Blogs

A Digression on Drugs

John Rentoul

clegg A Digression on DrugsI digressed in my column for The Independent on Sunday today. It is about Nick Clegg’s plan to defend as many as possible of the party’s 57 seats at the next election. The Liberal Democrats realise that they might lose seats to Labour, but they hope to defend well against the Conservatives in the south, and they know that if they can hold onto, say, 50 seats they will still be likely to have some leverage in a hung parliament.

The plan is to use some well-defined policies to appeal to segments of the electorate who still find it hard to vote Tory. One such policy is the mansion tax; another is drugs. This is where I went off road. The point about a liberal policy on drugs is not, for the purposes of political analysis, whether Clegg is right or wrong but whether or not there is a subset of voters who (a) care and (b) think it is right.

The YouGov survey for The Sun, which accompanied Clegg’s interview on Friday, confirmed that there is indeed such a subset.

With regard to “soft” drugs such as cannabis, which of these statements comes closest to your own view?

The sale and possession of such drugs should remain a criminal offence as now 43%

The sale and possession of such drugs should remain illegal but should be regarded as a minor offence, such as parking in the wrong place, rather than a CRIMINAL offence (a policy sometimes called ‘decriminalisation’) 30%

The sale and possession of such drugs should no longer be illegal (sometimes called ‘legalisation’) 19%

That seems quite a big subset: 49 per cent of voters say they want some form of liberalisation. I doubt that many of them care much, but there is undoubtedly a small core of “liberal on drugs” voters that it is worth the Lib Dems’ wooing.

My other unworthy and distracting thought was that I doubt if many of the 49 per cent know what they are talking about. Hence my digression, to point out that Clegg did not know what he was talking about.

He admitted as much, because he said only that he wants to “look at what works elsewhere” and to include a “clear commitment” to a royal commission on drugs in his party’s 2015 manifesto.

On the other hand, he hinted that he agrees with decriminalisation, because he said (a) we have to “do something different”, (b) he is not in favour of legalisation, and (c) decriminalisation “may be a solution”.

Right, working backwards then, what is the problem?

I don’t think Clegg knows, apart from platitudes about having lost the war on drugs and a meeting with a former president of Mexico, which has little to do with the case for decriminalising cannabis.

As I pointed out, the drugs policy of the Labour governments has been a remarkable success. I quoted the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which shows a fall between 1998 and 2011 from 20.8 per cent to 10.9 per cent in the proportion of young people aged 16-24 who report illegal drug use in the previous month. If there is a war on drugs, we are winning it.

It is true that decriminalisation “may be a solution” if the problem is that otherwise sensible potheads are liable to get criminal records that might interfere with their blameless careers. But mental illness is also a problem, even if it is associated with cannabis use in a small minority of teenage boys. It is incumbent on the advocates of decriminalisation to show that the change would not lead to wider cannabis use or, if it did, that it would not matter.

Clegg says he wants to “look at what works elsewhere”. On this, the YouGov survey is not so helpful to him. Not in the answers that people gave, but in one of the questions it asked (the longest I have ever seen in an opinion poll):

In 2001 Portugal decriminalised possession of drugs in an attempt to deal with a high rate of heroin addiction and HIV amongst drug users. People growing, dealing or trafficking drugs are still prosecuted, but possession of drugs for personal use has been decriminalised. Instead there has been increased investment in drug treatment programmes and harm reduction programmes.

Since the policy was introduced there have been higher levels of drug treatment, the justice system has spent less time on drug-related crime, there has been less problem drug use, but a higher rate of overall reported drug use.

Would you support or oppose a similar programme in this country?

This was actually supported, by a margin of 40 per cent to 32 per cent, although 27 per cent didn’t know. But note that YouGov’s careful researchers accept that decriminalisation in Portugal has led to a “higher rate of overall reported drug use”.

Perhaps this does not matter, but I would like Clegg to explain why not.

Tagged in: , ,
  • malcolmkyle

    The Portuguese government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs in 2001. Five years later, the number of deaths from overdoses dropped from 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=portugal-drug-decriminalization

    Following decriminalization, Portugal had one of the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

    Rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group)

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html

    A study by Glenn Greenwald (commissioned by the libertarian Cato Institute) found that in the five years after the start of Portuguese decriminalization, drug use by teenagers had declined.

    http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/html.cfm/index419EN.html

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf

  • malcolmkyle

    The Portuguese government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs in 2001. Five years later, the number of deaths from overdoses dropped from 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400

    Following decriminalization, Portugal had one of the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

    Rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group)

    A study by Glenn Greenwald (commissioned by the libertarian Cato Institute) found that in the five years after the start of Portuguese decriminalization, drug use by teenagers had declined.

