The pressure on drug laws and enforcement, seen most recently in the UK with the downgrading of Cannabis to Class ‘C’, is not unique – nor is it a popular uprising. A brief overview of the world scene may explain what is happening here – but to say it makes sense of it would be a travesty. PETER STOKER of the National Drug Prevention Alliance (NDPA) reports.
In the early 80s in the UK there was relatively little visible libertarian (‘lib’) action around drugs; radicalism focused more on issues such as children’s rights, and varied sexuality. Then a group of activists, mainly in northwest England but with national – and crucially – international links, conceived a way to advance their cause. By their own admission, they hijacked the term ‘Harm Reduction’ – and the tragic coincidence of AIDS gave an unexpected, if macabre, additional impetus to a model those activists in many other countries would follow.
What’s wrong with Harm Reduction anyway? The answer to that depends on what you mean by the term. Traditionally, in drug agencies, it was and still is intervening with a known user, on a one to-one basis, to reduce the harm they are doing to themselves and others, whilst they are considering giving up. No problem there.
But this is not the ‘lib’s’ gambit. ‘New Harm Reduction’ decrees firstly, don’t try to prevent – (a) because it’s ‘immoral’ and (b) because it’s futile. Secondly, don’t educate against drugs, only educate about them. Thirdly, tell everybody – users or not – less risky ways of using drugs (misconstrued by youth as ‘safe use’). Fourthly, trivialise drugs in the eyes of the law and glamorise them in the media. And lastly, press for law relaxation, starting with the ‘softer’ drugs. And when use goes up as a result of this corrupt approach, blame the increase on ‘the failed war on drugs’ – citing this as justification for more Harm Reduction.
As this movement gathered pace, the links between activists in UK, America and Europe led to the Mersey Drugs Journal becoming the International Journal on Drug Policy, gathering ‘libs’ from all corners of the globe. Next came the International Conferences on the Reduction of Drug-Related Harm, launched in Liverpool and on world tour to this day. A big-money operation, mainly confined to the drugs professions.
In 1994 all this changed in the UK, with the first serious attempt to woo the public at large; ‘Reefer Rosie’ Boycott launched a campaign to legalise cannabis, through the pages of the Independent on Sunday. A year later Channel 4 screened their ‘Pot Night’ eulogy on the herb, and since then there has been a steadily growing, mediasupported campaign – with perhaps one major skirmish per year. This pattern continued until the run-up to the 2001 General Election, when events such as the humiliation of Ann Widdecombe after the Conservative party conference caused the ‘libs’ to smell blood in the water. An unprecedented frenzy of lobbying then took place, in which the debacle in Lambeth about Commander Paddick was but one factor. The media and others made wild claims about what the voters wanted, and in retrospect it would seem that this might have unduly influenced the incoming Home Secretary. Without having time to ‘read himself in’ to his new post, Mr Blunkett announced that he was ‘minded’ to reclassify cannabis. Later suggestions that his Department felt this concession would take the heat out of the drug lobby can now be seen to have been a major miscalculation.
Any review of the world ‘lib’ movement has to begin in America, the birthplace of pot politics. Starting in the Sixties with NORML, (National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) bankrolled for its first ten years by Playboy Hugh Hefner, almost all the arguments still being trotted out now were cooked up then. For example “We will use the medical marijuana argument as a red herring to give pot a good name”. In the Seventies they floated something called ‘Responsible Use’ – the forerunner of today’s hijacked version of ‘Harm Reduction’. Use soared.
As 1980 approached, ordinary mums and dads in America went on the warpath, pressing government and professions to relinquish laxity and go for prevention across schools and communities. The results were salutary; over the next 12 years, use of all drugs was cut by a staggering 60%, equivalent to 13 million fewer users. The ‘libs’ retired, re-thought and rehearsed new tactics in places like Europe, as a prelude to reviving hostilities in America. Revival came around 1990, with so-called ‘medical use’ still the main lever.
But this time they had something different. Money. By far the largest tranche of funds came from futures speculator George Soros, name UK stockbrokers will recall. By his own published estimate George has put almost $100 million “into weakening drug laws” – including paying collectors to get signatures on petitions. Sadly for George, many recent referenda went against him. And scepticism has replaced romantic appraisals of ‘needle give-aways’ (not exchanges) in cities such as Seattle and Baltimore, prompted by their achieving nation-high levels of drug abuse, addiction and HIV. ‘Harm Reduction’ can damage your health.
On the positive side, America has many fine prevention pro-grammes, models of good practice. The largest also happens to be the most attacked. DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) reaches some 30 million pupils a year – all delivered by police officers. Doubly repugnant, therefore, to some e.g. “Getting rid of DARE may be very effective activity for drug reform activists …” said New Age Patriot magazine in 1997. Assaults on DARE in the UK assert that teachers are better at drug education than police; given that few teachers are trained in the subject – and subjected to doctrine which challenges rather than upholds the law, this has to be highly dubious … a question of which ‘PC’ you would prefer. And yet DARE continues to grow, its curriculum newly upgraded by independent experts. Seven UK forces use it already; more are interested.
“The school must not be allowed to continue fostering the immorality of morality. An entirely different set of values must be fostered”. Professor Sydney Simon in Values Clarification.
