Tag Archives: drugs

Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

I’ve signally failed to blog about what has become known as Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack. The appalling way in which this government is sliding into irrelevance – and how Her Majesty’s Opposition is always only too ready to act as an echo chamber on matters when this government is truly, spectacularly wrong, is both profoundly depressing and barely qualifies as news.

I was interested to read Andrew Hickey’s take on the affair over the weekend. On one level he is certainly right: the degree by which drugs should be prescribed or not should not be lead by science but by the harm principle. It should be up to the individual concerned to decide for themselves if they want to take a narcotic and possible harm themselves in the process – that isn’t any of the state’s business to get involved.

…at least up to a point. Where I perhaps part company with Andrew (I haven’t read all his comments I must confess) is that I think science plays a very crucial role in deciding where you draw the line between an individual making a personal choice and an addict blindly reaching out for the next fix. Just as Mill conceded that an individual should not have the “freedom” to sell themselves into slavery so we must accept that someone physically dependent on a drug is not exerting self-control. To what degree an addict is capable of making rational decisions is very much a matter for scientists to resolve.

The bottom line is, science can’t give you value-free policy and ideology-led, evidence-free policy is equally pernicious. What you need are values and principles underpinning the science. Thus a liberal drugs policy would indeed start from the harm principle but it would rely on scientists to flesh out a lot of the practicalities. Yes, a truly liberal policy would probably result in most drugs being legalised but that in itself would lead to all sorts of questions. What should the legal limit for driving under the influence of cocaine be for instance? Would you go so far as to legalise crack? Do you impose a tax to pay for the externalities and if so, how do you calculate it? What should government policy be on advertising and public health information campaigns. There are plenty of things for scientists to investigate.

In his slightly sarcastic defence of Alan Johnson, Andrew is very wrong in this respect: Nutt was offering scientific advice within the confines of the government’s own legal framework. Within those restrictions he was offering perfectly sound advice and pointing out its inherent contradictions. Johnson hasn’t been simply applying his own principles but besmirching the very principles which the government has for years claimed underpins the existing classification system.

Ultimately, modern science poses a lot of uncomfortable questions about to what extent we can be said to exert free will. We need to engage with that debate not merely wrap ourselves in Victorian philosophy and hope it will go away.

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

The Home Secretary: an unacceptable risk?

I can’t help but feel that this statement reveals all too much about the mental state of our beloved Home Secretary:

Speaking during Home Office questions in the House of Commons, Ms Smith said: “I’ve spoken to him this morning about his comments. I’ve told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article reported.”

She added: “I’m sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking.

“For me that makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs.”

Ms Smith also said: “I made clear to Professor Nutt that I felt his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect of him as the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

“He apologised to me for his comments and I’ve asked him to apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy.”

No-one is questioning the validity of Professor Nutt’s statistics; indeed they are a matter of public record. However, simply mentioning them in the same paragraph is enough to get an “independent” advisor publicly excoriated. Talk about inconvenient truths.

If nothing else sums up madness raging within the Home Office and other government departments then this does the job. Faced with the choice between a hard headed risk assessment and an unquantifiable dread, Jacqui Smith goes for the fear and loathing every time. It reminded me of her petulant whinging at the end of the 42 days debate (which she lost). At least with our war on terror (which of course officially isn’t a war any more), they can hide behind that amorphous thing called “national security”. With the war on drugs (still officially a war as far as I know), she has no such safeguard.

Yet the fact is that you are more likely to die of ecstacy, however low those odds may be, than be killed by a terrorist. Think of all the billions of pounds, all those liberties compromised, all that unneccessary fear aroused, for something that remains an extremely low risk. A something that is intended to spread fear and dread and thus fulfils its objective if governments react in this way.

People die on the roads, fall off horses and die of preventable diseases every day. Smith accuses Prof Nutt of “trivialising” the deaths of ecstacy users, but since when were those deaths more significant than all the others? Ignoring the real risks of drug use (and terrorism) is to fetishise it. If anyone is in the business of trivialising deaths, it is Smith.

Policy by smoke signal

The confusion over whether the government is or isn’t going to support moves to scrap the blasphemy libel laws has reminded me of the ongoing debate over the government’s plans to make it illegal to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In a bad case of wanting to have it both ways, Peter Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance told the Today programme this morning said that while he accepted that “everybody knows it’s not really going to be used again,” he was concerned that scrapping the law would “send out a signal.”

Much of the debate over the proposed law against inciting hatred of gay hatred has been characterised in similar terms, and of course we had people arguing against scrapping Section 28 in the recent past on the grounds of symbolism. Gordon Brown is a big fan of symbolism. His plan to re-reclassify cannabis has nothing to do with changing a failed policy (it’s arguably been successful, which is why he may have to overrule his own advisory body in order to do it) and everything to do with sending signals. Brown could save himself all this parliamentary time simply by installing two large neon signs outside Number 10 – a thumbs up and a thumbs down – and light up each one at various times depending on the issue of the day.

The symbolism issue is key when it comes to the gay hatred law. I accept David Heath’s argument that the law isn’t fundamentally illiberal; I’m more sceptical about his insistence that it isn’t symbolic. As Gavin Whenman points out, we already have legislation against incitement; what is so peculiar about gay hate that requires specific legislation? I’m prepared to be convinced here, but my sense is that at the heart of the Lib Dem’s reluctance to oppose this law is a fear that Labour will simply throw it in our faces in the puerile manner that they regularly do over our limited opposition to their (failed and again largely symbolic) anti-social behaviour legislation.

