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

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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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.

30Oct/110

Recessions spur yet more black-market harm

Joblessness precludes an after-work pint. Photo credit: Gerhard Taatgen jr

Is the difference in changes in drug use and alcohol consumption during recessions down to the way they're regulated?

The increase in use of cannabis by young people during economic recessions could be a result of its trade being left to the black market, according to the codirector of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, Rosalie Pacula.

At a lecture at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last Wednesday, 19 October, Pacula explained that while total alcohol consumption drops during a recession, along with its associated harms, the use of illicit drugs among teenagers and young adults increases. She speculated that this may be partly due to its trade being carried out entirely within the underground economy.

Summarising research published in a recession-special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy, Pacula said that while overall alcohol use tends to go down, the use of cannabis and cocaine among youth goes up – and that this may be due to increased willingness to deal in the drugs.

"During periods of high unemployment, youth are more likely to report that they’ve sold drugs: they are more willing to engage in black-market employment," she said. "And the reason why is that they have such an incredibly high unemployment rate as it is, even before recession. Even when we’re not in an economic recession the unemployment rate among young adults is substantially higher. And they are the first ones affected when employment starts to drop."

Pacula said that there are several untested hypotheses as to how and why this drives young people into taking part in black-market activity, including facilitation by social networks, lower levels of risk aversion, lower levels of law enforcement as policing budgets are cut during recessions, and and active recruitment by other dealers.

She said that there's some evidence from the US that "black-market sellers are interested in recruiting you because they see that as a very important market: if they can get people using young, they stay using for a long time. Sounds a bit like the tobacco field – works with black-market drug selling as well".

Pacula added that when taking to illegal dealing of drugs, the use of them is facilitated by exposure, by deliberate introduction to new substances by other dealers, and by the ability to pay for drugs by selling them. "Frequently they get paid with drugs – use some, sell the rest and it covers the cost," she said.

“The importance of the findings is that recessions do not affect everyone the same – some populations are certainly more vulnerable", Pacula added.

“In the case of alcohol, the fact that heavy alcohol use, on average, declines in economic recessions, and it appears, with some indicators, that illicit drug use among the older populations might also be declining, suggests that a cut in treatment resources might not be as devastating as a cut in prevention right now. Because if youth use is going up, that’s where you want to really be careful, because youth users are your addicts of tomorrow.

"Prevention is important in this period because it is youth who are particularly vulnerable, due to high unemployment, they get tight into alternative forms of employment that provide income but that also reduce the social attachment to formal education. That has really important implications, and not just for their drug use – youth being willing to engage in black-market activities as a way of subsidising their income can have tremendous social effects outside of their drug use.”

Data also suggest that the prices of illicit drugs are stable during recessions, where one might expect them to drop due a decrease in the risk premium that ought to follow with lower law-enforcement budgets.

Alcohol prices also tend to stay the same or rise with the application of 'sin taxes', and this is one of several interacting economic effects.

Those who are unemployed have lower income and those who are at risk of becoming unemployed treat their income differently. "They’re not going to go out and have that fancy dinner; they’re going to save just in case their job is next," Pacula explained. "So the perceived notion of disposable income, even if their own actual income hasn’t changed, is one of more austerity – they’re not going to spend it.

“What does that mean for alcohol consumption? Economic analysis of demand for alcohol is quite clear: alcohol is a normal good. When incomes go up, in general, people drink more; when incomes go down, they drink less."

However for people who are unemployed, leisure time is less costly since they're no longer giving anything up to get it. This is mitigated by the tendency for people with increased leisure time to use it for healthy activities.

“You don’t have to be sober to go to work tomorrow, because you don’t have to worry about tomorrow. That actually might increase one’s willingness to engage in drinking or to get high. But when people’s leisure time goes up they actually tend to engage more in healthy activities – thinks like sleep and exercise.

"Yes, they’re stressed; there’s a lot of stress associated with losing your job, but on average the behavioural response is actually to do something that’s good for yourself. That might – might, I say, because again, this is all theory; we don’t have good evidence – offset the lowered price of leisure time that you might spend getting intoxicated."

