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‘Safe’drugs? Perhaps politicians as well as people are sceptical.

    Drug policy has become ‘a taboo area’; politicians lack the ‘courage’ to contradict ‘crude’ assertions about going ‘soft’ on drugs; “‘kneejerk’ opposition to change is allowed to continue unchallenged”. So Baroness Manningham Buller would have us believe. This is why politicians won’t take up her confused pro drug legalisation and decriminalisation cause. But the language of last weeks public relations offensive was reminiscent of the debate on Global warming; 'emerging consensus' (when there is no such thing), ‘all experts agree’ (when they don’t). ‘Our flawed drugs policy puts the young in danger’, the Evening Standard’s take, 18th November 2011, made adolescent drug taking risk the responsibility of the state (not their own, not their parents). “If thoughts corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought”, George Orwell so aptly pointed out back in 1946.

    If public or political debate is still ‘inhibited’ or somehow repressed after the Global Commission’s intense international and media lobbying exercise (directed at the US and the UK as  their press coverage excel spread sheet indicates, though the US and Canada together make up only 6% of global heroin consumption and Europe 26%) the widely publicized formation of a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Reform, all culminating in a two day conference at the House of Lords and a full page advertisement in the Times signed by a collection of the great and good (money’s no object to this campaign) then perhaps its time to consider an alternative possibility. Perhaps politicians are sceptical; or simply not interested in high gloss but half baked, confused and contradictory pro drug legalisation/ decriminalisation/ ‘safe’ drug ideas. With the worst youth unemployment figures ever, should it surprise anyone that it is safe jobs, not so called ‘safe’ drugs (hardly an aid to youth employment) that top the political agenda?

    So I am afraid I simply don’t buy BBC Home Editor Mark Easton’s argument “that the towering walls of political orthodoxy (have) made it (debate) impossible”, and this is why only the ‘formers’ like Baronesses Manningham Buller and Meacher are prepared to ‘come out’ and back the cause. What a lot of fol-de-rol.

    The fact is that the pro drugs argument, despite ongoing financing from the likes of the Esmee Fairburn Foundation, The Beckley Foundation, Sir Richard Branson and George Soros, has not caught on outside the realms of a liberal metropolitan /media elite, its advocates - like Simon Jenkins, Mary Seighart, Tom Chivers and  Lucy Cavendish – and  Professor Nutt’s colleagues. Most people outside this arena do not find drug use palatable. Even if they have tried drugs in the past or are confronting their children’s present use, few see any virtue in it, legal, illegal or otherwise. Few wish drugs to become freely available like alcohol or tobacco. Fewer believe this would reduce uptake.

    The irony too, last week, of the Baronesses busy advocating the sale of 'safe' cannabis to teens (more cancerous than straight smoking with cognitive, dependency and  mental health risks attached whatever the THC content) while health advisors took to the airwaves to ban smoking in cars, cannot have been lost on the public.  The double irony of the Global Commission campaigning here to treat drug use as a medical not a criminal problem – achieved years ago – might have been, however.

    Though the UK shamefully tops the European cocaine drug taking league, just 8.8% of adults used an illicit drug here in the last year (at all).  So to find that it’s a minority, according to the last available Observer poll, one that’s getting smaller, of 18% of adults, who believe our drug laws are not liberal enough is not surprising. Nor is the fact that the number who think our drug laws are too liberal has been going up - to over 30%. This is what former addict Steve Speigel and long time CEO of the ground breaking Providence Projects commented on the issue,“I ask myself this question, if there had been legal shooting galleries with free heroin in the UK years ago would I have ever got clean and sober? The answer to that is a categorical no.”

    Contrary to the idea that ‘evidence based’ debate around legalisation has somehow been repressed, it is never off the table. Their case is not convincing. And there is real disagreement about their ‘evidence’: how it is selected, what can be inferred from it, how valid or reliable it is, what evidence is absent and whether drugs can ever be safe however pure – which forensic scientists and common sense tell us they cannot. Policy Exchange has recently debated all this. The BMJ has harked on about it and is going to host a debate during which all this will be hammered out again (Steve Rolles and Sir Ian Gilmore for and Professor McKeganey and myself against). 

    The debate is on Jan 24th. If you are not already sick to death of drugs I believe tickets can be applied for from the BMJ.

    In the meantime I do not anticipate anyone coughing up for a full page advert in the Times showing President Calderon of Mexico pointing his finger at us: ‘MY COUNTRY NEEDS YOU to stop taking drugs’, flanked by Mexican decapitees on the one side and City of London money on the other and a strapline underneath: "As long as people in the UK sniff coke - or in New York or Paris - we will suffer here”, as President Santos of Columbia said on the BBC today.

    That would be taboo.


    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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    Mary Brett - About 3227 days ago

    Pictures in the press of half-naked young girls regularly throwing up all over our city streets on Saturday nights ought to tell us all something. It well illustrates the consequences of having a supposedly 'properly regulated' legal drug, easily available to all and sundry. The Observer, November 13th called for help to be given to 'the silent mass of professionals who were 'functionong alcoholics'.

