Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Can we not have a student premium to go with the pupil one?

I'm happy to hear that the threshold for repayment will be rising annually rather than every 5 years. But the other announcement that the government will be paying the first year's fees for every student that received free school meals and that universities will pay for the third has left me rather befuddled. This measure might encourage the school leaver's attendance at university but it will only benefit their situation several years after they leave university if they are working in a well-paid job. This is a benefit tht will essentially be paid to a relatively affluent individual who 10-20 years ago used to be poor as they cease repayment earlier than they would have without the support. It is purely cosmetic and accepting of the ignorance that people have of the repayment plan.

What is worse, the requirement of the university to pay for the 3rd year discourages that university from taking on more disadvantaged students than is absolutely necessary to satisfy government's opaque requirements. Why would they want to take on poor people if they bring in less money? This will put an absolute limit to social mobility rather than encourage it.

The proportion of disadvantaged students going to the most selective universities remains poor (Chapter 2) and government plans are unlikely to significantly address this. One thing they could do is to impose an access levy so that the most selective universities get to keep more of the fee that they charge over £6000 as the average grant received by students at the university increases. Take in more disadvantaged students and you will receive more money. It's a student premium! Much better than the anti-student premium the government is proposing. Students will want to go to universities that keep as much of their fee for teaching as possible, so the economic pressures to admit an increasing number of disadvantaged students will be magnified. And from this research from the Sutton Trust it seems clear that that could be a good thing for the quality of the student intake as well

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Dear Lib Dem backbenchers, Tell the truth on fees before anyone else gets hurt.

I'm furious.

I'm furious for a variety of reasons relating to the higher education funding debate, but not Millbank-trashing furious. No, if I was to mask up and stick a railing through a window, it'd be the NUS who should be pulling down the shutters (I would never take direct action. I'm just trying to attract attention to the seriousness of this situation).

I'm furious because the backbenchers of my party aren't courageous enough to tell the truth to the public.

I'm furious because various student groups who are receiving generous funding to support themselves through university are telling future applicants they won't be able to attend when government proposals should IMPROVE fair access.

And I'm furious because the Scottish government is clinging on to a funding policy which is pinning both Scottish universities and students in disgraceful poverty.

I was going to call this blog post "Failing to see the wood for the fees". Deferred fees are not the determinant of whether young people can support themselves through university. Maintenance funding determines whether students can feed and house themselves through their studies and maintenance funding will RISE following the implementation of government proposals. MORE students from poorer backgrounds will be able to attend higher education if they aren't in ****ing prison after the latest riot.

The fury really started for me when I read that Lib Dems were lobbying Vince Cable to cap the fees at lower than £7000 because when you examine the implications of this you have universities struggling to fund courses and widen access on a lower income than they have at present and for whose benefit? The lowest earning graduates wouldn't be saved any money. The middle half would save a little. The highest earners would save a whole lot more*. When the **** did the Lib Dem back bench become the parliamentary defenders of the marginal financial interests of the wealthiest and most fortunate in society?

Higher deferred fees should only deter those who would not receive net benefit from a university education. Those who aren't academically inclined should look elsewhere. Those who are bright, motivated, highly skilled or entrepreneurial might be able to earn more and be happy without having to struggle through 3 years of academia that doesn't really motivate them. Student groups should be demanding the high quality careers advice that maximises this "good" deterrence and stop driving the "bad" deterrence that comes with poverty and a misunderstanding of the type of debt or costs that studying will bring.

If you really want to fight for the right of the disadvantaged to a top quality education, fight for an access levy so that only those institutions with at least average access to the disadvantaged can keep 100% of their £9000 fee.

But the one thing that made me spitting-mad, grind-your-teeth-while-reading, livid was when I started comparing the maintenance funding available to English and Scottish students and drew up this table: (also contains evidence to back up * above) So, in the land of free ****ing tuition, we see fit to let some students try to live on nearly £3000 less than their English counterparts while our universities go to the wall. It's no wonder the disadvantaged kids in Scotland are the least likely to go to university of all the regions of the UK Mr Salmond. Mr Russell. You can stick your empty-gesture free tuition up your respective voluminous backsides. I want a quality education for this nation's youth, and I want them to be able to enjoy it without rushing from lectures into a part-time job that they can't support themselves without.

Children. Students. Open your eyes. Aaron Porter doesn't have your interests at heart. Don't buy the lies about your ability to go to uni if your family is poor. Like some on the Lib Dem back benches he took a stance a while back and he's too much of a coward to tell you that stance is no longer correct. Please tell him (in as splenetic terminology as your youth allows) to call off this farce before anyone else gets hurt.

I never thought I'd engage in a near-socialist rant in favour of higher tuition fees and in defence of a Tory minister. But the government is proposing a fairer and better means of funding higher education in this country. Could we please start trying to properly get this message across?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Drugs Harms in the UK: some observations

As Mark Easton reports in his blog this morning,
The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs has today released an analysis of the relative harms of the drugs that are routinely used in the UK today. The analysis has yielded a quite different result to a previous harm assessment that Nutt and colleagues carried out in the fact that alcohol has come out as a clear "winner" in terms of harm done to others and overall harm, with heroin and crack coming in second and third and the rest trailing some distance behind.

The analysis has been made very accessible and informative through the graphical representation of the different components of the final harm score (available on MArk Easton's blog), thus allowing enthusiasts to pick apart where these harms come from and hypothecate how the graphic might be different were drug policies to change.

I am rather disappointed that medically supervised diamorphine (pharmaceutical heroin) consumption has not been included in the analysis, but we can certainly identify major contributors to heroin's harm score which would be substantially reduced by consumption of a pharmaceutical product in a medically supervised environment. Indeed the three major contributors to heroin harm: drug-specific and drug-related mortality and crime would all be substantially reduced, and the only indicators that I suspect would not be reduced are dependence and drug-specific impairment of mental functioning.

The take-home message we should be going away with from this study is that

A: The misuse of drugs act categorisation of drugs is an absolute joke.
and B: A great many of the harms considered by this study are created or exacerbated by prohibition.

With home office and justice spending being slashed, it's about time we thought about doing things differently.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

How crap is the Browne review?

After a fairly exasperated G(lasgow)U(ni)LD meeting last night I thought I'd get stuck in to the Guardian's two-page spread on the Browne review so that I might better judge whether we're right to be furious. I'm probably not going to read the review itself as I have better things to be getting on with, but there are a few things that jump out at me from the article that I'd like to share. Firstly, the IFS analysis: "lower-earning graduates would pay less and higher-earning graduates would pay more" Surely this is a good thing? Raising the threshhold at which repayments start seems to me to be a progressive step that we should welcome and the 9% rate over £21000 certainly seems a fair and effective option for repaying a debt. It is never good for huge debts to be hanging over graduates, but they're not going to send the bailiffs round and your credit rating won't be affected. Just as household debts are not like the budget deficit, student debts will not be like a massive credit card bill. The differences between these proposals and a graduate tax are actually fairly slight.

The major problem that Browne presents is the notion that the elitism of the top universities would be extended. The suggestion that some of the fees charged above £6000 are recouped by the government seems to be a wasted opportunity. Could we not take half of the portion of each fee over £6000 and put it into a bursary fund lowering the fee to £6000 for every third entrant? If you want to charge higher fees, you have to take in a large proportion of students from low income households (how that is defined can be a matter of debate). The best universities need to be accessible to all. Browne might not achieve this. My proposal might help.

Of course this debt burden on students is only coming about due to the teaching grant reducing from £3.5Bn to £0.7Bn. Maybe they're just softening us up with politically unpalatable cut options before they go "OK, OK, we'll put a penny or two on income tax. Just don't riot!"

One thing I do know is that an acceptance of Browne would put Scottish higher education in a quite horrible position. I presume the grant to Scotland would reduce further as a result of this step and the Scottish government will need to act fast to keep standards from plummeting and respected universities facing genuine peril. There are tough decisions ahead, and with an election coming up you can be fairly sure they won't be made for a while.

All-in-all, it's a tough sell for Vince, but with a few tweaks here and there he might just achieve it. Would I rather the general population paid for universities out of taxation? Yes. Do I think these proposals will put a generation off university education? No I really don't. And if we got our act together and campaigned to build upon some of the progressive aspects of these reforms, then we might even see greater equality of access arising out of these changes rather than less. Students, please choose your battles wisely.

Friday, 1 October 2010

It's Time We Talked About Drug Policy (My speech)

This is the speech I delivered on Sunday 19th September 2010 to the fringe event "It's Time We Talked About Drug Policy" kindly funded by Transform and Release. I thought it went pretty well. My dig at Melanie Phillips got a laugh again, so I suspect that will become an annual feature. Unless of course she comes to her senses on the issue of drugs policy. Stranger things have happened? I have also submitted the speech I delivered in the conference hall the following morning for consideration for Lib Dem Voice, so hopefully that'll be up in the next few days.

I am now going to describe what I believe to be a joined-up, responsible drug policy that should be effective at protecting vulnerable young people, reducing crime and regenerating struggling communities. It is also a policy that should be very appealing to the people of Britain, our coalition partners and indeed the parties of opposition.

I hope it is also a policy the UK can take the lead with and that the rest of the world will follow.

