Monday, 13 March 2017

Preventing drug-related deaths speech

Hi all, just posting my unedited speech to Scottish Lib Dem conference for anyone who's interested:

Good afternoon conference.

The substance of this motion covers two main areas of concern. Deaths associated with MDMA-type drugs, and deaths associated with opiates such as heroin and methadone.

MDMA or ecstasy deaths had been averaging under 5 a year in Scotland between 2008 and 2012, but in the last three years the rate has jumped to 15 a year as the strength of ecstasy available has increased.

Regan MacColl took a fatal overdose of ecstasy in the Arches nightclub in 2014. After this tragedy the police instructed the club to bring in more stringent searches on the door.

We have to ask ourselves though what effect an escalation in security and enforcement will achieve in a nightclub queue. If a teenager is caught with ecstasy – a class A drug – they face potentially up to 7 years in prison and an unlimited fine. This is not helpful to that teenager, and it's not helpful to society. The deterrent effect isn't working. People are still taking drugs, they're just taking drugs away from places like The Arches with previously excellent safety records.

But greater enforcement can also bring tragedy beyond a criminal record.

17-year-old Emily Lyon had taken some MDMA on the way to a music event at the O2 in London last June. She had another dose with her that she planned to take later in the evening, but she hadn't expected there to be sniffer dogs on the door. Worried that her drugs would be detected, she consumed them earlier than planned. She was rushed to hospital feeling unwell and overheated before 10pm, but was dead before 1 in the morning.

A drug overdose killed Emily Lyon, but dumb enforcement of dumb law was the reason she died that night.

So what are the alternatives to enforcement?

I'm sure we've all seen warnings about high strength drugs in circulation in the media. In the UK these warnings tend to be issued after one or more people have overdosed or died, and the drugs batch have been traced and tested. In the Netherlands, they issue warnings without prerequisite tragedy because people are able to submit drugs for testing at one of many centres around the country.

Happily there is beginning to be progress on drug testing in the UK, with the charity “the Loop”, beginning to carry out testing at festivals and other events. They test pills and powders brought to them by members of the public, and give them advice on the content and strength of the drugs and sensible ways to stay safe.

It's a model that will save lives and it should be rolled out across Scotland as well.

It's not ecstasy that is the major contributor to Scotland's drug related death rate. It's heroin and other opiates that contributed to 6 in every 7 deaths in 2015.

Our drug-related death rate is far and away the worst in Europe, and while other nations' rates are steady or in decline, Scotland's has been steadily increasing, nearly tripling in the last 20 years.

If we weren't ignoring drug users these statistics would be Scotland's great shame, but heroin users are the last section of society that suffer from widespread prejudice, to the point of revulsion. The attention paid to them by politicians sadly reflects that fact. This has to stop.

As a party we have taken great strides in promoting the cause of those in society suffering from poor mental health and done our best to break down the stigma suffered. Research consistently suggests that two thirds of problematic drug users are self-medicating survivors of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. We can not claim to be the party of mental health if we leave drug users suffering in the shadows.

At long last, safe injection sites and heroin assisted treatment are being considered for Glasgow. But we have to recognise the relative implications of these measures.

Safe injection facilities allow people to use heroin in a safe environment with medical support. They are however, using street heroin, so if the batch of heroin they are using contains clostridium as happened in Scotland in 2000, or anthrax as in 2009, then they'll still be injecting clostridium or anthrax into their veins. These infections killed 34 people. Is this the model we want?

Problematic drug users are also the most impoverished group in society. Take normal poverty, then add a £100 a day inflexible need to consume a drug. Safe injection sites don't alleviate this poverty. The users still need to find that £100 from somewhere.

I became passionate about drug policy after watching a documentary many years ago now. A young woman was being asked by a tv crew why she continued to work the streets while someone was murdering prostitutes in her town. She replied “I need the money. I need the money.” Paula Clennell was herself murdered by a serial killer less than a week later.

You can no more snap out of heroin addiction than you can snap out of depression. Why should we force users to abandon their moral standards in pursuit of money to buy drugs. They almost certainly didn't start using drugs thinking that robbery, shoplifting, working the streets or drug-dealing was ok. How much of the self-medication with heroin is now for the shame they feel or the pain they've suffered from finding the money to pay for it?