People may be tempted to drink more to deal with the stress that recessions bring but the economic effects tend to dominate. "In the case of alcohol, economic mechanisms that relate to income effects actually have played a bigger role than the psychological effects. And on average in the population, heavy drinking and alcohol-related mortality actually go down during economic recessions – not up."

Pacula added that further challenges during recessions include reduced uptake of treatment for addictions to drugs or to alcohol, and that with lowered incomes people seek to use drugs more efficiently, such as by injecting.

 

22May/113

Time to legalise?

Do adversarial debates generate more heat than light? Picture credit: Andy Steel

Former minister, police officer and doctor agree that ending prohibition could reduce drug-related harms

Bob Ainsworth's experiences as drugs minister led him to conclude that prohibition has failed, he said at an event in Westminster on Tuesday.

The debate, "Time to legalise?", was the first of a series of "policy fight club" meetings organised by and held at the thinktank Policy Exchange.

Sir Ian Gilmore, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians and Tom Lloyd, formerly Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police and now a consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium, joined Ainsworth in speaking in favour of the motion. Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and Hans Christian Raabe, a GP and former member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, were opposing.

Lloyd agreed that prohibition had been ineffective and had led to damaging unintended consequences; Gilmore and Raabe disagreed on which approach would be most effective at minimising medical harms, while Hitchens frothed about the 'degeneracy' of drug use and claimed they were already de facto legal.

Ainsworth, who served as parliamentary under-secretary with responsibility for drugs and organised crime from 2001–03, said: “I've no interest in encouraging people to use drugs. I'm not a libertarian. I believe that society has a right to legislate for the public good. But I believe that society has a duty to apply its common sense.

“When I first became minister with responsibility for drugs and organised crime, I had a very traditional approach. I thought that if we worked harder, if we were tougher, if we chased the money and chased the problem upstream, we could reduce the problem.

“Over the period of my time in office, I began to realise what a huge problem this was. We have been pursuing this in this way for 40 years now, and we have failed. It's about time we start looking around and realise that we've failed, start applying our common sense and look, in a sensible way, at how we can reduce the massive problem of illegal drug use.”

Ainsworth gave the example of Switzerland, which prescribes heroin to its addicts. He said that the country is so reactionary that it banned minarets, by plebiscite, despite only having four of them, and yet nobody from any part of the political spectrum wants to change their health approach to drug addiction.

In contrast, he said: “There is no evidence – no evidence whatsoever – that prohibitive systems have made any difference whatsoever to hard drug use.”

Lloyd agreed that prohibition has failed to reduce drug use, let alone drug harms. “I've come to the conclusion that what we have here is the very best of intentions, in the 1961 Convention and the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, simply going horribly wrong," he said.

“The aim is trying to reduce drug consumption, which has gone up dramatically – almost throughout the world, in this country and in countries yet to receive the attention of criminal gangs. It's been ineffective and hugely costly.”

Lloyd referred to a 1997 study by the RAND corporation which found that treatment is more effective in reducing drug addiction as well as being cheaper, and that, in the US, attempts to stamp out drug use with mass incarceration have failed, since the country has 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners but still has a massive drug problem.

He said that, rather than solve the problem it was intended to address, prohibition has led to damaging unintended consequences.

“We have millions of people around the world and hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are being alienated, ostracised, criminalised and even abused by the system that we have handed over to the criminals.

“Criminals don't care about purity; they don't care about strength; they don't care about contaminants. Law enforcement – and I played my part in that – drives people to risky behaviour, so they share dirty needles. No drug is safer if the production and supply is in the hands of criminal gangs.”

Lloyd added that drug misuse is a health issue and that drug consumers should not have to come into contact with the criminal justice system because of it, and that many people use drugs without ever suffering or causing harm.

Raabe disputed claims that decriminalisation in Portugal has been beneficial, arguing that drug use has increased since it was initiated ten years ago, and claimed that prohibition had resulted from a failed period in which drugs were legal.

"If you look at the data from the United States, we know that in the 19th century opium and cocaine were legal in the US," he said. "As a result of this, in about 1900 there were about 400,000 opium addicts in the US. That number then gradually came down to about 22,000 as a result of increased attempts to get rid of that."

However, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated in 2003 that the number of heroin addicts stood at between 750,000 and 1 m people. In 1900, 400,000 opium addicts would constitute 0.5% of a population of 76m; in 2003, the population had increased to 294 m, of which 750,000 heroin addicts would make up 0.26%.

Raabe also claimed that the Netherlands, where cannabis is illegal but tolerated, has seen an increase in both cannabis use and mental-health problems.

Gilmore and Hitchens repeated much of their arguments from a previous debate at King's College in March.

Gilmore observed that treating addiction as a health problem rather than a crime problem can reduce its associated harms. He said: "It's a very pragmatic view, treating drugs as a health problem, because I see every day patients come into hospital not because of drugs but because of the whole surrounds of drug addiction – the dirty needles, the hepatitis B that they acquire, the crime that is engendered by the criminality of drugs and the dirty drugs that people get because they don't know what they're getting.

"There is a very genuine concern that if we decriminalise or legalise, that sends the message that drugs are OK, and that has to be handled by proper public education and information. But it would free up resources for prevention and resources for treatment."

Hitchens once again largely argued that drug-law enforcement is so low as to constitute de facto legalisation already, but added an opening attack on the anti-prohibition speakers opposing him. "All we need now is a Bishop," he said. "We've got a policeman, a character of law enforcement who presumably at some stage in his life swore an oath to uphold the law and is now of the opinion that the law should be cast aside.

"We have the inheritor of 100 years of working-class movement for self-improvement and the great temperance movement which fought the scourge of drink in our society, calling for surrender in drugs, and we have a doctor, one of the most expensively and carefully and thoughtfully trained persons in our community, dedicated in his entire life to the curing of illness, the lessening of pain and the undoing of harm talking about allowing drugs to circulate freely in our society because we can't do anything about them."

On several occasions Hitchens was prevented from finishing a point due to heckling from the audience, or interventions on points of fact, as the discussion became more heated and the debate often descended into an argument about the interpretation of various statistics.

A straw poll before the event found a majority in favour of the motion to legalise, which the chair, Policy Exchange's head of crime and justice policy Blair Gibbs, estimated at 60-70%. A second poll at the end of the debate found that a further three people had changed their minds from supporting prohibition to opposing it. However a self-selecting audience attending a drug-policy event is unlikely to be representative of the general population.

Speaking after the event, Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at Transform, the drug policy foundation, said of the debate that: "Some of it was interesting, but the nature of these adversarial debates means you get more heat than light. It's better to have these out on paper."

Another member of the audience, investor Paul Birch, said: "It was very good to see the debate from the legalisation side." Referring to Peter Hitchens's contention that the drug laws are not strongly enforced, he added: "His biggest argument for prohibition is actually an argument against."

10Apr/110

How the world’s view of the drug war is changing

Globe

Drug trafficking moved to Mexico from Colombia. Credit: Yejun Kim.

Is drug-law reform a matter of "when", rather than "if"?

There are signs of a move toward reform of drug policy in much of the world, according to Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at the thinktank Transform.

At the second of two debates held at King's College, London, on Wednesday, Rolles said that reform was not only likely but inevitable, and that the debate around drug policy is not whether we should reform but when it will occur and what reform will look like.

"Generally there's a very positive trajectory of change within public discourse," he said.

The other speakers were Tom Lloyd, formerly Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police and now a consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium, and the Colombian Ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera.

Lloyd described programmes that have been tried in the US that move away from a strict approach of criminal justice and punishment, and Rodríguez summed up views on drug policy from around the world – both for and against reform.

The event, "How the world's view of the drug war is changing", was organised by the University of Bedfordshire's Tilda Goldberg Centre.

Rolles said that there were five main factors driving reform: ground-level changes such as reduced punishment of offenders, increasing support from establishment figures, greater engagement from NGOs, the visible failure of the status quo, and the global economic crisis.

He added that some reforms, such as a less punitive approach to drug users or decriminalisation for personal use, can take place within the framework of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, while international law forbids others.

A number of countries are moving away from punitive measures for personal use, he said, including around half of Europe. "Sometimes it's on the books; sometimes it's just a shift in importance and policies aren't enforced," he added.