The first step we have to take is to reject our wishy-washy, soft-on-drugs cannabis policy which tolerates use, social supply and personal cultivation and calls for legalisation only when the UN allows. We don't use it in campaigns anyway, so we might as well just bin it. It is the soft underbelly that prevents us from starting any serious conversations on the issue.

I put it to you that we should replace this policy with a tough-on-drugs commitment to the strict government control and regulation of a legal cannabis market.

Forget about cannabis cafes, drug tourism, suburban greenhouses devoted to the horticultural hobbies of ageing hippies, and circles of teenagers passing around spliffs in the park.

We need instead to be highlighting the potential of strict government control and regulation to restrict the ability of cannabis to inflict harm, especially on children.

Scientific research points to cannabis use increasing risk of schizophrenia and for this risk being greater the earlier use starts in childhood. The economics of prohibition have also pushed the cannabis market towards the most potent skunk strains, elevating still further the risks to the mental health of young users.

At present we don't have the resources of frankly the necessary political support to take the steps necessary to restrict children's access to cannabis using the standard criminal justice and education tools.

Legalising cannabis sale to adults instead means we can greatly reduce the numbers of potential dealers who might try to sell to children. Such a step should also make it easier to stigmatise and apprehend those illegal dealers who remain.

There is still thought to be risk in the consumption of cannabis for those over 18, and so we should aim to provide detailed education on potential social, economic and health implications of use with special focus on how to recognise early warning signs of psychosis before anyone uses for the first time. A licensing scheme for use of the drug might be the best way to ensure delivery of this education, with licenses only available to those who have gone through an education process. Such a requirement firmly establishes this as a policy focused on attempting to protect our citizens from harm.

Wanting to allow your citizens to get high is not good grounds on which to challenge UN conventions.

Stating firmly that the UN conventions severely restrict our ability to protect the health of our citizens I would argue is a very strong starting point in diplomatic negotiations. Negotiations that could hopefully end in states following our experiment with interest rather than queueing up to condemn us.

There may be many of you sitting there thinking “This is never going to happen. We avoid talking about drugs for a reason. All the polls say it's suicide.” Well you're wrong. I'm happy to say with confidence that this policy will go down very well with the British people. The poll that LDDPR commissioned in July found 70% of participants favoured some sort of legal regulation. The poll described 3 regulatory scenarios: Light regulation, strict government control and regulation and prohibition. The groups that found strict control and regulation most tolerable were Daily Mail and Express readers and 36-55 year old females. Total support from Daily Mail and Express readers for some level of legal regulation was 66%, for Conservative voters it was 67%. Maybe we've got the Daily Mail readers all wrong. Maybe they read Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens, chuckle to themselves, shake their heads and think “Wow, they're totally crazy” just like we do.

The 36-55 year-old female group, likely to contain the most mothers of teenage children, and therefore the people you would think would be most worried about cannabis use, appear to be the group most supportive of the strict government control and regulation of cannabis. It's quite probable these women want to know that their children are safe from the harms of cannabis, and it is quite clear to them that prohibition is failing to provide that protection.

Proposing the strict control and regulation of cannabis is an action we can take with confidence and pride. It is specifically designed to reduce harms, it is projected to be very popular with the electorate, and, whether through taxes, or through the profits of state-run companies, it can raise considerable funds for other projects.

Such a policy should raise hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of pounds in government income. We could spend that money on reducing the deficit, on protecting services, or we could divert as much of that money as is necessary in order to make our drug treatment services the best in the world.

We have hundreds of thousands of problem drug users in this country and nearly a million unemployed young people. If we get drug policy wrong at this time there is a very real possibility that more and more young unemployed people will join the ranks of problem drug users. We need to find a drug strategy that blocks that path, while also diverting existing drug users back into productive roles in society.

The kind of policies the coalition government are apparently discussing fill me with great concern. Policies like time-limited methadone and withdrawal of benefits from addicts who refuse treatment are the kinds of policies that are likely to make our heroin problem worse not better. They are likely to increase demand for street heroin and increase the amount of crime addicts are compelled to commit to fund their drug habit.

Methadone maintenance treatment is undoubtedly effective at reducing harm to patients, their families, and the communities they live in, but there is now an undeniable body of evidence showing that heroin maintenance is far more effective at retaining individuals in treatment, reducing their use of street drugs and reducing the crime they commit to pay for them.

Lord McNally, our own Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Justice has recently cited cost-effectiveness as a reason why diamorphine maintenance isn't being pursued. The truth is that if the Home Office allowed maintenance treatment clinics to buy tubs of diamorphine powder then the average cost of the diamorphine for a year's treatment would be between 500 and 2000 pounds. This is tiny relative to the £11000 the average problem user spends on street heroin each year and the average £50-60,000 calculated cost to society they represent. At £6.80 per gramme, diamorphine could be made available at less than one fifth of the cost of an equivalent dose of methadone.

If the government removed barriers to the affordable supply of diamorphine then all the UK's dependent heroin users could potentially benefit, and we could make an effort to attract as many problem drug users as possible into top quality treatment services. We cannot afford to leave people parked on methadone. We have to be able to give people the best chance of recovery by finding a treatment regime that works for them, that identifies their problems and seeks to address them.

I believe that treatment services should embrace two very important principles. The first of these is early intervention. We are passionately committed to early intervention in medicine and in social work as a means of limiting harm. I believe we should have the same passion for attracting heroin users into treatment before they prostitute themselves or start habitually committing acquisitive crimes. Their chances of leading a happy, productive life are vastly increased, and the negative impacts of their criminal behaviour upon society can be prevented if we intervene early.

The second principle is prevention. The more heroin addicts are attracted into treatment, the fewer are the points of entry into the lifestyle for vulnerable young people.
The vast majority of local dealers also use the drug. Commonly termed “user-dealers” they are the footsoldiers of the illegal market. Attract them into treatment and they no longer need to deal to raise money, and should stop marketing heroin to others.
A heroin addict's access to heroin is more secure if they are surrounded by friends who are also seeking the drug, and so it makes sense to introduce others to the experience. With genuinely effective and attractive drug treatment services, these circles of friends might instead work together to help each other into treatment and recovery rather than ensuring each other has access to drugs and drawing others into the lifestyle.

Combine all this with intelligent, honest, and well-targeted education provision and it's possible we can vastly reduce recruitment into the lifestyle of a dependent drug user.

The Tory backbenchers and The Daily Mail would probably like to complain about heroin on the NHS and taxpayers' money being spent on irresponsible addicts. That argument doesn't wash if the money being spent is that of other supposedly irresponsible drug users.

So there we have it: Two fairly straightforward drug policies. To control and regulate cannabis and to utilise heroin maintenance treatment as part of a vastly improved drug treatment service funded by the proceeds of the regulated cannabis market.

With these changes we could see the following effects:

Reduced use of both cannabis and heroin by teenagers.

Earlier intervention in psychotic illness and a potential 10% reduction in the rate of schizophrenia.

Reduced incidence of overdose, infection, hepatitis and HIV.

The end of red light districts in our cities and towns.

Drug-related crime going down not up in a time of stretched resources.

And resources diverted from raids on cannabis farms, putting addicts in prison for the umpteenth time, and generally fighting a drugs war in which drugs are giving us a good kicking.

If we present our message as “Drugs are harmful, we need to find a better way to protect people from their harms,” then Keith Vaz will probably still tell everyone we're sending out the wrong message. But those who actually listen will understand us and support us and we will make the breakthrough.

This is a simple message, with obvious benefits and one that we now know the public are ready to embrace.

Last year at a fringe event I called for courage to speak out for reform. But we don't need courage any more. We've established that this proposed policy is now the populist position, so let's get our act together and make it happen.

A version of this blogpost will appear in Liberator issue 342.

Friday, 17 September 2010

It's Time We Talked About Drug Policy (fringe event)

Here's the text of the flier I have produced for the LDDPR fringe event happening this Sunday in the ACC in Hall 1B at 8pm. Please get in touch if you would like to help distribute fliers in Liverpool.

It's Time We Talked About Drug Policy

A Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform
fringe discussion

With speakers:

Niamh Eastwood of Release
Danny Kushlick of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Ewan Hoyle of LDDPR
chaired by Julian Huppert MP

A recent poll found 70% of Brits deem the legal regulation of cannabis a more tolerable option than prohibition

Would ideas coming out of the coalition government risk making the UK's drug problem worse?

Can a new, rational drugs policy better protect young people from the dangers of drugs?

Can pharmaceutical heroin be a far more cost-effective tool than methadone in aiding the recovery of addicts?

Can drug policy reform cut crime, safeguard mental health and save expenditure as budgets are slashed?

Come along and join the debate!

ACC Hall 1B
Sunday 8pm-9:15

Growing numbers of respected figures in British society are calling for decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs to be considered as potential solutions to the serious health and social problems that drugs - and arguably prohibition – create. Numerous editorials and commentators have backed these calls in the press. But politicians are still sticking stubbornly to the same tired old script.

The speakers at this event will describe some of the ways in which current policy impacts negatively upon British citizens and other communities around the World. The impact and cost-effectiveness of current British drugs policy has never been formally assessed.

