Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Fisking Kathy Gyngell

It's always exciting when I find another link on twitter or facebook to a Kathy Gyngell blogpost on the drug policy debate. I read about drugs policy and come to certain conclusions. Kathy reads the same things and comes to completely different conclusions. I've been wanting to pick all the little non-fact nits out of one of her articles for a while now and I think it's about time I stepped up to the plate. After all, Kathy - having been the major agitator behind The Conservative's drug policy for the last few years – is basically my conservative equivalent. Step aside folks. This battle is mine (though of course if you do feel the need to step in to advise me then your facts and ideas are welcome).

For her latest article Kathy has also rather stumbled on to my territory by having a go at the Transform/Ipsos MORI drug policy poll reported in the media last week. I commissioned a drug policy poll myself in 2010 with the help of Liberal Democrat colleagues, so it's a subject I follow with some interest.

It's a long article, and she has form, so this might take a while to isolate all the little untruths and distortions, but I feel it has to be done.

[I did have a go at the first paragraph, but it has been criticised very ably already (and better than I achieved) by John Robertson at "The Poison Garden" He used 1,000 words on the first paragraph alone so I shall pick up the baton at...]

Paragraph 2:

Gyngell: “Previously commissioned YouGov drug polls (for the Observer) suggest attitudes towards drug use have hardened, not softened”

An interesting assertion, though no link provided so that we can check it our for ourselves.

Gyngell: “The recent Sun YouGov poll hardly found a ringing endorsement for Nick Clegg’s call for a drug policy review either - 50% of his own party members (known for their often off-the-wall views) disagreed and the vast majority of Conservative and Labour members gave it the thumbs down.”

This is where it really gets good/weird. There was a recent Sun YouGov poll  and here's a quote from the YouGov website: “There is majority support for a royal commission across party lines, with 59% of Conservative voters, 62% of Labour supporters and 75% of Lib Dems in favour.” The full results also show a majority in favour of trials of Portuguese-style decriminalisation (a result not replicated by the Ipsos MORI poll using different methodology). And on page 1 there is a trend since June of more people favouring legalisation or decriminalisation of “soft drugs such as cannabis”, such that more people favoured reform than the status quo. Is there another recent Sun YouGov poll that doesn't so utterly destroy Kathy's argument?

Clegg called for a Royal Commission before Christmas, so I assume that's what Kathy refers to when she says “review”. If anyone can point to a poll of party “members” I'd be intrigued to read it, but if 50% of Liberal Democrat members disagree with the call for a review, they must have been outside the walls of the conference hall when my 2011 drug policy motion calling for government to set up an immediate review was passed. It passed “with only one or two votes against” and there were many more than 4 people in the hall.

Paragraph 3:

Gyngell describes Transform's mission as “To persuade understandably wary politicians to throw caution to the winds on drugs”

This is of course entirely unfair to Transform, as their efforts recently have mainly been directed at achieving a wide-ranging, government-initiated independent review of all options for reform (including stricter prohibition). They do this presumably because they think their position in advocating a regulated legal market for drugs is in fact the most cautious means of dealing with drug use in respect to reducing the harms to individuals both from drugs and from criminal sanctions. If Gyngell is as confident in her solutions to the drug problem, then she should surely support their examination alongside the alternatives proposed by Transform. She doesn't.

Later on:

Gyngell: “Ipsos Mori, the pollster, it seems took Transform’s biased portrayal of UK drug policy as contrasted with ‘decriminalised regimes’ at face value.”

And here is that “biased portrayal”:
POSSESSION OF ILLEGAL DRUGS IS CURRENTLY A CRIMINAL OFFENCE IN THE UK. SOME OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE ‘DECRIMINALISED’ POSSESSION OF SMALL QUANTITIES OF ILLEGAL DRUGS FOR PERSONAL USE.
THIS MEANS THAT POSSESSION OF A SMALL QUANTITY FOR PERSONAL USE IS USUALLY PUNISHED WITH FINES (LIKE A SPEEDING FINE), ATTENDANCE AT A DRUG TREATMENT OR EDUCATION PROGRAMME, RATHER THAN ARREST.
UNDER 'DECRIMINALISATION', DRUGS ARE STILL CONFISCATED. PRODUCTION AND SUPPLY TO OTHERS REMAIN CRIMINAL OFFENCES THAT MAY RESULT IN PUNISHMENTS CARRYING A CRIMINAL RECORD,
FOR EXAMPLE A PRISON SENTENCE, FINES OR COMMUNITY SERVICE. WITH THIS IN MIND, WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING COMES CLOSEST TO YOUR VIEW OF THE LAW IN THE UK?

Is this not a fairly rigorous description of the reality in Portugal, the decriminalisation model which I certainly favour, and which would likely be the route that Britain would follow it politicians gathered the courage?

