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12/07/2007 00:00:00

UK: The very worst policy to combat drugs

Duncan Smith believes that spliff-smoking is such a catastrophe that
cannabis needs reclassifying

The Quiet Man is turning up the volume once more - and this time, he
wants to drown out the demon dealers of the demon weed. Iain Duncan
Smith (remember him?) is back with a fat report into how to end poverty
in Britain. The sections demanding the financial punishment of single
mothers have already been pored over and torn up for their sociological
illiteracy. But there is a yet-to-be-noticed section of the new Tory
plans that would have an even more bracingly reactionary effect - and
send your own odds of being a victim of crime sky-rocketing.

Let's look at skinning up first. IDS believes that spliff-smoking is
such a catastrophe that cannabis needs to be reclassified as a Class B
drug and the police need to spend thousands of hours tracking down the
people who sell and smoke it (rather than, say, murderers and rapists).
But he bases this view on three blatant errors.

Error One: Cannabis today is much stronger than the cannabis of the
1960s. It is now a different drug to the one our hippie parents smoked.
This is asserted casually these days, even by cuddly liberals who once
supported cannabis legalisation. But in reality, the European Monitoring
Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction has published a long-term study of
cannabis potency - and found this is nonsense. "The effective strength
of cannabis consumed in Britain has remained stable for the past 30
years," the report explains.

There is variety between different kinds of cannabis - super-skunk is
obviously more powerful - but the report found that "this variety always
existed... there have always been some samples that have had a high

Error Two: Cannabis causes psychosis. A major study at Cologne
University and King's College, London in May showed a much more complex
picture, with different chemical constituents of cannabis having
different effects. The researchers found that although
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that produces a high, giggly
feeling, can trigger psychosis in a very small number of users, another
chemical component to cannabis, cannabidinol (CBD), actually inhibits
and suppresses psychotic symptoms in people suffering from them. CBD is
so good at suppressing psychotic symptoms that it proved to be more
effective than any of the major anti-psychotics currently prescribed by

Professor Jim van Os suggests a solution: legal cannabis could be easily
grown and marketed with high CBD levels, ending the psychotic effect.
Indeed, such a drug would actually be helpful for psychotics to smoke.
Obviously, it's impossible to do this while cannabis remains in the
hands of organised crime syndicates - a certainty under prohibition. So
it is actually more accurate to say cannabis prohibition causes cannabis
psychosis, and legalisation would end it.

Error Three: Relaxing the law makes more people use drugs. Between 1972
and 1978, eleven US states decriminalised marijuana possession. So did
hundreds of thousands of people rush out to smoke the now-legal weed?
The National Research Council found that it had no effect on the number
of dope-smokers. None. The people who had always liked it carried on;
the people who didn't felt no sudden urge to start.

But IDS's factual errors become even more startling when he turns to the
needle. He has a simple solution to heroin addiction: he will end all
the legal methadone and heroin prescriptions, and demand addicts stop
altogether. They will be offered a bible and a rehab session - after
that, they're on their own.

This is part of a Tory critique of the Government's policy. Since 1997,
Labour has - below the radar - radically revised Britain's drug
policies. They took a hard look at the evidence and admitted something
inconvenient: even the best rehab centres in the world, the Betty Fords
and the Priorys, have a success rate of just 20 per cent. That means
that for 80 per cent of addicts, rehab doesn't work. If these addicts
are offered no help beyond that one policy, as IDS demands, then we know
what happens: they become burglars, or prostitutes, or corpses. So the
Government increased methadone prescriptions by 87 per cent. (They were
more cowardly on heroin prescription, only running a few clinical trials.)

And the result? As the former deputy drugs tsar Mike Trace told me,
"These prescriptions are the secret reason why crime has fallen so much
under the current government." The Cheshire Drug Squad found in the
1980s that the presence of a rare heroin-prescribing clinic on their
patch caused an incredible 94 per cent drop in theft, burglary and
property crimes. We are seeing a similar effect across Britain today -
and IDS will reverse it.

Far from "giving up on addicts", handing them a regular prescription
sets them free to have a normal life. Many go on to excel. Look at Dr
William Stewart Halsted, the early 20th-century captain of the Yale
football team who became "the father of modern surgery" and the
cofounder of the world-famous Johns Hopkins Hospital. Here is a typical
description of his surgical technique: "He used frequently light, swift,
sparing movements with the sharpest of knives, instead of free, heavy
handed deep cutting... [There was] the minimum of haemorrhage."

He did it all while injecting a minimum of 180 milligrams of morphine a
day. He, of course, had access to a safe, legal supply, which he
prescribed to himself. All the evidence shows it is scrambling for an
illegal and contaminated supply that screws up opiate addicts - not the
drug itself.

But IDS calls this "methadone madness", serving up in its place a plate
of cold turkey with a cup of lukewarm moral piety to wash it down. As
Danny Kushlick, head of the drug reform charity Transform, explains:
"The report's authors avoid the science and the evidence like the
plague. It is the worst-written, most poorly informed report on drugs
policy I have ever seen."

Will this now become Tory policy? One of the very few areas in which
David Cameron is impressive is in his subtle, supple understanding of
drugs policy. In 2002 he served on the Health Select Committee,
interviewing dozens of experts on drugs policy, where he clearly
understood the issues. He ended by co-authoring a brave report which
said legalisation should be considered as an option - so we can finally
take drugs back from armed criminal gangs and hand them to doctors and

As he picks up IDS's ramblings, Cameron faces a dilemma. Will he go with
his own intellectual convictions, which tell him drug prohibition has
been "disastrous", or will he appease his panicked party yet further by
adopting this infantile prohibitionist cry? David, it's time to turn the
volume down on the Quiet Man - to zero.


Author: The Independent via UKCIA

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