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.