  • Toocleverbyhalf

    Council by-election results ( a notoriously unreliable guide to general election ones I know but still…) suggest that the Lib Dem vote is holding up fairly well in “Lib Dem strongholds” especially those with Lib Dem MPs and where the Tories came second last time around.

    Labour faces a dilemma in such, for them, un-winnable seats. Campaign too hard against the Lib Dems and let in the Tories in – or not?

    So maybe Mr Clegg’s party may live to fight another day. He might even save his own seat. No wonder some senior Labour figures think that being as horrid as they want to be to the Lib Dems isn’t too bright an idea.

    And I doubt whether more than one voter in a hundred has thought very deeply about the issues on “the war on drugs” which you raise, but most of them have used illegal drugs themselves or know people who have. And lots of people, quite understandably, mistrust the Tories so any excuse to vote Lib Dem in a seat Labour can’t win might be a good one.

    Politics is a peculiar game. Profound or what?

  • Rick Role

    You are right to identify Clegg’s woolly position. This is reflected in the misleading wording of the second survey option: “The sale and possession of such drugs should remain illegal but should be regarded as a minor offence, such as parking in the wrong place, rather than a CRIMINAL offence (a policy sometimes called ‘decriminalisation’)”

    In English law, “crime” is synonymous with “offence”. The above option conflates the question of whether criminal penalties should be more “minor” (retaining the offences) with whether they should be replaced by civil fines (abolishing the offences).

    True decriminalisation involves replacing an offence with liability to a fine, ultimately enforceable through only the civil courts (e.g. parking penalties under the Road Traffic Act 1991 sch 6 para 7).

    Some driving offences are hybrid: drivers are liable to criminal charges, unless they pay a civil penalty; but if they pay up, the law prevents a criminal prosecution (e.g. fixed penalty traffic offences under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 s 76(3) as amended). This saves paperwork and court costs for most cases while retaining a reserve power for exceptional cases or offenders who are unable or unwilling to pay.

    The hybrid approach has the advantage of giving the police flexibility, eliminating loopholes for cases where it is hard to convict on an underlying offence (similarly to Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion). It has the disadvantage of giving the police discretion which they could abuse to intimidate. It also criminalises those who are too poor to be able to pay.

    But there is no such thing as a non-criminal offence.

  • http://alexross.wordpress.com/ Alex Ross-Shaw

    Could it be that ‘reported drug use’ rose because more people admitted taking drugs who had previously been taking them, but hadn’t admitted it because of the law? Therefore actual drug use didn’t change?

    Or, that casual, personal drug use rose but the potential associated costs with that did not, therefore the policy was seen to have ‘worked’ with a worthwhile pay-off?

  • pearson

    Not only that, I am willing to bet that the overall crime rate has declined in Portugal, from petty crime (theft from motor vehicles, shoplifting) to major and violent crimes like murder (drug dealer scumbags murdering each other)
    A further benefit is more efficient use of state resources (police, justice, prisons)
    The war on drugs contributes to all levels of crime, increases street violence and is a waste of time.

    The USA enjoys the (unwinnable) war on drugs, because it allows government to employ more armed agents and gives the government liberty to violently infringe on the civil rights of citizens

  • modeluprightcitizen

    “I doubt if many of the 49 per cent know what they are talking about”. States an all-knowing and somewhat patronising John Rentoul. The reality is though that more people (49%) think there should be a change in policy towards decriminalisation and/or legalisation rather than retain the current policy of criminalisation (only 43%). Rather than the 49% in favour of change being guilty of not knowing what they’re talking about, as John Rentoul claims, perhaps it’s actually the 43% minority who don’t really know what they’re talking about?

