Sunday, 26 September 2010

uk: more prominent calls for regulating illegal drugs


Cuts prompt police to call for debate on drugs and redirect resources

Intervention comes amid growing warnings from experts that prohibition does not deter drug use

18 September 2010
Mark Townsend, home affairs editor

One of Britain's most senior police officers has said youngsters caught carrying personal amounts of drugs such as cannabis should "not be criminalised", in order to allow more resources to be dedicated to tackling high-level dealers [see footnote].

Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside police, said the criminal justice system could offer only a "limited" solution to the UK's drug problem, a tacit admission that prohibition has failed.

Hollis's dramatic intervention comes as the government is reviewing its 10-year drug strategy amid growing warnings from experts that prohibition does not deter drug use and that decriminalisation would liberate precious police resources and cut crime.

Hollis, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' drugs committee, said he did not want to criminalise young people caught with minor amounts of substances such as cannabis. A criminal record that could ruin their career before it began was disproportionate, he said.

Hollis said budget cuts had forced police to "prioritise" resources towards tackling organised criminal networks rather than individuals carrying drugs for personal use. He also backed calls for the current drug classification system into class A, B and C to be re-examined following concerns that bracketing substances such as heroin and ecstasy in the same class is confusing.

"We would rather invest our time in getting high-level criminals before the courts, taking money off them and removing their illicit gains rather than targeting young people. We don't want to criminalise young people because, put bluntly, if we arrest young kids for possession of cannabis and put them before the courts we know what the outcome's going to be, so actually it's perfectly reasonable to give them words of advice or take it off them."

Hollis said financial constraints meant it was impractical to arrest everybody caught with new designer drugs available online and added that a debate was needed over whether alcohol and nicotine, which together kill more than 120,000 people a year, should be included in attempts to tackle illegal drugs.

"My personal belief in terms of sheer scale of harm is that one of the most dangerous drugs in this country is alcohol. Alcohol is a lawful drug. Likewise, nicotine is a lawful drug, but cigarettes can kill," he said. "There is a wider debate on the impacts to our community about all aspects of drugs, of which illicit drugs are one modest part."

The comments by Hollis come as a row continues between scientists and politicians over cannabis. One of Britain's leading researchers into the drug, Professor Roger Pertwee, argued last week that policymakers should consider allowing the licensed sale of cannabis for recreational use, claiming the current policy of criminalising cannabis was ineffective.

Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are on record as questioning the effectiveness of Britain's drug laws.

Officially the Home Office insists decriminalisation is not the right approach and there is clear evidence cannabis can damage mental health. Insiders, however, have told the Observer that officials are looking at "non-prosecution" strategies. The government has recently studied Portugal's approach in which the authorities have discreetly decriminalised the use and possession of substances including heroin.

• This footnote was added on 21 September 2010. The original headline read: Police chief issues call to decriminalise cannabis and redirect resources. This has been changed. The first paragraph originally read: One of Britain's most senior police officers has proposed decriminalising the personal use of drugs such as cannabis to allow more resources to be dedicated to tackling high-level dealers. This has been amended to make clear that Chief Constable Tim Hollis has stated that neither he nor ACPO are calling for the legalisation of cannabis. Rather, he is seeking to open a mature debate around the harms caused by illicit drugs and the role of the police service regarding enforcement.

Cannabis should be licensed and sold in shops, expert says

Leading cannabis researcher calls for legalisation with controls similar to alcohol and tobacco

14 September 2010
Ian Sample, Science correspondent

Cannabis for recreational use should be available in shops under similar restrictions to those used to control the sale of alcohol and tobacco, according to Britain's leading expert on the drug.

Under one scenario, people would be able to apply for a licence to buy cannabis products once they reach the age of 21, provided they have the approval of a doctor, he said.

The drug would be regulated by a body that ensures the quality and safety of the products before they go on sale.

A rethink of the laws surrounding cannabis and related products was necessary to take cannabis out of the hands of criminals, said Roger Pertwee, professor of neuropharmacology at Aberdeen University.

In the 1970s, Pertwee co-discovered THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.

Speaking ahead of a talk this week at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, Pertwee said: "In my view, we don't have an ideal solution yet to deal with recreational cannabis. We should consider licensing and marketing cannabis and cannabis products just as we do alcohol and tobacco.

"At the moment, cannabis is in the hands of criminals, and that's crazy. We're allowed to take alcohol, we're allowed to smoke cigarettes. Cannabis, if it's handled properly, is probably not going to be any more dangerous than that."

The government upgraded cannabis to a class B drug late last year against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The council's chairman, Professor David Nutt, was sacked after criticising the government's drugs policy, a move that prompted five others to resign in protest.