You will also hear a new policy proposal that has been specifically designed to limit the harm that drugs cause and that is likely to be very appealing to the public.

Websites and twitter accounts: @TransformDrugs @Release_Drugs @ewanhoyle

contact for further info on Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Professor Pertwee's pot proposals

Yesterday brought the news of yet another respected expert calling for a broader drug policy debate, this time with the specific suggestion of licensed cannabis sale:

I'm grateful to Prof. Pertwee for drawing attention to the cannabis legalisation debate, but would like to examine some of his proposals in more detail and consider what impact they might have relative to alternatives.

The issue of age restrictions is an important one and I would be interested in hearing the Professor's reasoning for settling on 21 as the age at which someone can legally purchase the drug. If taking the cannabis trade out of the hands of criminals is the Prof's goal as he states then I would suspect there would be a vast number of cannabis users between the age of 18 and 21 that could help prop up the illegal market. Setting such an age limit also limits the level of stigma that would be experienced by an illegal cannabis dealer. There is an extent to which dealing to under 21s might be tolerated by society as many would continue to think the law was unreasonable. Lowering the age requirement to 18 firmly casts remaining drug dealers as people who deal to children. There is a greater likelihood such behaviour will be deemed unacceptable to society. Fewer individuals would be able to profit from illegal dealing, tolerate the stigma associated with it, or escape prosecution whilst operating in communities hostile to their activities.

A further argument for a lower age of legality is the ability to deliver targeted education at individuals seeking to use the drug. Professor Pertwee's proposals mention the possibility of licensing, but seemingly only as a means to exclude individuals with mental illness. I would favour the issuing of a license being dependent on receipt of detailed education on the potential harms that may come about as a result of cannabis use, and with special focus on the potential implications for the mental health of the user. Rather than exclude the mentally ill from legal use (also would they not just seek out an illegal supply anyway?) it might be very useful indeed for scientists to use the newly legal cannabis use environment to study the relationship between cannabis and mental health in greater detail. Cannabis is a complex drug, and the effects on the user of the active ingredients THC and cannabidiol (and also nicotine from the commonly co-administered tobacco) are not close to being fully understood. A good scientific relationship between mentally ill users and well-trained pharmacists might allow patients to be guided towards cannabis strains that do not jeopardise their mental health, and indeed might even help them. If Professor Pertwee is as concerned about the mental health implications of cannabis use as I am, I hope he would welcome the massively increased public knowledge of the warning signs of mental ill-health that should come about associated with a licensing regime linked to education rather than to sanity.

Of additional concern are Professor Pertwee's comments about the marketing of cannabis: "We should consider licensing and marketing cannabis and cannabis products just as we do alcohol and tobacco." I am decidedly uncomfortable with this loose talk of marketing cannabis like alcohol and tobacco. Any reform which leads to greater consumption of cannabis will face criticism, and the more marketing and branding we allow, the greater the chances of a rise in consumption. Surely it would be better for the first step in reform to start from a point of zero sanctioned branding or marketing?

Professor Pertwee also makes some assumptions about the manufacture of the drug:
"It depends on a private company being willing to produce a branded product." Does it? Will the public stand for private companies profiting from the manufacture, distribution and sale of recreational drugs? Would they view more favourably a level of state intervention that sees all the profits from the trade being redirected instead into drug treatment services and education? Can the state efficiently run such an enterprise purely for the benefit of public services and society as a whole, or would co-operation between the state and regulated companies yield greater success?

Again, I salute Professor Pertwee for opening up the debate. I don't think he has all the answers just yet, but I do hope the debate progresses as it is vital for our society, public health and economy that we find them soon and can move on, leaving history to judge prohibition of cannabis as it has already judged the prohibition of alcohol.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Winning that 2nd Glasgow list seat

Warning: This post contains assumptions based on national polling that it is probably not advisable to apply to the Glasgow regional list vote next year.

A poll by YouGov for the Scottish Mail on Sunday published at the weekend put the Scottish parties on the following percentage share for the regional list. Applying that national swing to the Glasgow region we get projected list vote shares of:

National Glasgow

Lab 36 47.4
SNP 26 22.8
Con 15 7.2
Lib 12 7.9
Gre 6 6.2

Assuming Labour win all 10 Glasgow constituency seats (sorry Nicola)... (I'm not sorry), that projection leaves us with 4 SNP MSPs, and 1 each for the Liberals, Conservatives and Greens. If either of Labour or the Lib Dems fancied winning the 4th SNP seat, they would need fairly large vote increases. Labour would need an increase of around 15% to a 63% share (highly unlikely), and the Lib Dems would need an increase of around 3.5% to 11.4%.

So if the Liberal Democrats want 2 Glasgow MSPs we can take them by winning over just 1 in 13 of the projected Labour list supporters. Essentially we have to persuade these people that voting for Labour in the list is almost entirely pointless and you should instead be voting for whether you want an extra SNP or an extra Lib Dem representative. I do hope we could point to our successes in previous coalitions with Labour in an attempt to persuade them that switching their support to the Lib Dems would be a canny move on their part.

Obviously all this skullduggery serves to demonstrate just how ferociously abysmal the Scottish electoral system is, but that is an argument for another day.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dear Mr Costa, Wise up or shut up.

In this morning's Observer Antonio Maria Costa, outgoing executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, accuses those who advocate “a radical new approach” as a means to reduce substance abuse of being “deluded” and says “those in favour of legalisation have lost sight of health as their priority.”

I'm sorry Antonio, but you either haven't been listening to or you have failed to understand the motivations of the progressive section of reform advocates who favour strict controls. As a member of that group I find your juxtaposition of “those who dream of a world free of drugs and those who hope for a world of free drugs” childish and insulting.

As a non-drug-using reform advocate my motivations stem almost entirely from a desire to reduce health, social, and emotional harms related to drug use and the illegal drug trade, and I believe that strictly controlling a legal market is the best way to bring about that reduction in harm. I read with interest of the Portuguese experience of drug policy reform (, and can't help but feel that we can achieve so much more by being ambitious but also appropriately cautious at the same time.

Portugal has done well in recognising that drug use is a social and health problem and not an issue for criminal courts, and the population has benefited from more drug users entering treatment and being able to confront and be open about their problems without risk of criminalisation. But the Portuguese system still relies on referral of drug users following contact with police. This system is grossly inefficient and reactive when considered alongside the potential opportunities for intervention in a situation of strictly regulated legal supply.

It is useful now to take a journey through the time-line of a typical drug user's journey.

In the Portuguese and the prohibition model, first contact with drugs will be with either a friend or an illegal dealer marketing the drug to a young person in the hope of recruiting a regular customer. This first contact is more likely to be initiated by the friend or dealer. The drugs are coming to the individual rather than the individual seeking out the drugs.

Consider now the ideal situation in a condition of strictly regulated legal supply: Social supply and dealing of drugs remains a criminal offence and dealers will hopefully struggle to compete with the legal market. I would hope the vast majority of first contacts with drugs would occur at the instigation of the potential user. Curiosity about drugs leads them to enter a pharmacist and request the drug they are interested in. Rather than being marketed a product with some lie about the quality accompanied with enthusiastic encouragement, the individual would be provided detailed information on the possible health, social and economic consequences of use, information on points of contact should they wish to receive confidential advice, and would be able to make a truly informed choice on whether to consume the drug in question.

Let's jump to 6 months down the line, the drug of abuse is cannabis, and our drug user is experiencing signs of early psychosis. In the prohibition path, the user has no knowledge of the warning signs of psychosis, their friends don't either, and so there is not an obvious point of intervention to help arrest the decline in their mental health. In our Portuguese model they may have encountered education about the risks of cannabis, but not delivered in a one-to-one setting so the level of attention paid is unpredictable. They are more likely to have been diverted into services by police intervention and through the activity of the panels, but this is entirely dependent upon them being caught in possession of the drug. In conversation with the panel the issue of psychosis might arise and our drug user might discuss some of the issues they are having, consider associating them with their drug use and perhaps cease their use of cannabis.

In the situation of strictly regulated legal supply, our drug user will have been educated about potential links with psychosis immediately before being licensed to use the drug for the first time, they may have recognised feelings of paranoia, delusions or hallucinations, or their friends who have been similarly educated might raise concerns. They have the option of returning to the pharmacy, discussing their experience, and requesting a less potent strain, or they might simply not want to chance it and cease their use altogether. A system of licensing also raises the possibility of levels of drug use being monitored (only accessible to the individual and health professionals with their consent), so heavy users can be discreetly encouraged to consult with their doctor more often than light users, allowing early intervention should issues arise. A further important feature of a legal market specifically relevant to cannabis is the increased availability of strains of various strength and potency. The dominance of potent skunk strains in the UK market would be broken, allowing users to settle on the strain of the drug they most enjoy and that hopefully does not jeopardise their mental health.

Apply this analysis to all drugs and it seems to me quite clear that the regulatory model that would best safeguard health is the one of strict control and regulation of a legal market. Individuals should face less pressure to experiment with drugs in the first place, will be considerably more aware of the health and social implications of drug use, and will find it much easier to confront any health problems that arise.