We don't have to make them find that money. If we just provided the heroin in a clinic, then the user can stop breaking the law, can start thinking about jobs, family and housing. In all the studies done in many countries now, heroin is more effective and more cost effective than methadone at helping people get their lives back on track.

It also has the potential to get communities back on track. Put a clinic in a community where there are high levels of drug use and watch the dealers pack it in, watch the shops thrive without the shoplifting, see the red light district empty at night.

Where's the proof this would happen you may ask. Well it's happened already, in Merseyside in the 80s and 90s. Sadly the world wasn't ready for the drug war to end just yet, and the prescribing of heroin to addicts was rolled back. But between 1982 and 1995 Dr. John Marks didn't have a drug related death among his patients. Within 2 years of his prescribing practice ending 41 of his 450 patients were dead.

Heroin clinics work, and they're popular. The Swiss got to vote on it in a referendum and supported the policy by over 2 to 1.

We've tried locking up addicts, it's time to declare a war on drugs and try locking the heroin up instead, and just let the users come in for regular visits.

I've no experience of drugs myself. If you can't relate to the problematic drug user, then maybe you can relate to their family, as I do, having experienced a loved one go down an unexpected and distressing path. They finally found the right drug for my brother's mental illness and I got my brother back. There are over 60,000 problem drug users in Scotland. That's tens of thousands of families facing the dilemma no family should face. Do you hold your loved one close, and risk the damage that could do to you and the rest of your family, or do you push them away, and live a half life, in constant dread of the knock on the door from a policeman telling you they're permanently gone.

We know what the drug is that can give these families back their loved ones. The police in Durham are planning to pay for heroin for addicts because they know it too. Whatever level of government you are elected to, please put this on the agenda, if you aren't elected to anything, find an agenda to put it on. Write letters. Save lives.

Thank you.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A long-term, 360 degree policy for well-being can see us rise above the mire.

I was a candidate in the 2015 general election in a seat we had no chance of winning. An election address was put out in my name that contained messages I had at best moderate enthusiasm for. The "3 great reasons to vote for me" were things that sadly sapped some of the excitement out of voting for myself.

I've never thought about the Liberal Democrats as a party that just shuffled money around from one place to another, but that was my message to the people. Raising the personal allowance for income tax was great when we were letting people earning a £10,000 salary take home much more money. Raising it further was only going to help those earning above £10,600. It had morphed in to a tax cut for the middle classes, rather than the poorest paid workers, and the Conservatives were promising the same thing anyway. When your tax policy is copied by the Conservatives you really should re-examine your priorities.

The second "great reason to vote for Ewan Hoyle" was that I would help pass a law ensuring that the pensioners of the UK would become less and less affordable for society as their numbers grew. Old people vote more than the young, so fire-hosing them with money for all eternity is of course good politics. It is however completely unjustifiable at a time when the rest of the welfare budget is in drought. The pensions triple-lock was always populist bribery that left me cold.

Reason three was another fire-hose policy, this time spraying money at the NHS in order to meet the need identified. This is one way of ensuring that the needs of patients are satisfactorily met. When Labour got into government in 1997 they had great ambitions to increase the level of spending on our health services. They were successful in matching those ambitions... but what would our society look like if they had instead attempted to reduce demand on our health service? You know, helped citizens become healthier and happier so they didn't need to go to their GP or go to hospital.

This is what should be at the core of our next pitch to the Scottish people (we've got an election next year rUKers :) ). A bold, long-term ambition to reduce demand on government spending rather than vision-free, short-sighted promises to increase its supply. Rather than promise x-thousand extra nurses or police, how's about we reduce the workload for our existing nurses and police so they can do their jobs more effectively under less pressure.

But this isn't a right-of-centre plea for the state to be rolled back, it's a plea for an enormous expansion of capital spending: Well-being capital spending that invests in education, outreach and community activities that engage effectively with those members of society who will (bluntly) cost us the most in the coming years.

For the unemployed, the other parties seem intent on compelling people to either work for their benefits, or to accept compulsory employment. These strategies are troubling to various degrees but both remove the ability of the individual concerned to make their own choices about their future. I attended a conference on measuring well-being a while back and the only useful take-home messages from a very dry day were that unemployment is awful for your well-being and that volunteering and getting outdoors are the best things for improving well-being and self-esteem.

