Archive for the ‘Legalisation’ Tag

What do heroin and Theresa May have in common?

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

So the United Nations are fully behind The War On Drugs, it seems. A report released this week states, somewhat apologetically, "We have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system". However, it continues to maintain that the War On Drugs is the only way forward as "the problem will not be resolved if drugs are legalized. Organized crime is highly adaptive. It will simply move to other businesses that are equally profitable and violent".

Anyone who watched Prohibition recently will question this premise. The documentary tracks the careers of various criminal gangs, who went from scraping a living together to living in the lap of luxury when alcohol prohibition provided them with a gaping gap in the market. As one interviewee recalled, small-time crooks who would previously have had the odd driving job suddenly had more work than they could cope with. The demand for the product elevated criminals to celebrities. Makes you wonder exactly which market the UN think could generate the turnover of the international drugs trade, to keep the drug barons in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

It will come as no surprise that the report identified significant changes in drug trends. Whilst heroin and cocaine use remain stable and predictable, new psychoactive substances being manufactured in Asia are the new big thing.

You don’t say. Quite aside from my highly-informative *ahem* pieces on MCat and PMA, the search terms that lead people to my blog give us an interesting insight as to the popularity of these new substances. Of the one hundred and thirty-four search terms I am able to see (and don’t worry, there is no way of me finding out which of you searched for which..), thirty-six of those contained the words MCat, meow meow or mephedrone. So over a quarter of people coming to my blog via an internet search engines were looking for information on MCat. This in comparison to just six searches for information relating to heroin.

However, possibly more worrying is that heroin is of equal interest to a somewhat more conservative issue. One which, unlike MCat, is not spread across the front pages. Yes, that’s right – my blog keeps receiving visits from people searching for images of Theresa May’s legs. Six of the pervs have been mortally gutted when their excited searches have revealed my somewhat drab and largely unsexy blog. Still, I am proud to incite flopsie in the dirty sods – and hope that maybe they learned something about drugs policy in the meantime.

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Santos speaks out

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

While we are all whining on about the impact of drugs on our communities, and the effects on individuals, South America and Mexico continue to deal with the shocking human cost of producing and distributing cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis and other drugs. Much like the opium situation in Afghanistan, cocaine and cannabis are cash-crops – but unlike Afghanistan, it’s not just the fluffy types at the UN wanting the curb the trade. Pressure on South American and Mexican governments from the USA to stop the export of cocaine and other drugs has meant tough penalties for those manufacturing and trafficking, because failure to adhere to these US-enforced policies means risking international relations with their closest, richest neighbours and vital trade partners. This has caused a full-on war between the authorities and organised criminals, leading to death rates that surpass most genocides. In Mexico alone, between 2006 and 2011, it is thought that around 60,000 were killed or ‘disappeared’, many of whom remain unidentified after being found in mass ‘narco-graves‘.

In an unusual (and strangely under-reported) move, Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos has this week published an article in The Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’, outlining the main points of a report produced by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in partnership with Oxford University. The report suggests ways in which the issue could be tackled, not from a moral perspective (ie what should happen) but from a pragmatic standpoint (what could happen). Santos states that this new set of approaches broadens the debate past the polarised ‘warriors’ and ‘legalisers’ arguments – after all, this is not Star Wars, there is no good versus evil, and neither extreme offers valid ideas to vastly improve the lives of ordinary people.

The scenarios proposed in the report, which has been released as the OAS leaders meet this week in Guatemala, involve providing better health, education and employment opportunities to offer real economic alternatives to those embroiled in drug production and trafficking and their communities; strengthening public institutions to improve the welfare of citizens; better (and, I would imagine, less hierarchical) co-operation with international partners; and redirecting budgets currently spent on international priorities (law enforcement in an attempt to stop the drugs being produced and exported) to local priorities. Clearly some of these approaches will require international support to be implemented – as long as the US and the rest of us keep pushing for the problems to be contained, the internal wars and consequential deaths will continue.