So Mr. Costa: Health is my priority, and the model of control and regulation I am proposing reflects that. I will concede that such a regulatory model is best implemented in a well-developed economy that has the resources to ensure the system runs smoothly. To discourage a country such as Britain from taking such a step is to condemn the whole world to more of the same, and I for one do not share you positive interpretation of the statistics that show a stubborn lack of progress towards your “world free of drugs” fantasy.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

I'm fair wrapped up in Budyko's Blanket

It's not often you read something that makes you genuinely optimistic about the future of the planet. We're used to regular updates now from panels of climatologists basically telling us we're screwed, and that unscrewing ourselves is going to be a long, economically painful, and fairly masochistic slog. Last night however I had the pleasure of reading the "Superfreakonomics" chapter: "What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?" and it turns out there is a scientifically and economically plausible proposal for reversing (or at least counteracting) global warming. The solution has been estimated to cost just $250M (not billion. Million. I double-checked) and is called "Budyko's blanket" (probably needs a better name if it'g going to win people round). Scientists saw the effect that Mount Pinatubo's stratospheric (to mean into the stratosphere not just "really high") sulphur dioxide emissions produced in cooling the planet, and thought "Hmm, if we could get a hose, pump some SO2 up there, maybe we could reverse global warming." And it turns out the hose doesn't have to be that wide, the volume of SO2 doesn't have to be that great (0.05% of global emissions) and we could probably throw the plan together within a couple of years. Hallefrickinlujah! My children and grandchildren aren't going to live on a planet in climatological chaos with all that entails.

But what would this solution mean politically? Where should CO2 emissions stop if the greenhouse effect isn't a consideration any longer? How much ocean acidification is acceptable if the plant life on land is flourishing? If this system is built in America (and it's American's who are pursuing the idea) how do we stop them creating a green and pleasant land across the American plains to the detriment of the other world ecosystems?

On the domestic front I believe it is a very good thing that fear of climate chaos has caused us to think hard about future sources of energy. I do believe peak oil is just around the corner, and if we are ready to whizz around in electric cars, and are living in properly insulated homes with lifestyles powered by wind and wave, then there might not need to be a dip in the quality of life we experience as we go through the transition to renewables. It would also be nice not to rely on Saudi oil and Russian gas for any longer than is necessary.

In short Budyko's blanket allows us to look to the future with hope. It doesn't mean we can abandon environmental sustainability. Rising CO2 will have more subtle effects on the environment that we still have to deal with. But we perhaps don't have to deny ourselves life's little pleasures with the same degree of enthusiasm as we have been, and we can allow developing nations to develop without telling them how to do so. A few encouraging prods in the direction of renewables might be in both our interests, but now that they're not going to drag us to climate hell, I guess we can but out a little :)

Oh, and I do hope it's as easy as the scientists say it is.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Evidence-based drug policy: Think of the children!

In the next few days I will be submitting a motion to conference calling for an impact assessment to be carried out on current drugs policy and for expansion of heroin maintenance treatment programmes across the country. The motion calls for current policy to be compared to its alternatives including more stringent prohibition, decriminalisation of possession and use, and strict control and regulation by the government.

There will undoubtedly be some who will seek to present the latter option as "legalisation" and encourage us to "think of the children" as they go on to describe some drug-addled dystopian nightmare scenario. Should I be in attendance when this argument is presented I will likely fix my gaze upon the doubter and say with steely determination "No. You think of the children, for concern for their welfare in central to my argument."

In this country at present the chances of a child being drawn into the lifestyle of a problem drug user are entirely at the mercy of fate. Do they go to the wrong party? Do they fall in with the wrong crowd of friends? Do they fall in love with the wrong boy? At present there are many many thousands of people out there who would profit from luring teenagers into the use of heroin or crack cocaine. They could be dealers who need a new customer to replace the one that died from an overdose, went into prison or somehow got clean. They could be a young man who's never been any good at stealing things but has always been able to get the girl, and who needs a young lady to earn his drugs money in a way that he can't. Or they could just be a desperate soul in need of a friend and who only knows one way to make people hang around. These people are all around us - the unofficial heroin and crack marketing board - unconstrained by ethical guidelines or regulations. Free to ensnare any unsuspecting teenager that comes within reach.

It is absolutely essential that we neutralise this very real threat. With youth unemployment at its highest for many years, too many young people are vulnerable to temptation. If we are to wage a war on drugs it is essential to neutralise the recruiting sergeants. To do this we just have to examine their motivation. The vast majority of low-level dealers are user-dealers. They need money to buy drugs. The boyfriend pimps need money to buy drugs. The desperate friend needs some sympathetic attention. All these motivations can be addressed through better drug treatment services, the best of these - as demonstrated by considerable scientific evidence - being heroin maintenance treatment.

Decades of prohibition have utterly failed to stop this country's children becoming heroin and crack addicts. The vast majority of the street prostitutes that as a society we largely ignore were children to whom the path to addiction was left open. My primary motivation in submitting this motion is to block that path to the present generation, many of whom are no doubt walking down it as I write.

Give the user-dealer heroin and he no longer has to deal. Give enough of his customers heroin and his supplier or his boss can no longer make enough money for drug dealing to be a viable business. Give the street prostitute heroin and they no longer have to work the street. Give their boyfriends heroin and they no longer have to ask them to. Drawing users into heroin maintenance services allows some level of intervention in the problems that represent barriers to a fulfilling life. They won't have to commit crime or prostitute themselves to fund their habit. They could start looking for a job. If they have children, they can hold them as their number one priority.

"Think of the children" is all Barbara Harris ever does, and she really doesn't see this as a problem. Barbara Harris is the head of the "charity" Project Prevention, which is scouring the deprived areas of our nation's cities looking for addicts to sterilise. Her charity will give each sterilised addict £200, which will often be spent on a few days worth of heroin. I could easily criticise Barbara for the fact that her charity is indirectly funding the Taleban, but I'd like to draw her attention to the scale of the problem. There are around 10,000 children of problem drug users in the care system in this country, and many thousands more growing up in households affected by drug use. Is it in the children's interests to regard their parents as lost causes, people who cannot be trusted to turn their lives around and make a success of themselves? Or should we rather treat these people's condition as a medical ailment and treat it with the best treatments available? Rather than putting children into care or preventing their existence, should we not aspire to stabilise their parents lives, give them the assistance they require to make a go of it, and allow the love for their children and the love they receive in return to be a massively positive motivating factor in their reform. Addicts needn't be bad parents. It's just our current approach to drugs makes it very, very difficult for them to be good ones.

Despite the very real dangers of heroin and crack, perhaps the most frequently expressed concern is that cannabis use will suddenly spread like wildfire amongst the nation's children were it to be legalised. If it were just to be legalised then I'm happy to admit this is a possibility, but legalisation is not what is being proposed. What should be proposed is a strictly regulated market. I personally would favour cannabis only being available from licensed pharmacists, with a wide choice of varieties of different strengths and different ratios of active ingredients. One thing that is also essential in regulation is an age restriction. At present teenagers have fairly easy access to cannabis, and seem very eager to experiment. Cannabis strains are stronger now (prohibition always incentivises potency) and the scientific evidence suggests that teenagers are especially vulnerable to effects on brain development that might predispose to psychosis. Ideally, if drugs were to be regulated by the state, then the market for illicit dealers shrinks considerably, and the illicit dealers who would remain would be isolated, hated figures trying to deal to the only remaining illegal market: children. With the prison population dwindling in the aftermath of effective treatment for dependent drug users, there'd be plenty space for people who might try to exploit the nation's youth for profit.

So please, the next time the Daily Mail or a red-faced Conservative backbencher exhorts you to "Think of the children!", politely ask them to do the same.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Heroin prescription can be a vaccine against a broken society

In the couple of days between the arrest and the charging of Stephen Griffiths this week I made desperate attempts to contact all 3 Bradford MPs, driven by the knowledge that I would struggle to forgive myself if the arrested man was not the killer and if further women were to die.

On reflection I am struggling to convince myself that I'm not partially responsible for their deaths anyway. I've known for over a year now how to prevent young women engaging in street prostitution to fund a drug habit, but in that year I have failed to effect change in our drug policies towards heroin and the poor people who find themselves needing to take it. It's not a happy place to be. But I can't imagine how it must feel to know the solution as I do, have considerably more power to effect the necessary change, but yet choose to say nothing for "political" reasons. Perhaps such people hold the same prejudices that they project onto the population and genuinely see the street prostitutes of the UK as not worth the hassle.

So to the solution. How do we stop young women dependent on heroin from working on the streets to pay for it? It's simple really. We look at the evidence on the most cost-effective way to treat their condition and we apply the solution that we know works. The results of the British trials of maintenance heroin have finally been published and they confirm the results from all of the other trials carried out in the last 10 years. Heroin works. Methadone is a poor second best.

If such disparity was demonstrated between the effectiveness of two drugs for any other medical condition - and the NHS continued to resist offering the more effective option - the sufferers, their families and friends would go nuts. In all likelihood the general population wouldn't be happy either.

Dependent drug users as a group on the other hand might struggle to summon the self-esteem, their families might struggle to break through the stigma and large sections of the population would quite likely express considerable revulsion at "their" taxes being spent on people who have "chosen" to take drugs.

Hang on a minute. If using heroin is a choice is smoking tobacco an innocent mistake? In the interest of consistency should we not cease the treatment of smokers for lung cancer, chronic pulmonary diseases, heart disease, stroke etc? Hmm, how long do we let them burgle, prostitute and generally make a nuisance of themselves to pay for their treatment privately before we decide to give them a chance on the NHS? And smoking is an educated choice. It says it's going to give you cancer on the bloody packet! Surely by Daily Mail comment contributor logic all the smokers visiting GPs saying "I have breathing difficulties" should be greeted with "Well Duh!" and shown the door. No drug dealer is going to last very long in the trade if he passes on similar health warnings to his clients. Imagine "Before you try your first hit I should say that heroin is an extremely physically addictive drug and with your economic and social situation as it is you will likely be considering prostituting yourself to feed your habit within a month." If heroin is a choice, then eating lots and sitting on the couch is a choice. Raising your blood pressure ranting at liberals who want to give junkies heroin on the NHS is a choice. To hate the prospect of heroin on the NHS is to hate the NHS itself and the assistance it gives to all those who need it regardless of colour, creed or the ill-advised choices that cause you to need it.

And it's not just the dependent user who benefits from prescription. Obviously the families of addicts would be saved considerable anguish. The children especially might not be removed by authorities now that the parents have chaotic money and drug-seeking removed from their daily routine. The parents might be able to hold their children as their number one priority.

The communities that dependent users live in might be spared the up to 80% of domestic burglaries that dependent users commit and the over 50% of acquisitive crimes in general. They might be spared the desperate sight of street prostitutes working in their neighbourhood.

Most importantly though, bringing a heroin addict into the care of the state removes a customer for the local dealers. The more problem drug users you treat, the less customers there are for the local dealers and the less viable their occupation. In many cases the dealer will themselves be dealing to fund a habit of their own. Give them prescribed heroin and the need to fund their habit in that way disappears. Give a whole heroin-using community prescribed heroin and the dealers who would seek to expand that community lose their livelihood and need to find something else to do with their time. Effective treatment of heroin addicts can end further recruitment of young people into that lifestyle. The risk of further daughters becoming drug-addicted street prostitutes becomes infinitessimal.

The debate on heroin prescription is currently centred around whether we should make it available as a second-line treatment for people who have failed to cease street heroin use while receiving methadone. The progressive goal here is really uninspiring though. There are tens of thousands of unemployed, vulnerable young people who are at risk of falling into the dependent user lifestyle. I believe we should make a concerted effort to block that path. I believe we should be identifying as many problem drug users as possible and giving them their drug of addiction for free (at least at first). Only then do we have an opportunity to end the culture of street heroin and its capacity to spread into another generation. It is utterly bizzarre that we should tolerate people stealing from us, prostituting themselves and trying to get our children hooked on heroin. We have to consider vaccinating our society to halt the spread of this menace.

We did nothing to improve the way in which we treat addiction after 5 addicts who worked as prostitutes were murdered in Ispwich in 2006. We have done nothing to halt the drug-related death rate doubling in Scotland over the last 10 years. Another 3 addicted women have now been murdered by a serial killer in Bradford. This is not the time to play catch-up with the progressive policies of our European neighbours. It is time to make up for lost time and innumerable lost lives. It is time to treat addicts with humanity, treat addiction as an illness, and credit the British people with the intelligence and the compassion to understand why such action is required.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Protecting Bradford's street prostitutes from a serial killer

A letter I have just written to David Ward (MP for Bradford East). If you can think of other people who could help with this effort, please forward this to them, link to this or use whatever means of communication you think would work.


Dear Mr. Ward,

As founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, I am hugely concerned at the unfolding events in your city as reported here on the BBC website and similarities to the serial murders carried out by Steven Wright in Ipswich in 2006.

In 2006 further young women working as prostitutes in the town were murdered after the possibility of there being a serial killer preying on prostitutes was reported in the news. There is a very real possibility that the man being questioned currently is not the murderer. It is therefore important for local police and other services to act quickly to ensure the safety of the women working the streets of Bradford. From the experience in Ipswich in 2006 it is clear that urging women to stay off the streets is not sufficient. I therefore call on you to contact the police in Bradford to propose that they work with health services to make available emergency prescribed maintenance doses of pharmaceutical heroin to any female dependent drug user in the city who is known to have worked the streets or that approaches services seeking help. It is quite possible that rapid action could save lives.


Ewan Hoyle

Founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

My conditions for cooperation. Yes drug policy IS that important.

These are the conditions I think we should demand be met by a potential coalition partner.

On electoral systems: Each party must guarantee at least a referendum on AV. A 3-option referendum including STV should be acceptable to Labour as I would hope they would be confident of arguing the case for the middle-ground option.
This referendum would of course have to be run using the AV/STV method.

Positions in a coalition cabinet: The one position of greatest importance is Home Secretary. It is the department in which policy has differed greatest between the other two parties and ourselves. It is the department in which Liberal Democrat power could undoubtedly improve our society whilst saving money on things like sentencing policy and effective crime prevention measures.

We should also have as a condition an impact assessment/enquiry into current drug policy. The potential savings to be made from moving to a sensible, evidence based control and regulation approach are immense. Controlling and regulating currently illegal drugs has the potential to save over £10Bn in criminal justice costs while at the same time reducing burglary rates by 80%, street prostitution by over 90% and drastically reducing the prison population. It is the area of policy where huge savings can be made while creating huge benefits to society.

If we are not to go the way of Greece, we need to find the policy options which save money while making people's lives better. Control and regulation of drugs is the most obvious of these.

I would also like to see movement towards our redistributive tax plans.

Ewan Hoyle.

Glasgow South

Founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform
Blogger at:

Friday, 7 May 2010

To share or to shaft?: The inherent unfairness of the "Big Society"

Over the last 24 hours or so, in a state of mildly delirious sleep-deprivation, I've been mulling over the implications of a potential conservative government. It has not been enjoyable.

I find myself in a position of being fairly desperate to help create something akin to the Tories' "Big Society" vision. Not because of all the wonderful incentives they might introduce, but because I'm pretty sure if we don't do everything ourselves, their rolling back of the State in our time of greatest need could quickly lead to a dystopian nightmare if we don't pull our sleeves up and get stuck in. Sadly, they would likely try to take the credit for this community co-operation. Maybe it was always their intention to utilise the fear of disaster that is rising in compassionate, liberal minds in bringing about the "Big Society". Why else would George Osbourne still be in line to be Chancellor after all?

I'm also reminded somewhat of the Prisoner's Dilemma psychological experiment:

Robert Kilroy-Silk's interpretation of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma psychological experiment

If we consider the application of the Prisoner's Dilemma to a post-aTorylyptic political environment with a small state and low taxes there are three scenarios that might arise.
The first scenario is that everybody shares. Everybody suddenly becomes voluntary enthusiastic participators in their community and the community benefits enormously.
In the second scenario everybody shafts. Essentially society sits back and expects someone else to do the work. This scenario would go tits-up pretty quickly.
It is the third scenario that is the most interesting however, and it is by far the more likely of the three to become a reality. In this scenario the more compassionate, caring, selfless, generous individuals donate their time and money to causes and services where they feel they can contribute. The other members of society (the lazy, greedy, mean-spirited types) choose not to contribute their time and money, and yet they enjoy all the services the generous citizens help provide, and accumulate greater wealth as a result of the lower taxation.

Low tax, low spend "Big Societies" have inherent within them a financial incentive to be a greedy parasite upon society. If national insurance contributions are a "Jobs Tax" then the Big Society is a tax on generosity, compassion and general goodness. It is grossly unfair.

I wish we could find a way to make the mean-spirited, greedy people pay more, but the more that public services are funded by taxpayers and not charitable individuals, the more we can at least say they are paying their fair share.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Nick Clegg should start asking which party will support him as Prime Minister

We have to break out of this ever-repeating cycle of boring press conferences where Nick Clegg is asked which of the other parties he'd be prepared to cosy up to in the event of a hung parliament. With our current poll rating and the clear indication in this YouGov poll that a Lib Dem government would be widely tolerated and a Lib-Lab coalition would be the next best thing Nick Clegg has to start saying he would ask other parties to support him as Prime Minister if he receives a considerable mandate in percentage vote share. People are already fairly resigned to a hung parliament. The way to maximise our vote share in this situation is to establish that more votes for the Lib Dems increases the chances of Nick Clegg being Prime Minister. Not Gordon Brown, not David Cameron, but Nick Clegg. We should be stating that if the Lib Dems win the popular vote, we shall be seeking coalition with a party that would be prepared to support Nick Clegg in the top job. If Labour come a distant third I'm sure they would be happy to have some say in the running of the country. If the Tories come 1st in seats, but the Lib Dems win the vote share, the ball would be in Gordon's court and Nick Clegg should ask to lead a coalition. We desperately need a vote Lib Dem - get Nick Clegg strategy that is plausible to the population. If they think the Lib Dems can lead the country if we win the popular vote, then they might just vote for us.

