal poisons could justify the legalisation of a third”. Easy: either intoxicating oneself, and risking harm to oneself, is inherently deserving of punishment or it is not. The specific drug used changes nothing. It’s unjust to allow one guy his preferred substance and punish another for his if the only difference is the chemical in question.

In a previous book, The Abolition of Liberty, Hitchens claimed that there really is a fundamental difference:

"While some people drink to get drunk, most do not, whereas nobody smokes cannabis for the taste. All of them smoke it to become intoxicated. And tobacco, while harmful, is hardly a powerful mind-altering substance."

The market share held by alcohol-free versions of beer, wine and whisky being so tiny, however, only shows that taste is far less important than the fact that alcohol is pyschoactive, if only mildly. Meanwhile the comment on tobacco only reveals that his opposition to other drugs is nothing to do with the harm that they might cause but based on a moral opposition to intoxication, of which more in a moment.

4. 'I went upstairs and had a smoke': The role of rock music
I envy Hitchens’s apparent obliviousness to ‘gangsta rap’, if not his inability to realise why self-characterised ‘rebels’ might want to glorify a taboo. (Hint: it’s because it’s taboo.)

A familiarisation with the idea of psychological reactance probably wouldn’t hurt either.

5. 'They'll do it anyway': The fallacy of harm reduction
They will. They do. And some of them die. An argument based on harm reduction was accepted in the debate on abortion, and it should be in the case of drugs too.

6. The misery of marijuana. The mental health consequences. The case of Henry Cockburn.
“Consequences” is overstating it a bit. One anecdote, however tragic, proves nothing. On any causal link between cannabis and schizophrenia, the science is ultimately inconclusive. One usually requires rather stronger evidence before depriving a man of his freedom.

Even if the link is genuinely causal, then thousands of cannabis users would have to be criminalised to prevent one case of schizophrenia. And prison is hardly a preferable alternative to declining mental health anyway.

Drug use is a remarkable exception to the usual limits on where the state may intervene to prevent people from doing themselves harm, rather than being the norm, and the difference in treatment is wholly unjustified.

8. Amsterdam versus Stockholm: Two advanced liberal states compared
One can prove just about anything by comparing just two carefully chosen examples. Worldwide, there is no simple correlation between how punitive a drug policy is and the level of drug use: other factors are more important.

9. The French connection: Is the heroin habit a crime or a sickness?
Whichever is more useful in allowing dependent substance users to function. Though I haven’t yet looked into this fully, treating them as criminals instinctively seems counterproductive.

10. Supply and demand: If drug dealers are evil why aren't drug takers also?
If operating a sweatshop is wrong, why isn’t working in one? If slavers are evil, why aren’t slaves also? What’s “wrong” got to do with it anyway? The criminal law is intended to protect people from others who would do them harm, not to regulate national moral standards. This isn’t Saudi Arabia, and many things that some might consider to be immoral are not against the law – adultery, the hoarding of wealth, supporting Manchester United...

If Hitchens thinks that drug use is wrong then he is welcome not to choose not to use drugs. But he has no right to force his own moral standards on anybody else.

11. The great surrender: The 1967 advertisement in The Times and the Wootton Report
Cannabis, apparently, is already ‘effectively decriminalised’, because the penalties for possession are at such a low level. Well, if that’s the case then actual legalisation need not see a significant increase in use.

12. Useful idiots: A catalogue of respectable establishments, persons and institutions who through laziness and ignorance have swallowed the propaganda of the drugs lobby
Quite aside from the unbridled arrogance of that contention, it’s also staggeringly hypocritical coming from Hitchens. At a public debate at King’s College, London in March 2011, former president of the Royal College of Physicians Sir Ian Gilmore suggested that prohibitionists must “have their head in the sand”. Hitchens was mightily offended, and threatened to walk out. In his tantrum he insisted that nobody should claim that they know more about the topic than anybody else. And yet here he is saying that all those who disagree with him are “idiots”, and are either idle or stupid or have been hoodwinked.

13. Is it too late? Can we prevent stupefying drugs from becoming as prevalent and acculturated as alcohol and tobacco?
No it isn’t; yes we can. Alcohol and tobacco are legal because, after centuries of integration, they’re part of our culture, not the other way around. Smoking has drastically declined with increasing regulation and public-health information – all without criminalising anybody.

The level of use of any particular drug is largely determined by culture and biology, and the effect of policy, in terms of a binary choice of legal or not-legal, is marginal. Having learned appropriate lessons from alcohol, of restrictions on advertising and so on, legally regulated drugs needn’t become any more culturally ingrained than they already are. We could legalise public nudity and few would choose to walk around with their swingers out; we could legalise incest and wouldn’t suddenly be inundated with twelve-toed children.

Hitchens seems to think that he alone has his thumb in the dike, and that only an escalation of prohibition can stem demand for drugs. He will likely repeat his astonishing call for a minimum sentence of six months’ hard labour for a second conviction of cannabis possession, even though mandatory minima for drug offences don’t work in countries where they have been tried, and the guarantee of a five-year prison term for handgun possession hasn’t removed illegal firearms from the streets of the UK.

14. Has your surgeon been tested for drugs? And your child's school bus driver? If the legalisers win what sort of society shall we become?
Give people responsibility and, by and large, they act responsibly. Again, most people aren’t going to suddenly take up hard drugs simply because they can. Surgeons and bus drivers rarely turn up to work drunk, so there’s no reason to think that they would be intoxicated with other drugs on the job just because they had more of an opportunity.

So the sort of society we’ll become is one that doesn’t imprison people who have done nothing that merits imprisonment simply in the hope that it will work out better for the rest of us. However much one might desire a drug-free society, that aspiration doesn’t justify locking up innocent people.

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Hitchens says that the UK has “never fought” a war on drugs, when what he really means is that it hasn’t been prosecuted as aggressively as he might wish. For this we should be thankful, for it amounts to little more than a crusade against people whose behaviour he doesn't like. As such, it's hardly a sound basis for forming a national drug policy.

23Feb/120

Should cats be banned?

Soft kitty, warm kitty... danger to society? Photo credit: gabirro at sxc.hu

The logic behind cannabis prohibition won't be applied to felophiles

In between the vapid tributes to dead celebrities and funny pictures of animals, one can learn a lot from Twitter.

I was unaware1 until last week, for example, that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii has been linked with schizophrenia.

It primarily affects rats and mice, whose brains it alters such that the smell of cats, rather than causing them to become fearful, is attractive to them and draws them towards their predator. When a rat or mouse hosting a T gondius is eaten by a cat, the parasite can reproduce in the moggy's stomach. The rather unusual reproductive strategy that it's evolved mean that it can (as fans of Trainspotting will no doubt be aware) be transmitted via cat shit. As many as 30% of people are thought to have been infected at some point or other.

Now, one of the principal arguments in favour of continuing to prohibit cannabis is a similar association with schizophrenia. In neither case has an actual causal relationship been proven. But if the logic behind cannabis prohibition were to be consistently applied, then it would require a ban on cat ownership, with those flouting it subjected to punishment 'for their own good' and cat-breeders imprisoned for the good of society.

There would perhaps be greater justification for a restrictions on felophiles than on drug users, since non-owners can find themselves afflicted too – keeping cats out of one's garden is a constant struggle – whereas stoners harm only themselves. But that's clearly not going to happen, because pet ownership is commonplace while cannabis is a minority interest. As a rationale for government policy, it's as unscientific as it's unjust.

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And I'm afraid I can't recall who tweeted about it. Whoever it was: thanks.