So instead of offering volunteering opportunities to the entire nation's workforce, would it not be a better idea to target volunteering at those who desperately need it (the unemployed and those on ESA) as a means of both increasing their well-being and self-esteem; and of introducing them to roles in the workforce that they might enjoy. Let those on benefits choose their own volunteering placements with no compulsion, and those with a bit of get up and go will be eager to identify a work role they are comfortable and able in. They will accumulate positive and recent references and will ascend to the workforce so much quicker. Those who choose not to take up the volunteering opportunities should receive no greater punishment than watching other people gain confidence and get jobs, and will always have that same path available should they wish to follow it.

Unemployment is a soul-crushing experience, and at present the state with their hair-trigger sanction regime is harassing people on JSA to the point where they are frequently eligible (through stress-related mental and physical health conditions) for ESA instead... only to then be kicked off ESA for not being sufficiently demonstrably impaired. This shuffling of people from one benefit to another and none until they give up and stop claiming has to be stopped in favour of a regime that offers humane treatment, sympathy, opportunity, choice and hope of a path into a fulfilling life in work.

If we are to present a long-term vision for health and well-being then we have to propose a revolution in our schools, creating a greatly expanded personal, social and health education programme which can effectively prevent and intervene in some of the great drivers of suffering that can set lives down dark and dangerous paths. There are a great many subjects that have broken through taboos to expose the harrowing experiences that constrain opportunity. We now live in a culture in which child abuse is being exposed, mental health and addiction experiences are being openly discussed in the media, and graphic, violent pornography is accessible to children.

Schools education has never been effective at preparing young people for the challenges that life can present. We need to equip them with the tools to identify instances of abuse, addiction and mental ill health, and the information necessary to effectively act to limit their impact. Early intervention and prevention is absolutely key to limiting the impact of traumatic experiences. Delivering the right programmes at the right time (for pupils and their families) can arrest the passage of trauma horizontally through society and vertically through generations.

There will be many more policies and programmes that could slot easily into a long-term ambition for well-being: An ambition that saves us spending money on the cleaning roles in government spending that tidy up the mess that society makes. As well as broadly asking the Scottish people what they want the Lib Dems to do for them, could we not invite academics and charities to identify the policies and programmes that will help realise this long-term well-being vision?

Politicians don't really do long-term visions any more. It's a short term game and it serves the population poorly as a result. As a left-of-centre party in a bloody crowded marketplace in Scotland, we have to rise above the short-term empty promises, and present something better that we can be proud of.





Marketing the Liberal Democrats should mean setting us free.

A couple of weeks ago Daisy Benson shared a video on twitter of a Tim Farron speech from 2010. In it he described our opposing parties as "soulless marketing operations". Five years on from then, it is clear to me that the Liberal Democrats had tried in this election to outdo the other parties with our marketing operation, and fallen spectacularly flat on our faces.

In July 2013 we had a visit in Glasgow from Ryan Coetzee, our party's director of strategy in which he unveiled the great slogan we would be marching under and parroting for the two years (TWO LONG YEARS!) to follow. Apparently the slogan "Stronger Economy, Fairer Society" had tested really well with our potential voters (or some other marketing guff-speak). "Well goody for it" I thought at the time. "But how will it make voters feel after two years of solid exposure?"

As an interesting aside, Ryan presented us with a really strong metaphor for message consistency that day based upon his son's playroom activities. Apparently his son had lots of Star Wars lego and lots of Harry Potter lego, but he had warned him against allowing any of the Harry Potter lego to contaminate the construction of his great Death Star project, because we all know a Lego Death Star just won't work if it has yellow and brown bits of Harry Potter Lego in it. Everything has to be pulling in the right direction and in just the right place if the Lego Death Star is to fulfil its destiny and carry us to glorious victory (or something). I don't know if this metaphor was trotted out at other stops on the campaign roadshow, or if somebody had pointed out to him that he was likening our consistent message to the most potent monument to pure evil in the history of cinema, or an inconsequential children's toy that would quickly be either left in a corner or dismantled to resource the creative imagination of a child. I suspect considering Ryan as Lord Business and Liberal Democrat candidates as Master Builders (bagsy Benny the 80s spaceman - replace the word "spaceship" with "drug policy campaign" and that's basically me ;) ) will make The Lego Movie even more enjoyable.