If the Lib Dems win the popular vote Nick Clegg should seek to govern. This tactic should discourage any Lib Dem supporter thinking of voting tactically. If we set an achievable target in winning the popular vote, people will want to give Nick the moral authority to govern and watch the other parties squirm.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

A letter to the Herald on Glasgow's heroin problem and it's ties to prostitution.

David Pratt asks in Friday's Herald "How can we stem the tide of heroin flooding our streets?" He also seeks to "starve the Taliban of their financial lifeblood." Up to 50% of Taliban income comes from the opium trade, and Western governments can most easily end this funding by making heroin available for supervised consumption in clinics as is being done in a growing number of European states. All the evidence from overseas and from UK pilot studies suggests that this course of action will reduce the acquisitive crime, drug dealing and prostitution that addicts engage in to fund their drug use and reduce the number of young people encountering - and becoming addicted to - heroin.

Provision of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts would also clear the way for the criminalisation of those men who choose to pay for sex. In Thursday's Herald Anne Johnstone called for the Scottish Parliament to follow the lead taken by Norway and Sweden on this issue. Her assertion that "Demand dictates Supply" is sadly a dangerous oversimplification. As I expect the coming Five Daughters drama will show, heroin addicts who choose to engage in prostitution do so because they need to find hundreds of pounds each week to hold off the intolerable pain of withdrawal. Reducing demand for their services won't suddenly make withdrawal more tolerable. Rather those who persist in trying to fund their heroin habit through prostitution will likely have to lower prices, seek more customers, and - perhaps most importantly - be less choosy and more hasty when negotiating with clients. Combined with the likelihood of persisting clients being at the end of the character spectrum that has least respect for the law, I can only foresee addicted prostitutes being at greater risk of meeting the same fate as the Five Daughters whose stories will be told on our screens in the coming days.

Should women cease trying to fund their drug use through prostitution as I presume Anne Johnstone would welcome, they may in desperation turn to acquisitive crime or dealing, which arguably have even greater negative impacts upon our society.

With problem drug users making up approximately 95% of street prostitutes, the prescribed heroin solution has the potential to allow the vast majority of street prostitutes to leave prostitution and crime behind them and try to get their lives back on track. If we want to eliminate street prostitution from our towns and cities then we would do better to tackle supply of prostitutes rather than further endanger these desperate young women by an albeit well-meaning attack on demand.

It's unclear which of Clegg and Cameron most supports drug policy reform.

The Telegraph has uncovered Nick Clegg's past support for drug policy reform, but has it uncovered David Cameron's

The party leaders are both very sensible on the issue of course... at least they were before they had an election to fight.

I suppose the Telegraph was intending to put Clegg on the back foot with this. He should express no regret. Rather he should ask why David Cameron expressed similar opinions in the past and has chosen to retreat back to the supposedly populist standard political position.

Only the liberal democrats are willing to consider evidence on drugs policy. Gordon Brown has stated clearly that considering evidence is not something he is interested in ( And the conservatives remain committed to fanciful notions of enforcement-led intervention and abstinence-based Drug Rehabilitation Orders.

The Telegraph may also kick themselves when they realise they have timed their article (I presume unintentionally) to coincide with a dramatisation of the lives of the five young women murdered by Steven Wright in Ipswich in 2006.

Five Daughters will start tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and its relevance to drug policy is highlighted by executive producer Susan Hogg's words on BBC Breakfast earlier in the week explaining why she wanted to make the film:

"Paula Clennell (one of the murder victims) gave an interview where she talked about having to go out on the streets because she needed the money and I suddenly realised that this was about drugs and not about these girls being on the street. Up until that point everyone had talked about them being prostitutes... there was nothing to do with who they were and I really felt I wanted to explore the victims and who these young women were and particularly because i knew it was about drug addiction and that was really really important."

A TV writer who has seen it already has confirmed to me that the film could have a really big impact on people's prejudices about drug abuse and street prostitution. The Telegraph has handily highlighted Nick Clegg's support for heroin to be made available under medical supervision. I hope many voters will recognise that the best way to ensure more daughters do not end up addicted to heroin and funding their habit through street prostitution is to implement that very policy.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ken Clarke's remarks are an open goal to ambitious Lib Dems.

Lets presume for a minute that Ken Clarke is right to say that a hung parliament would be a potential economic disaster. Lets say he's right that the country needs a party with a clear majority running the country. Which party is now positioned to provide that strong majority? Labour can be ruled out. The conservatives following the Liberal Democrat poll surge are realistically not going to become the consensus choice for change. They weren't even high enough in the polls to achieve a majority before people realised this was a three-party race.

From this analysis of some YouGov polling it seems quite clear that the Lib Dems can achieve a strong majority if the 49% of people who would vote for them if they thought they could win actually began to believe they could win. Only 21% of those polled would be dismayed at a Lib Dem majority. If either of the other parties are introduced into a potential outcome dismay in the outcome soars, with the least dismal being a labour-liberal coalition at 39% dismayed.

The only party that can achieve a strong majority government now is the Lib Dems. Ken Clarke says a majority is needed for us to avoid economic meltdown...

Also, how would the markets respond to George Osborne loose in the treasury relative to Vince Cable taking his seat at the money table? Vince has set out in some detail his plans for reducing the deficit and been honest about tough times ahead. George has plucked a £6bn tax cut out of thin air at the last minute in a desperate attempt to win votes.

I'm presuming of course that George is the Conservative choice to be chancellor, but given the rolling out of Ken to deliver the horrific IMF news, maybe there's been a change of plan...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The need for a Project "Project Prevention" Prevention

There have been a couple of articles in the Herald newspaper recently on the "Project Prevention" charity, most recently this morning under the headline "Social workers urged to refer addicts for sterilisation."

Barbara Harris, the Founder of the project - which hopes to pay addicts £200 each to go through a sterilisation procedure - appears to be motivated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of children born with the same addiction as their mother and/or subjected to neglect and other abuse over the course of their childhood.

On the face of it sterilisation would achieve some positive outcomes: Fewer babies born with serious addictions and needing considerable hospital treatment, and fewer babies born into households where the parents' primary motivation is drug-seeking rather than their child's welfare. Many people will find the proposal morally abhorrent. But is this a morally dubious proposal that might just be an answer to some of our society's problems? Could projects such as these produce knock-on effects similar to those highlighted in the book "Freakonomics" following the legalisation of abortion in the US? The economist responsible for the research found that the considerable drop in crime in the US in the early 1990s could be almost entirely explained by the nationwide legalisation of abortion following the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973. The implication was that lower numbers of unwanted children being born led to lower numbers of people being brought up in an environment that fostered criminality. Could sterilising addicts not only prevent child suffering, but prevent the future crime that these damaged children might commit?

What then are the objections to this plan that could have such potential benefits? We could liken the procedure to the selling of a kidney in that you would be reducing your fitness for the benefit of others and for financial gain. But with Project Prevention's proposals the "client" might not only be motivated by poverty, but also by the physical pain of withdrawal. Were the procedure to be offered without financial incentive, judgement might still be clouded by the feelings of worthlessness and general low self-esteem that so often occur alongside addiction problems. For these reasons I am not confident that addicts are in a position to make a rational decision on their future suitability or desire to become a parent. This has both moral and legal implications, with it being unclear whether it is possible for informed consent to be given for a sterilisation procedure in the circumstances in which Project Prevention seeks to operate.

The word "eugenics" has been used to describe Project Prevention, but as a man who studied evolution with great interest at undergrad level, I am uncomfortable with this description. The term implies that drug addiction is a genetic trait which can be eliminated from the gene pool. While it is true that there may be a genetic predisposition to addiction and risk-taking behaviours, drug addiction is far more environmental in nature. Perhaps we could invent the term "euenvics" to describe the prevention of reproduction of individuals who would likely provide a poor environment for their children and thus risk those children becoming a greater burden to society than the average child.

Unlike genetic traits, drug addiction is something which need not be permanent. With the right intervention in addicts' lives, it is very possible for them to end their drug use and to become capable of parenting that need not lead to their child's suffering and/or criminality. The thought of sterilising addicts strikes me as jumping straight to plan Z following the failure of plan A.

I would suggest we should try to find a morally, economically and politically viable plan B instead. I believe this should be a plan that recognises that addicts should be able to seek treatment without fear of criminalisation or the removal of their children into care. For there to be positive outcomes for mother and child, the mother needs to feel she can trust the police, social services and health services to be doing everything they can to help her:
a) stabilise her lifestyle without the need to commit acquisitive crime, prostitute herself or deal in drugs to fund her addiction.
b) (if she wishes to have a family) come off drugs in a controlled fashion whilst using contraception that she is comfortable with.
c) raise the child in an environment conducive to a happy, healthy life.

I believe passionately that such conditions are more likely to come about if drug use is decriminalised and addicts have the option of stabilising on prescribed heroin.

To instead pay these women to be sterilised is to reinforce their feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem and to demonstrate we have given up hope that they can turn their lives around. Sterilisation also deprives these women of a great life-changing event and the responsibility to stay clean not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of a child that they love dearly and that would be utterly reliant upon their care.

