A theme running through many of the entries in this blog over the past couple of years has been the cod science employed to justify prohibition, the easy to understand desire of the prohibition regime to silence descenting voices and the perceived need by politicians to control the flow of information. The reason for all this is simple: Prohibition would be exposed as the dangerous, repressive sham that it is if a free flow of information were allowed. The past week have seen two developments which illustrate this situation all too well.

The first comes from one of the few long running truly independent  drugs groups in the country,  a desperate plea from Release for a cash injection to fund their helpline. Release have been proudly distinct from most other drug agencies in England at least (Crew in Scotland can also hold its head high) by being willing to speak out against prohibition, unlike other once vocal agencies  they never took the government’s shilling and agreed to keep quiet about the need for law reform.

The help line page is here and explains the helpline has two elements; the legal help and drugs help.

Legal Helpline
The legal helpline is staffed by qualified lawyers, paralegals and trained volunteers, who will provide information and advice to the public and professionals. Legal advice is provided on criminal matters; drugs classification; anti social behaviour orders; legal issues pertinent to drugs users such as travelling with prescribed controlled drugs, the impact of criminal convictions and cautions, drug use and its impact on driving requirements. Advice can also be provided on other legal issues — if the legal team cannot assist you with your enquiry, they will provide details of other services that can.

Representation is not a service offered through the helpline although in some cases where there are issues of public law arising, Release will be able to refer you to lawyers who specialise in this area.

Drugs Helpline
Our drug services are managed and run by a team of specialist advisors assisted by trained volunteers.

The drugs team provides help, advice, information, support and referral to people affected directly and indirectly by drug use.

This is an essential service and more than that it’s a trusted service. Unlike Frank this isn’t a government run advertising campaign aimed at promoting the prohibition policy with an advice service tacked on; Release is a service aimed at drugs users which grew from the street scene and never forgot its roots. It can still be trusted to view the people who needs its help as victims rather than criminals, unlike Frank which certainly does not. The irony is that “Frank” is the major referrer of clients to the Release service because, despite being funded by massive government handouts Frank doesn’t have the expertise that Release has.

All this is in serious jeopardy and the Release Helpline will have to close soon if it doesn’t get a fix of more cash and quickly. Release needs your help and needs it now, you can make donations via its website here but more than that you can also help in other ways. There’s a facebook page here, please have a look and do what you can to help, but time is tight and this invaluable service might not be around much longer.

It’s worth remembering that the Release helpline closing would be a significant boost for the prohibition regime. Truly independent voices are a thorn in the side of the Home Office which would much rather have sole control of the “information” about drugs, don’t let Frank become the only source of help and advice.

The other problem this past week has involved data collection. Almost two years ago this blog highlighted the cod science that underpins support for prohibition. Back then UKCIA reported on the Home Office potency study which looked at cannabis strengths. Amazingly this study was the first official bit of research that informed the government that the UK cannabis market had changed from being supplied mostly by hash imported from North Africa to herbal cannabis grown here in the UK. So 10 years or more after cannabis users discovered “home grown”, those supposedly in charge of the drug “control” regime finally found out about it.

One of the main points raised in that blog from January 2009 was the cod science used to compile the Home Office potency study carried out by the ACMD in 2008, in particular the information gathering method used. As reported at the time:

So this Home Office study set out to fill in some of the blanks in our knowledge of just what isn’t really being controlled.  Now the first problem they had is how to collect samples. For any study that wants to be taken seriously, the sampling method used is all important. You have to be sure of taking a representative sample or your results will be meaningless. The ACMD had no choice but to ignore this important prerequisite and to go with the best they could get, which was police seizures from people who had been given a warning for possession.

Ensuring the data collected in any study is in fact representative is vital for any scientifically valid study. If you can’t measure something properly, you can’t do science on it, that is  a totally non-negotiable pre condition, the need to be able to measure things to all intents and purposes  a definition of what science is. If a study is conducted using bad data the results will be meaningless and certainly should be relied upon, the old adage is true: Garbage in, garbage out.

