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 Politics.co.uk, 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.
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.