We should be seeking to minimise the number of babies born to addicted mothers. An addicted baby goes through excruciating pain and requires considerable medical attention as they go through withdrawal. But the most humane way to achieve this is to treat addicts as just another patient group with a treatable medical condition. If we fail to assist women to cease drug use, then we need to recognise that addicts can hold down jobs and raise families just as well as the rest of us if they know when and where to get their next fix and they don't have to pay massively inflated prices for an illegal supply.

A facebook group has been started to resist "Project Prevention" in the UK.!/pages/No-to-eugenics-in-the-UK-Keep-Project-Prevention-Out-of-the-Country/100654733311568?ref=ts

And if you agree with me that we need to try a Plan B then why not join Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform at

Friday, 9 April 2010

If the Lib Dems want power we can't let the Tories win.

So the wash-up has been concluded and has left the AV referendum proposals washed-up on the rocky shore of Conservative self-interest. Gordon Brown has since come out with re-affirmed plans to hold an AV referendum early in the next parliament though. It is absolutely imperative that we emerge from this election with the possibility of these plans being put into action. If the conservatives get a majority, electoral reform will not be on the agenda and there's a real risk that Labour will not be so keen for reform next time around when they look to capitalise on the failures of Cameron and co.

It is quite possible that this election will be the best possibility for meaningful electoral reform in a generation, so all Lib Dems should be doing our utmost to ensure it happens. What should this mean on the ground? Sadly it means abandoning our principles in the Labour/Tory marginals and voting with our brains and not our hearts. A vote for the Liberal Democrats where we have no chance of winning and where the race could be tight IS a wasted vote that risks consigning our party to a fringe role for many years to come. A tactical vote for the Labour party in such seats increases the possibility of a hung parliament, gives the AV referendum proposal a real chance of becoming reality, and gives the Lib Dems a genuine chance at meaningful power at the next election. The end of tactical voting could give the Lib Dems a majority at Westminster within a couple of years if we cooperate to achieve the AV reforms and then stand well back as the Labour government fails to get to grips with the deficit to the population's satisfaction.

We also need to get the message out to genuine supporters of fringe parties that they should be supporting the Lib Dems in every seat we have any chance of winning. For The Greens, UKIP, and even the BNP the wise vote is for the party that has a commitment to proportional representation. Of course I have no expectation that many BNP supporters will be able to cast a "wise vote" but one has to try.

So Nick. Please ease off on Labour a little and please come up with better ammunition against the Tories than your not-very-credible VAT bombshell. We need to use our brains in this election so that the population can vote (for us) with their conscience in the future.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The greatest misuse of mephedrone: Using it as bath salts.

It certainly appears that the ACMD's terms of reference below have been overlooked in the hasty manner in which mephedrone's prohibition has come about.

The terms of reference of the Advisory Council are set out in section 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971(the Act) and are as follows:

It shall be the duty of the Advisory Council to keep under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem, and to give to any one or more of the Ministers, where either Council consider it expedient to do so or they are consulted by the Minister or Ministers in question, advice on measures (whether or not involving alteration of the law) which in the opinion of the Council ought to be taken for preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse, and in particular on measures which in the opinion of the Council, ought to be taken.

It is quite clear that the "misuse" (definition: noun: wrong or improper use; misapplication.) of mephedrone is promoted by both it's current legal status and its soon-to-be prohibited status. The ACMD set out quite clearly in their report (though whose report is it really if the members of the committee didn't see the final draft?) that mephedrone is manufactured purely for human consumption as a stimulating intoxicant. Using mephedrone as plant food or as bath salts is clearly to "misuse" mephedrone. Of greater concern of course is the fact that no advice can currently be given by vendors on the drug's safe consumption. It is clear therefore that current regulations prohibiting its sale for human consumption promote its continued misuse.

Consider now the situation after the drug's prohibition. Optimal use of mephedrone could surely be best described as the use of mephedrone which gives the user the most pleasurable experience with the minimum of unwanted side effects. Passing the manufacture, distribution and sale of mephedrone into the hands of criminals will lead to inconsistent purity and a lack of standardised, good-quality advice on safe consumption and optimal recovery. Surely it is clear then that prohibition promotes continued misuse of mephedrone?

What measures could reduce the "misuse" of mephedrone? Sale from licensed pharmacists with age restrictions; full education on health, social, and economic consequences of use before users are licensed to purchase the drug; and education programmes which encourage abstinence but yet at all times try to ensure young people are as safe as they can be no matter what choice they make.

That is the recommendation which would best satisfy the ACMD's terms of reference. If the terms of reference had been rewritten as "to quickly suggest incorporation of any emerging psychoactive drug into the existing classification scheme alongside drugs of similar effect" then the ACMD would have done well this week. This has not happened and the ACMD has failed miserably.

Not only has it failed on the action to be taken on mephedrone, but it has also identified the next potential legal drug of abuse in naphyrone or "NRG-1" as it is more commonly known. They may as well have distributed a press release stating:
"NRG-1 has potential to be the next big thing in legal highs. We know very little about it so it will remain legal for the time being. Anyone wishing to make a lot of money fast would be wise to buy lots of NRG-1 and sell it on for considerable profit."

It is utterly irresponsible to identify this drug in their report before they have detailed an appropriate response to the conveyor belt of legal highs that are passing into commmon usage in the UK. I can only hope that a "Class D" recommendation happens before we have a massively damaging public health emergency on our hands.

For more on Class D:

“What are the alternatives? One approach would be a new class in the Misuse of Drugs Act – the class D model, adopted in New Zealand to deal with BZP. This is a holding category where drugs can be put before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it comes with health education messages. Society can limit sales and collect data on use.

Manufacturers and shops that disobey these regulations are punished, and the young are protected, but not criminalised. Last summer the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, when under my chairmanship, suggested this approach in response to the growing use of spice and BZP. It was rejected, they were both made class C, and possibly as a consequence young people began to turn to mephedrone.”

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Small credit where it's due on mephedrone, but should we not have a public inquiry

Okay, let's be clear. I am not a fan of the government's drug policy. I believe Gordon Brown's refusal to consider other regulatory approaches endangers this nation's health, our security, our economy and any ambitions he might have for a better society.

But I do think that some of my drug policy reform colleagues have misjudged both public opinion and the interests of public safety on the mephedrone issue. I have no reason to assume that Alan Johnson has done anything but follow the advice given to him by Les Iversen, the current chair of the ACMD. Teenagers have been taking mephedrone in alarming numbers. Whether this is due to misplaced confidence in the drug's safety due to its legality, or whether they were excited about the prospect of doing something they knew to be bad with no risk of punishment, it was essential for the government to intervene to restrict access and take action that they hope will cause these teenagers to return to drug-free lives.

And the government has got many aspects of the action right. The action to ensure destruction of any detected mephedrone imports is a strong signal that importation is now no longer viable. While traders may object on the grounds that it was legal when they ordered it, I am in no doubt that their contentment with their requirement to sell the drug without any health advice to buyers of any age could in no way be regarded as ethical. Had they been able to provide health and consumption advice and been able to do all they could to ensure their customers' safety then their trade could very well have been considered ethical. But the lack of such safety advice meant the dealers were ethically no better than the illegal dealers dealing similar illegal drugs. I would be delighted to see the expression on the faces of the dealers trying to stockpile as much mephedrone as possible before its prohibition when they learn of the destruction of their newly priceless shipment.

The government has also taken the right action (once prohibition was the decision) in banning all cathinones. Just banning mephedrone would quickly have resulted in the market shifting to any of a large number of other cathinones with a myriad of unknown effects to investigate and for society to deal with. I am unsure where drugs like butylone and the cathinone-containing plant "khat" are left by this action, but the blanket ban on cathinones seems like a wise decision at this stage.

Having said all this, I have great concern about the role the ACMD has played in this decision. The ACMD made the extremely sensible "Class D" recommendation when it was asked for advice on BZP and Spice. A "D" class would have allowed legal, regulated sale of the drug to over 18s and with the best advice available on safe use while the effects of the drug were investigated thoroughly. The recommendation was rejected for BZP and Spice. Was it offered as a solution to the mephedrone situation? If it was not then I would assert that the ACMD has lost its spine and can no longer be relied upon to stick to its guns on these important issues in the interests of public safety. To not offer the "Class D" solution is to pass responsibility for mephedrone from unregulated legal dealers to unregulated illegal dealers. Any teenager who still fancies getting hold of the mephedrone they have developed a taste for, will now have to find an illegal dealer. That dealer might just have a financial interest in introducing them to heroin or crack.

This entire episode which may become known as "the mephedrone bubble" should be seen as a disastrous warning on the failings of the Labour party's "head-in-the-sand" approach to drugs policy. All the illegal drugs consumed in this country are being consumed in an environment of government-mandated ignorance. Any new legal highs which emerge will - like mephedrone - again have to be consumed from bags marked "not for human consumption". It is time the politicians and the media in this country grew up and realised that it is ignorance and lack of regulation that makes drugs dangerous. We need to take this opportunity to learn from the mephedrone bubble and look again at what can be done to safeguard our population from the harms of drugs.

Surely it would be appropriate to call for a broad-ranging public inquiry into the drug policy disaster that is "the mephedrone bubble".

Cable's mental health commitments say a lot about us as a party.