Its own prevention workers describe Canada as ‘going to hell in a handcart’. A huge country; unlimited roof space for hydroponics, and wide expanses ideal for moving cannabis unobserved … now a major export crop to the USA. Harm Reduction has now upstaged drug Prevention. Recent pronouncements by Canada’s Senate Committee make our Select Committee sound to the right of Attila the Hun. But not everyone buys into this approach; a World Summit Conference on Prevention was held in Vancouver earlier this year, where one of the most striking presentations was by a unit called the Odd Squad. Nothing to do with the way they walk, the Odd Squad are Vancouver Police frontline officers who cover the odd days on the roster, particularly in the heavy drug areas of the city. With the permission of the addicts, they have been keeping a video diary; this gripping portrayal has been edited by the National Film Board of Canada and screened on national TV. (See Through a Blue Lens, January 2002 issue of POLICE. Ed.)
When South Australia decriminalised cannabis in the late 80s, the immediate consequence was a substantial increase in youth use compared to other states, ergo, an excuse to make Harm Reduction the main policy. Australian ‘libs’ spent much time studying word power, particularly proud of persuading the media to refer to prevention workers as ‘prohibitionists’ and to themselves themselves as ‘reformers’. The imagery associated with these two words is of course invaluable to a lobby. On the positive side, Australia has given birth to one of the largest prevention programmes in the world – Life Education Centres, now widely used to excellent effect in UK and several other countries.
Switzerland may be known more for its heroin trials, but the associated cultural changes have affected the consumption of all drugs. The heroin trials themselves are the subject of deep suspicion, not least because the trial supervisor was also the president of the Swiss lodge of the International Anti- Prohibition League – ardent legalisation campaigners. Despite WHO and INCB rejecting the trials and recommending that other countries should not use them as a model, they are still sold hard in other countries – and some have fallen for it. Our own Home Affairs Select Committee included.
Both the United Nations and the EC have a disproportionate contingent of ‘libs’, as does the Lisbonbased Monitoring Centre that advises them. The latest initiative, which is extremely worrying, is an attempt to dismantle the UN Conventions on drugs. The Conventions have been the final and often deciding rampart against liberalisation in many countries; were dismantling to happen, this would precipitate worldwide deterioration in drug policy.
The Netherlands has hardly shunned publicity. Less well known is that in a recent public opinion poll more than 70 per cent of its citizens were against their current relaxed drug laws, and the government’s ambivalent stance, cynically nicknamed ‘gedogen’ which means ‘to tolerate officially what is officially prohibited’. Dutch drug expert Frans Koopmans recommends a switch to ‘zero nonchalance’ – and the new prime minister seems to agree, pledging to take a stronger line. Another reason for this might be unfavourable comparisons with another country further north – Sweden. Lifetime prevalence of cannabis in the Netherlands is 29% compared to just 7% in Sweden; 10% use in the last year in the Netherlands – 1% in Sweden. Amongst 15-16 year-olds in the Netherlands, seven times as many had used in the last month as had in Sweden. The age of problem users is flattening off in Sweden but becoming younger in the Netherlands. Sweden also outstrips South Australia to a broadly similar degree. Overall, Sweden is way ahead – and, conceivably, the way ahead.
Elsewhere in Europe, drug policy is a ‘curate’s egg’. Some provinces in Germany have decriminalised cannabis possession, the most radical defining the allowable ‘personal use’ possession amount as 8 kilograms! Belgium and Portugal may have decriminalised but, in stark contrast, Italy’s Premier Berlusconi has announced a drastic U-turn away from libertarian policies and towards the Swedish-style approach.
Many other countries are a long way from hoisting the white flag. Arab countries take a prevention line, as do most other Middle East and Far East nations. The Caribbean is another strong prevention area. NDPA is currently bidding to assist Bulgaria in prevention training, having already trained teams in Poland, Germany and Portugal. Another four East European countries are interested in NDPA’s work.
Prevention has been strong in New Zealand for decades, and possibly the most readable cannabis textbook in the world came from two Kiwis – Trevor Grice and Tom Scott. Entitled Cannabis – The Great Brain Robbery it is packed, not just with facts and figures, but many photos and the product of Tom
Scott’s professional cartoonist talents.
Bringing it back home this past year, under the combined effects of the Home Office and the Lambeth debacle, much of the ground gained (600,000 fewer users than four years ago) has been eroded at a stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. But the news is not all bad; excellent prevention programmes like NDPA’s Teenex are still producing, 15 years on, with similar pedigrees in Life Education and DARE. Although the Select Committee ignored the Police Federation’s evidence and endorsed the proposal to reclassify cannabis, the Committee ruled against decriminalisation or legalisation, and made other useful suggestions: Prevention-oriented education; an end to the funding of drug education literature which encourages use; abstinence as the goal of all treatment. Even the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, not short of ‘lib’ sympathisers, conceded that there are now clearly very significant harms to cannabis, and concluded, “… there may be worse news to come”. In November the British Lung Foundation and the British Medical Journal published new research on serious harms from cannabis.
Taken together with the report by the Schools Health Education Unit, showing that there has been a 50% increase in use of cannabis by young men and women in the last year, one might have expected all this to give Mr Blunkett pause for thought. Sadly, when Police Federation officers joined this writer on 4th December, to hear Under- Secretary Bob Ainsworth unveil the 2002 ‘Updated National Drug Strategy’, there was no sign, either of change of face, or loss thereof.
Formerly a Chartered Engineer, Peter Stoker’s 15 years in the drugs field have spanned intervention, treatment, justice, education and prevention – including serving as a DfEE Drug Education Advisor. An author of papers and books, he frequently contributes to the broadcast and print media and is a member of the Global Institute for Drug Policy.