However, the headline-grabbing proposal made in the report is to look at alternatives to criminalisation, starting with the legalisation of cannabis. It seems to me that the OAS have seen an opportunity to use the current cannabis debate in the US, which has resulted in Colorado and Washington legalising the drug, cleverly to their advantage. The report suggests South America and Mexico follow suit, and so appears to be jumping on the US bandwagon. After all, it would be highly hypocritical for the US to claim that the rights they offer their citizens were not applicable to the citizens of their neighbouring countries. But it also uses the US model to politely point out that the problems the War On Drugs causes the USA might cause one or two little problems in their countries too – and they don’t just have over-run prisons and drug treatment centres, they have pits of nameless dead.

Luckily, President Santos does seem to be getting some parallel support from this side off the pond. A letter from a group of MPs and celebrities to our Government was published in The Times this week, signed not only by candyfloss-haired minted powerhouse Richard Branson, marathon-shagging squealer Sting, and you-get-loads-of-sex-how? lanky slime-ball Russell Brand, but also politicians from the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The movement is being led by Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, whose personal stake in the matter may be the destruction of vast areas of rainforest as chemical byproducts of drug production are illegally dumped. The letter questions the validity of the War On Drugs and asks how the Government can justify their £3b a year spending on their current approach, suggesting that possibly an evidenced approach might be a better use of public money. (You know, try to see if something works before you spend our hard-earned cash implementing it. Just a thought.)

Whilst the letter does not make direct reference to the situation in America, it is yet another high-profile attack on existing drug policy – and only adds to the ever-increasing international momentum for things to change. It seems to me that we are on the cusp of the greatest social paradigm shift since the abolition of slavery. But then I am a bit of a drama queen.

Theresa May’s Skirt

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

It’s hard not to pull another ‘Theresa May or may not’ pun in light of this week’s news, but I think we can all be pretty confident that impartiality will not play a part in her ‘what works study’, and so we might be best steering away from language that implies an absence of foregone conclusion. After all, “The Government does not believe there is a case for fundamentally rethinking the UK’s approach to drugs”, and despite the recent peer review which suggested otherwise, “a royal commission is simply not necessary” (with ‘simply’ here meaning ‘in my opinion, and I hold a position of great power, so frankly the rest of you can go fuck yourselves’).

It doesn’t sit comfortably with me making the point that Theresa doesn’t have children of her own, as it drives me mad that every prominent female figure has their personal life and physical appearance analysed, while their male counterparts can walk around looking like someone ran over their fat faces, sticking bits of themselves into anything that will let them (and some things that don’t), and no-one bats an eyelid or feels the need to pass comment. However, on the issue of drugs, I can’t help thinking that being a parent might make Theresa somewhat less glaringly out-of-touch with what is happening on the street, if ya get me, blood. If she had a teenager with friends on Facebook that used words she didn’t understand, or had to carefully vet nights out to ensure none of those state school kids were going to be at this dance – or even, god forbid, had a child who disclosed cannabis use but hadn’t developed schizophrenia or grown another set of arms in their sleep (probably for stealing) – she might be less focused on figures showing heroin and crack use to be at their lowest levels, and more on the scary prevalence of ‘legal highs’.

However, her claim that she will “review new evidence of what works in other countries” is nothing more than an exact word-for-word restating of a commitment made in her 2010 drug strategy. It is not hard to see through the flimsy smokescreen that this is, in fact, a statement that they are going to do nothing – other than funding some Lib Dem to go on a jaunt, despite better evidence being available via academic studies on the internet. (“Best send one of theirs, David – gets one of them out of the way for now, focuses the matter on opinions instead of hard facts, and means we can completely ignore his findings whilst avoiding those ghastly ‘party divided’ headlines.”) The action falls short of offering anything that wasn’t already promised three years ago, but is released as a news story for no other reason than to spin some yarn that the Government is doing something, anything, in response to public and peer pressure to genuinely review drug policy.

You might think it’s a clever skirt, Theresa, but us plebs aren’t quite a thick as you might like to think. Nice legs though, love.

Drugs are bad, kids

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

I’ve just read another engaging, scary article from America about their drug policy – Reefer Madness Redux: If You Smoke It, You Will Become Addicted! Much like the Storyville documentary I recommended last week (see Wonkblog for an interview with the director), it points out the freakish hysteria that surrounds drug policy in the States – which is frightening not only because of its extremity (reminiscent of Brass Eye’s ‘cake’), but also because it exposes the origins of our own society’s beliefs about drugs and those who use them.

