This week saw the introduction of the 2010 drugs strategy; anyone hoping for a significant change of direction from the prohibition regime will be disappointed but not surprised. The announcement was preceded by two proposals which fundamentally change the way the prohibition law operates and is justified. These important changes were tacked onto the end of a bill put before parliament and one was done in the most grubby of ways.

First of course there was the revelation covered in the previous blog concerning the underhanded way the government tried (and may yet succeed) to remove the requirement of the advisory body (the ACMD) to have any scientists members. Indeed, if this amendment to the “Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill” is passed, the membership of the supposedly independent drug  advisory body

shall be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with such organisations as he considers appropriate.

That will mean that the ACMD, the body created to ensure the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MoD) is independent is being trashed, it is clear this government intends the ACMD to be no more than a rubber stamp.

The other proposal is for “temporary” bans on new substances used as recreational drugs. This proposal has come about as a result of the flood of new substances being sold as “legal highs” over recent years and both the proposal and the cause of the problem raise some interesting issues.

Firstly of course there is the question of why have these new substances have not only been introduced, but have found a ready market? A large part of the answer  can be explained by the workings of the present drugs laws; prohibition has ensured that substances in great demand are pushed into the uncontrolled illegal trade. Uncontrolled prohibited drugs are often highly contaminated, of unknown strength and supplied by less than nice people. So-called “legal highs” offered an alternative for recreational drug users which didn’t involve the dangers of the illegal trade, most people don’t want to be criminalised and don’t want to be dealing with gangsters. These “legal highs” would never have found a market had prohibition not created it; there is a strong case to be made that they are a result of prohibition policy, one of the many “unintended consequences” of prohibition.

Man-made chemicals with no proven track record of safety are clearly an unknown danger and it is easy to justify laws which control and restrict the manufacture and trade in such things but of course such laws do exist, so why don’t they get used to control the trade in so-called legal highs? Why is this new proposal deemed necessary and does it have a hidden agenda? The answer has its roots in the media panic over mephedrone last year and the need for politicians to play to the crowd.

The whole point of the ACMD was to evaluate the dangers of drugs which were or appeared to be capable of “misuse” (whatever that means). It should therefore be the role of the ACMD to identify these new substances and to suggest proper ways to control them. The logic of this way of doing things was to avoid the drugs policy being made on the back of media created panics of the type we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. The trouble is as we saw with the mess over cannabis classification what politicians think is right and what the experts tell them can be very different. The obvious solution is to do away with the pesky need for evidence and people who actually know what they’re doing and take the power to impose prohibition in house, removing any need to justify decisions made. As Daryll Bickler of the Drug Equality Alliance states

Seemingly the legacy of the sacking of former council chair professor David Nutt, and the subsequent resignations of most of the former scientists on the council, is now reaping vengeance by sweeping away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria to fulfil the need to be seen to be doing something. What is doubly shocking is that these reforms were agreed with the ACMD itself, rather like turkeys voting for Christmas. Once given away, these powers Parliament bestowed upon the ACMD will likely never be restored and subsequent governments will be free to act impulsively driven by political moral panic.

These two amendments  were introduced in the devious way they were (the one relating to the composition of the ACMD with absolutely no publicity at all) because they lie at the root of the fault line between LibDem drugs policy and that of the Tory Right wing, the last thing the coalition government wanted was a full and open debate about the direction of drugs policy and this is the result. Those amendments to the MoD should have been presented as a bill to amend the 1971 act, but that would have been far too controversial.

So what of the new strategy? The whole document is online here as a PDF download and the ACMD is mentioned in this paragraph on page 9 under “reducing demand”:

This Government is committed to an evidence-based approach. High quality scientific advice in this complex field is therefore of the utmost importance. This is why we value the work and independent advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has experts from fields that include science, medicine, law enforcement and social policy. We are committed to both maintaining this expertise and ensuring the ACMD’s membership has the flexibility to respond to the accelerating pace of challenges. The proper consideration of that advice is at the heart of enabling us to deliver this strategy, including the reforms required to tackle the problem of emerging new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’).

This is  pure deception. The ACMD’s independence is not being preserved and they are clearly not interested in an “evidence lead” approach. The word “flexibility” is a widely misused word by politicians and should always be regarded with suspicion whenever it’s used. In this context it means “doing what we decide, when and how we decide”.

The whole basis of the strategy appears to be “drugs are bad and alcohol also causes problems”; alcohol is not a drug of course because politicians use it. Indeed the very first paragraph of the introduction states

This strategy sets out the Government’s approach to tackling drugs and addressing alcohol dependence, both of which are key causes of societal harm, including crime, family breakdown and poverty. Together, they cause misery and pain to individuals, destroy families and undermine communities. Such suffering cannot be allowed to go unchecked.

So right from the very start there is a clear impression given that alcohol is something special and distinct from “drugs”. Page 7 states

It is estimated that 1.6 million people have mild, moderate or severe alcohol dependence. About a third of these will face some challenges that are similar to those dependent on drugs in needing support to help them recover.

