Three illustrations of the workings of the UK drugs policy this week, each very different yet all indicative of the dire state UK drugs policy is in.
First there were the cocaine use statistics. Now it’s important to remember that the aim of UK drugs policy for the past 10 years or so has been to reduce the use of class A drugs – especially as they put it “the drugs that do most harm – heroin and cocaine”. The result of the past 10 years strategy targeted at these drugs is perhaps predictable, as the Telegraph reported on Tuesday
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said use of the ”very harmful” drug had increased five-fold among 16 to 59-year-olds during the past 12 years
The whole point of the ABC classification system is to “send out a message” about the relative harmfulness of different drugs. Strange then that a class A drug – cocaine – is gaining ground so much, it’s almost as if the deterrent effect doesn’t work! Actually we already know the deterrent effect of the law is a red herring anyway, the experience of the rise of ecstasy – itself a class A drug – 10 or so years ago should have taught us that. But unlike the ecstasy experience 16 to 59 is a wide age range, it’s pretty well all adults, so we’re not talking about a minority sub-culture here.
The government’s response to cocaine has been predictable, firstly an advertising campaign aimed at kids by Talk to Frank which might be designed to scare people but in all honesty runs a serious risk of glamorising the trade in the much same way as the awful 1980’s “heroin screw you up” campaign backfired. Scenes of dark basements and furtive lines of white power featured on the Frank website might send shivers down the spines of sensible adults, but to youngsters interested in the drug subculture it all looks very interesting.
The second way the government is fighting the cocaine trade of course is by enforcement and the fact that purity levels of street supplies are now lower than ever before is trumpeted as a mark of success. The Frank campaign warns about the levels of impurities, correctly pointing out that some of the cutting agents might be dangerous in their own right, but of course as we don’t really know what they are, we can’t really know how dangerous they are.
But is the government aim of reducing the purity of cocaine backfiring? Elsewhere in the Telegraph Andrew M Brown asks “Is cocaine socially acceptable now”?
There are two main reasons for this adulteration. One is, of course, to vastly increase profits. But the other is pragmatic. Pure cocaine would be far too strong for most users, the “recreational” users who like to take it on a Friday night out clubbing or whatever.
So has the government turned what was seen as a dangerous hard drug of addiction into something which can be used casually by making street supplies weaker? If so this would be a classic example of an “unforeseen consequence” so typical of prohibition.
Les Iverson seems to be behind this latest story. He’s taken over the ACMD following Prof Nutt’s sacking last year and it seems he’s trying to mark out his position as a tough anti drug law enforcer head of the committee. He says of cocaine
”Cocaine is a very harmful drug to individuals and more broadly society and evidence of the continued increasing prevalence of cocaine use is deeply concerning.”
Is it? As Andrew M Brown mentions in his item a 1995 WHO report which was pulled at the insistence of the US DEA came to a somewhat different conclusion
“Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use,” it said. “Cocaine-related problems are widely perceived to be more common and more severe for intensive, high-dosage users.” The WHO also discussed research into the effect of legislation and considered “harm reduction” strategies. “Approaches which over-emphasise punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems… An increase in the adoption of responses such as education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes is a desirable counterbalance to the over-reliance on law enforcement.”
This report was suppressed and not published until last year when Transform got hold of it – you can read their blog entry here. So do we have a classic case of prohibition digging a hole for itself with cocaine? Not only that, but how much has the anti cannabis hype diverted attention away from the campaign against cocaine use , especially amongst young people?
The second story actually came to my attention thanks Debra Bell’s “talking about cannabis” mailing list back on February 5th. Debra wrote to her supporters (and me):
The UK’s only rehab for teens- Middlegate is facing closure. A colleague, Sarah Graham, is helping Chris Robertson to save the centre. She has asked TAC to inform our supporters and urges us all to sign up to the appeal that has been launched
Since then Middlegate has indeed closed. Now I’m not going to comment too much on this particular institution because, simply, I don’t know much about it. However, one thing is clear, it’s supporters seem to come in large part from the same camp; those drug warriors opposed to harm reduction and law reform who are gunning for the National Treatment Agency. Support for Middlegate was also voiced by Kathy Gyngell in an article in the Guardian on Wednesday where she makes great claims for the success not only of this institution, but of the whole “recovery” approach. A health warning is appropriate here, the word “recovery” has been adopted by the prohibition lobby in much the same way as “prevention” was a while back.