Politics isn't a good field on which to impose slogans and other marketing gimmicks. For me, every time our representatives said the SEFS words they stopped being honest, plausible representatives and turned into robots churned out by a party machine. Ryan tested one presentation of SEFS. He didn't test the extent to which people listen to what you have to say if what you have to say consistently contains the same phrase. If a friend says the same thing every time you go down the pub with them, and that thing he says is obviously advancing the interests of him and his employer, you're going to stop inviting him to the pub. I know I want my politicians to be thoughtful and interesting, and I think our target voters (if there even is such a thing) would prize independent thought, carefully thought out solutions, and (say that dirty word) a sense of humour, before a politician's ability to slavishly adhere to a party message.

Incidentally SEFS itself was fundamentally flawed. Basic inference from what it conceded led you to the statement that the Conservatives can deliver a strong economy and Labour could deliver a Fair Society. I believe neither of these statements to have been particularly demonstrated over the course of the campaign, or the behaviour of those parties in the last 18 years (since 1997).

So how should we market ourselves?

Well here's a radical thought, inspired by my studies of evolution from back in the day. We've just suffered an extinction event. Extinction events throughout the history of life have led to rapid bursts of evolution. But for evolution to have a chance of creating success it needs variety. Forget the slavish adherence to a consistent message. Let our activists talk with passion about the things that make them passionate. Help them to grow in confidence and in authority into the niches where we need them. The ideas that are unpopular will be evolutionary dead ends, but the good ideas, put forward by authoritative advocates who are passionate about those ideas, will bring back the voters, and continue to grow our membership as people realise we are a party that believes in freedom inside the party as well as for the people we seek to represent.

We have many brilliant people within this party. Our new membership will contain many more. We need to find the confidence to grant them the freedom to shine in public. Take the great ideas we have to improve people's lives, help each other figure out how best to present them, and let us talk with passion about how we want to change our society for the better.

...SPACESHIP!!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

What if someone drew a nice Mohammed?


It strikes me that there is one simple action that can challenge people to move beyond some pretty dumb standpoints that they hold. Muslims need to relax about depictions of prophets. There is no need to fly off the handle about the depiction of prophets, either laid down by scripture, or as a means of dealing happily with the modern world.
Equally there is no need to deliberately provoke the ire of Muslims by disrespecting something they hold dear. Cartoons that depict Mohammed disrespectfully are deliberate acts of divisive button-pushing and should be condemned. They also fail to challenge the root of the prohibition of depiction of the prophet in Islamic culture. If Islam prohibits "anything that could become a source of idolatry" publishing a picture of a revered prophet mid sex act with something wacky isn't going to challenge that. What muslim is going to adopt that representation as an idol? That's not satire. It's not clever. That's being a dick.
What we need in order to move forward is a positive depiction of Mohammed reacting with despair to the actions of those who have considered it acceptable to murder people in his name.
Such a depiction would challenge both those who seek to offend in the name of free speech, and those who insist that any depiction of their prophet is offensive.
If you're going to deliberately offend people, at least focus your offence on those who would benefit from their views being challenged. And do it in such a way that more moderate members of their community have an opportunity to point at your work and say "They do have a point you know." Instead choosing to produce work that would likely offend all followers of a religious faith and a considerable number of people with other faiths or none... is just incredibly dumb.
On the other hand vigorously prohibiting depictions of prophets just creates a perception of Islam as a prickly, sensitive religion worshipping a god that can't overcome the competition of a few idols. If Islam and the western world are to more peacefully co-exist, this is a cultural norm Islam could well benefit from letting slide.
I'm really disappointed that no one has created such a positive depiction of a despairing Mohammed. I'd do it myself, but I can't draw... and I'm a wuss.

I wrote this blog after reading this article:
The too long; didn't read excerpt of the above article is below:
"According to Aslan, the Koran does not explicitly prohibit depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and there have been images of Mohammed, his family, and other prophets throughout history. "The history of Islam teems with images of the Prophet Mohammed. You see this in the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries."
Still, the idea that depictions of Mohammed are disallowed didn't come out of nowhere. Islam, Aslan explained, like Judaism, is an iconoclastic religion that does not permit God to be anthropomorphized — that is, portrayed as a human being — and prizes textual scripture instead.
Over time, Islamic scholars extended that tradition to cover Mohammed and the other major prophets as well, and discouraged artists from depicting them in images. That has created a strong cultural norm against images of Mohammed, even in the absence of a religious law against them.
According to Mogahed, there is now a "commonly understood" rule against depicting the prophet, which is seen as part of Islam's prohibition of anything that could become a source of idolatry. The worry, she explained, was that statues or images of the prophet could be used as idols — that people might call upon them to intercede with god, which would be against religious law."