I have to admit, the recent blogs I have written on decriminalisation, the comments that have followed, and then the paper released a week ago by, of all people, the supposedly stuffy old folk from The House of Lords, have had quite a profound effect on me. Possibly because the primary focus of my work for so long has been heroin users, I have discounted the idea of legalising drugs as a ludicrous notion. The cycle of hard dependency is awful, debilitating, inhumane even, and to enable that process, to support it, is just not right. If you prescribe a heroin user heroin, he will always be a heroin user. Where is the motivation to stop? And hence he will always be trapped in that miserable existence, always dependent and disempowered.

And to be fair, whilst working with heroin users, I couldn’t really muster up the energy to even entertain the discussion. I didn’t read newspapers, I didn’t watch the news, I didn’t even watch documentaries which I knew would be interesting but which required some emotional investment and deep thought. My coping mechanism to manage the daily adrenaline come-down and affective exhaustion was to shut down any chance of a conversation, social or internal, with something so conclusive and sharp that there was really nowhere for the enquirer to go. And so the topic of decriminalisation remained, as with anything else contentious, packed at the back of my mind, stacked underneath more important and unattended issues such as ‘stopping smoking’ and ‘life direction’.

But recently, for the first time, and from the perspective or decriminalisation instead of legalisation, I thought about it more fully. Heroin users make up a small proportion of illicit drug users (I think there are about 160,000 heroin users in treatment at present, which is tiny percentage of the population when you think about it – I mean, in the UK 10 years ago, 500,000 people were taking ecstacy every weekend night, by way of comparison) and I realised how fixated I had become on the misery of opiate addiction.

And so, thanks to this blog, my mind has been reopened to the debate. The questions I am asking myself, and the possible conclusions that could be drawn, are honestly head-mangling. Here are my confessions…

The first thing I have realised, which may sound obvious but clearly I’m not that bright, is – drugs have been conceptualised in our society as being ‘bad’ (as in “Drugs are bad kids, m’kay” – Mr Mackey, school counsellor, South Park). Of course I appreciate that there are obvious links between drug use and crime – if you have a physical dependence on heroin, you are more prone to stealing something to avoid painful and anxiety-provoking withdrawal symptoms. However, how many ecstasy, or cannabis, users do you know that have ever stolen anything? Anyone who went clubbing during the height of ecstacy use will know that you were more likely to leave a club with a selection of random presents (eg a dog made out of drinking straws, a crown made out of flowers – people were very creative in showing their boundless pleasure to meet you) than you were to get your wallet or phone snatched. And in terms of violence, you were a hundred times more likely to get an exuberant hug from some sweaty random on the dance floor than you were a slap.

And where the American Government got the idea that cannabis smokers were likely to be violent… You’re more likely to get a fight out of road kill.

Now I have always known that the Americans made most of this scare-mongering up to maintain control – my understanding was that, in the case of cannabis, it was to ensure the ongoing success of the cotton trade on which the American economy depended, to safeguard against the main market rival, hemp. The documentary I keep banging on about, The House I Live In, states it was used as a method of controlling and criminalising the Mexican population. The article I mentioned at the top of this page points out that as these theories have become unsustainable, the fear-badgers are claiming that 1 an every 6 adolescents who try cannabis will become addicted, develop mental health problems and need treatment.

The jump for me is to see the bare truth of this process – making drug use and drug users immoral – in our own country and with all the drugs that come somewhere on the sliding scale between cannabis and heroin. To disclose drug use outside of closed drug-using circles is social suicide – people will look you differently, watch next time you go to their house to make sure you don’t nick that fiver they’ve left on the side, and definitely not trust you with their children. Now these are moral judgements. They are not based on any evidence about you as a person, nor are they based in evidence about drug use. (Well they could be, you might be a right dodgy little scally for all I know, I’ve got no idea.)

But the shocking realisation for me is that I have, to some degree, internalised this moral code and perpetuated it. Despite my education, despite the years spent surrounded by drug users, and despite even my own substance use, it is only now that I realise that I accepted, at some subconscious level, that drug use was bad. People who took them were either to be pitied for needing them, or deserved what they got because they were choosing to break the law. And breaking the law must be immoral, because why else would these rules be made if not to protect us? God, it is scary acknowledging one’s own indoctrination. And yes, possibly my substance use served to prove what I had always known – that I was frankly a pathetic and despicable human being (Catholic-style guilt, must beat oneself with a stick).