He said: "The effect is that personal possession is being widely decriminalised across Europe, and there's a similar trend unfolding across much of Latin America. Even in the US, the spiritual home of the 'war on drugs', 13 or 14 states are decriminalising cannabis."

In the US this is sometimes on a more local basis than at the level of state law, and may involve fines, drug treatment or changing the priorities of the relevant police forces.

Rolles mentioned other countries taking similar approaches, including certain states in Australia as well as in Israel, and Kyrgyzstan, jokingly referring to the latter as the "world leader in drug law reform". New Zealand has also added a new class D to its Misuse of Drugs Act, although there aren't yet any drugs listed in it.

Rolles also mentioned some harm-reduction programmes, such as supervised use of drugs in some countries, that "challenge the spirit and letter" of the UN convention. "They're pushing the boundaries of what's permissible and intellectually viable," he said.

Speaking of attempts in California to fully legalise non-medical cannabis, he said that this would be "the real crack in the wall of UN prohibition".

"Essentially there is a line in the sand," he said. "You can go so far in terms of decriminalisation, but you may not cross this line in legally regulating supply. There are a few people now who are just daring to poke their toes over that red line.

"Not only are we looking at a ceasefire in the war on drugs, but we're actually, hopefully, moving beyond that to some total reconstruction."

Chief Constable Lloyd said that he was there because the 30 years he spent as a police officer had shown him that the war on drugs is ineffective. His work as a consultant now takes him to various countries around the world and he said that his background as a police officer gives him the opportunity to "engage with the 'warriors' in war on drugs" and get them talking to the NGOs.

"There's often a clash in apparent interest, but when talk to people you find that they've got a lot more in common than they think there is," he said.

He gave two examples of where different approaches have been tried, both of them from the US.

Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) involved giving a warning to people prosecuted for possession of drugs, but, if they break the terms of their probation, giving them immediate, but brief, punishment. If one of their drug tests was positive, they'd be arrested and brought before Judge Steven Alm, who launched the programme, and imprisoned for five days – or if they had a job, then perhaps for the weekend.

On the use of instant punishment, Lloyd said: "Anybody who's a parent here, you'll know that you don't let a child get away with a misdemeanor all week and then suddenly on Saturday say 'That's it: you're gated'. You actually do it at the time, then and there."

Lloyd said that the programme meant that those who were targeted were the most problematic users and it successfully changed their behaviour – and it's cheaper than prison.

A report published in January last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Institute for Justice found that participants in HOPE were "55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked".

The second example Lloyd gave came from High Point, North Carolina, where the police had become frustrated with locking up drug dealers only to have new ones take their place.

He said that rather than continue with a popular but failing strategy, the police chief James Fealy engaged with the community and gathered enough evidence so that they could have arrested the dealers, but instead invited 20-30 of them to a meeting and implored them to stop carrying out their trade in the open and "creating an impossible neighbourhood" to live in.

High Point had experienced problems with a primarily white police force prosecuting largely black drug offenders. Lloyd said: "It doesn't matter what colour your skin is, or what your religion is, or whatever you background or ethnic origin is. You want a quiet life, to get on with it and be free of crime. And that's standard. This guy understood that. He engaged with the community and did some very good police work.

"Almost overnight, overt drug dealing stopped and the community became a place in which you could live, and play, and kids were out on their tricycles or whatever they're on nowadays."

Lloyd added that there were still some arrests of dealers who were violent or who decided to "chance it", and that the trade did continue, but covertly.

He said that drug-dealing can't be entirely stopped unless there are major legal changes, but that law enforcement can approach things differently. "What the police can do, and the judges, and the community as a whole, is think 'Is there a different way we can tackle this?' rather than just spinning that revolving door of criminal justice."

Lloyd added that these two examples are stories that UK politicians could tell, as they wouldn't be accused of going soft on drugs but would be talking about successful measures that reduced harm.

Ambassador Rodríguez said that it is the position of the Colombian Government that we need to have a "profound and respectful" discussion about all the possible alternative approaches to the drug problem. He added that for this to happen there would need to be rigorous research carried out, and that the debate needs to global.

"This does not mean that we would be automatically in favour of legalisation, because we don't yet know which is the best alternative," he said. "That is why we insist on the need to have a global summit such as Copenhagen and Cancún on the issue of climate change as soon as the proper research has been concluded."