Interestingly two thirds of the people showing alcohol dependence don’t have a problem with it, whereas apparently all dependent “drug” users do have a problem? Of the remainder who are problematic alcohol users though of course they have similar problems to people who have problems with “drugs”, in the real world alcohol addiction is in fact a drug addiction. Only in the magical world of politicians is alcohol is something special, whereas the term”drugs”  covers things as diverse as cannabis and crack cocaine. This fault line runs throughout the document. Also on page 7  it states

Alcohol plays an important part in the cultural life of this country, with large numbers employed in production, retail and the hospitality industry. Pubs, bars and clubs contribute to community and family life and also generate valuable revenue to the economy. However, alcohol is a regulated product. Some individuals misuse it, contributing to crime and anti-social behaviour, preventable illness and early death.

Alcohol is a widely used recreational drug and it is clearly a one capable of “misuse” as defined by the MoD act. It should therefore come under the same drugs policy that applies to cannabis et al, yet it is viewed as somehow special, somehow different to other drugs and treated in the polar opposite way for no other reason than a political judgement was made to that effect.

Cannabis is also widely used without problems by the vast majority of its users, it also plays a large part in the cultural life of this country despite not being a regulated product. Any reasons to treat recreational alcohol use differently to any other form of recreational drug use also apply to cannabis in particular, and perhaps to some or many other drugs. The drugs strategy denies this however and has rejected the idea of regulation without even considering it, all drugs use is bad, all drug use leads to dependence and crime apparently – this  is imply untrue. The introduction states

During the consultation process, which informed the development of this strategy, some respondents advocated liberalisation and decriminalisation as a way to deal with the problem of drugs. This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer. Decriminalisation fails to recognise the complexity of the problem and gives insufficient regard to the harms that drugs pose to the individual. It neither addresses the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol, nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community.

This is a wilful misrepresentation of the argument for a properly controlled, regulated regime for drugs. Such a regime is not “decriminalisation” or even “liberalisation”, to misrepresent the arguments in such a way can only be deliberate. It’s interesting and quite revealing that the “drugs or alcohol” phrase is used here, because the risk factors that lead people to misuse or become dependent on these drugs is clearly independent of drugs policy. No consideration has been given to the destructive effects of harm maximisation that prohibition creates; would alcohol create less problems if it were treated like cannabis? If not, why do they suppose cannabis will create more problems if it’s properly regulated and controlled like alcohol?

As the document shows cannabis use is vastly more commonplace than any other illegal drug use in the UK. Page 5 claims use levels for the last month as

All class A drug use – 648,000
All prohibited drug use (excluding cannabis) 907,000
Cannabis alone 1,250,000

These figures of course do not reveal the patterns of drug use which is all important but if there is an argument for treating alcohol differently to “drugs” based on its social acceptance it also applies to cannabis which is clearly well established in British society.

Regarding the harm prohibition causes, the strategy again misrepresents the real world situation:

The UK demand for illicit drugs is contributing directly to bloodshed, corruption and instability in source and transit countries, which we have a shared international responsibility to tackle

Without noting that the far higher rates of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine use do not. It is in fact one of the so-called “unintended consequences” of prohibition that the attempt to restrict the supply of drugs caused by the government’s policy have gifted this huge demand to the violent criminal supply side. For a government which bases its philosophy on the workings of the free market the logic makes no sense.

Much of this strategy is based on deception and clear misrepresentations right from the start; page 3 states

This strategy sets out a fundamentally different approach to tackling drugs and an entirely new ambition to reduce drug use and dependence.

Actually it’s not a “fundamentally different approach” at all, based as it is on a belief against all evidence that prohibition can work, it relies on ever more “prevention” – by which they mean prohibition, repression and stifling of debate. Far from being a fundamentally different approach it’s just more of the same with the added ability to respond to pressure from the Daily Mail by ministerial dictat approved by a toothless poodle advisory committee.

Perhaps there can be some relief that the most extreme proposals put forward by the Tory right haven’t been taken forward. As the Guardian reported on Wednesday

Plans for an “abstinence-based” drug strategy and to cut benefits for problem drug users who refused treatment, which were championed by Iain Duncan Smith and the Tory right, have been shelved.

Although much of the strategy is based around the rhetoric of “recovery” and how to help with problem drug users sort their lives out. Fortunately they seem to have gone more for the carrot than the right wing stick. There are some good ideas here, using recovered addicts to mentor people might have some merit, although as anyone who’s quit tobacco will know being a reformed smoker often doesn’t go down well with 20 a day users.

This strategy does nothing to protect vulnerable people from the dangers of the unregulated and uncontrolled illegal drugs trade beyond trying to convince them not to get involved, given the extent of the problem of children being caught up in the drugs trade – another one of those “unintended consequences” – this is really unacceptable.

The drugs strategy is based on the moralistic assumption that all drug use (apart form alcohol) is bad and inevitably leads to problematic use, it takes no account of the so-called “untended consequences” prohibition causes or the wealth of evidence which indicates it’s a failed approach. Born of faith not evidence what this policy will probably mean is more time and effort directed at something which isn’t causing a problem whilst desperately trying to solve problems caused either by forces outside the scope of the drugs policy or actually caused by it. In an attempt to make it work the risk of being given uncomfortable evidence based advice has been reduced by taking total control over the ACMD.

All things considered, the 2010 drugs strategy is quite pathetic and probably quite dangerous.