    As the most authoritative study of the links between cannabis use and schizophrenia and psychosis in the UK shows (based on 600,000 people per study year, by far the biggest sample ever used in such a study), the evidence is that despite a twenty-fold increase in cannabis use since the late-1960s, the number of people with schizophrenia and psychosis has steadily declined and continues to decline to this day (Frischer, et al, 2009). This was the study part-financed by the ACMD, using a longitudinal methodology very similar to Richard Doll’s study which identified the causal link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer, set up in direct response to the Brown Labour Government’s concerns on this very issue. The ACMD advised that the causal link between cannabis use and schizophrenia and psychosis was ‘weak’ based on the most in-depth research ever undertaken. So if John Rentoul wants ‘evidence’ to show that an increase in cannabis use in the event of liberalisation of the law wouldn’t matter, then he has it.

    So perhaps it’s the 43% minority, of which he’s clearly one, who don’t know what they’re talking about? But I couldn’t possibly comment on that.

    The recent series of articles by Patrick Cockburn also failed to acknowledge that the Frischer study had taken place, despite its very large-scale analysis, and instead selectively cherry-picked much smaller studies which offered support to his theory. In Patrick Cockburn’s case this was perhaps understandable given his son’s illness, but in John Rentoul’s case it seems that it might be because he hasn’t really examined the evidence for himsef? Or perhaps he’s been reading the Daily Mail and Peter Hitchens’ equally ill-informed propaganda a little too often and got a somewhat biased view of the issue?

  • GwendolenMeiMeiWilliams

    As you said in recent article, public polls are unreliable. In the case of cannabis use, many heavy cannabis users are quite paranoid (whether this is the drug itself or the fact that the “pothead” is a figure of such ridicule, criminalisation and demonisation is debatable), and as such would never admit, even to a doctor or a poll, that they actually use cannabis, so I wouldn’t believe that usage has necessarily fallen. I can say that of the people I know in the UK there are a very small number of middle aged professional friends of my parents (not all of them) who have NOT used cannabis.

  • modeluprightcitizen

    I agree about the unreliability of the British Crime Survey in establishing the true extent of cannabis use in the UK, but not for the reasons you suggest. The BCS claims that although they accept that its self-response Drugs survey only detects the minimum use of drugs (because of limitations of methodology in identifying users and it being a household survey, which makes it less likely to contact those more likely to be drug users, such as students and those who work at nights etc) they do say that they identify key trends over time. However, since 2003 (at around the point when cannabis consumption began to fall), the BCS made (and has made since then) a number of changes in its methodology relating to its sampling profile. Most importantly it reduced the 16-24 age sample ‘boost’ (which used a much larger sample in this age range, the age range thought to be most likely to have the highest proportion of drug users), and its sampling elative to ethnic minorities has been reduced and its response rate to that category is relatively low compared with other groups. These changes probably understate the true usage trend of both cannabis and other drugs in general. There’s been several other changes in methodology since 2003 (12 in all) which may have impacted on use trend. Further, since 2007-8 there has been a massive increase in the use of legal highs, especially stimulants and synthetic cannabinoids, which haven’t been covered adequately by the survey questions. Currently legal synthetic cannabinoids are still very much in evidence (as indicated in onlinedrugs forums), despite the ban on the Spice cannabinoid range. When more synthetic cannabinoids are banned next year there’s likely to be a big spike of increase in regular cannabis use once more synthetics disappear. Of course, the BCS doesn’t detect these kind of trends because it lags behind these kind of developments. The survey identifies a fall in use of cocaine/ecstasy but fails to take account of the mephedrone spike and the ongoing legal stimulants that are flooding the drugs market as purer quality replacements for cocaine and ecstasy.
    The survey doesn’t take account of drug arrests, cautions, warnings and the changes in how drug crimes are recorded, especially for cannabis. The use of cannabis needs to be seen in relation to arrests, etc to show a clearer picture of usage trends. Finally, there’s been an absolutely massive increase in the number of cannabis farms/factories all over the country. This is evident from the increased detection (the tip of the iceberg of course) of grows by the police over the past few years. There been a massive increase in cannabis supply but a supposed reduction in cannabis usage. The two don’t add up, because the prevalence of imported hash and grass largely disappeared more than ten years ago. Who’s smoking all this skunk that’s been grown, if fewer people are smoking it? So, all in all, the fall in cannabis use is highly questionable, but allows the police and politicians (and political commentators of course) to claim that drug use is falling, when the evidence all around on the ground, as witnessed on the streets of cities, is that it’s still increasing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Tysoe/711623798 Matt Tysoe

    His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain . Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane. Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave. So, Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave, oh….. Puff, the magic dragon


Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter