Thursday, 29 October 2009

Belittling the link between cannabis and schizophrenia should come second to ensuring education at point of sale.

I was disappointed to read the following in Mark Easton's blog today, especially having witnessed at first hand what schizophrenia can do to a family.

"Professor Nutt accepts there is a link between cannabis and mental ill-health. He cites research suggesting that "smokers of cannabis are about 2.6 times more likely to have a psychotic-like experience than non-smokers".
But he points out that "you are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you smoke tobacco than if you don't." In other words, he says, "(T)here is a relatively small risk for smoking cannabis and psychotic illness compared with quite a substantial risk for smoking tobacco and lung cancer". "

Given that risk of schizophrenia for a sibling of a schizophrenic is around 10%, I would have been very grateful for the information that joining my friends in smoking cannabis as a teenager might have increased my risk of psychosis to around 1 in 4. Very grateful indeed. Schizophrenia isn't comparable with lung cancer. Lung cancer generally affects people in old age (though of course you can get it younger if you smoke), schizophrenia generally strikes in your late teens or your early twenties and is very capable of radically altering your personality to one that your friends and family find bewildering and frightening. It can lead to a lifetime of exclusion, torn between the drugs that numb your emotions and the exciting delusions that keep your mind busy, but that can severely impair your social functioning.

I wrote the above earlier, and now that I've just finished watching question time, I'm dismayed by the pride in stupidity that Jacqui Smith, the tory, the Plaid guy and John Sergeant displayed. If cannabis is so very dangerous then you need to educate people about the dangers and be in a position to help them if they get into trouble. Making it more illegal doesn't have any effect on levels of use and will only make them less likely to seek help if they get into difficulty. What is perhaps more important, is that their friends, who are probably in the best position to guage their changes in personality, are going to be less likely to seek help on their behalf if they witness problems emerging. The best way to keep our young people safe is to ensure that education on risks is provided every time a purchase is made (as is the case currently with tobacco, a more addictive drug, so presumably a less effective deterrent than would be the case with cannabis. The cannabis education should be more extensive than "You'll Go Mad" on the side of the packet though). The pharmacist, the doctor, the police and the family need to be seen as friends and allies in this, not the enemy to be avoided and deceived.

I have seen what happens when schizophrenia is not caught early, and I would not wish it on my worst enemy, not even Jacqui Smith. The enemy in all this is ignorance, and the best way to combat it is to seize the market from organised crime, and ensure the strictly regulated trade in cannabis has education at point of sale at its core.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

My maiden speech to conference... that I didn't end up making

I had submitted this for the Highland Liberal Democrat News (or whatever it's called), but it's twice as long as it should be so I'll have to do some editing. You lucky bloggers get to read the full 700-odd words.

My conference experience can be rather neatly summated by relating to you my maiden conference speech that I sadly didn't get to deliver in response to the motion “A Fresh Start for Britain: Choosing a Different, Better Future.”

Good morning conference. In 1997, when Labour were elected, I was skipping joyfully down the streeet arm in arm with friends in the early hours of the morning. I was 17 years old, jubilant, and full of hope. You can probably tell by my standing on this stage (This never happened -ed) that I have since found that hope to have been misplaced and have found the need to find a new home for my hopes for social justice, my commitment to compassionate, evidence-based policy, and my rejection of knee-jerk populism.
I joined the Liberal Democrats about 18 months ago for something to do. I suffer from chronic fatigue and was spending my days playing monotonous computer games and watching DVDs. The Inverness Thursday club envelope stuffing and blue envelope writing sessions quickly became a highlight of my week, but they weren't exactly forums of cutting edge political debate. So earlier this year I sent letters to my local MP, Danny Alexander on the subject of drug policy and electoral reform, and while Danny didn't agree with all I wrote, he welcomed my thought-provoking contribution and encouraged me to attend conference. There are no words for the gratitude I feel towards Danny for doing this. This policy motion neatly summarises everything I have loved about my experience this week. Everyone I have talked to has been highly intelligent and open to any ideas that can improve the lives of British citizens. This party is a party committed to rational policy making, not cynical populism, and this policy motion reflects this.
I'd now like to address the massive number of young people watching this on BBC Parliament (3 can be a massive number if you project it onto the side of a building... pause for laughter... (carry on regardless -ed) ) What are you doing joining radical charities and going on marches when you could be joining a political party and changing politics from the inside (I have plans to submit a motion on drug policy and prostitution for spring conference and given this party's commitment to rational, evidence based policy I hope it will be accepted). If you are thinking of taking your passion for politics to either of the other parties, well anyone describing the Tories or Labour as progressive has lost the plot...

And that's where my “speech” fades out, hastily scrawled in my stewards chair when I should have been listening intently to the motion on rail franchises. At conference I contributed to a policy consultation on mental health, drugs policy and electoral reform. I made my feelings known to an electoral reform rally on the urgent support I feel there should be for the Alternative Vote. I sneaked into various events I shouldn't have been at and saw Nick Clegg speak very well four times to various audiences. I hatched a plan with a prostitution advocacy charity to help women off the street and out of brothels. And I addressed a packed fringe event on drug policy reform and gained a near unanimous mandate to produce a motion for Spring conference advocating bringing all aspects of the drugs trade under strict regulatory control. There is one thing about the experience that I do regret though, and that's shouting “I'm voting Tory!” at Nick Clegg after he made a bad joke at glee club. Nobody laughed at his joke or mine. That would have been the fifth time I'd heard him speak well, but sadly he's no comedian.

If you're wondering about my health, it appears the latest herbal remedy is working well, or maybe I just needed my body to start feeling proud of what my brain was doing with its days again. Whatever the reason, it appears my chronic fatigue is on the back foot and I now find myself eyeing up an application pack for becoming a PPC for the coming election. I hope you'll understand now why I seized the opportunity to write this piece. Attending conference might have radically changed my life.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

You cannot change demand for prostitution without first tackling supply

Below is an edited e-mail I have just sent to someone organising the Demand Change campaign: Their calls to criminalise paying for sex, while well-intentioned, would make life more dangerous for many prostitutes. Only by tackling supply of prostitutes by strictly regulating legal supply of heroin and cocaine - and removing the need to prostitute to fund a drug habit - can we produce an environment in which the most horrific instances of sexual exploitation can be effectively tackled.

"Having read further on the issue of prostitution, I also have to say that I cannot support the Demand Change position any longer. Reducing demand without reducing supply has apparently led in Sweden to prostitutes accepting customers they previously would not, lowering prices and generally feeling more at risk. Although I respect greatly the work of Eaves and have been defending you vigorously on the online Lib Dem Voice forum, I cannot support a blanket ban on paying for sex.

I have however settled upon a compromise solution that I hope you will consider. I believe it might be more effective than clause 13 in tackling trafficking and pimping, and it also might be acceptable to those few prostitutes who make considerable money from prostitution and assert they have a right to sell sex.

The starting point of the plan would be to bring about a strictly regulated legal drugs market that would alleviate the need to find considerable amounts of money for drugs that motivates the vast majority of street prostitution. There would also be a considerable reduction in acquisitive crime that would in turn free up many thousands of police for other priorities. I feel strongly that one of these should be a concerted effort to raid and close brothels, providing support to those women and girls who are freed and making Britain a very unwelcoming destination for sex traffickers. This effort could be supported by a toughening of clause 13 to make it illegal for anyone to pay for sexual services in a brothel.

I would hope this plan would reduce the number of street prostitutes, so allowing any remaining to be more careful when accepting clients and to charge higher prices. I suspect though, that many established red-light districts would simply collapse if the number of prostitutes went below a certain level.

I also hope it would be effective in tackling brothel-keepers and pimps whose activites are currently illegal but bizzarrely appear to be being tolerated by the authorities. While street prostitution is dangerous, the worst-case brothel is the site at which the most horrific abuse is being perpetrated and I hope you would agree it should be the focus of our attentions.

This all leaves the problem of where the demand goes for sexual services and whether lone working prostitutes can keep safe. To improve the safety of independent prostitutes I believe the law should specifically allow two women to work from the same premises, ideally with extensive support from social and emergency services. Keeping the number to two I believe should minimise the opportunity for control to be exerted and should allow for clear distinction between a working partnership and a brothel in the eyes of the law.

I hope you'll understand that I deeply respect the work that Eaves does, and that this proposal is a genuine attempt to come up with a plan that will maximise the safety of prostitutes who want to work, while doing all we can to save others from suffering further horrific abuse.

Thanks and best wishes,

Ewan Hoyle.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Practicing running rings around Melanie Phillips' drugs arguments

As I gear up to bring the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform website online, I thought I'd practice ripping apart the arguments for retaining prohibition. Here's one from Melanie Phillips:

The pimp state
Daily Mail, 18 December 2006
"The idea that legalising drugs would get rid of crime is simply risible. Legal drugs would always be undercut — both by lower prices and higher strengths — by a black market. The only way to eradicate such an illegal trade would be to supply unlimited quantities of all drugs totally free of charge."

If this paragraph contains Melanie's argument for prohibition then I do believe we've won. All the commonly abused but illegal drugs except cannabis would I presume be manufactured pharmaceutically were they to be legal and regulated. They would therefore be required to be without contaminants and essentially be as pure as is possible. I would be very impressed if the illegal market could produce product stronger than pure so as to draw customers away from the state. I can envisage a few desperate street pushers trying to market "110% heroin", but I doubt they would last very long.

In the case of cannabis, I would hope that pharmacies would stock a range of strengths and active ingredient ratios to suit every taste. While some customers might enjoy the lucky dip aspect of their dealer telling them "this is the good shit right here", I feel most would find their favourite legal strain and stick to it for the most part, maybe changing up for special occasions.

On the price point Melanie makes, we have to examine what motivates the drug dealer. Melanie may think they are hell bent on destroying the British way of life through any means, but the reality is that they are motivated by profit. The state on the other hand is free to set prices at whatever level they see fit. They need not necessarily profit, although it would be a lot easier to do so without the risk premium that is integral to the illegal trade. They could appoint an independent body to monitor levels of use and the level of illicit trade and to set prices designed to restrict growth of both of these factors.

I'll admit eradicating illegal trade completely might be tricky, but there aren't many people pushing alcohol on the streets of our cities, perhaps because people can be fairly sure off-licence bought booze is only going to contain the poison they enjoy and isn't going to be fortified with meths and other nastiness.

Tomorrow I plan to critique a conservative home submission by a barrister, former chief of staff to David Cameron and "World Universities Debating Champion". He'll be well used to putting together persuasive arguments that are wrong then.