The Home Office has just come to the end of its two week attempt at involving people in the drugs policy by way of a blog, which hopefully will be left online here. To be fair unlike the American Drug Tsar blog it was at least open to comments – albeit highly moderated to keep any real discussion at bay. The object of the blog was outlined as:

The new Drug Strategy “Reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery: supporting people to live a drug free life” was published on 8th December 2010.
Now we’d like to hear from our key delivery partners what the new Drug Strategy means for you. What are the successes and challenges in delivering the strategy in your area?

So this was to be a blog aimed at “drug support industry” (a term the drugs support organisations use to describe themselves) workers to give feedback. Of course as soon as this was announced a huge number of people tried to give feedback of the wrong sort. The first post was made on March 7th by the Home Office Minister with responsibility

JAmes Brokenshire

James Brokenshire "smiling"

for drugs and alcohol, James Brokenshire who is pictured with  a smile that can only be politely described as “posed”

 

As we shift power and accountability to local areas to tackle the damage that drugs and alcohol dependence cause our communities, we really want to hear from you, on your challenges and successes in achieving the ambitions of the strategy.

What James wanted were comments about how the policy is being rolled out, what he got at first of course was a rush of critical questions, as usual first of the mark being from Transform’s Steve Rolles

There has been no cost benefit analysis to justify the huge costs of these ineffective efforts, or efforts made to assess the unintended consequences of criminalising so many citizens whose drug abuse and addiction needs help and support not ostracism and punishment.

This got an interesting reply David Oliver – who had been delegated the job of running the blog

In relation to your point on impact assessment, the Government has committed to using evidence to drive the very best outcomes for individuals and communities. The Government is currently developing an evaluation framework to assess the effectiveness and value for money of the Drug Strategy. If the current evaluation evidence is considered too sparse or weak to provide a satisfactory assessment of value for money, we will identify the extent to which evidence gaps can be filled and the standard of evaluation improved.

If that actually happens we can expect to see great changes very quickly, it won’t of course.

There then followed what looks like a rash of unmoderated comments all critical of the drugs policy which were followed by a comment from David Oliver

There have been a number of posts along a similar theme, advocating liberalisation and decriminalisation as a way to deal with the problem of drugs and we have published a representative sample. I hope that those who have taken the time to comment understand the need to keep this blog focussed on its aim as a forum for key delivery partners to share ideas about the implementation of the drug strategy. This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer and this blog is not intended to be a discussion forum around the drugs legal framework, on which this Government has already made its position clear.

More comments critical of the approach were published, but then things settled down to the sort of debate the Home Office was after, sort of

At this time of a) cuts and b) a new drugs strategy which both incorporates alcohol and is newly focused on recovery, there will be a strong incentive for these new inexperienced bodies to get on with recommissioning services as fast as possible.

What safeguards can you put in place to ensure this is not a complete disaster?

Mohammad asked

The religious group, though little, yet they have a very important role to play in this fight.

And Mark asked

Why do you define Alcohol different from drugs?????

Clare made some good points including

Finally, Cannabis is a classic example of the failings of the War on Drugs. It is much stronger than it’s ever been, i’ts not controlled, the strength of what is commonly available on the streets is significant in attributing to the increased cases of mental illness. Will the new Drug strategy change this?

Keith Stephenson wrote

There have been lots of comments about defining the difference between alcohol and drugs, lots of stuff about legalising this or that and taking it out of the criminal justice system and all these points are valid and have their place. But I think that most of us, at the coal face” are concerned primarily with recovery. Recovery for all those who realise that they want to turn their life around be it from alcohol, legal or illegal drugs.

Ben Lodge was one contributor who looked to the wider issues driving problem drug use

Therefore, the challenge in terms of implementation of this strategy, is to achieve the aim of ‘reducing demand’, whilst operating against a background of risk factors increasing in severity, and protective factors decreasing in efficacy. Further, it is difficult to see how a comprehensive and effective strategy could so easily dismiss the range of risk factors in effect, and the considerable impact they have on people’s lives, especially when it struggles to recognise that causes of drug use extend beyond the individual into the society that surrounds (and should be supporting) them.

What was interesting about the 59 comments was that there was much talk of the need for law reform, better accountability and more community based support, but hardly anyone  highlighted the role of law enforcement and criminalisation in the reduction of the drug problem.