Gyngell: “And like the rest of the media, it swallowed Transform’s fallacious presentation of the impact of decriminalisation in Portugal.“

Ok, I'm not sure you could call Ipsos MORI part of the media for starters, but here's what was presented:

SINCE THIS WAS INTRODUCED IN PORTUGAL IN 2001, AND RESOURCES WERE INSTEAD SPENT ON HEALTHCARE, OVERALL USE OF DRUGS ROSE AT A SIMILAR RATE TO NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES.
HOWEVER, THERE WERE HIGHER NUMBERS ACCESSING DRUG TREATMENT, THE JUSTICE SYSTEM SPENT LESS TIME AND RESOURCES ON DRUG-RELATED CRIME, AND THERE WERE FALLS IN PROBLEMATIC DRUG USE,
AND DRUG USE AMONGST SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN ALSO FELL. WITH THIS IN MIND, WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING COMES CLOSEST TO YOUR VIEW OF THE LAW IN THE UK?

The results of Portuguese decriminalisation have been disputed, but the best way to resolve this dispute is to turn to someone who has addressed it and published peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject. If interested, please read Professor Alex Stevens (introduction here) The only potentially biased aspect of this description is therefore the reporting of a fall in use among school-age children, which from Hughes and Stevens' work appears to be a trend also seen in Italy and other EU countries (see British Journal of Criminology article).

What Gyngell fails to mention is that the polled group was split. Half of those polled saw the description of what decriminalisation meant. Half additionally saw the description of what happened in Portugal. So the presentation of the facts on Portugal was not an attempt to skew the poll, but an exploration of what presentation of those facts - or their absence – would mean for public opinion.

Gyngell: “This was what they gave their na├»ve subjects to consider before the second set of questions they were asked about their preference for a drug policy review.”

I shall repeat, half of the group saw just the decriminalisation description, and half additionally saw the largely accurate (though perhaps slightly biased) reporting of what occurred in Portugal. These separate groups were reported separately for the subsequent polling questions (though their answers were pooled for the press release).

