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.