First the great Portuguese drug decriminalisation fallacy was fostered; now a British liberalisation myth has been strapped on the back of it by a ruthless and conscienceless pro drugs lobby

Kathy Gyngell

by Kathy Gyngell

Kathy Gyngell authored the Addictions reports for Breakdown and Breakthrough Britain, the Conservative Party’s 2007 Social Justice Policy Review. Her recent reports, The Phoney War on Drugs (CPS, 2009) and Breaking the Habit: why the state should stop dealing drugs and start doing rehab (CPS, 2011) have attracted widespread media coverage and attention. She researches, writes and is media commentator on a range of social policy issues – including family, gender, employment and childcare.

The public’s attitude towards drugs is becoming more liberal according to an Ipsos/Mori poll reported last week. So we were led to believe. Over half the public and a staggering 46% of Daily Mail readers, wrote Ian Dunt on, support the legalisation of cannabis. The Guardian’s Ian Birrell also confidently stated that a majority of the British public favour cannabis use. Sky and LBC reported this ‘fact’ too. Even the Daily Mail got caught up and reported the poll’s finding that two thirds of the public support a large scale review of our drugs laws.

How did such a sudden change of public heart come about?

Previously commissioned YouGov drug polls (for the Observer) suggest attitudes towards drug use have hardened, not softened – the British public has become less not more liberal on this issue. The recent Sun YouGov poll hardly found a ringing endorsement for Nick Clegg’s call for a drug policy review either - 50% of his own party members (known for their often off-the-wall views) disagreed and the vast majority of Conservative and Labour members gave it the thumbs down.

But ask who commissioned the latest poll and you have the answer.

It was the Transform Policy Foundation, a single issue drugs legalising lobby, which, despite funding over many years from George Soros and Esmee Fairburn inter alia, has struggled to find wider social acceptance or backing for its campaign to legalise drug use. To persuade understandably wary politicians to throw caution to the winds on drugs, it desperately needs to conjure up public support.

Ipsos Mori, the pollster, it seems took Transform’s biased portrayal of UK drug policy as contrasted with ‘decriminalised regimes’ at face value. And like the rest of the media, it swallowed Transform’s fallacious presentation of the impact of decriminalisation in Portugal.

This was what they gave their naïve subjects to consider before the second set of questions they were asked about their preference for a drug policy review.

As a colleague of mine commented if you preface poll questions with a mis-leading or incomplete briefing, the outcome is bound to be suspect.

It was.

Indeed it would have been comical had not so many news organizations and journalists been taken in by the dramatic press briefing that : “... 53% of GB public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised, and 67% want a comprehensive review of our approach to drugs”.

This is comical as Transform are the first to accuse others of ‘cherry picking’ and here was cherry picking to outdo all. The first page of the actual poll read quite something else than the press release. Despite the encouragingly negative portrayal of British policy that prefaced the first question, it found:

  • 60 per cent support for our drug laws as they are
  • 60 per cent support for possession of illegal drugs remaining a criminal offence.
  • 68% of Conservative supporters, 56% of Labour supporters and 61% of Liberal supporters – all clear majorities – backing this status quo
  • And finally 74% of Asian and 77% of Blacks backing all the above (a headline of its own surely?).

Far from heralding a dramatic liberalisation of attitude, the poll showed only 14% of the population favouring the decriminalisation of possession, only 21% prepared to back a limited decriminalisation trial in a specified area.

Could my reading be correct? I checked with an academic colleague. His reply restored my faith in my sanity as well as my eyesight:

“The results are as you have interpreted them not as have been presented by Transform, the majority remain in favour of legal barriers (to drugs possession)”, he said.

So how come then did two thirds of those polled, decide, against their prior answers, that a review of the drug law was in order, how did roughly half back the idea of either legalising or decriminalising cannabis?

They were doped - metaphorically speaking – duped by the great Portuguese drug fallacy and told that:

“Since this (decriminalisation) was introduced in Portugal in 2001, and resources were instead spent on healthcare, overall use of drugs rose at a similar rate to neighbouring countries. However, there were higher numbers accessing drug treatment, the justice system spent less time and resources on drug-related crime, and there were falls in problematic drug use, and drug use amongst school age children also fell”.