Gyngell: “The first page of the actual poll read quite something else than the press release. Despite the encouragingly negative portrayal of British policy that prefaced the first question, it found:
  • 60 per cent support for our drug laws as they are
  • 60 per cent support for possession of illegal drugs remaining a criminal offence.
  • 68% of Conservative supporters, 56% of Labour supporters and 61% of Liberal supporters – all clear majorities – backing this status quo
  • And finally 74% of Asian and 77% of Blacks backing all the above (a headline of its own surely?).
Far from heralding a dramatic liberalisation of attitude, the poll showed only 14% of the population favouring the decriminalisation of possession, only 21% prepared to back a limited decriminalisation trial in a specified area.”
I fail to see how “POSSESSION OF ILLEGAL DRUGS IS CURRENTLY A CRIMINAL OFFENCE IN THE UK.” is an encouragingly negative portrayal of British policy. Gyngell also fails to mention that the first page of the poll data was from the group not exposed to the information/propaganda on what had happened in Portugal. So after railing against the exposure of poll participants to this bias, she presents the numbers from those who were not exposed to this bias. Sneaky.
I'm not sure why she feels she has to use the 60% figure twice. She's reporting the same answer to the same question. And on what race-obsessed planet would the opinions of 37 Asian and 12 black people make a worthwhile headline? There was no significant difference between these groups and the rest. The numbers of black people in the survey were so small they didn't even test for significance. And why not report the fact that only 36% of mixed ethnicity participants backed the status quo? Is it because that didn't fit into her narrative, or because that was only 3 people out of 7? And by "all of the above", she is still referring to one answer to one polling question.
Gyngell: “Could my reading be correct? I checked with an academic colleague. His reply restored my faith in my sanity as well as my eyesight:
The results are as you have interpreted them not as have been presented by Transform, the majority remain in favour of legal barriers (to drugs possession)”, he said.”
It's fun to consider this exchange as that between a crazy person and an unfortunate passing colleague desperate not to feed the loony troll, but the chances are he was presented with incomplete information in much the same way as the readers of her blog. The poll question asked by Ipsos MORI on cannabis regulation, decriminalisation, or prohibition was accurately reported by Transform. They did include the results on decriminalisation of general drug possession in their press release under the heading "Additional survey findings include...", and they let people look at the full results of the poll for themselves on their website. I'd say this was good practice. Much better than writing an epic blog whinge with no links to evidence provided whatsoever.
Gyngell: “So how come then did two thirds of those polled, decide, against their prior answers, that a review of the drug law was in order, how did roughly half back the idea of either legalising or decriminalising cannabis?
They were doped - metaphorically speaking – duped by the great Portuguese drug fallacy”
Were they though Kathy? Half of them weren't exposed to the factual information on what has happened in Portugal, and what did that half have to say?
Support for a review (those without info on Portugal) 64%
Support for a review (those with info on Portugal) 70%
So even among those not doped up on propaganda, 64% support a full independent review of all drug policy options.
Support for cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation (not exposed) 51%
Support for cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation (exposed) 54%
So only a maximum of 6% of the sample were corrupted by what were facts presented in good faith.
Gyngell then launches into an effort to disprove the information provided about successes in Portugal. And in some of this writing she is occasionally correct. If Baroness Meacher is claiming in the media that less people are taking drugs in Portugal than before then she probably shouldn't be.
Then something remarkable happens. Gyngell introduces a source of information which is new to me and which might actually disprove the one shaky assertion in the Portugal information in the poll.
School age use data, however, which has been monitored recently shows a steady rise in Portugal since 1999 (by contrast with a 30% downward trend in school age use since 1999 here) rising rapidly in the last 5 years from 10 -16%. My source was the well reputed and reliable, comparative ESPAD monitoring studies. All this I explained.”
It's a shame she has to tarnish this good work by using the word steady in describing the rise in drug use among school-age children that happened in Portugal. In fact both use of cannabis and of other illicit drugs fell in the data from 2003 to 2007. Generate these graphs for Portugal using this website and you see clearly very wavy lines rather than the straight ones Gyngell implies with the word "steady". This pattern of lifetime use in teenagers is entirely consistent with investment in prevention and treatment alongside decriminalisation decreasing teenage experimentation, and subsequent removal of this investment due to economic circumstances leading to experimentation rising again. It's also a shame that she says that there has been a rise from 10-16% in the past five years. In 2011 cannabis use was at 16% (pats Kathy on head), but the only other data points since 1999 were 2003 (15%), and 2007 (13%). I'm going to be generous and suggest Kathy Gyngell can't read graphs.
Gyngell then gets nasty
Baroness Meacher is by no means the first to have been taken in by pro drugs advocates. Their campaign of disinformation has intensified since they lost the cannabis classification debate in the UK – the focus of their creeping effort to normalise cannabis use - from which neither of the main parties is likely to retract now the serious risks of cannabis use (especially by adolescents) for mental health are known.”
The pro-drugs line is a simple smear. I'm no more pro-drugs than Gyngell is. I want the harms that drugs cause to society to be lessened. I think that goal can be achieved by regulating them. I wouldn't suggest anyone take any drug if they want a better life, unless of course that drug has been recommended to them by a doctor. Organisations like Transform and Release are harm reduction organisations, not pro-drug organisations.
The serious risks to mental health are also paramount in my consideration of cannabis regulations. This is how I explain why in the upcoming issue of AdLib magazine: “Those who worry about the message sent about drugs should be able to recognise that the government message on drugs can be far better delivered by a government-approved vendor than a distant government's messy classification system. As a response to important concerns about psychosis and cannabis, the person selling legal cannabis can be trained and compelled to instruct users on the early warning signs of the illness. Far from endangering young minds, cannabis regulation should be seen as the missing piece of our otherwise excellent mental health policy.” The risks of psychosis are a reason to regulate, not the other way round.
Gyngell: “When the Home Affairs Select Committee, under Chairman Keith Vaz, decided it was time for another drugs policy inquiry, it tuned its terms of reference to theirs [the Global Commission on Drug Policy] and went on to give its prime platform to its main advocate, the self confessed dope smoking Virgin Boss, and Commission backer, Richard Branson.
This revelation hardly discredits the Committee's report any more than the fact that Kathy Gyngell herself later appeared before the committee to give evidence.
Gyngell: “...no one, least of all those best informed, seriously maintains that either decriminalisation or the longer term goal of legalisation would reduce drug use. (Reuter & McCoun 1999). They all agree it would increase it (possibly from the minority habit it is today to a majority habit like drinking and smoking).
Perhaps Kathy might like to have a read at the Release document A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies in Practice Across the Globe” The authors, following a considerable amount of research, certainly wouldn't agree that decriminalisation would increase drug use. “The main aim of the report was to look at the existing research to establish whether the adoption of a decriminalised policy led to significant increases in drug use - the simple answer is that it did not.
I'm sure others will be able to find omissions, mistakes, and slurs in Gyngell's writing that I have not. It's important that they don't go unrecorded. Gyngell after all appears regularly in the media to provide "balance" in the drug policy debate. I'm not sure how active she remains in Conservative circles regarding drug policy, but if there are any Conservative members reading this, it might be best to ask yourself, and more senior party members, whether her opinions are worth any more of the party's attention.

2 comments:

Steve Rolles said...

FYI IpsosMORI have confirmed the differences between the split sample groups on questions 2 and 3 are not statistically significant. There is a small but statistically significant difference between the split samples on Q1A and Q1B.

andria said...

Some of Kathy's assertions are also dangerous to people who really need to take medication for pain and mental health issues
One of the issues that NEVER gets raised among us as it is a quite hidden problem is the number of ex-injectors who enter abstinence programs (:-) as they want to stop using only to find they have any number of physical or MH problems that DO need medication. Hep C, HIV and/or Bipolar Disorder, Clinical and /or Major depressions and sometimes schizophrenia. These conditions often need opiate pain control or other psychoactive medicines to control various unbearable symptoms but because naive ex-users in such programs don't know any better, they often listen to other X IDUs, come off whatever the doctors have prescribed and end up very sick again
I wish that we could all focus more on the needs of those who do get in a mess and dead or almost dead as a result of drugs and stop the rhetoric, which is so dangerous for those most vulnerable to AIDS, ODs, Hepatitis, Suicide and more