The end of yet another perfect year: 2011 review (Pt1 January – March)

Yet another year is about to come to an end and the outlook for the world, we are told, is dark indeed. We face a recession worse than anything in living memory; we are, apparently, broke. All of us face cuts in living standards, the threat of mass unemployment hangs over those of us still in work and things we thought we had as assets are becoming liabilities. Even those of us who prepared for old age by joining pension schemes now see these losing value and moving ever further out of reach. The regime of austerity we are to face means that every penny the government spends has to be justified; schools, hospitals, libraries and more besides face deep cuts – the fat went years ago, now the cuts are into bone. This applies to everything, apart it seems from one area of government policy.

There is one exception to the cuts and accountability demanded of everything else; the government is determined to keep fighting its war on drugs, to keep pouring ever more money into the black hole of prohibition and while doing so to prevent anyone asking difficult questions about value for money. This carries on despite all the evidence showing that after 40 years the war on drugs has achieved precisely nothing – indeed less than nothing. Prohibited drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before, around the globe whole countries are in the grip of violence as organised crime and terrorists reap the rewards of a multibillion pound industry stripped of any control or regulation. Worse still the very people the government claims all this is designed to protect – the young – are placed at the biggest risk and the age of first use of prohibited drugs falls ever younger.

This year has shown the cracks like never before though as ever more influential voices speak out against the madness, but governments around the world – especially here and in the US – refuse to listen to the growing howls of protest.

Right at the start of the year MP Bob Ainsworth, an ex-drugs minister from the Blair years spilled the beans, albeit rather late in the day:

Politicians can often be found wringing their collective hands wondering why people regard them as lower than second-hand car salesmen or even estate agents, you really don’t have to look  much further than Bob Ainsworth to understand the roots of this contempt. It is only now that he is no longer in government he feels able to tell the truth about the utter failure of UK drug prohibition in the way he did last week, all the time he could actually have influenced things he kept his head down, toed the party line and went along with a policy he knew was a disaster.

But at least he has said what he said and it’s far better late than never.

What he had said wasn’t news to any of us really

…prohibition has failed to protect us. Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harms to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit. We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.

He was just the first to break ranks this year

The Chav channel (BBC 3), the channel where issues are dumbed down so the masses can understand what the government wants them to know and where professional programme makers try to make programmes that look like their made by media studies students screened a programme called “How drugs work” about cannabis. Actually, this effort was much better than most of the rubbish BBC 3 puts out, although it did come out with

Cannabis affects us more than any other drug

Which is simply wrong.  Apparently we are

hot wired to react to cannabis

and

cannabis penetrates the brain and hijacks the nervous system – like a herbal terrorist

But hey, it was BBC 3, we expect nothing better really, it even came out with the claim that

Skunk is the name given to genetically engineered weed designed to deliver the maximum dose of mind altering THC

This was the subject of a complaint to the BBC, more about that later.

Perhaps the best development to occur this year for cannabis law reform campaigners here in the UK was the formation of CLEAR. It’s amazing to realise now but back in January this was only a possibility. On Jauary 16th UKCIA reported that Peter Reynolds – a name which had cropped up a few times in the latter half of 2010 – had got involved in the old LCA and had great plans. The LCA (Legalise Cannabis Alliance) had been around for over 10 years and was well past its sell-by date

What isn’t totally clear is why Peter is so eager to take the LCA over given its reputation? He is fully aware of the image problem and that it is a serious issue. The LCA brand isn’t quite toxic, but to say it’s not well regarded is an understatement.

and

Perhaps if this all comes off though there could be a sober, suited up clear headed person available to argue the case against the likes of EURAD or Talking About Cannabis at the head of an organisation which is taken seriously . The cannabis law reform movement certainly needs and deserves something like that. Whether Peter can pull it off and make the changes needed if he does remain to be seen.

We wouldn’t have to wait too long to find out.

One of the biggest lies of prohibition is that cannabis has no medicinal value, indeed it is still classed in UK law as a drug with no medical uses, despite actually being available on the NHS in the form of a concentrated extract (aka “oil”) known as SATIVEX. In January an independent film maker produced a DVD entitled “What if cannabis cured cancer”? Which, it turns out, it may well do. Although always somewhat wary of the claims that cannabis is a “wonder drug” I did my duty and ordered a copy of the video. A review followed a few weeks later here

If cannabis does contain a cancer killing chemical, why hasn’ t this been headline news?The answer to that of course rests with the “message” the government wants to send out about cannabis, coupled with the stranglehold the pharmaceutical companies have  over the medical services.

Much later this year, the NHS finally and very reluctantly admitted that cannabis is not associated with cancer.  One of the biggest prohibition claims – that cannabis causes cancer even worse then tobacco –  has been shown to be wrong and has joined the myriad of other claims made against cannabis by the prohibition lobby. It wasn’t to be the last such claim to bite the dust this year.