Misleading and inaccurate, this account of Portugal has been used and abused by the pro-drugs lobby ever since a highly selective Cato Institute paper was published on the subject in 2009 and uncritically reported across the media. It translated wishful thinking into a ‘proof of concept’. More than anything else it provided the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Reform with a justification for recommending the legalisation ‘safe’ drugs and the decriminalisation of the rest.

Baroness Molly Meacher, the Chairman of this group, claimed on the Today Programme; ‘Portugal has found that less people are using drugs and that less and less people are becoming addicted’, since it decriminalised drug use in 2001.

Unfortunately this is not true.

When I wrote asking for her source of evidence she was unable to provide it or justify her statement. She cited a paper from the British Journal of Criminology by the academic Alex Stevens – a paper I had read and knew - which details a rise (not fall) of drug use in Portugal. It says: "Between 2001 and 2007, lifetime and last-year use was reported to have increased in Portugal for almost all illicit substances (see Tables 1 and 2). The increase was seen in all age groups above 19 (Balsa et al. 2004; 2007)".

I was afraid she had been misled by her advisors. The 2001 and 2007 national surveys of drugs prevalence in Portugal, submitted to the EMCDDA (the only published prevalence surveys) and summarised in its most recently released Portugal 'Country Overview' affirmed the facts. I sent her the link. I told her that since 2007 no adult data has been collected, so no further claims could be made for period since then.

School age use data, however, which has been monitored recently shows a steady rise in Portugal since 1999 (by contrast with a 30% downward trend in school age use since 1999 here) rising rapidly in the last 5 years from 10 -16%. My source was the well reputed and reliable, comparative ESPAD monitoring studies. All this I explained.

Molly’s riposte was that we could toss statistics at each other for ever – though it turned out she had none to toss. She refused to accept the fact, that however much she hopes decriminalisation might protect children, Portugal provides no proof for her prejudice – rather the opposite and that unwittingly she had misled the BBC and the public.

As for Portuguese problem drug use, rates of injecting and HIV – though the received wisdom is that they have all improved – the fact is that they remain a mystery since 2005. Despite their grand experiment Portugal has not monitored these trends. All we know for certain is that cocaine use doubled between 2001 and 2007 and that heroin use rose too, as did nearly all drug use. More people accessed treatment, as (like here) since 2001 Portugal invested heavily in it.

Baroness Meacher is by no means the first to have been taken in by pro drugs advocates. Their campaign of disinformation has intensified since they lost the cannabis classification debate in the UK – the focus of their creeping effort to normalise cannabis use - from which neither of the main parties is likely to retract now the serious risks of cannabis use (especially by adolescents) for mental health are known.

The new campaign dates from the afore mentioned 2009 Cato Institute Report, “Lessons for creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies”, about which the Office of National Drugs Control Policy was scathing. The ONDCP criticised its selective use of statistics, its disregard for statistical significance and for alternative causes of trends (e.g. the decline in drug deaths) that began before decriminalisation; it said was impossible to draw any conclusions from it. Still the paper and its thesis were still widely and uncritically reported.

The Portuguese fallacy it promoted has been used and abused around the world since. The emergence of the self-styled Global Commission on Drug Policy, financed by Branson and Soros, has pushed it along. Their global media strategy breakdown (which can be accessed through their website) managed by the PR company Meltwater News reveals just how serious they are.

The backing of former South American Presidents and liberal economists like Martin Wolf eager to believe its exaggerated and entirely misleading drug use trend statistics, has proved a powerful influence. When the Home Affairs Select Committee, under Chairman Keith Vaz, decided it was time for another drugs policy inquiry, it tuned its terms of reference to theirs and went on to give its prime platform to its main advocate, the self confessed dope smoking Virgin Boss, and Commission backer, Richard Branson.

Press day for HASC’s ‘Breaking the Cycle’ Report (which recommended a further drugs policy review, and out of the blue, the downgrading of cannabis to a class C drug ) coincided with the similarly titled, “Breaking the Taboo”, a YouTube viral filmed by Branson’s son Sam featuring Kate Winslet alongside his dad. Its point was to give their and the Global Commission’s imprimatur to dope smoking through the social media.