He said that thousands of innocent people had died in Colombia due to the violence created by drug-trafficking organisations, but that in the past 10 years the murder rate has been reduced by more than 50%.

Rodríguez said that the production of drugs has moved from Colombia to other countries in Latin America and in West Africa. "As long as there is demand, there will be supply coming from somewhere," he said.

He summed up some of the positions of various countries in the world, from those moving towards decriminalisation to those continuing with harsh penalties for possession such as Singapore and Iran, where violations of the drug laws can carry the death penalty.

Rodríguez acknowledged that finding consensus would be difficult, and suggested that the debate should be held within the structure of the UN. Lloyd and Rolles disagreed with this, with the former describing the UN as being part of a "church of prohibition" that won't accept any evidence that a different approach might be successful.

He said: "If you're discussing things like education policy, or the National Health Service, or transport, then there's usually a pretty open debate, and a fairly heated debate, particularly about the National Health Service. But at least there's an open debate with both sides being brought forward, and nobody's suggesting that the answer's going to be perfect in those areas, but they want it to be a bit better for the next generation.

"It seems to me that the test applied to any drug policy reform is that it's got to be perfect. And that's not going to happen. That seems to me to be something uniquely applied to this area, because some people describe the whole drug-prohibition movement as being rather like a church."

Referring to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's meeting in March, he added: "The elders gather once a year in Vienna, and their job as the leaders of the church is not to listen to evidence which contradicts their belief in the Almighty. It's to explain everything that happens in terms of their existing beliefs. Whether or not you agree with them, it does start suggesting that evidence is not that important."

This attitude was not replicated in the audience at King's College, where a quick straw poll found a majority in favour of legalisation.

Rolles observed that it's difficult to gather evidence on whether legalisation could reduce harm because international law prevents countries from even experimenting.

Speaking after the debate, Peter Reynolds, the leader of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, said: "The most notable thing was the unanimity. There's a lot of optimism, but it's just a question of how long [legalisation] is going to take. I think that we need something radical to create a breakthrough."

He mentioned the large number of US states considering legalising cannabis, adding: "When that happens, that's what will start it."

2Apr/110

Breaking the taboo

Is cannabis really dangerous?

Hitchens rejects the idea that cannabis is safe. Credit: Márton Berta

At the first of two events themed "A ceasefire in the war on drugs?", Peter Hitchens denies the drug laws even exist except on paper

There is no war on drugs and it was lost as long ago as 1967, according to Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens.

Hitchens was speaking at a debate held at King's College London on Wednesday. The other speakers were Sir Ian Gilmore, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and Chief Constable Tim Hollis of Humberside Police, the spokesperson on drugs for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Hollis, standing in for the former home secretary David Blunkett, who was unable to attend, said that he hadn't joined the police force to make war on the younger generation, while Gilmore suggested that a regulated supply of drugs would reduce many of the associated harms.

The event, entitled "Breaking the taboo", was organised by the University of Bedfordshire's Tilda Goldberg Centre.

Speaking first in the debate, Hitchens claimed that the fact that only a small proportion of those charged with possession of cannabis ever end up in court shows that the laws against drug possession aren't being fully enforced.

He observed that, in 2009, of around 160,000 criminal sanctions for possession of cannabis in England and Wales, fewer than 23,000 cases ever saw the inside of a courtroom. He said that nobody could tell him what penalties were imposed or what distinguished these cases from others, but speculated that most involved repeated offenders, intent to supply or were prosecuted simultaneously alongside other offences.

Hitchens claimed that the enforcement of the laws against drug possession has been set at such a level that they have no real effect, and that calls to stop the drug war are purposeless because it has already stopped.

"You would have to try very hard indeed to get the boys in blue to arrest you for a cannabis offence," he said. "And if they did arrest you, you'd have to try even harder to get them to do anything about it."

This blog can report that in 2009, a total of 371 people were sentenced to immediate custody for personal possession of class-B drugs such as cannabis, with an average sentence of 2.2 months.

