Prohibition campaigners are getting rattled

The prohibition supporting drug warriors are getting rattled by the emerging evidence that decriminalisation produces better results than hard line prohibition. Chief among those fighting the prohibition corner is Kathy Gyngell who writes a blog for the right-wing “Centre for policy studies” or CPS.  Quite why the CPS allows her to do this is a bit of a mystery though because the CPS describes its philosophy like this:

The Centre for Policy Studies believes in freedom and responsibility. One of Britain’s best known and most respected think tanks, the Centre develops and promotes policies to limit the role of the state, to encourage enterprise and to enable the institutions of society – such as families and voluntary organizations – to flourish.

The Centre was founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 to promote the principles of a free society and has since played a global role in the dissemination of free market economics. Its role in developing the policies of privatisation, low-tax government and support for the family, is recognised across the world.

Independent of all political parties and special interest groups, the Centre is a non-profit-making organisation which relies on the donations of individuals and companies to carry out its work.

So the CPS claims to promote the principles of a free society, it believes in small government and the workings of free enterprise; the capitalist system.  Kathy Gyngell seems oddly out of place with this philosophy preaching as she does strict enforcement of prohibitionist laws, which by their definition act against the workings of a free society and certainly against the unfettered workings of a free market. She also clearly aligns herself with the prohibition campaign which is a “special interest” group if ever there was one. Oddly when challenged about this by e-mail, the CPS simply doesn’t respond.

In her last blog Kathy had a rant about the growing acceptance of the decriminalisation of drug use as a way to deal with the mounting problems of prohibition. Actually this blog entry was credited not only to Kathy Gyngell, but also to another old favourite of the prohibition movement, Professor Neil McKeganey. Neil McKeganey has an interesting post at the University Of Glasgow in the amusingly titled “Centre for drug misuse research” (CDMR) which he set up. For a centre of study in one of the nations leading universities, the CDMR has a clear agenda which is made clear by the name; drugs are things that are misused, therefore bad. Worse, the centre is firmly aligned to the prohibition agenda as it describes itself as

In 2008 the Unit for the Study of Serious Organised Crime (USSOC) was established within the Centre with the aim of linking expertise between academia and law enforcement sectors.

Linking law enforcement to a supposedly academic centre of study is highly dubious, especially in such a controversial area of drug policy. But it should be noted that Neil McKegney has been very influential in developing the UK drugs policy over the past few years.

In this most recent CPS blog offering from Kathy Gyngell and Neil McKeganey the claims of a great success for the Portuguese regime (where all drug use was decriminalised in 2001) were rubbished:

That the common good would be served by decriminalising drugs however is far from proven. Portugal, which started such an experiment in 2001, has become the decriminalisation lobby’s proof of concept. The ‘proof’ being that the policy has decreased rather than increased the harms associated with drug use. As with the climate change lobby much effort has gone into the presentation and the communication of the statistics involved. But, as with climate change debate, the statistics that have been assembled in telling the Portuguese story of the benefits of decriminalisation are far from clear cut.

Note the association with the climate change issue, the sort of remark designed to appeal to their core supporters no doubt.

Unfortunately they chose to build their case on the work of Professor Alex Stevens of Kent University and he was not amused by what he read. Professor Stevens comprehensively demolished the argument made by the blog.

… the case for decriminalisation does not rest on it producing more ‘common good’ than criminalisation. Given that criminalisation produces well documented harms (such as high costs to the taxpayer, damage to the prospects of young people who come into adversarial contact with the police and/or get a criminal record, and high racial disparities in enforcement), it is only necessary for advocates of decriminalisation that it produces no more drug-related harm than criminalisation.

Do pop over to the CPS and read this blog and Professor Stevens comments, it is really quite entertaining.

However, one of the features of the Kathy Gyngell blog is that, although comments are allowed, she never addresses any of the comments made which is a pity, which on this occasion include a number of requests for her to apologise to Professor Stevens for misrepresenting his work so badly. What is very noticeable and really quite amusing  though is the usual suspects who leap to her defence – old favourites like the disgraced ex-chief constable of Grampian Police and self-appointed “drugs expert” Dr Ian Oliver (who has a doctorate in Public Administration), Ann Stoker and David Raynes all popped up to state the prohibition case . It’s true to say that some familiar names on the law reform side also joined in as well, it was just too good to miss!

That prohibition supporters are upset by the success of decriminalisation is clear, but they do make one point which has a sort of logic. That decriminalisation is better for the drug users and society than hard line prohibition  is demonstrably true, but it is an illogical regime. If drugs are to be criminalised, how can we not criminalise drug use? After all, they argue, prohibition depends utterly on the deterrent effect of the law and if we turn a blind eye to the use of drugs, then we only encourage the growth of the supply side. There is a pretty clear logic there, prohibition really has to be all or nothing, it demands hard line police/state surveillance of each and every one of us to ensure we do not use drugs to stand any chance of working. Prohibition needs the infrastructure of random drug testing, widespread arresting and long prison sentencing. It is indeed a regime of the big state micro- managing everyone’s lives.

A case for this was made in The Scotsman newspaper recently by Mev Brown in an article headed “Why ‘super-size’ law will combat drug use”. Mev Brown has an interesting take on drugs policy – he accepts it’s failed. However, he uses the strange  logic common amongst prohibition campaigners; the reason the drugs war has failed is because we didn’t fight it hard enough.

Mev’s big idea for what he calls a “supersized” drugs policy is simple: crack down hard on drug users.

For those not ready – or willing – to give up drugs, then secure single-sex supervised communities would be established.

As with many drug warriors Mev has a fundamental belief in enforced abstinence as the key to winning the war against drugs.

This is a battle of ideas which is coming to a head and we are getting close to the point where we face a stark choice of either a very much harder line state imposed enforcement regime or a willingness to control and regulate the trade, which means accepting people will use drugs. The option of a hard line drug war is clearly a fantasy though, at a time when we can’t even afford to run essential services are we really going to throw huge wads of money at a regime for which there is zero evidence of success? Or are we eventually going to do what should have been done years ago and end this prohibition madness totally?

Decriminalisation is only better than full on prohibition, it isn’t the ideal by a long way. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that prohibition is such a brain dead stupid idea which has caused so much misery, death and destruction on a global scale a decriminalised regime which still tried to prevent the supply side would be regarded as insane. That decriminalisation is being taken seriously and is showing such good results is only an indication of how utterly mad prohibition is – everything, after all,  is relative.


Edited to add that, as the comments below point out, there has been a reply to the comments made by Prof Alex Stevens – not in the comments section but in a new blog which can be read here.


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.

17 thoughts on “Prohibition campaigners are getting rattled

  1. Derek, I’m quite sure people will find Prof. McKeganey and K. Gyngell’s response to Prof. Steven’s comment rather revealing:

    Even though Prof. McKeganey and K. Gyngell are not exactly the sharpest tools in the Prohibitionist box, they are a good example of the kind of prohibitionists those in favour of legalisation and regulation should challenge. They represent the last line of defence of the Prohibitionist camp, and their sophistry needs debunking.

    Gart Valenc

  2. Actually despite your claim that Gyngell never responds to comments made on her blog you might like to know that she and I have a response to Professor Alex Steven’s comments which has been published.

  3. @ McKeganey – try as I might I can’t find your response in the comments on the blog in question, which one is it?

  4. It’s a separate post, Derek. It isn’t exactly convincing and fails to really address Steven’s rebuttal but there you go.

  5. My apologies Gert, so you did! Interestingly the reply contains this gem:

    It is indeed a strange logic to assume that it is the law that makes people criminal- on the contrary it is the breaking of the law that makes people criminal.

    Even if the people are criminal only because a law is introduced which defines them as such, not because they are, by intent, criminal?

    I may return to this reply in a future blog.

  6. Derek – fine to flag up the CPS blog and Stevens response (although I think you should correct the text to show they have responded – a first, but they have done it). thats an important and relevant debate.

    But I really cant see anything wrong with an academic institution linking up with law enforcement. Thats a rather weak line of argument IMHO. The CDMR (criticisms of the name aside) has also done a lot of decent research. I don’t think you can condemn it all by association.

  7. Steve – I have now added a link to the reply.

    Regards the idea of an academic institution linking up with law enforcement I have to say I disagree and find it a very odd concept, the more so when there is a debate to be had about the very validity of the law enforcement approach to what is a major social issue. I’m sure we could draw on various examples from history where just such a link up would be easy to criticise.

  8. Let me give you one example why it is entirely appropriate to form a link with law enforcement to explore issues to do with drug enforcement. One of the studies within the Centre for Drug Misuse Research involved calculating the percentage of seized heroin in Scotland as a fraction of consumed heroin. That work involved access to data held by law enforcement agencies on the purity of seized heroin- data that was not in the public domain. The analysis which I and my colleagues undertook showed that over a six year period the quantity of seized heroin in Scotland only amounted to one percent of consumed heroin in two of the six years we looked at and in the remainder it was below one percent. Other research which we are involved in is looking at the impact of major drug seizures including how quickly drug markets reconstitute themselves following a major seizure. This work has arisen precisely out of the link with law enforcement agencies and will report its findings in the coming months. These studies show that it is entirely legitimate to undertake research in the area of drugs in conjunction with law enforcement agencies. This does not mean that those agencies dictate our research findings since there is such a thing as academic freedom which is an important principle within universities.

  9. One percent of heroin seized, eh? Shows how well prohibition works. Doesn’t it, McKeganey?

    Anyone who supports prohibition has no intellectual honesty and doesn’t know the meaning of the term.

  10. @McKeganey, I do believe it can be appropriate for there to be links between academia and law enforcement. However, research and academia should ideally be free from bias and political point scoring. I realise that due to Human nature this is almost impossible, however, there should at least be a pretence of unbiased, thoughtful and proper research. I had a look at your profile on the UoG site, and as the title of your post “Professor of Drug Misuse Research and Director” proclaims, you are only interested in the “misuse” of drugs.. and of that there are only two references to Alcohol and none to Tobacco – the most commonly misused drugs in society and also subsequently the ones with the most harms. What is your definition of “misuse” by the way? It would be fair to say that your research is pretty one-dimensional, in only looking at the “misuse” of ‘controlled’ drugs, not drugs in general… and therein lies the problem. Even if it was not your intention, the powers that be have chosen your research and cherry-picked the ‘best bits’ to bolster their claims and justify a failed policy.. one that by your own admission in some areas only has a 1% success rate!! How many other policies that fail so miserably yet are rewarded so well can you name?

    In the interest of integrity I challenge you to prove that levels of misuse, harms from use and societal harms would rise in a regulated regime (such as Transform propose). As an academic you should not be allowed to be a poster child for a policy when you haven’t considered both sides.

    p.s. If you have published research opposing my challenge above I apologise and would love to see it.

  11. Something has been bugging me about Prof McKeganey’s justification above for the value of his departments links to the enforcement agencies and it is this:

    In the CPS blog I quoted above which he put his name to there were disparaging remarks made about the case made for climate change. He will be aware that the University of East Anglia (UEA)had an enquiry into the scandal concerning the research published by its Climatic Research Unit (CRU). It was admitted that study was flawed in one important respect; they hadn’t made the original data available for others to analyse, indeed they had deleted it. It was accepted that quality research should be based on open data, which means in the public or at least academic domain.

    Prof McKeganey’s claim above was that his heroin study was able to make use of data not in the public domain and not available to normal academics without this special relationship. Therefore it would seem the strength of that data and hence the validity of his study cannot be checked or properly peer reviewed.

    If a rule is important for a study by UEA CRU, it is also important for a study into heroin seizure rates I would have thought?

    Indeed the data is almost certain to be flawed in that it is highly unlikely to be obtained through any valid sampling method by the police. If the data used in Prof McKeganey’s research is weak, his conclusions will also be weak. If it can’t be checked because the data is secret, it is of little or no value.

    It is interesting however that the results were as bad as they were, yet even these appallingly low seizure rates still do not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for the enforcement regime.

    The suspicion in the mind of a casual observer could well be that the cosy relationship between Prof McKeganey’s department and the police ensures his continued support.

    That is what is at the root of my disquiet about this arrangement and it is a very serious concern.

  12. Out of respect for the commentators on this site i will try to answer some of the points raised -in doing so I should point out that I am showing your commentators more respect than they themselves show towards Gyngell and myself where it seems abusive comments often stand in place of any serious response to the issues raised. In relation the points made by UKCIA to the effect that I have a cosy relationtship with the police and that this ensures my continued support. Let me say first off that I dont know who wrote that comment but imagine whoever it was that I came to your work and rated your ability to do your job as one out of a score of one hundred. Do you honestly think that you and I would be having a cosy relationship. Of course we would not. When I reported our finding that the police in Scotland were seizing only one percent of used heroin it made my relationship with the government and the police very difficult and as it happens we have not thereafter been funded by them. The commitment when you do independent research though is to publish the results irrespective of whether they are going to be well received or poorly received. Doing so is actually what intellectual honesty is all about and it is not about claiming that everybody other than those who agree with legalisation are intellectually dishonest.

    The research which I and my colleagues undertook was peer reviewed and is available for constructive comment at:

    The working relationship we had with law enforcement in undertaking this research was an important part of the work in that it provided us with information on the purity of the drugs being seized. This is not secret data but it is information that we had access to at the point we were asking for it as a result of our working relationship. Others can access this paper and judge for themselves whether it is worthless or an insightful analysis of what was previously an unreported analysis.

    In relation to the request for me to prove that drug use would increase in a regulated market. Clearly it is not possible to do that however jake should realise that the Blueprint report from Transform itself poses the possibility of a notable increase in the prevalence of drug consumption following the establishment of a regulated market.

    I will not post further on this thread.

  13. I would like to thank Neil McKegney for his replies here. A couple of comments:

    He wrote

    When I reported our finding that the police in Scotland were seizing only one percent of used heroin it made my relationship with the government and the police very difficult and as it happens we have not thereafter been funded by them.

    It is, of course, to his credit that he published such damming results, but the fact that doing so appears to have lead to a loss of funding clearly demonstrates the point as to why an association between his institution and government/law enforcement is a bad thing. Funding from that source, it would seem, is dependent on his department providing the “right” results.

    As to the data used in the heroin study, Prof McKegney now says

    This is not secret data but it is information that we had access to at the point we were asking for it as a result of our working relationship.

    If I had misunderstood his previous comment that this was

    data that was not in the public domain.

    I apologise, but it seems to imply that this special relationship was one which provided access to data not available to others. I notice he doesn’t respond to my point about others being able to verify the original data, or the way it was collected, although to be fair problems with the data are addressed in the paper.

    As to the heroin paper is is very revealing, not just for the low success rate exposed, but also because of the high levels of uncertainty about the data it does in fact admit to. For an issue of such great public concern it is truly amazing how little firm data there actually is.

    Regarding his final comment about a regulated regime leading to an increase in drug use, he is of course making the assumption that all use is damaging abuse. Would drug use – even of drugs like heroin – be anything like as problematic either for the individual user or society at large under a properly controlled and regulated regime as it is under prohibition? One thing is for certain, under a properly controlled regime we would be able to measure it all very accurately and we would know for sure what was going on and would thus be able to target scant resources in a far more effective way than we are doing.

  14. @McKeganey:
    “we have not thereafter been funded by them” illustrating my previous statement “cherry-picked the ‘best bits’ to bolster their claims and justify a failed policy”, so even if it were not intended by McKeganey himself (as I said), his work has become politicised. I don’t think that my comment was abusive, especially after it has been confirmed (maybe he wasn’t speaking to me?). So now, do you carry on with your research as you see fit or try take on projects that will secure funding? A dilemma..

    Final paragraph well put and was what I was hinting to. Use doesn’t necessarily constitute misuse – which is why I asked for Prof. McKeganey’s definition of misuse. If he is/was getting funded by the powers that be, a good starting point to is to assume that he has wrongly used the government interpretation that ANY use is misuse and therefore a rise in drug use post ‘legal regulation’, even if temporary and in the safest manner possible, is worse than criminalising and arresting etc. etc. thousands of our fellow citizens for consensual ‘crimes’…

    I actually posted to the CPS blog requesting a definition of ‘misuse’ from McKeganey.. that was a few days ago and it hasn’t surfaced…

  15. Have you guys seen this organisation’s website ?:

    They produced a report a couple of days ago ( ) which totally dismissed prohibition of drugs of any kind as inappropriate and contributing to the harm caused. The commission includes such people as – “Former Presidents of Brazil , Colombia , Mexico and Switzerland , PrimeMinister of Greece , Kofi Annan, Richard Branson, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Other Leaders”

    That rattle is getting louder – maybe ?

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