Friday, 16 May 2014

On achieving decriminalisation of sex work: Framing the debate.

I'm not an expert on sex work. Nor am I an experienced campaigner for reform of the laws regarding sex work. I have however considered at great length the political presentation of arguments for drug policy reform (with a decent record of success) and I've found myself recently turning my attention to the political situation in the UK regarding sex work.

While the drug policy debate seems to be heading irreversibly towards decriminalisation and regulation, the sex work debate is a car crash in comparison. The notion that criminalising sex work clients will make everything all better is spreading like wildfire across Europe, with rational politicians and academics struggling to resist the impassioned fervour of women claiming that criminalising clients will end demand and somehow stop sex trafficking.

The situation for sex workers in Sweden and Norway instead appears to be relatively bleak, with the superficially attractive arguments for the criminalisation of clients unfortunately leading to what appear to be largely negative outcomes for sex workers and their clients.

Once upon a time I too found the Demand Change arguments attractive. Like all normal human beings I found the notion of sex trafficking as presented in factual and fictional media to be viscerally repugnant, and Demand Change are able to exploit that revulsion in order to win support for their political aims.

There was something that troubled me though. How could reducing demand for a service be of benefit to the willing providers of that service? It didn't make sense, so I tried talking to Demand Change about reducing the 'supply' of sex workers by addressing the drug addiction that motivates those 'survival sex workers' engaged in the most marginal aspects of the industry. They weren't interested. I then started investigating whether 'changing demand' had been in any way successful, and found that it hadn't.

In investigating the alternative decriminalisation of sex work I found it to be supported by both evidence and logic. If you allow sex workers to work together and organise themselves in the way they see fit, then they can protect their safety so much better. If the worker and client are committing no crime, the relationship they have with the police is going to be so much more conducive to detecting and punishing abuses (including trafficking).

So why if decriminalisation is such a superior model, is it not this model which is spreading across the European continent?

I have my suspicions that it is the emotional argument that is being lost. While the advocates of the criminalisation of clients have tapped into people's visceral reaction to sex trafficking, decriminalisation advocates seem reluctant to conflate the majority of sex work with rare instances of trafficking or coercion or 'survival sex work' motivated by addiction.

If the more likely policy solution to sex trafficking (and coercion in sex work in general) is to be found in decriminalisation then surely decriminalisation advocates should be able to take the opposition on on their own turf and win the argument. Transparency and co-operation are the enemies of secret exploitation and both can be better achieved through decriminalisation.

My recent imperfect attempts at amending Scottish Liberal Democrat policy were not embraced by charities representing sex workers because they were unhappy at the conflation of sex work with violence against women, trafficking and drug abuse. I am happy to accept that trafficking, coercion and survival sex work motivated by drug addiction are relatively rare in the broad range of sex worker experiences, but I'd hope that sex worker representatives could recognise the potential in them taking a firm, determined stance to eradicate these aspects of sex work. Taking such a stance while promoting decriminalisation as a means to improve conditions for all sex workers, might rather serve to highlight to the public that there is a very important distinction to be made between sex work conditions that should be either acceptable or unacceptable to society.

I fear that decriminalisation advocates will not get very far if they choose to shy away from discussion of trafficking, coercion and survival sex work. They will get a far more positive reaction from the public and politicians if they address the issue saying "these aspects of sex work are intolerable and we want to work with you to eradicate them". I think that only with that firm foundation of solidarity, will calls for decriminalisation be seriously entertained. One of the greatest strengths of the decriminalisation arguments is the likelihood of police, clients and workers working together to identify and combat instances of trafficking and abuse. Sympathy for the non-coerced sex worker majority is not a rich seam in society ready to be mined. If change is to come, decriminalisation advocates have to share and utilise the abundant sympathy for trafficked and coerced women. Calls for decriminalisation in order to benefit this minority will also bring enormous benefits to the majority, and focusing on the suffering of this minority and survival sex workers would hopefully reduce their incidence. As they become less of a pressing issue, the sex worker majority will benefit from a transformation in the way the public sees sex work, and the public will likely be grateful to decriminalisation advocates for their role in reducing the suffering of the minority.