Possession of class B drugs, which include amphetamines, such as speed and barbiturates, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison plus a fine. Dealing the drugs can lead to a 14-year prison sentence. The most recent Home Office figures show there are 158,000 convictions for cannabis possession a year.

Pertwee said he wanted to reopen the debate on cannabis, saying he favoured legalisation if the drug was well regulated. He added that healthier alternatives to smoking cannabis were available.

Outlawing the drug forced users to either grow it illicitly or buy it from an illegal dealer. "They have no idea what the composition is, what has been added to it, and they are at risk of being invited to take other drugs," he said.

Attempts to relax the ban on cannabis have been countered by concerns that it can cause schizophrenia in a minority of people who are susceptible to the condition. Pertwee said it might be possible for doctors to assess people's backgrounds and risk of mental health problems before allowing them to buy a cannabis licence.

"You would need a minimum age of 21, but I would go further: that you have to have a licence. You have to have a car licence, you have to have a dog licence; why not a cannabis licence, so you can only take it if it's medically safe for you to do so?" he said.

Nutt, who is a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: "I welcome this attempt by the UK's leading expert on cannabis to bring rationality to the debate on its legal status.

"As cannabis is clearly less harmful than alcohol, criminalisation of people who prefer this drug is illogical and unjust. We need a new regulatory approach to cannabis. The Dutch coffee-shop model is one that has been proven to work but some of Professor Pertwee's new suggestions may well have extra benefits and should be actively debated."

Cannabis farmers take up arms to defend crops in booming trade

Police say drug gangs are arming themselves with machetes, shotguns and dogs as crop seizures double

17 August 2010
Alan Travis, home affairs editor

Illicit cannabis factory farmers are arming themselves with sawn-off shotguns, CS sprays and machetes and even setting booby traps to protect their crops from rival gangs, according to a police study published today.

The report for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) reveals there has been a boom in cannabis production across Britain in the last two years, with nearly 7,000 illegal farms and factories uncovered in 2009/10 alone.

The vast majority are still based in private homes, but the industry has long outgrown its DIY roots of a few plants under the stairs. Large-scale production methods are now the norm in a trade dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese migrants who have been brought into Britain illegally to act as "gardeners".

The police say the impact of the recession means that disused factories, nightclubs and even banks are being used to grow cannabis plants on an industrial scale.

The report, the UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis, says the largest single cannabis factory ever found was uncovered in July in an industrial unit in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, where more than 7,600 plants with an estimated value of £2.5m, were seized.

Commander Allan Gibson, of the Metropolitan police, Acpo's lead on cannabis, said that between 2004 and 2007 about 800 cannabis factories a year were being uncovered in Britain. That rose to more than 3,000 a year in 2007/08 and to more than 6,800 in 2009/10, he said.

In the last year almost 750,000 plants had been seized with an estimated value of £85m, compared with 500,000 with an estimated yield of £65m in 2008/09.

Gibson said the level of publicity generated over the reclassification of cannabis in 2008 had led to more people reporting the telltale signs of a hidden factory in their neighbourhood. Police say these indications include blacked-out windows, hot walls, condensation, strange or pungent aromas and people or traffic activity at all hours. These reports had led in turn to an increased focus by law enforcement, including more covert operations and better intelligence-sharing between forces.

The Acpo report discusses the prospect that the scale of homegrown cannabis production is now so great that Britain could become a net exporter of cannabis for the first time in its history.

"Although cannabis continues to be imported into the UK, the domestic commercial cultivation of cannabis has been escalating for a number of years," it says. "The assumption has been made that due to the high frequency at which the UK is producing cannabis, there is now a market for exportation.

"However, there is no intelligence or evidence to suggest this is happening. Data received from the UK Border Agency suggests large amounts of cannabis are still being imported, indicating that the current demand for the drug is so great that domestic production cannot satisfy it."

The study adds that the perception by some criminals that British skunk is of a lower quality than the more powerful Dutch varieties is fuelling this import trade.

The industry now spans the country, with the Met, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and West Yorkshire forces all reporting more than 1,000 factories found in their areas. Glasgow is regarded as a hotspot for drying leaves.

Acpo says that until now cannabis cultivation has been regarded as a "south-east Asian" crime, but the report highlights a growing involvement of white British people in association with Vietnamese and Chinese crime gangs.

The migrants involved have often been trafficked into Britain and subsequently put to work to pay off the £10,000 bill for their journey. Those arrested when police raid a factory are predominantly the "gardeners" left to tend the plants. They are rarely allowed to leave the premises until the crop is harvested.