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    Steve Rolles - About 3225 days ago

    Mary - the problem is that alcohol is not properly regulated. Transform have been very clear that we want to see far better regulation of alcohol - we have long advocated for advertsing and sponsorship bans, minimum pricing, ingredients and health warnings on packaging, mandatory (rather than voluntary) industry regulation, and so on. There is a chapter about this in 'After the War on drugs: Bluperint for Regulation', and we have made detailed submission to various Govt consultations on the subject over the years. We feel it is important to learn the lessons from mistakes made with alcohol and tobacco regulation and use these to develop and inform more effective regulation of currently illegal drugs. As alluded to already - it is only possible to make these sorts of interventions (that have been very effective with tobacco control over the past few decades without needing to resort to blanket prohibtions) when a product is legally regulated. It is clearly impossible when all control has been abdicated to crimianl entrepreneurs and gangsters. The goal is the same - the optimum legal and policy framework for regulating a given market so as to deliver the desired outcomes (safer, healthier societies - something I hope we can at least agree on). That the starting point for alcohol and illegal drugs is different doesnt change the goal or the fundamental challenges created by inadequate regulation. We believe that legal market regulation would also allow resources currently being directed towards ineffetive or counterproductive enforcemetn intervetions to be redirected into proven public health interventions, including prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery.

    Steve Rolles - About 3226 days ago

    Here is the text of Baroness Manningham Buller's speech (my comment follows):"Ladies and Gentlemen, I try to avoid reading speeches but I shall do so this evening as I am acutely aware that this subject is a minefield and that misrepresentation of my remarks is likely. I start from the premise that drugs are harmful to society, destroy lives and increase crime. But drug policy is a taboo subject for discussion. Given its effect on us all and the enormous cost of our efforts to limit the problems which drugs cause, I find it extraordinary that it is not at the forefront of national debate. Instead there is a presumption that the current policy is the best we can do. And there is knee-jerk opposition to any change. So those politicians and commentators who may recognise, at the very least, that there are serious questions about the efficacy of current policies, go quiet or retract when faced by the crude assertion that any other policy would do corrosive and irreparable harm. So we rely on the Police and Customs who make valiant efforts to stem the tide of drugs into this country and try to focus on the key figures not the foot soldiers. They are highly motivated to break the drugs gangs who bring so much unhappiness through their cruel and lucrative exploitation of people, to reduce the criminality which often funds drug use and to battle on seeking to enforce the law. But even the most optimistic of them do not, in my experience, believe that they are the solution to the harm drugs cause society. In 1961 there was a UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Its laudable aim, to create a drug-free world, now looks delusional. In fact, 50 years on, the production of drugs worldwide, and their use, is on a scale that those attending the convention could not have imagined. There are wars funded by drugs, terrorist campaigns dependent on drug money, governments in hock to drug lords, extensive corruption and crime stemming from the profits engendered by the drugs trade, conservatively estimated as worth $33 billion pa. And, of course, there is extensive human misery. So, for the next 50 years, do we continue on the same well-worn policy track which has proved so successful so far? Or will we acknowledge the truth, that we are unlikely to address the harm that is being caused to the world unless we accept, as the US Senate recently did, that much (not all) of the vast expenditure on the so called “War on Drugs” has been fruitless? That requires us to look at other options. I don’t pretend there are easy answers as this is a complex problem. We need to explore different approaches and look at all evidence that can help including that which is politically uncomfortable. We need to collect information on what works, on how harm can be reduced, on what is cost-effective. Our approach needs certainly to be careful but also rational and realistic. Would harm be reduced if cannabis was regulated so that its more dangerous components, which can lead to psychosis, were eliminated? Should we follow Portugal’s example and focus on drug use as a health issue rather than a crime issue? Some 30 years ago I was sailing with friends, southwards in the Caribbean. In the evenings we were aware of a vast armada of speedboats dashing north to land their lethal cargoes in the USA. I don’t know whether the US Navy has blocked that route but if they have, even with all the US wealth and might, those drugs are still getting through, destroying lives and making vast profits for a new generation of producers, smugglers and dealers. So let us have a proper, and preferably non-political conversation, on this whole issue, to review current policies and explore whether there are others offering some hope of success."My comment - it strikes me that her speech was indeed misrepresnted as she feared it would be, indeed you have misrepresented it here; She is not claiming drugs are safe (she clearly states quite the opposite), and does not meniton a consensus or imply all experts agree. Nor infact does she specifically back legalisation or regulation. She poses a question about cannabis regulation, and Portugese decriminalisation (rather than offering unqualified support) - suggesting these are things that should be considered. She makes very clear that this exploration of alternatives is driven by a concern about the evident failings of the current apporach.She is in error on the $33billion stat (it is about ten times that), and also confused on the cannabis issue. I assume that rather than eliminating THC, she is talking about controlling the active contents to reduce (rather than eliminate) risks. This is an idea, Kathy, that you discussed in a previous blog -not entirely dissaprovingly- with reference to the recent shift in Dutch policy banning sales of over 15% THC cannabis in the coffee shops. It is the sort of control that is impossible under prohibtion where control is entirely in the hands of profit motivated criminals

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