It appears from where I stand that both sides are guilty of conflation. Advocates of the Nordic model see all sex work as violence against women. Decriminalisation advocates, by asking mention of trafficking and drug abuse to be excluded from the debate, risk people thinking they think that all sex work is just fine.

Decriminalisation advocates can win if they turn up to play on the same pitch as the Nordic advocates, laying out a clear distinction between tolerable and intolerable sex work conditions, and working with public opinion in order to improve policy for the benefit of all sex workers. Change is more likely to be achieved if we first address the needs of those enduring the greatest suffering.

I share these thoughts in a genuine attempt to be helpful, in specific reference to Scottish Lib Dem policy development, and without a full knowledge of how decriminalisation advocates have been operating up until now in different contexts.





Thursday, 1 August 2013

How can government fight everyday sexism?

Thanks to the work of some admirable women, many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which women are harassed, groped, and intimidated in their everyday lives. Social networks and blogs are becoming spaces where people can share disturbing experiences, find solidarity, and open the eyes of men to just how odious other men can be.

My eyes have been opened, and having been disgusted by what I've been seeing, I did what I do these days when I find an aspect of our culture or society that needs changing. I reached for my laptop to start writing a policy motion*, trying to think of the things that government could do to spare people harassment and trauma.

I included three things I thought government could do to change our culture:
1) Improve relationship and sex education.
2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

1) Improve relationship and sex education

When David Cameron delivered his speech on internet pornography last month he described many ways that children could theoretically be prevented from accessing pornography, but completely ignored the thrust of the major report "Basically... porn is everywhere." produced in May of this year. In the accompanying press release Dr Miranda Horvath, Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University said:

"It is clear that children and young people want and need safe spaces in which they can ask questions about, and discuss their experiences with pornography. The onus must be on adults to provide them with evidence based education and support and help them to develop healthy, not harmful relationships with one another."


I'm not surprised our Conservative Prime Minister has baulked at the idea of adults talking to children about pornography, but I am disappointed. It seems likely that preparing children for what they might encounter in pornography and helping them develop healthy attitudes towards relationships, sex, and gender roles through education is going to be far more effective in changing our culture than placing all the internet porn in a cookie jar and putting it on a high shelf.

2) Develop rape prevention classes and advertising campaigns.
This part of the proposal doesn't need much explanation beyond a recommendation that you read this excellent blog post by Christin Bowman. On the issue of advertising, Police Scotland already have a campaign "We can stop it", though to me it stops well short of communicating the same level of derision and stigma as the Canadian "Don't be that guy" campaign. On rape prevention classes, if they work - and they certainly appear to - then we should use them. We need to ask ourselves when we should use them though. Do we deploy them in the later school years, in colleges and universities, or even in work places with high numbers of young people? Could we even develop targeted delivery for those identified expressing sexist attitudes or harassment. If we could identify transgressors who stop short of a criminal offence, could we perhaps compel them to attend a Commission for the Dissuasion of Everyday Sexism (with an acronym that could be pronounced as the suitably stigmatising "seedies")? 
3) Develop public information campaigns to promote appropriate responses to sexual assault or harassment in victims and witnesses.