Disturbingly, the study reports a growing tide of violence in the trade, with an increasing number of reported incidents of cannabis factories being "taxed" by other criminal gangs. This has led those working in the factories to arm themselves to repulse such attacks. Booby traps have also been found, including attempts to electrify window frames, doorknobs and, in one case, a side gate wired up to the mains.

Child trafficking

Children have been identified by the police as having been trafficked from China and Vietnam into Britain specifically to work on cannabis farms. Nearly all are teenagers aged 15 to 17. They are used by the crime gangs to maintain and water the plants, and even break into rival cannabis farms.

"If they are recovered by authorities they are under extreme pressure to abscond from care, with organisers often making threats," says the Acpo study. "A significant number go missing from local authority provided accommodation prior to and after exploitation."

Emotional and physical abuse is often to used ensure their compliance by the gangs. They are extremely wary of talking to the police, perhaps fearful for other family members who have unpaid debts to the traffickers.

Cocaine should be legal, says top doctor

The use of drugs should be decriminalised, one of Britain’s most senior doctors has said.

17 Aug 2010
James Kirkup, Political Correspondent

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore said making drugs such as heroin and cocaine legal would “drastically” cut crime and addicts’ health problems.

State-regulated use of drugs would also save money and avert the need to try to stop drug production in countries such as Afghanistan, he said.

Sir Ian has recently stepped down as president of the Royal College of Physicians, and in a valedictory message to colleagues, he called for laws to be “reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use”. He said: “This could drastically reduce crime and improve health.”

Sir Ian said he agreed with the argument put forward by Nicholas Green QC, the chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, who said last month that it was “rational” to consider “decriminalising personal drug use”.

Sir Ian also said he was persuaded by a recent article in the British Medical Journal, which argued that the prohibition of drugs had been “counterproductive”, made many public health problems worse, and stimulated organised crime and terrorism.

Sir Ian said that banning drugs had harmed society. “There’s a lot of evidence that the total prohibition of drugs, making them totally illicit and unavailable, has not been successful at reducing not only the health burden, but also the impact on crime,” he said.

“I’m trying to take a fresh look, as many people have done. There is a strong case for a different approach.”

There should be a “regulatory framework around illicit drugs, rather than a blanket prohibition”.

Evidence suggested that state regulation of drug use “doesn’t increase the number of drug users,” he said.

Regulating drug use would mean “helping people with addiction problems, rather than putting them in prison”.

He also suggested that regulating drug use would save money on policing and on international efforts to reduce the cultivation of narcotics. “It’s more cost effective to try to treat people with drug problems than to close down poppy fields in disparate countries.”

Danny Kushlick of Transform, a drug reform campaign group, said Sir Ian’s statement was “a nail in the coffin” of the current drug laws.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, said the legalisation of drugs “would simply create the mistaken impression that these substances are not harmful, when in fact this is far from the truth”.

17 August 2010

Top doctor Sir Ian Gilmore calls for drugs law review

Sir Ian said he had had a longstanding interest in the subject, stemming from his work as a liver specialist.

"Every day in our hospital wards we see drug addicts with infections from dirty needles, we see heroin addicts with complications from contaminated drugs," he said.

He argued that many of the problems health staff encountered were the consequences not of heroin itself, but of prohibition.

In his e-mail, Sir Ian wrote: "I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health," he wrote.

In his recent report to the Bar Council, Mr Green said there was growing evidence that decriminalising personal use could free up police resources, reduce crime and improve public health.

Mr Rolles - whose recent BMJ article Sir Ian cited in his e-mail - told BBC Radio 4's Today programme their arguments were "built on a critique of the failure of the last 40 or 50 years".

He said the "punitive criminal justice-driven war on drugs" had delivered the opposite of its goals.

"It hasn't reduced drug use, it hasn't prevented the availability of drugs, but it has created a whole raft of secondary problems associated with the illegal market, including making drugs more dangerous than they already are and undermining public health and fuelling crime."

"That is provoking a debate on what the alternative approaches are and the one that we are calling for is legally regulated production supply."

He said those who found such a proposal difficult to stomach needed to "accept the pragmatic reality that demand for drugs exists now".

"[That demand] will be met one way or another, and we have a choice - we can either leave that supply in the hands of the worse possible people - the illegal market controlled by violent criminal profiteers - or we can control it by appropriate authorities in ways that will reduce the harm that it causes."

He called on the government to look at the evidence and assess the current policy compared with the alternatives, instead of following the "traditional political grandstanding and moral posturing which has characterised drugs policy over the last few decades".


Danny Kushlick of Transform, a drug-reform campaign group said Sir Ian's statement is “a nail in the coffin” of current drug laws.