At the end of January the legal regime surrounding SATIVEX was in a mess and still is to this day. The problem being that SATIVEX is cannabis, it’s pharmacologically identical to cannabis because it is cannabis. Therefore it is classed under the Misuse of Drugs Act as a drug with no medicinal value. The government had intended to reschedule SATIVEX but was unable to  because the act schedules the chemical compounds and can’t make an exception for specific brand names. The ACMD had tried to suggest a way forward

The ACMD is also aware that it will not be appropriate to refer to “Sativex”, which is a proprietary name, in any amendment to the misuse of drugs regulations, and that a suitable description of the relevant component(s) of “Sativex” will have to be scheduled (with appropriate consequential amendments to the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) Order 2001).

SATIVEX remains almost impossible to get for the huge number of people who would clearly benefit from it, all because politicians insist the war on drugs must be protected at all cost.

We then had another BBC 3 programme – the first of two – called “Cannabis, what’s the harm?” The first programme was surprisingly good and we began to wonder if BBC 3 had been taken under new management or something

Although the programme used the tired old “yoof” style production values so stereotypical of BBC 3 – badly framed shots, lots of random zooming and focus pulling and narrated with the sort of Estuarine accents only actors speak – it actually gave a refreshingly honest and balanced view of cannabis use in the UK, but not only that actually dared to come close to questioning the role of the law and exposing the harm prohibition causes.

At the same time The Sun, which a newspaper on a par with the Daily Mail although with bigger tits – ran a poll which found

VOTERS on a SunVote poll were almost evenly split when deciding whether to decriminalise drugs.
34.74% said drug laws should remain the same, while 31.46% were in favour of legalising some drugs, and 33.33% wanted them ALL legalised.

Which actually showed around 1/3 supported the law as it is, around 2/3 wanted some form of change. And that was amongst SUN READERS!

The next week Part 2 of “Cannabis, what’s the harm?” made up for the objectivity of the previous weeks programme and resorted to true BBC 3 style. The programme concluded by blaming cannabis for the growth of organised crime and the exploitation and harm that goes with it. It summed things up by saying “it makes you look at cannabis in a different light”, to which I replied:

No it doesn’t. What it did was make this viewer scream at the TV set that the point the programme should have made was that prohibition has caused this situation, because it clearly has, just as alcohol prohibition in 1920′s America created the mob. The involvement of organised crime is not caused by cannabis itself but by the regime it exists under. To misrepresent the situation like this is to deliver pure propaganda, it’s the government’s message pure and simple.

Is the government aware that prohibition causes crime? James Brokenshw, when answering a question in Parliament, said

The Home Office has not undertaken or evaluated any research into any harm caused by the criminalisation of drugs.

Unbelievable, but true.

By the end of February the unbelievable and long hoped for change at the LCA became a fact as Peter Reynolds took control from the old guard and set about making the changes so many of us had been waiting for.  A “Gear Shift” change was about to happen.

Also at the end of February David Cameron pretended to show his ignorance about cannabis by telling what he knows were bare-faced lies about the nature of cannabis when he claimed on Al Jazeera TV (at 10 mins 40 secs)

that cannabis is

actually incredibly damaging, very, very toxic and leads to, in many cases, huge mental health problems.

Having a Prime Minister who is so willing to openly lie about a situation is very worrying indeed.

March saw the normally trustworthy Radio 4 Today programme joining in with the Reefer Madness hype,

Radio 4 Today Programme – report on BMJ study by NR23Derek
a report which claimed a new study supported the government’s policy toward cannabis and totally ignored the comments of a senior members of the panel of researchers

Professor Wayne Hall from the University of Queensland and Professor Louisa Degenhardt from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, question the UK’s decision to retain criminal penalties for cannabis use, despite evidence that removing such penalties has little or no detectable effect on rates of use. They believe that an informed cannabis policy “should be based not only on the harms caused by cannabis use, but also on the harms caused by social policies that attempt to discourage its use, such as criminal penalties for possession and use.”

March 13th and the BBC replied to my complaint about the description of “skunk” as being “genetically engineered”, they refused to back down.

“The ‘How Drugs Work’ production team have confirmed that having discussed this issue with the experts who helped with the progs, we can say that ‘Skunk’ has been grown from strains inbred to produce increased levels of THC.

This involves genetic changes, therefore it is genetically modified though not in the sense the term is used for foodstuffs. This research has been reviewed by a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and Professor of Psychopharmacology.”

They are, of course, wrong. Selective breeding does not produce genetic changes, it is, simply, genetic selection – all the genes are still there in the same form. But there’s no arguing with the BBC who are absolutely free to pedal misinformation and government lies. It pains me to write that as I have a long standing belief in the concept of public service broadcasting, but this shows it is blatantly true.

At the end of March the LCA was finally put out of its misery and CLEAR was born. I wrote at the time

It’s fair to say there is a lot of bad feeling from some of the “old guard” of the LCA, who really can’t understand why it was necessary to take over the old campaign and then effectively kill it off by launching something totally new and utterly different. This is perhaps understandable but it is wrong, the old LCA has to die; it wasn’t only ineffective but was actually harmful to the cannabis law reform effort. The people involved in the old campaign  were sincere  but they were also badly out of touch with what was needed and seemed oblivious to the harm the awful image they projected did to the cause.

So the end of March saw the beginning of a new era of cannabis law reform campaigning, and that’s a good point to end part 1 of this review of 2011.

To be continued.

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About UKCIA

UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.