Now it’s worth bearing in mind something which anyone who has had to break a habit of any kind will know; it’s much easier to do if you can remove yourself from the environment which re-enforces your habit. Drug addicts face essentially two distinct problems; the physical addiction of the drug – withdrawal – and the psychological addiction. In some ways psychological addiction is far more complex and can be much harder to overcome than the chemical addiction. Residential rehab thus works – in as much as it does work – by taking people away from the influences which re-enforce their addiction. These influences can be very complex and deep rooted and thus people undergoing treatment “in the community” face a far harder task to break their drug use than people who can be taken away from it all. This is especially the for the sort of troubled youngsters Middlegate apparently dealt with.
The point of all that is to make it clear that the claims of success of residential rehab clinics probably do have some grounds in fact. However, the problem is really simple; we can’t do this for the huge mass of people with a drug problem, it’s just too expensive. Hence the present policy of harm reduction via drug substitution euphemistically known as “treatment” – which means substitution with the vile methadone – and trying to keep the lid on things.
Kathy Gyngell is a well know “usual suspect” opposed to the present policy, as she often makes clear in her blog on the right wing Centre for policy studies – CPS – website. Her latest entry is all about Middlegate and how it should be providing the model for treatment in the UK. Well, maybe, but a quick peruse of the comments see support coming from names such as Neil McKeganey and Peter Stoker, both familiar drug warrior names to anyone following the drug law reform debate. The support seems to be organised via “Addiction today“, again a strongly prohibition supporting organisation which regularly features articles from the same “usual suspects”. All this makes the campaign to save Middlegate look like a political effort to discredit the present policy in favour of the drugs policy based on enforced abstinence.
Indeed, it seems support for Middlegate is only coming from these people, it’s been almost entirely ignored by other sections of the drugs support “industry” (as it like to call itself).
As I said though, I don’t know the truth about Middlegate or its claims of success, I can only draw on two personal experiences with young people who have been through residential rehab; one for alcohol and one for heroin addiction and neither went to Middlegate. Both of the young people I know had been through a Christian based 12-step programme and had come out drug free but having found Christ -one crutch had been exchanged for another. Both were still sort of drug free one or two years later, although one had started using cannabis again and both smoked tobacco heavily. Both these kids would be dead now had they not been through their rehab, but they are both clearly very vulnerable to relapse having swapped drug dependency for faith based dependency, so I’m not 100% convinced rehab alone – or at least that type of rehab, Middlegate may have been different – can work long term. In any case on its own it’s unlikely to be the silver bullet people like Kathy Gyngell claim. There can be no real solution unless we solve the social problems that create the mess in the first place and the policies promoted by the drug warriors are not likely to provide that soluti0n.
Judge for yourself, the support Middlegate campaign is here.
Finally a demonstration of the long nose of the law. Wednesday last week I was sitting at home deeply engaged in the ongoing revamp of the UKCIA website when I heard a lot of noise coming from outside. I live in a terraced house deep in inner city Norwich and the house next door is owned by an old couple who are away at present. Being the good neighbour I am I’m looking after the place for them, so I went out to see what was happening. I get to the front to find two policemen, one with his nose stuffed through next doors letterbox. The other policeman tells me they can smell “a strong smell of cannabis” coming from the house and suspect there’s a cannabis grow factory in there. The plod with his nose in the letterbox confirms his suspicion and can certainly smell cannabis apparently. Anyway, I have the keys to the house so I invite them in to have a look, I know there is nothing there and that the owners have no problem with me inviting the police in like this. When they see inside the neat little house they are visibly taken aback and very apologetic. They explain they were sure they could smell cannabis and described what it smells like. Perhaps my body language showed my disbelief in their explanation, but of course I do know what cannabis smells like and there is no such smell coming from the house – or mine come to that! So they went away and I passed the info on to the owners who talked it through with the police the next day.
So what was going on there? Despite the claims of the plod there was no smell of cannabis, that was clearly an excuse, but the house did look unlived in with curtains closed and so on. My feeling is the property had been profiled and these officers had been sent round to check it out prior to a raid. But as they clearly had no idea of what cannabis actually smells like so these two plod were probably about to cause a raid on a house on the basis of no evidence at all. On the one hand perhaps this shows the level of proactive policing against cannabis farms being taken, and I certainly wouldn’t want to live next door to one. But it possibly also shows the level of guesswork involved and the potential for innocent people to have their lives turned upside down in a quite traumatic way by the drug squad kicking the door open early in the morning. If this is an indication of the quality of the intelligence gathering, such mistakes are probably quite common.
Perhaps my experience of the long nose of the law goes some way to explaining how the cocaine situation is so out of control and ultimately why there is a need for places like Middlegate.