There were also 775 imprisoned for simple possession of class A drugs, 127 for class C, and two for possession of a drug for which the class was not specified. For possession with intent to supply, the imprisonment figures for classes A–C were 4826, 1077 and 967 respectively. Drugs offences accounted for 9.4% of all custodial sentences imposed in England and Wales that year, and 15.8% of all convicted prisoners then serving time.

Hitchens also said that this was not limited to cannabis but applied to hard drugs as well, citing the case of the singer Pete Doherty, who had appeared in front of a judge for drugs offences on several occasions, was finally jailed for a drug offence while in court on a motoring charge – when 13 wraps of heroin fell from his pocket.

"Such is the effect that our terrifying war on drugs, and on those who wish to possess and take them, that a man can actually go into court with 13 wraps of heroin in his pocket, drop them on the floor and not care about it," he said.

Hitchens claimed that the war on drugs was lost on 24 July 1967 when a number of notable people including Francis Crick, David Dimbleby and all four of The Beatles wrote a letter to the Times "effectively calling for the legalisation of cannabis".

"There's no question that an enormous political struggle took place in this country in the late 1960s in which those who wanted to legalise drugs effectively succeeded," he said.

He claimed that the implementation of the 1969 Wootton Report in the form of the Misuse of Drugs Act set the penalties for possession of cannabis at such a low level that imprisonment for the offence virtually no longer occurred. The maximum penalty for personal possession of a class-B drug is five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

Hitchens also rejected the idea that cannabis is a harmless drug, referring to the book by the foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn about his son's problems with schizophrenia, which he believes to have been triggered by cannabis use.

Gilmore mentioned a metastudy on the effects of the use of cannabis on mental health, which found that the drug is associated with an increase in the incidence of schizophrenia from 1 case per 100,000 people to 1.4 cases.

This metastudy, published in The Lancet also found "a dose-response effect, leading to an increased risk of 50—200% in the most frequent users". This blog calculates that if the estimated 2.8 million cannabis smokers were all heavy users, this would create a maximum of 28 additional cases of schizophrenia.

It is worth noting that the maximum rate of imprisonment of those sanctioned for cannabis use is around 232 per 100,000, so the increase in schizophrenia cases is several hundred times lower than the imprisonment rate that Hitchens considers so low as to constitute de facto legalisation.

Gilmore said that he didn't want a "free-for-all" with drugs being sold in corner shops, but he did want a legal regulated supply of heroin to addicts to limit the damage to them and to society from "pushers".

He said that he'd arrived at his views from a pragmatic and practical perspective, because current policy isn't achieving its aims of limiting the harms caused by drugs. He said that from his clinical experience he had seen a number of problems caused by dirty needles, overdoses from contaminated drugs and the high incidence of HIV, and the influence of crime either committed by addicts to feed habits or between illegal drug traffickers.

"In the other area of my life I use evidence, so I tried to look at the evidence, such as it is, in this field," he said. Decriminalisation in other countries and the prescription of heroin to addicts in a safe environment haven't been unsuccessful, he added.

Drawing on his experience as a doctor, Gilmore said that after a long time spent treating people with liver disease, largely through alcohol consumption, "the penny had finally dropped". He said: "I'd spent 30 years pulling people out of the river before it had occurred to me to walk up the bank to see how they were falling in in the first place."

He added that for around ten years he had been calling for more regulation around "our favorite drug, alcohol". Before the end of his term as president of the Royal College of Physicians, Gilmore had sent an email to colleagues on the value of having a proper look at the merits of legalised and regulated drugs. The email had subsequently been leaked to the press and attracted headlines suggesting that Gilmore was in favour of complete legalisation.

Hollis said that he didn't believe in a war on drugs because he'd joined the police service "to make the world a better place". He said that he is the parent of three adult children, and most possession charges are made against young people and can be damaging to their future prospects.

"I did not join the police service to go to war with my children," he said. He added that he makes no apologies for enforcing the law, however, if it improves the situations of people living next to "drug dens".

Hollis also said that the Crown Prosecution Service "would not be screaming with joy" over the prospect of charging someone with simple possession.

Hitchens returned to Hollis's refusal to make war on young people, asking "Why on Earth not?" and suggesting that it is the only way to counter "40 years of rockstar propaganda".

The next debate in the series, How is the world's view of the drug war changing?, will take place at King's College on 6 April.