The sad fact is, such symbolism works. It gives the media something they can communicate easily; it makes it look as if the government are keeping themselves busy. But just as Labour’s gimmickry about crime hasn’t actually made anyone feel safer, exploiting prejudices through symbolism ultimately just makes people feel more and more divorced from the political process.

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

Overcoming the media narrative

My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.

Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.

He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.

Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.

Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.

Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.

The Tax Question

Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?

Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.

The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.

The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.

My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!

Drugs Policy

Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.

Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.

Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.

Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.

My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.

Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.

The EU Reform Treaty

Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.

Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.

He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.

Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.

After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.

My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.

Raising the Profile of Local Government

Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.

Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.

He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.

My view: not much new or of substance here.

The Elephant Question

Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.

My view: a good ad lib there.

OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.

The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.

I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.

The druggie versus the hoodie

What’s worse? Huhne’s LSD-associated past, or Clegg’s past encounter with peyote?

Seriously for a minute, is that Times article on Huhne accurate? According to it, Huhne’s name is on the article. But according to the copy which I pilfered from that nice Mr Fawkes (February 2006, by the way), no name appears anywhere on the article, probably because if anyone admitted to writing the article they’d have been kicked out of university.

Isis article on drugs

Can anyone see Huhne’s name on this page? I’ll happily issue a correction if I’ve missed it. But I suspect that Guido would have made rather more of it at the time if that was the case. I notice that the Times chooses its words carefully such as stating that his byline was “attached” and has not published the article on its site as proof. Why would that be?

Sindy’s Stance on Skunk Stinks

If I ever become an actual politician, when I am inevitably asked “did you ever smoke cannabis in your youth?” I will have a terribly dull answer. I didn’t. I ate a hash brownie once but it didn’t seem to have any effect. In fact, generally I’m uncomfortable about taking any substance that has an effect on my mental state, although that doesn’t prevent me from the occasional tipple or chunking down enormous quantities of sugar and chocolate. In short, when it comes to personal practice, I am the Daily Mail’s poster child for insouciant hypocrisy.

Yet, inconveniently for the anti-legalisation lobby, I’m in favour of legalising – and thus regulating – cannabis. The rise of skunk (and Ben Goldacre puts some of the more alarmist headlines into perspective), far from causing me to doubt my opinion, has confirmed to me that prohibition has a toxic effect on society. Five years after alcohol prohibition had been imposed on the US in the 20s, you can guarantee that the sort of alcohol available on the black market was much more dangerous than when it was legal. With no quality control, with huge profits to be made and with huge penalties imposed when dealers were caught, the rise of moonshine was an inevitability. Skunk, grown in people’s cupboards, is the equivalent of moonshine.

What annoys me most about the Sindy’s stance is that it is based on the moronic rubric that because the medical dangers are greater than we may have thought, the case for legalisation goes right out of the window. Yet no-one (apart from that bloke with a guitar who stands outside all the party conferences each year) believes that tobacco should be made illegal – people would be injecting nicotine within months. If there is a medical problem, the solution should be a medical one, yet that is hindered by criminalising the users and forcing them to buy their supply from criminals. From what I’ve seen though, the Sindy seems utterly uninterested in even exploring that argument.

I’m afraid that the fact the Sindy is starting this debate demonstrates two things all too clearly. Firstly, the tabloidisation of the Independent papers is now complete. First it was the size, then it was the content, now it is the mindset. The obvious kneejerk populism is a blatant attempt to gain sales, not to enlighten debate.

The second factor is that liberalism in the UK has been significantly weakened over the past half decade, and it will take years to recover. Drugs policy is a case in point. Back in 1999, the rightwing press attempted to cause a storm over the fact that Charles Kennedy had publicly backed the party’s policy to have a royal commission on drugs policy (which Paddy hated). This quickly turned into a damp squib however as it became clear that the public wasn’t interested. Later, the Tories’ hypocrisy on drug policy was exposed when it emerged that half the then-cabinet happily admitted to taking cannabis when they were younger.

Now we have Cameron screaming about his right to privacy (except for when it is convenient for him to show off his disabled child) and now, the Sindy pretending to be the Mail on Sunday. We live in a different country now.

In September 2001, I was getting t-shirt’s printed to promote LDYS’ latest scam, the libdemsondrugs online debating website on drugs policy. We were hoping to cause a real outrage and get ourselves on the front page of every red top in the land. Then 9/11 happened. Sad.

Cook’d and Bomb’d

Lynne Featherstone apparently asked the Home Office a question last month about the date rape drug Progesterex. One small problem – it doesn’t exist.

Now, far be it for me to criticise a Lib Dem MP, but come on, do you really take every single email you get at face value? Until 5 minutes ago, I hadn’t heard of this particular hoax spam, but the idea that a drug exists that both knocks a woman out and sterilises her sounds a mite unlikely. As an ordinary person in the street, rather than fire off a missive to the Home Office about it, I’d type it into Google and see what I get. Bang! Problem solved.

Joining David Amess among the ranks of MPs who have asked Parliamentary Questions about made up drugs is perhaps not the greatest acolade. But there is a wider problem with the question, which is that is asks about “date rape”. What exactly is this? It is a complex issue and it is no surprise that the Home Office doesn’t collect statistical data on the subject as there is no legal distinction between it and rape (nor, should there be). Now, if it turned out the Home Office wasn’t monitoring incidents of rape that would be a scandal. But of course, not only does the Home Office keep such a record, the data is widely available on their Crime Statistics website.

I’m all for having a go at the Safety Elephant, but criticising the Home Office for not having a response to made up drugs and made up crimes is a little harsh, isn’t it? Trivialising rape in this way without bothering to do basic research first doesn’t help anybody.