Yet despite this, I still worked with people, to some degree, by categorising them in one of these two genii – to be pitied or getting what they deserved. To some extent, I understand that a) this was a survival technique, one can’t manage a horrendous caseload AND be philosophical, and b) there is some truth in these sub-groups – people do make choices, both as a result of their past experiences and their present, informed options. But what if I dumped the value-load? What if drug users were just people who chose to put substances in their bodies, not bad or sad?

Were this standpoint adopted, it would have an impact on the drug treatment system. For a start, a significant group currently receiving drug treatment would not want it. Without the label of illegality, those just trying to avoid prison would almost certainly lose their motivation to engage with services. This could be a positive and a negative thing – but it would free up resources for people who wanted to make changes to their lifestyles (instead of the pointless, endless investment in people who have no interest in reducing their drug use or making it safer, as per current service provision), and would certainly make drugs workers’ jobs less depressing.

However, it would open drug treatment to a much wider group – those who don’t want negative repercussions, such as having their drug use recorded on their medical records, which could cause problems with insurance or employment in the future, or those with children who fear judgement by the authorities and worry that by speaking about their problems with substances they may lose the right to parent. These people, surely, deserve access to advice and support as much as any other – and think about how the country would run if the next generation weren’t burdened with the hidden harm of substance misuse.

The epiphany for me is – it is not just our legislation that needs to change in this country, although of course this is a major part of social change (look at what the smoking ban has achieved). It is our conceptualisation of drug use, a paradigm shift from the domain of morality to that of health and economics. Again, look at the changes to social perceptions of smoking since the introduction the ban in public places, which has been, in some ways, the reverse process – smoking is bad now, and people who do it are wrong for polluting other people’s air. But that was for a substance at the other end of the scale, that was too sociably acceptable, to the point that it was difficult to enjoy a meal in a restaurant, going out in the evening came with a guarantee of waking up smelling like an ashtray, and those in the pub trade were becoming ill and even dying because of other people’s substance use. What I am starting to realise is that drugs that have been, for many years, unacceptable even in one’s own home with no negative impact on anyone but possibly oneself, need to be ‘less bad’, or even not bad at all, for there to be any honest discourse about the real problems they cause people. Imagine a smoker refusing to present for lung cancer treatment because they thought they would have their kids taken off them.

There is really no difference, morally, between the smoker with lung cancer and the amphetamine user with psychosis. Or between the businessman who drinks every day and has a heart attack, and the heroin user with a deep vein thrombosis. All make choices to use a substance that puts them in need of a health intervention. Without that health intervention taking place as early as possible, the cost of the intervention itself will increase as the problem becomes more complicated and effects other areas of the individual’s health. The person’s level of productivity and function will decrease. This all costs the taxpayer. So, like it or not, moral judgements can be expensive.

Sweet jesus, first I acknowledge my secret affiliations with the Iron Bitch, now I’m putting my hand up to judging drug users. I’m doing a pretty good job of discrediting myself and my life’s work. Well done me.

Summary of new drug policy recommendations

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

So I have now ploughed through the full document, ‘Towards a Safer Drug Policy: Challenges and Opportunities arising from ‘legal highs” and thought it might be useful to provide my non-executive summary. I’m not attempting a full review – I’m just picking out a few bits that might be interesting. Please feel free to circulate if useful.

– A new psychoactive substance arrived on the market on average every 6 days in 2012, with a new marketplace – Internet and social media.

– Drug laws were developed from moral disapproval, when little evidence existed.

– The Misuse of Drugs Act intended to classify substances according to risk – however politicians have not responded to evidence by down-grading safer drugs, and there is now a lack of correlation between drug harm and classification.

– Young people often don’t care about risk, the focus should be on information and support.

– “Drug use in the UK is described as common if not normal activity”, with 16-19 year olds the most common group, and twice the percentage of young people in the UK using ‘legal highs’ than the European average.

– Banning one substance can make matters worse as it may be replaced by something more dangerous and about which even less is known. It does not decrease use.

– Drugs being sold under the same name may have widely varying contents.

– A need for Trading Standards, health and safety legislation, and a national testing centre, encouraging suppliers to focus on product safety and protecting vulnerable consumers.

– Countries which have introduced decriminalisation have not seem an increase in drug use but have seen positive results in terms of employment, housing, family relationships and costs to the taxpayer.

– New Zealand model: onus is on supplier, not state, to evidence low risk of harm, and harm of regulations should be not greater than harm of the substance being regulated.

– Decriminalisation in Portugal has reduced number of young people addicted to drugs and reduced drug-related deaths.

– New drugs are substitutes for old, possibly less dangerous drugs, so it makes sense to also decriminalise these.

– USA trials have shown that preventive interventions should be interactive, involve parents and their parenting, and be community-based (nothing too ground-breaking there).

– Information on drug properties and prevalence needs to be pooled and made available to public service workers.

– Police seizing white powders currently do not know whether they are removing legal substances and arresting law-abiding citizens until a drawn-out and costly forensic analysis has taken place.

– Introduction of Club Drug Clinics.

– Drug taxation is being considered.

For those bothered enough to read the whole thing, I finally found the full doc at

Possibly also of interest is a documentary that was on BBC4 last night about America’s ‘war on drugs’, which was excellent, and although at times went a bit too far down the pro-drugs road for my liking (trying to imply that crack and methamphet are falsely associated with violence???), it was an intense and honest review of the use of drugs legislation as a method of social control. One scary figure was that 13% of drug use in the US was by black Americans – exactly proportional to the 13% of the overall population they represented – but that 90% of those incarcerated on drug offences were black. Scary stuff. It was a broad-reaching documentary though, looking at how the political and media hysteria around drugs has got to where it is today, watch it.

Cheer the Peers!

Monday, January 14th, 2013

So, today’s news tells us that a cross-party group of peers has advised that certain drugs be decriminalised and even sold by the Government. Not that David Cameron will listen, of course. But even so, the report has come as a pleasant surprise. I admit I am pretty jaded when it comes to politics, but this report seems to be me to be research-led instead of media-hysteria-led, and has some pretty good points to make. The idea of avoiding unknown adulterants and even involving Trading Standards by having similar labelling to food and alcohol, and the opportunity of providing harm reduction information at point of sale, all seem like jolly good ideas to me. However, this would presumably still not allow for these products to be taxed, which raises the question of whether the recommendations go far enough.

As regular readers will have realised, my position on this issue has changed since the influx of ‘legal highs’. Whereas peer information about the old faithfuls (heroin, cocaine, cannabis – all of which have been used for thousands of years and about which we have plenty of information) is generally good amongst user groups, almost nothing is known about the new generation of drugs. This makes using these substances dangerous, and means that we as workers have no information about how to make it less so. An obvious example discussed on an earlier blog is MCat (mephedrone) and its sister drugs. It’s rapid introduction into the UK and the panic that followed inverted the relationship between drug users and the public services meant to be protecting them – they had no idea what they were taking, we had no idea how to respond, and the relationship had to be turned on its head as we asked users for information because we had nothing. If health services genuinely want to reduce the harm people choose to cause themselves, the gap between substance users and the authorities needs to be reduced and an honest discourse needs to begin, and the only way to do so is to reduce the risk of criminalisation for those that have first-hand experiences that are vital for gaining much-needed harm reduction information.

There is no doubt that the old Misuse of Drugs Act needs updating, and whilst few people want to see drug use promoted, we need to accept that times have changed – and that drugs are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. We don’t know what these drugs are or what harm they can cause, but one thing is for sure – if we keep these substances, and the people that use them, on the fringes, there is no way of predicting what this will cost our public health services. The only way to make using such substances safer and less damaging is to not just enable but encourage people speak honestly about their experiences, and to collate and distribute this information as soon as it becomes available. Maybe the reduction in costs from no longer treating the matter as a criminal offence could even help fund research as new drugs come out so that advice and information could be timely, relevant and accurate.

However I am still pleasantly surprised that a group of peers could be so objective and apparently unbiased. Maybe there’s hope for the old country yet…

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