March 16th saw an update from David Oliver which only attracted 16 comments

Some of you have done so already, including Andrew Brown in his post concerning drug education (8th March at 9.05).

My response to the points that Andrew raises is that all young people should have high quality drug and alcohol education so they have a thorough knowledge of their effects and harms and have the skills and confidence to choose not to use drugs and alcohol. Although education on its own cannot prevent children from the harm caused by drug and alcohol misuse it is an important component in helping them to understand and deal with the dangers of misuse.

The constant use of “drug and alcohol” was a point picked up by several comments to the previous post, but it’s interesting to see a common approach for young people, although perhaps there’s a hint at a conflict even here. David talks of giving young people the “skills and confidence to choose not to use drugs and alcohol” which is fine and then “education on its own cannot prevent children from the harm caused by drug and alcohol misuse”. Both phrases of course are fine, but where does “responsible use” fit into this strategy? Well, as we will see it does, but only for alcohol and for very dubious reasons. The idea that “drugs” can be “used” rather than “misused” isn’t a concept the government is willing to entertain.

An old favourite popped up in the comments – Mary Brett of Europe Against Drugs – who took the opportunity to make exaggerated claims about the information given by Frank about cannabis including this gem:

There is increasing scientific evidence for the ’gateway’ theory. Cannabis seems to prime the brain for the use of other drugs – FRANK has no mention of the theory at all. Children need to be warned.

Which is, of course, simply wrong. But she also wrote

It (Frank) says cannabis will make them sick but Nabilone (medical THC) is used as an anti-emetic.

Far be it for me to every been seen agreeing with Mary Brett but on this she is actually right! The claims Frank makes about cannabis making users sick is strange to understand, because it doesn’t.

David Raynes, another regular prohibition voice added support to Mary’s comments

Get cannabis policy right, get prevention of smoking (anything) right and the UK would be well on the way to a substantial improvement in reducing the total harm from all drugs.

This is at the root of the prohibition myth: Crack down hard on cannabis and you solve all the drug problem. Utter stupidity of course, but they really believe it.

Most of the other comments were from people either delivering the drugs strategy in schools or from anti drug charities generally supportive of the policy, there were no critical comments printed, although some were received.

March 15th and another update from David Oliver and this time he tried to explain the alcohol issue by trotting out the somewhat amazing government line as to why alcohol isn’t treated like a drug:

We know that alcohol misuse accounts for more health problems, as well as being a driver in crime and disorder. The means by which alcohol is regulated is embedded in historical tradition and the tolerance of responsible consumption; and the licensing controls remain acceptable to the vast majority of people. The way in which we regulate alcohol therefore remains distinct from the method by which we control illicit drugs.

It is truly amazing that a government can seriously base a supposedly “evidence driven” policy on something like that. Only two comments were printed to this post one of which came from Tom:

I must take issue with you here, I thought you were using evidenced based policy, not historical precedent?
Are you saying you are using historical and cultural precedent over evidence?
Looks like it to me.

No further debate was entered into of course. They must realise the bankruptcy of this argument, yet they keep trotting it out with a straight face, it’s utterly amazing.

Nigel Kirby – Head of Drugs Intelligence (SOCA) tried to rally support for the enforcement approach on 17th March

Heroin shortages have been reported in several locations throughout the UK. Intelligence tells us that a key contributor to the “heroin drought” is national and international law enforcement activity.

He only talked about Heroin and seemed to think the shortage was a totally good thing. Only three comments were printed and all were highly critical – including one from Steve Rolles which amongst other points mentioned

a high potential for increases in health harms as drugs become increasingly cut/contaminated, strength becoming less predictable leading to more overdoses, and potential displacement into use of other drugs – such as benzodiazapines – all of which have been observed anecdotally during the recent drought (that you appear to be taking credit for). If there are health benefits in terms of decreased use I have seen no evidence of this.

There were no replies supportive of the enforcement regime.

And that was the end of the “experiment”. In summary David Oliver wrote

When the Minister opened the blog he highlighted that we were really keen to hear what the new Drug Strategy means for our key delivery partners.We’ll now evaluate the pilot to see if we’ve been successful in achieving that aim and we will post our findings on this site later in the Spring.

If they would dare to really open this debate it would be hard to keep the pretence of having an evidence based policy intact for very long, but it was an interesting toe in the water experiment, it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of it.