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: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article7066299.ece 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.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Robin Hood Tax: The Good, The Bad, and the really quite complicated

I'm just back from Scottish Liberal Democrat conference. A highly enjoyable weekend (except Friday night's comedy debating difficulties), with one especially stimulating meeting organised by Oxfam on the subject of the "Robin Hood Tax". The Robin Hood Tax is essentially a rebranding of the Tobin tax, and is a proposed tax on financial transactions that Oxfam are supporting as a way of raising about $200-700 billion to tackle many difficult issues. They propose that 50% of the money would be spent in the country where the tax is raised, 25% would be spent on helping poor countries to adapt to climate change, and 25% to tackle international poverty in general.

I went into the meeting broadly in favour of the tax. We need to raise some money to tackle the very serious problems we face. The bankers seem to have a whole bunch of money to spare. Why not skim a little money off every transaction and use it for the common good? I was however fairly concerned about Oxfam's marketing strategy "Join us in the world's biggest bank job" or words to that effect. It doesn't strike me as a sober, rational attempt to build consensus on how best to tackle the world's problems, rather an opportunistic and brazenly populist attempt to capitalise on the bankers current unpopularity and just stick the boot in while they're vulnerable.

I was given further cause for concern when a former banker in the audience stood up and railed against the idea, stating that while the tax appears tiny at 0.05%, this is the level that financial trading operates at these days. There is so much competition that dealing is happening to squeeze the smallest of profits out of the market. He said that this tax would push bankers towards more risky trades with higher margins and we don't want bankers making risky trades. The figures that Oxfam and others hope to raise represent approximately half of the profits of the world's banks. It is not a tiny tax. It is a massive tax.

So I piped up at the end of the discussion to say that surely we have to ensure that this tax helps curtail the risky banking behaviour, we shouldn't be jumping on Richard Curtis' populist kneejerk 0.05% tax if we're not sure it will achieve that. But I also said such a tax would be an excellent opportunity for global co-operative taxation, thinking that a global tax would eliminate the anti-taxation arguments of international competitiveness, brain-drain etc.

I made a point of attracting the former city worker's attention at the end of the event and he said a whole bunch of stuff about margins and competition that I was just about following. I then asked him where the money actually comes from. Are they actually creating wealth or just taking it from somewhere else? He explained that banks raised this money and used it to support individuals and businesses and shareholder value etc. I then asked something along the lines of "But if one bank wasn't making all this money, surely all the other banks would be doing exactly the same. What difference does trading really make?" He didn't have an answer.

So does all this money just slosh around the financial markets interminably, being rebranded as it goes into triple-A rated derivatives and the like for no great purpose? At the moment that's the impression I'm getting. I have a picture in my mind of hundreds of people on trading floors just doing some properly sissy-boy flappy fighting with everyone around them. There may be the occasional minor scratch or broken nail inflicted, but ultimately the whole endeavour is utterly pointless. And they just flap away every day until the day when a door opens in a corner of the room and releases a menagerie of wild, carnivorous animals and the whole flapping thing goes to shit and men are holding other men between themselves and hungry velociraptors, lions, bears and the like. Turns out that it all wasn't real though. Some benevolent Demi-God known as Darling just pushed the reset button, they all had brief, "I'm alive! Everything from now on is going to have meaning and be useful!" moments and then presumably figured that flappy-fighting was more fun and got right back on board.

So what then could the "Robin Hood tax" achieve? It should reduce trading, reduce the number of people employed in the business and reduce the profits to be made from the business. If it reduces the number of companies engaging in trading then there will be fewer people who'd want to poach your best staff. So where would be the point in giving them enormous bonuses if there are few other places for them to go? Bonuses should surely fall, the gross inequalities in our nation should diminish and everything would get better (I'm reading "The Spirit Level" at the moment).

I don't know enough about risky trading to know how this tax will affect it. The former banker I was talking too explained that banking often comes up with new products as soon as people realise how to trade in the last one and margins diminish. I suppose it might be possible that this tax would accelerate the creation of new products with higher margins and increase the possibility of disastrous cock-ups but then I am writing this paragraph purely with my logical brain and not through any actual knowledge of the subject. Maybe some bankers could enlighten me?

So to sum up, I think it is a great idea, but the difference between 0.05% and 0.01% should probably be seen in the same way as ordinary citizens would consider the difference between 10 and 50% income tax. We have to be careful and ensure we get that number right and properly study the potential ramifications. I feel it's imperative that we split the high street banks from their speculative arms before we conduct this experiment. Either that or ease the tax in gently over time.

Hopefully I'll have time to read into this properly and get back to you all.