Nick Clegg then weighed in with his support (a ministerial first for the liberalisers). Though his plummeting ratings and needing to please his loonier left might have had more to do with it. Regardless he took to the TV studios to grandstand on the matter of a drugs policy review. The Portuguese panacea was high profile in the coverage which followed.

In the New Year too, the Ditchley Foundation ran a Conference on drug policy entitled “How Should Drug Control Policy Change?” peopled by members of all these pressure groups (with not one UK social conservative drugs policy spokesman) seemingly to introduce civil servants to them and their counterparts from around the world. Several articles promoting the two Chicago economists advocating legalisation subsequently appeared in the Sunday Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal - happily at the same time as the Baroness Meacher’s APPG of Drug Reform published its recommendations.

In fact there was hardly a day without one call or other for some sort of drugs liberalisation covered by the media. The United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission added their pennyworth, recommending  decriminalisation too and kept the ball rolling. Their justification, after years of again generous Esmee Fairburn funding, boiled down to ‘drugs can be good for you’.

Next to pop up was Chief Constable Tim Hollis of ACPO, exclusively reported by Mark Easton on the BBC, to tell us that drugs policy should be a health matter, as though this was not the case already, as though this was not where the bulk of the policy budget is already spent. It might surprise people to know that the drug treatment budget in the UK  is significantly higher than that of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office combined.

I began to wonder who had the monthly Gantt Activity Chart on their wall? Who was coordinating all this activity?

On each and every possible occasion Portugal was cited as fact – as if Portuguese data was as consistent, reliable or available as our own; as if their trends were better, not worse. For without such a myth of wellbeing the liberalising  case is far harder to defend.

Without it its underlying creed is no more than an unthinking, selfish and destructive ‘radical individualism’. This is what George Soros (through his Open Society) finances through his support for the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Reform (funding Baroness Meacher’s travel and conference expenses by the Open Society via the legalising charity, through his support for the International Drugs Policy Consortium and of course for the single issue campaign group Transform – instigators of the latest misleading poll.

Yet no one, least of all those best informed, seriously maintains that either decriminalisation or the longer term goal of legalisation would reduce drug use. (Reuter & McCoun 1999). They all agree it would increase it (possibly from the minority habit it is today to a majority habit like drinking and smoking). And as Peter Reuter point outs, this increased use would increase total harm too – at a cost to mental health and social stability we can ill afford.

Writers like the former David Cameron advisor, Ian Birrell, seem not to consider this. Indeed in his Guardian article in which he advocates drugs legalisation as the new Tory big idea, he positively crows over a liberal Tory thinker unable to justify continued drugs control in light of his otherwise liberal ideology.

I have no such difficulty. Even the most liberal of thinkers have to accept there must be some limits to freedom as Theodore Dalrymple explained in his 1997 essay for the Manhattan Review:

“The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others. The locus classicus for this point of view is John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty:….This radical individualism allows society no part whatever in shaping, determining, or enforcing a moral code: in short, we have nothing in common but our contractual agreement not to interfere with one another as we go about seeking our private pleasures.

In practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to make people take all the consequences of their own actions (as they must, if Mill's great principle is to serve as a philosophical guide to policy. Addiction to, or regular use of, most currently prohibited drugs cannot affect only the person who takes them and not his spouse, children, neighbours, or employers). No man, except possibly a hermit, is an island; and so it is virtually impossible for Mill's principle to apply to any human action whatever, let alone shooting up heroin or smoking crack. Such a principle is virtually useless in determining what should or should not be permitted”.

For those wanting to abolish our present drug controls whether on a wish or a prayer, it should give, at least, a pause for thought.