Watching the "Ask the Chancellors" debate on channel 4 last night I once again heard Vince Cable commit to increased spending on mental health services:
"If we save money on NHS admin it should first go to neglected areas like mental health."

Mental health is not a fashionable area of service provision but I have heard Vince work this commitment into interviews on television before and I have to say it fills me with pride every time it happens.

Mental health services are not something that will come up in focus groups. Nor are they something that focus will be drawn to by the lobbying efforts of wealthy charities. There is still a considerable stigma attached to mental illness which restricts the public's ability to speak out about the failings of our current system. It is to Vince Cable and Norman Lamb's enormous credit that they have stated their first-hand family experience of mental illness. I only wish more people could find the courage to do the same.

My own first-hand experience of mental illness started as I was finishing school and going to university while living at home with my family in Glasgow. My brother had entered the same university the year before to study Scottish history and politics, was in his first real relationship, and was training several times a week for his career as an international volleyball player. He always tended towards over-analysing things, but this analysis started to make less and less sense. At first I put the fact I couldn't understand him anymore down to the fact that he was doing arts and I was going to do sciences like my parents, but I eventually received a lecture in my 1st year Psychology course that suggested something else might be going on.

After some further reading, and on a family holiday that was basically an escape from my brother's increasingly erratic behaviour, I suggested to my parents that my brother might be schizophrenic as we walked down a quiet country lane. None of us really knew what it meant at that time. But we had an extremely difficult time of it learning what it meant over the next few years as we struggled to get my brother treatment against a GP who thought my brother "seemed fine", and then struggled to keep ourselves mentally healthy through visits to the psychiatric ward, depressing periods in which my brother's body (not his soul) was released back into the family home, and then frightening periods in which it was quite clear that the family home was not the best place for him to be.

It was during this traumatic time that I first became politically active, joining up with a group of mothers of schizophrenics who regularly attended the cross party groups on mental illness at the Scottish Parliament. I had taken from my experience a determination that what had happened to me should happen to as few further people as was possible.

I thought at the time and still think now that teenagers should not have to rely on lectures they receive in university courses for their education on mental health. Early intervention is vital in minimising mental illnesses' effects on families and improving outcomes for the patient. The best way to facilitate early intervention in mental illness is to ensure that the population has the means to identify early warning signs, and for primary care services to be sufficiently trained in mental health issues for them to be able to act appropriately when concerns are raised. It is time for the British stiff upper lip to be allowed the luxury of movement and for comprehensive mental health and relationships education to be rolled out across all schools. If a politician's job is not to safeguard the happiness of the citizens then what exactly is it they are supposed to be doing?

There are millions of voters out there who will have been similarly pleased to hear a politician announce further investment in mental health services. I hope it continues to be something which appears in our pre-election message, though perhaps with further commitments to mental health education alongside the much-needed health service investment. Identifying policies that speak to the silent majority who do not shout and stamp their feet about issues seems to me to be a very sensible way of approaching a general election campaign. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

For the sake of the Camspawn don't vote conservative.

It's always nice to be able to cite scholarly articles I may have encountered in my past life as a neuroscience student in calling for voters to abandon the conservatives in droves.

If the Camerons want a healthy, happy, well-adjusted child then they should be hoping for a crushing defeat in the coming election. No need to move house (one of the most stressful life events we go through as humans apparently), and no insane media circus following your every move. Samantha Cameron could just relax, eat well and look forward to a happy life with a laid-back, chilled-out, back-bench MP.

Stress during pregnancy can have considerable effects upon foetal brain development and future behavioural problems. So, for the sake of #Camspawn and its Camhost, don't vote Conservative.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Mephedrones will keep happening until we wake up to our drug policy failings.

It was only a matter of time before mephedrone hit the headlines associated with the death of a healthy young teenager, and we sadly learned today of two teenage friends in Scunthorpe who have died after taking the drug. We also learned - but only if we read further into the various news articles - that the boys are thought to have been drinking, and also to have taken the class A drug methadone (commonly used as a heroin substitute in treating heroin dependency). While mephedrone may have been a contributory factor in their death, perhaps the sober piece of advice to be issuing at this stage would be for individuals not to mix alcohol, mephedrone and methadone over the course of an evening.

That said, I have considerable sympathy with calls for an immediate ban. Many of the testimonies I have heard or read speak of teenagers trying the drug thinking "it's okay because it's legal". All the evidence meanwhile points to mephedrone having similar effects and harms to drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Were mephedrone to be brought into the current classification system it seems likely that it would be a class A drug with all the criminal penalties for possession and supply that go with that. We are hearing about mephedrone use becoming extremely widespread amongst young people and we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to criminalise these people if they wish to continue use after the drug becomes prohibited.

For me the greatest concern is the drug's availability. I have just googled mephedrone and found the 3rd listed website is offering half a kilo of the drug for just under £2000 (1st: compilation of news links reporting deaths attributed to the drug, 2nd: the drug's Wikipedia entry). There is apparently nothing to stop anyone with a debit card purchasing their choice of quantity from a gram (£13) upwards.

So what should be done about the situation? Sadly the ACMD still hasn't recovered sufficiently in numbers from the Nutt sacking affair for it to be able to make a formal recommendation. But can we wait for it to retain its competency?

I personally found my ease of access to the drug quite chilling, and given the press coverage today and again tomorrow: we can only expect further curious individuals to check out the website and have a dabble themselves. Surely urgent action is required, and probably the most sensible course would be to adopt the "Class D" approach that has been used in New Zealand. Here's David Nutt on Class D from tomorrow's Guardian:

"One approach would be a new class in the Misuse of Drugs Act – the class D model, adopted in New Zealand to deal with BZP. This is a holding category where drugs can be put before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it comes with health education messages. Society can limit sales and collect data on use.
Manufacturers and shops that disobey these regulations are punished, and the young are protected, but not criminalised. Last summer the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, when under my chairmanship, suggested this approach in response to the growing use of spice and BZP. It was rejected, they were both made class C, and possibly as a consequence young people began to turn to mephedrone."

When the government instead prohibits sale and places the drug in class A a few months in the future, some unintended (but to be expected) consequences will arise. Anyone with half a brain will know that prohibition will lead to an increase in price. Those with less than half their scruples might seek to stockpile the drug in anticipation of prohibition and profit greatly from distribution to the existing customer base. Secondly: those who were previously enjoying the drug's legality would be committing a criminal offence after prohibition with all the risks that holds for their liberty and future employability. Thirdly: the trade would likely quickly be taken over by the dealers who currently market illegal drugs and these people would likely employ the same profit-maximisation practices of cutting and aggressive marketing that they currently employ for their cocaine and heroin. Fourthly: people who might never have tried class A drugs were it not for mephedrone's legality and availability might be tempted to try the other class A drugs it will be classified alongside. Fifthly: unscrupulous chemists will rush to discover the "next mephedrone" with which to make a quick buck at the unpredictable expense on the health of the nation.

The government should quickly act to create a Class D. We don't need any more young people being criminalised for what they consume in the hope of having a fun time (often misplaced from what I can tell). One thing the government cannot afford to do though is wait. The mistaken consideration of this drug's legality being indicative of its safety is risking the futures of too many children for inactivity to be an option.

If the government is to get it wrong in prohibiting mephedrone then I hope they do so soon. The experience with mephedrone must then be seen as further stark demonstration that current drug policy is not working. If the government plays it right they can use mephedrone as an excuse to review their drugs policy in the face of tabloid outrage. If we continue as we are, all the drugs that Britons use will continue to constitute a greater health, social and economic burden than they need to. And if we continue as we are, there will doubtless be many more drugs that will add to that burden in the same way mephedrone is doing now.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Urgent support required for emergency anthrax-contaminated heroin motion

I have a very short amount of time to gather 10 supporting reps for this anthrax-contaminated heroin motion for conference:
Once you have read it, approve of its content and wish to support it as an elected rep, please call me on 07817536149 to give me your backing. It needs to happen before noon I'm afraid. :(
The last minute nature of this is not my fault.

Conference notes with concern:
i) That at least 26 injecting heroin users have contracted anthrax infections from contaminated heroin in the UK since December last year, with 11 of these infections proving fatal.
ii) Research commissioned by the Scottish government suggests that the average problem drug user costs society over £60,000 each year through the costs of crime, criminal justice costs, health service demands and other factors.
Conference further notes
iii) That experience from a growing number of European states and from pilot trials in the UK shows that prescribing heroin to treatment-resistant heroin addicts for supervised consumption in clinics is considerably more effective than methadone in improving patient and societal outcomes.
Conference believes:
a) That Health Protection Agency advice is unlikely to change the behaviour of people addicted to heroin.
b) That current provision of treatment services for heroin addicts is inadequate
c) That provision of alternative pharmaceutical sources of heroin to injecting heroin users could not only protect the users from the risk of anthrax infection, but protect the communities in which they live from the criminality drug addicts are often compelled to engage in to service their addiction.
Conference therefore calls for:
1) The United Kingdom and Scottish authorities to consider taking significant action to safeguard the health of heroin addicts, especially in the regions affected by the unfolding anthrax crisis.
2) The relevant authorities to learn from the experience of our European neighbours in considering the nature of this action, including consideration of the prescription of pharmaceutical heroin for supervised consumption.