And so to the final proposal, and I think the one that - if it works - has the greatest potential to transform our culture and people's safety from assault in public places. This idea stemmed from something that I was picking up from many of the blogs and articles that I was reading on the subject. It makes me very uncomfortable to know that a very common response to being harassed or assaulted in a public place is to freeze, to try to ignore the assault and to hope it stops. It's quite sickening to think that I might have been in the presence of a sexual assault and not have known, that I could have prevented distress and trauma if I had been more aware or had heard or seen a sign. The freezing response might be due to a reluctance to make a fuss, or a lack of confidence in society to come to their aid. Regardless of the reason we have to consider how we might change attitudes and behaviours in both victims and bystanders so that we can create a genuinely hostile environment for the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
I think a public information campaign could be developed, like this one in which Vinnie Jones intervenes to save a life. But for this campaign you'd have clear instructions on what to do in case of assault or harassment for the victim, the witnesses, and the perpetrator.
For the victim, there might be key words or gestures that could be used to indicate that they were uncomfortable to witnesses. Words for quieter public places, and gestures for noisy environments like pubs or clubs, or whichever is easiest at the time. Perhaps a clear warning could be issued before deploying these words or gestures when the victim is unsure of whether to escalate.
Witnesses, on hearing or seeing these words or gestures, should feel obliged to intervene, firstly with an audible or physical gesture warning, then perhaps by deploying technology to make a record of the perpetrator's identity and behaviour (over 50% of adults have smartphones now), before passing them to the police. And by witnesses, I mean all witnesses should engage in this behaviour if they can. If witnesses have been exposed to the public information campaign their perception of their behaviour would hopefully convert from having to be brave/stupid to intervene, to having to be cowardly or to neglect their duty to not intervene.
Perpetrators will be given the simple message that they can walk away at any point and any delay in walking away, any attempt to return to that behaviour or follow their victim, or any violence against the victim or witnesses will rapidly escalate the actions that might be taken against them.
I'm not pretending that this is the answer. I'm sure there will be many ethical, psychological and practical questions to consider concerning this approach, but I think we have got to a point where people are more aware something needs to be done to help people enjoy themselves without fear of assault, and the technology appears to be ready to support such an environment.
The ubiquity of smartphones provides society with a potentially excellent tool in the fight against sexual harassment and criminality generally. We can't be far off having the necessary technology to be able to beam live feeds and geographical locations from smart-phones into police control rooms.
The greater question perhaps is whether society is ready to step up. Are we ready to be inspired into rescuing our fellow citizens from distressing experiences? Or are we cowards who would resent feeling obliged to interfere with a lecherous asshole's enjoyment of his evening?


I'm hopeful for the former.

*The motion I describe was submitted to Scottish Liberal Democrat conference as part of a larger motion that also covered reform of laws regarding sex work and sex workers. It was not selected for debate, but I intend to separate the motion in two motions and resubmit them in the future. 

I'd welcome any comments on these measures in order to guide what eventually makes it into the motion for next time.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

When prohibitionists lie, we have to call bullshit

My latest letter to The Herald, this time taking a former chief constable over my knee:

I'd like to praise The Herald for shedding further light on the deadly effects of fake ecstasy pills (headline of 13th July 2013), but I'd also like to raise concerns about some of the counter arguments to the 'regulation of a legal market' proposals I outlined in my letter of July 8th, both in Christopher Gilfedder's letter of July 10th, and in Dr Ian Oliver's appearance on BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme on July 11th
Both offenders peddle the ridiculous notion that the illegal drug industry would in some way be successful in fighting back against a legal, regulated market. They forget that the risk premium on drug supply is absolutely enormous, escalating exponentially the cost of drugs as they progress from grower or manufacturer, through distributors and local gangsters to the drug user. Without that risk premium, the government-regulated market could sell cannabis or MDMA at similar prices to herbs or aspirin if they wished to. Instead the government would tax the products, filling as much of the gap between the small manufacturing costs and current illegal market prices as they thought suitable. They would have to pile on an awful lot of tax to cause customers to disregard the guarantees of quality, dose predictability, personal safety and ethical considerations and give their money to criminals.
That tax would be wisely invested in the education and treatment services that would help both prevent and treat the problematic drug use that blights Scotland more than any other western European nation.
To see what such policies can bring about we need look no further than Portugal. Though they have not legalised and regulated the drug market, decriminalisation has allowed them to divert resources from policing to health and education interventions. Rather than the massive increases in drug use and significant increases in drug deaths that Ian Oliver asserts, the latest statistics indicate that past month use of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin in Portugal have at least halved between 2001 - when their reforms were introduced - and 2012. (I can send the full document to you or recommend you speak to Alex Stevens of the Uni of Kent to verify this). Portugal's Special Registry of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine estimate that there were 19 drug-related death cases in 2011. In 2008 that estimated number was 94. There were 584 drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2011 for a population half the size of Portugal's. From where I'm sitting it looks like we have a lot of catching up to do, and it greatly saddens me that a former chief constable would commit heinous crimes against statistics in an attempt to hinder that progress.