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Manuel Pijnto-Coelho - About 1341 days ago

Congratulations Kathy for having the courage to put so bravely the finger in the spot on Portuguese drug enormous fallacy. What I told in Ditchley some weeks ago stressing with facts the Portuguese drug reality did enter for one ear but went out next second fthrough the other - no one did care, no one did hold my true information and at the end when came the conclusions, by (my) surprise the big lie of Portuguese drug policy success survived still healthier and stronger...!
The “resounding success” of decriminalization of use, possession and acquisition for use of drugs in Portugal, a seriously distorted projection of reality only possible due a complete and absurd campaign of manipulation of Portuguese drug policy facts and figures, was promptly noticed but never sufficiently reported by several analysts including Obama Administration – “ we are opposed to the decriminalization of drugs on grounds of both public health and public safety and we do not think that Portugal´ s approach is right for the United States. … The claims that decriminalization has reduced drug use and had no detrimental impact in Portugal significantly exceed the existing scientific basis. … …his conclusion largely contradicts prevailing media coverage and several policy analyses…” and very recently confirmed by de ex-IDT´ s Clinical Director Graça Vilar: “We notice the cases of new consumers of illicit drugs are significant“ (“Expresso” Dec. 3, 2011) was invented by Glenn Greenwald a writer-lawyer fluent in Portuguese invited by the “libertarian” think-tank Cato Institute of Washington.
Fuelled by a so extraordinary as intriguing marketing machine, this sadly famous American citizen, even with the total absence of any scientific proof, allowed himself, shamefully, to spread the message that decriminalization of drugs in Portugal was the right tool to reduce drug dependency and drug miseries around the world. And the message passed… not only abroad but also in my own country: - “I am lucky to live in a society that has accepted the fact that drugs and addiction are part of life” confessed Nuno Miranda a heroin dependent thirteen years ago parking cars in Lisbon in a misleading article, one among hundreds around the world, with totally false judgements adulterating drug related Portuguese reality at the Oct.17, 2011 edition of the American revue “The New Yorker”.
To legalize crime committed by drug dependents (or by “patients”) doesn’t seem the most effective way to fight it. To facilitate access to drugs, as one can see, will never be the way to reduce the use, the decrease of drug dependences and related crime.

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Anonymous - About 1340 days ago

People interested in our original British Journal of Criminology article (rather than the selective quotation from it above) can find it

And people interested in the selective use of evidence by both Glen Greenwald and Manuel Pinto-Coelho may be interested in this:

They can also find a blog post with more recent data from Portugal at

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Alex Stevens - About 1340 days ago

I am the author of the above comment (forgot to tick that box earlier).

Steve Rolles - About 1340 days ago

A few comments on this piece Kathy –

You are right to call Ian Dunt for inaccurately reporting the poll findings – he says legalised, and should at least have said legalised or decriminalised. As made clear in the Transform press releasely/130KYgt , and indeed as you quote: “... 53% of GB public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised, and 67% want a comprehensive review of our approach to drugs”.

The question on cannabis policy included six options – three models of legalisation/regulation (strict controls, moderate controls, and light controls), and three models of prohibition (status quo, status quo with decriminalised possession, and increased penalties/tougher enforcement). We felt this was the most objective possible formulation to see which policy approach people favoured (if you have a critique of the question, or wish to suggest a better one, please let us know).

The 53% figure was, as stated, support for either one of the legalisation/regulation options, or the decriminalisation option (the breakdown was 41% and 12% respectively). 21% favoured the status quo, and 14% favoured the increased enforcement option.

Whilst Dunt was mistaken, Birell in fact states that ‘a majority now favour permitting cannabis use’. This is perhaps not the best choice of words (legalisation maybe, but is decriminalisation the same as ‘permitting’? well - not quite, as possession can remain an offence, albeit not a criminal one), but its hardly a travesty. Birell’s statement is, however, quite different from your inaccurate suggestion that he claims “a majority of the British public favour cannabis use”. You should, at the very least, correct this.

You then state that “The recent Sun YouGov poll hardly found a ringing endorsement for Nick Clegg’s call for a drug policy review either - 50% of his own party members (known for their often off-the-wall views) disagreed and the vast majority of Conservative and Labour members gave it the thumbs down.”

This is incorrect. In the recent Sun YouGov poll (linked in your previous blog – that also appears to incorrectly report the findings, as I commented at the time), they ask the question: “Would you support or oppose a government review of drug policy options, to include the current system of criminalisation, a Portuguese style decriminalisation or full legalisation?” - overall support is 58% (22% opposed), with support of 59% for Conservatives (22% opposed), 62% for Labour (25% opposed), and 82% for Lib Dems (8% opposed). By all means take issue with the polling methodology if you like – but don’t misreport the actual polling stats. You should also correct this error.