He said: “The Hippocratic Oath says 'First do no harm'. Physicians are duty bound to speak out if the outcomes show that prohibition causes more harm than it reduces.

“Sir Ian is justly fulfilling his role by calling for consideration of the evidence for legal control and regulation.”

Another top doctor has backed a rethink of drug policy. Maybe it's time to listen

Tom Chivers
August 17th, 2010

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians, has become the latest high-profile figure to come out in favour of legalising, or at least decriminalising, drugs. Maybe, then, it is a good time to have an honest discussion about what it is we want from our drug policy, and how best to achieve it.

Instead, we get this statement from a Home Office spokesman: “Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.”

So, in the face of expert opinion, they offer no evidence or support for prohibition, instead blandly stating that they “do not believe decriminalisation is the right approach”. In a bleakly funny aside, they lump cannabis together with heroin and cocaine, as though they are remotely comparable. And they set up a straw man, saying that the drugs are harmful, which nobody denies.

So, if the Government won’t engage in serious debate, let’s try to start one here. They helpfully lay out their priorities: reducing drug use and reducing drug crime. (”Helping addicts come off drugs for good” really comes under “reducing drug use”, so I’ll ignore it.)

There is a third worthwhile aim of drug policy, which they have neglected: reducing drug harm. Certain activities – needle exchange, say, or prescribing safe heroin of known strength to addicts – may not reduce use, but will mitigate some of the worst effects of drugs, like HIV, poisoning and overdose. I’m going to consider that as well.

So: what is the evidence? Let’s take it one by one.

Reducing drug use: there is no evidence to suggest tough drug policies reduce drug use. A recent article in the BMJ, by Stephen Rolles, the head of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, says: “Decriminalisation has shown that less punitive approaches do not necessarily lead to increased use.” A World Health Organisation study finds similarly: “Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones.”

Even the Netherlands, famous pot-smoking capital of Europe with its coffeeshops selling cannabis à la carte to red-eyed tourists, does not have significantly different levels of use to its neighbours, says Rolle. Portugal, which legalised all drugs in 2001, has seen use fall in the young. US states which have decriminalised cannabis do not have higher use than those which have not. It seems that, if you’re going to take drugs, you’re going to do it whether it’s legal or not.

Reducing drug crime: as well as possession and dealing, drugs must be smuggled in to Britain (or illegally grown here); it must be illegally produced elsewhere; addicts must pay for their fix, and turn to crime; dealers defend their turf, frequently with violence; most significantly, producers and smugglers run empires in countries like Colombia and Afghanistan that rival nation states in their power and riches. Would this be reduced by decriminalisation?

Much of it, obviously, would, and this has been shown in other countries. Addicts who get prescribed heroin for free or at affordable prices will not have to rob. If dealers can set up business in a shop, rather than on a street corner, there is no longer any need for turf wars. If drugs can be legally imported, there is no need to smuggle them (assuming tax levels are not too high), and if they can be legally grown, there is no need for illicit farms.

The illegal production overseas, and the criminal empires that creates, are a trickier problem. But if drugs could be legally bought, then – like alcohol and tobacco – a legal industry would spring up. It would be an unpleasant industry, no doubt, like the alcohol and tobacco industries, that does harm. But they might start to take the billions and billions of pounds of business away from drug lords. It would push them instead towards corporate fat cats, but distasteful as that is, it would be an improvement.

Reducing drug harm: this is clear, and again has been demonstrated in other countries. Addicts on clean heroin using clean needles can actually lead fairly normal lives. The spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis among users is lessened, as are accidental poisonings from adulterated drugs. Street drugs of unknown strength are easier to overdose on; clearly labelled, regulated drugs are safer.

As the BMJ article says, “regulation is no silver bullet”. Drugs will always cause harm. It must be introduced carefully, rather than in a blanket fashion: Transform recommends five different grades of regulation, from unlicensed sales for relatively harmless products like caffeine drinks, via licensed premises for riskier products like cannabis, to prescription-only for the most dangerous, like heroin and methamphetamine. We have to accept that there will still be problems, including some new problems. But, as the article points out, “[drugs] can remain in the hands of [criminals], or they can be controlled and regulated by appropriate government authorities. There is no third option under which drugs do not exist.”

Since his speech, Prof Gilmore has been backed by Dr Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ. Others to have called for the legalisation of some or all drugs include Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council; Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales; Professor David Nutt, then head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; and his successor in that post, Professor Les Iverson. These are not tie-dyed hippies seeking to throw wide the doors of perception. These are people who know about health, drugs and crime, and think that the current system does more harm than good. Maybe it’s time to listen to them.

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