The data collection employed in the study was described thus:

For operational reasons some forces chose to send in material from only one Borough Command Unit or from one of several forces collection points. Some forces experienced internal logistics problems; others were very enthusiastic and sent in everything received during the trial period.

There is no way such a pathetic system of data collection can be regarded as in anyway valid, yet it was used to “prove” the claimed increase in “potency” – itself a dodgy concept – and was used by the government to justify the decision to re-reclassify cannabis to class B.

Now, this might have been acceptable had the ACMD accepted the shortcomings, but they didn’t. Nowhere in the potency study were the problems of data collection even acknowledged beyond the totally inadequate paragraph quoted above, let alone highlighted as being a weakness of the study. Had they been and had the resulting conclusions carried the rider that the conclusions arrived at were no more than a potential illustration of the situation on the ground it might have been acceptable. As it is this study cannot seriously be regarded as a solid bit of research.

The problem is prohibition makes proper data collection impossible. There are lots of accepted methods for taking samples of a population or trade, but they all involve being able to sample representatively and to do that you have to be able to interview your subjects, buy your sample and so on in ways which are accepted as producing statistically valid results and you simply can’t do that with something like cannabis because it’s illegal. A point made frequently on this blog and elsewhere on UKCIA is that prohibition prevents proper studies of what’s going on and as a result means any conclusions about what is actually happening are at best skewed and at worse totally worthless.

One area which really needs a proper study is the medical use of cannabis. The government claims there is no medical benefit from using the raw herbal version of the plant, a position they have long held despite much evidence to the contrary of course. Recently they have begrudgingly allowed the development of a cannabis drug – SATIVEX – because as  James Brokenshire in the Home Offices strangely puts it with no hint of irony:

The Government recognises that there are people with chronic pain and debilitating illness who are looking to alleviate their symptoms and who may not find adequate relief from existing medication.

Which is an odd property for something with no medicinal value to have. SATIVEX, despite government claims is no more than cannabis with all the inert vegetable matter removed, it is cannabis and is not as they claim “cannabis based”.

So how many people do use cannabis (including SATIVEX) medicinally now? How do they use it? What conditions do they use it for? It would seem to be a good idea to ask these questions and it’s perhaps telling that the government hasn’t dared to try to find out. So is was that the development of a medicinal cannabis register was proposed recently; the British Medicinal Cannabis Register – BMCR – is to become just that and UKCIA is proud to be associated with it.

The idea was simple, just ask people who use cannabis to enter their details on a database which could then be used to illustrate the extent of the demand for medical cannabis which the government is denying. Like all data collection regarding cannabis use though, the project has come up against the perhaps obvious problem, you can’t ask people – especially people in serious pain who are scared stiff of losing their meds to a police raid- to admit to breaking the law because they simply won’t tell you and who can blame them?

In all honesty this is a crazy situation to be in: We know there is a major issue with cannabis use and we know a lot of very ill people depend on it to make life at least manageable. Never mind the fact that millions of people use cannabis for enjoyment, we can’t even go out there an collect firm data about something as important as medicinal use, like the government we are actually prevented from doing it by the existence of a law supposedly in place to control drug use, how mad is that? This is a totally unacceptable situation but whilst we have prohibition we’re stuck with it.

The BMCR will go ahead and the past week has seen the development of a way to collect the data which doesn’t involved identifying individuals, but of course this will compromise the data to some extent, there’s no way around that. Unlike the government though the BMCR is going to have to be honest about this compromise and will be able to point to it as yet another argument against prohibition. At the very least its hoped the BMCR will shine a light on the scale of the problem and go some way to counter the lies put out by politicians.

The BMCR is still very much in development and it is hoped to be launched properly sometime next month, this blog will no doubt have more to say about it all in due course.