You then go on to suggest Transform have cherry picked our stats for the press release. Firstly, to make it clear; we included a link to the full IpsosMORI data set prominently in the press release, and the complete questions were also included in the notes to editors for scrutiny. IpsosMORI publish all commissioned poll data as policy – so there was no hiding results we didn’t like - and they are also extremely rigorous on question methodology, specifically to ensure that questions are not biased or leading – their reputation depends on it. IpsosMORI also signed off the Transform press release as an accurate report on the polling. Secondly you appear to be confused by the fact that we asked separate three questions; one on decriminalisation possession of all drugs, one on options for cannabis policy (described above) and another on support for a review of all options – an improved version of the Sun YouGov question. These, unsurprisingly, produced different responses. Your bullet points accurately report the results for the maintaining the status quo option on the question concerning support for implementation or a trial of decriminalisation of possession. I am mystified as to why you are surprised that decriminalisation of possession (for all drugs) would have less support (35% or 39%, see below), than reform of cannabis laws (either decrim or legalisation 53%) or a call for an independent review (67%). That seems an entirely predictable result – given the relative novelty of the decriminalisation argument to the British public, and the fact that it relates to all drugs rather than cannabis alone, the arguments for which are much more well trodden, and cannabis naturally perceived as less of a menace than most other drugs. That a call for an independent review of options has more support than actual policy or law changes is also hardly surprising – people are rightly open to evidence of what might work better than the conspicuous failings of current policy (and, to be clear, one of the options listed is tougher enforcement).

Your explanation for this non-shock, however, is to then accuse us of duping the public by inclusion of misleading Portugal statistics in Question 1 (about decriminalisation). If you read the press release (which includes the full questions), or if you study the data tables, you will see that the sample was split – half were asked the question Q1A without the inclusion of the sentence on Portugal that you quote, half were asked the question without it Q1B. We did this specifically to see if there was any influence on the outcome, not least because of our concern that the question asked by the Sun YouGov poll on support for Portuguese-style decriminalisation (which, incidentally, had support of 60%) was potentially leading by its inclusion of Portugal outcomes. Indeed there was, a small but, IpsosMORI say, statistically significant change between the split, around a 3% shift, from 60% opposed 35%support, to 58% opposed 39% support. Infer from this what you like – but we have been entirely open about it on the press release – which includes both questions and link to all the findings. In it we state that one of the findings is that ‘When outcomes from Portugal were briefly described, almost 40% of the public support the Portuguese-style decriminalisation of small quantities of drugs for personal possession’. To note, the bullet point stats you use are from split sample who answered the question without the inclusion of Portugal outcomes sentence.

On the sentence itself describing the Portugal outcomes used in split sample, that summary is based on the conclusions of the Hughes/Stevens British Journal of Criminology paper you cite. I’m less interested in the criticisms you direct at the APPG , HASC, and GCOD, who also evidently come to conclusions that differ from your own on the Portugal issue – others may wish to respond. But just to be clear, the sentence we use on Portugal, based on the BJC paper, includes the information that ‘overall use of drugs rose at a similar rate to neighbouring countries’- you actually quote this, so I am unclear where the suggestion we are duping people into thinking use fell comes from. The falls in problematic use and school age use are well documented by Hughes/Stevens, and others. As their work helps demonstrate, there is no evidence to show decriminalisation is associated with an increase in use compared to those places that did not adopt the reform, and nor has Peter Reuter – a supporter of at least an experiment with cannabis legalisation/regulation by the way - made this argument anywhere I am aware of. Reuter has speculated about the impacts on use of legalisation, but since no countries have legalised any drugs yet this remains just speculation. more discussion on that will have to wait for another comment.

Finally - we are not 'pro-drugs'. We are pro-effective policy and law; we argue that current approaches are counterpoductive and unjust and seek better ways of achieving the safer, healthier society I hope we all want to see. The fact that you consider yourself anti-drugs, and we have a different view on ways forward in drug policy to you does not make us 'pro-drugs'. That is a classic false binary. It is offensive and untrue; please refrain from saying it.

Steve Rolles
Senior Policy Analyst
Transform Drug Policy Foundation
posted 22.50, 26.02.13

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Ann Stoker - About 1339 days ago

Well done Kathy you have once again shown how the well financed and highly organised global drug legalisation lobby can influence the opinion of the general public who mostly only know what the media tell them. Ask the right questions and you can always get the response you want. The majority of the non-drug using public do not want drugs legalised. When working with drug users I was often told that they did not want their children using drugs and they did not want drug laws changed either.

Anonymous - About 1339 days ago

Spin is King, well so it would appear for the pro-drug lobby. The use of spurious data is alwasys deplorable and easy to detect, but it is the well crafted specious data that can blind side the uninformed. The attached paper looks at some of the internal inconsistencies in the poorly 'spun' 'evidence based'

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Mary Brett - About 1338 days ago

I have often wondered if legalising organisations such as Transform fully understand the true nature of the damage that some drugs can do to people, especially children. I am thinking of cannabis, or skunk as we should now call it since it occupies about 80% of the UK market, hash the other 20%. Professor Sir Robin Murray's team at The Institute of Psychiatry in 2009 found that if a person takes enough skunk or hash at one time, they will suffer a transient psychotic episode, with skunk users being nearly 7 times more vulnerable. Four years earlier D’Souza had published similar findings. This fact is still not properly publicised and indeed is denied by many who should know better. Astonishingly the first paper to link cannabis with psychosis was published in 1845. If these organisations get their information from FRANK then that would explain it as the cannabis information on FRANK is inaccurate, out of date and has huge omissions. FRANK says that skunk has about twice the amount of THC as old herbal ’60s and ’70s cannabis. Since the THC content of the old cannabis was about 1-2% and in 2008 (HO Potency study) the average THC content of skunk was 16.2%, ranging up to 46%, simple maths shows that this is blatantly untrue. The old cannabis also had roughly equal quantities of THC and anti-psychotic CBD (cannabidiol). This balance helped to counteract the psychotic effects of the THC. Skunk has less than 0.1% CBD. I cannot believe that any authority would dream of legalising any substance shown to cause psychosis.

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Steve Rolles - About 1337 days ago

Mary. We fully understand the risks of cannabis. Our argument is that we need to regulate drugs because they are risky, not because the safe. A key point is here is that however risky drugs are, they are *more* risky when produced and sold by criminals.

The changing cannabis market in the UK is a useful illustration. We would argue the increasing saturation of the market with higher potency indoor grown 'skunk' is a manifestation of illegal market economics - rather than being demand driven. Intensive indoor production leads natuarally errs towards stronger products (which are more profitable), and also shifts the THC/CBD balance (more of the former, less of the latter - which follows from intensive grow light regimes) to make the cannabis more risky.

In a legally regulated market active contents (or ratios of active contents) can be controlled and limited - as we do with alchol and tobacco (and indeed as they have recently introduced in the Netherlands coffee shops). We can have not safe, but *safer* products, that can also have prominent health warnings on the packaging and can be sold by licensed vedors (trained to give health/safety advice), that unlike crimanl dealers, will excercise age access controls. Higher potency products can be subject to higher prices/taxes. These are the sorts of interventions that have been shown to be effective in reducing alcohol and tobacco consumption / harms - without resorting to criminalising users or blanket prohibitions. We can also redirect enforcement spending into evidence based prevention, harm reduction and treatment/recovery services. We know these can help, just as we know punitive enforcement appears to make things worse. We are *not* opposed to prevention, but the evidence shows prohibtion is not an effective prevention tool. Its expensive, it doesnt work, and it starves interventions that do work of resources.

Finally it is important to stress that reforming drug laws to try and make them more effective - is not the same as claiming drugs are safe or cool, or endorsing or condoning there use. you cvan be anti-drug and pro-law reform many of our supporters are, including many parents, police and medical proffessionals. We are quite simply seeking more effctive ways to address and manage the reality of drug use as it currently exists - to build towards a society in which drug related social and health harms can be minimised in the longer term.