Strong and stable weedership

Theresa May loves strong and stable leadership, and she won’t stop banging on about it. It’s her new mantra. Anything less than strong and stable is a pathetic joke to her. Presumably then, she will be willing, if not eager, to address any issues under her leadership that are not strong and stable. Let’s take a quick look at cannabis.

The message on cannabis is that you shouldn’t use it because using it is wrong. The strongest way to send this message is to mobilise our police force. Well, we could use the army if absolutely necessary, but the police will do for now. That’s right, the same people who deal with thieves, murders and rapists. How’s that for strong leadership? This is right up Theresa May’s street. If you do go ahead and use cannabis against the governments advice, then it’s out of their hands. You should have listened.

Regardless of whether you approve of this strategy, you can see how this might be perceived as strong and stable leadership to someone who wants to rebrand cannabis as can’tabis. There is, however, a problem. Nearly 30% of adults report having used cannabis at some point in their lifetime – figures from a report produced by the Home Office itself. Theresa May rubs her eyes, she can’t believe it. Something must be wrong. Why isn’t everyone cowed into submission?

Perplexed, Theresa heads home and turns on the TV to unwind. It’s a repeat episode of Room 101 with her current Foreign Secretary as a guest. He admits to having used cannabis. Wait, what? He goes on to imply most MPs have used cannabis, at which point the audience erupt with laughter. Theresa scratches her head: what are they laughing about? Shouldn’t this be a national scandal? Why is no one taking this seriously? She turns over to a different channel. One of the biggest shows on TV is on, The Big Bang Theory. All of the main characters are stoned. The scene finishes with no arrests. None of the characters lost their job. It was nothing more than a bit of light hearted cannabis comedy. This is at total odds with the strong message the government is trying to send. Fed up, Theresa decides to turn in for the night.

She wakes up nice and fresh the next morning and repeats “strong and stable” three times in the mirror before reading some news over a bowl of cereal: ‘Police won’t target pot smokers and small-scale growers, say commissioners.’ Increasingly twitchy, she continues reading: ‘Two police commissioners have said they no longer expect officers to chase people growing cannabis for personal use.’ She is dumbstruck that the police would contemplate not criminalising 30% of the population.

Even Theresa May can see that this is no longer a position of strength or stability. Society isn’t taking you seriously and the police are losing interest. Even former presidents of the United States have appeared on talk shows discussing their cannabis use, met with laughter from the audience. We are stuck in no man’s land. We are half sending a message that no one really respects anyway. The intended impact of this diluted message is minimised. Meanwhile, we are harbouring all of the negative consequences that come with an unregulated illegal drug market, and the boost that it gives to the criminal drugs trade. This is the sort of wishy washy leadership that wakes Theresa May up in a cold sweat.

No matter how strong and hard line you want the message to be, it has failed. So there are two directions a strong and stable leader can take this. Either you fully commit to the current message by doubling down on prohibition and consistently enforce more severe punishment for cannabis users in an attempt to try and reverse the global cultural shift that is taking place. Or, you can move to a controlled model of regulation, remove the harms that are associated with an illegal drug market, and send a fully committed message about the health consequences.

One thing is for sure though: there is nothing strong or stable about our current approach with cannabis, and it’s only going to get increasingly hard to pretend that there is.

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Why deterrence was always doomed to failure

In some ways, I think of our current drug policy as akin to astrology, or a creationist view of the planet. It’s an early attempt to get a hold on something, but over time its flaws have been exposed. Intelligent people display wilful ignorance on the subject. We still send a message about man-made dangers of drug use, distracting from our understanding of the drugs themselves. In decades of scientific research and observation, movement towards a centralised health based approach has been painfully slow. I have no doubt that one day the blanket prohibition of recreational drug use will become a thing only the most authoritarian states will subscribe to. Yet in the UK, our current trajectory suggests we are intent to hold onto it until its last breathe.

I don’t mean to discount the very real risks that are associated with drug use, but to use deterrence as a drug policy is almost an admission in itself that drugs are not as dangerous as they are portrayed to be: the risks associated with the drugs themselves are not enough to discourage use. We must introduce an artificial risk to create a deterrence.

By its nature, the relationship between the effectiveness of deterrence, and people most at risk of harm, is inverted. It will always be more successful with people who have something to lose. People with a greater capacity to exercise self control. People more likely to moderate their drug use based on the risks of the drugs themselves. To align drug policy with these people is, at best, misguided.

There are over six thousand suicides every year, and at least ten times that number attempt suicide. How many more are willing to sacrifice a clean criminal record – which in comparison is a small price to pay – to escape their inner turmoil. The drug-free utopia that our ruling elite have spent the last few decades searching for is not in the equation. A drug addict isn’t thinking about the long term consequences, they’re dealing with their present moment. And in trying to deal with whatever bum hand they’ve been dealt, our response is to inflict further punishment on them. The lack of understanding and compassion required to criminalise people in such circumstances is astonishing.

It’s been argued that the role of the Criminal Justice System is an important one because it flags up people who need help. But by criminalising drug users, they are first pushed into the shadows of society. They are discarded into the hands of criminal dealers who have no interest in their wellbeing, are not accountable for the quality, content or purity of the drugs they sell, and who operate without age restrictions. This is what we expose users to, and in doing so we forfeit the claim that any moral duty is being fulfilled. Any subsequent contact through the Criminal Justice System is consequential. It’s an after-thought. It’s secondary to abandoning drug users. To dress this up as being a productive way to reduce harm and encourage rehabilitation is delusional.

Mechanisms can be put in place to flag problem users without criminalising them. Ones that don’t unduly put them in harms-way. We can create a culture that encourages those who want help to ask for it on their terms. Because when we talk about deterrence, it doesn’t just apply to deterring people from using drugs, it also applies to deterring people who do use drugs from seeking help. It’s just another consequence of the poorly thought out war on drugs.

There is another flaw in this system. You don’t have to break the law to numb yourself with drugs. We have alcohol. For potential problem users who are deterred from using illegal drugs, how many succumb to alcohol addiction? Even when deterrence succeeds, it doesn’t necessarily prevent harm. Imagine if America were to ban all guns, except for one type that remains freely available. And it just happens to be a particularly powerful one.

Deterrence is least effective against the most vulnerable people in society – the people who need help the most. It’s most effective against people who need help the least. It’s an ideological approach to reducing levels of use. In reality, it’s a fundamentally flawed approach to reducing levels of harm.

Police and Crime Commissioner joins drug reform debate

Arfon Jones, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, has faced calls to stand down from his post. The reason? He said that we should consider legalising drugs.

He suggested there would be potential benefits in doing so. Among them are: taking a billion pound market out of criminal hands, moving valuable police resource away from non-violent offenders and directing it towards more serious crime, shifting from a criminal justice to a health based approach, and reducing stigma so people who need help have the confidence and piece of mind to ask for it. Consider an example like Portugal who made a success of decriminalising all drug use in 2001, winning over early critics to their reformed laws. A number of states in America have legalised cannabis for recreational use, and more have legalised for medicinal use than haven’t. Injection galleries for heroin addicts are being introduced in various countries across the world, with the UK opening its first facility this year. Countries worldwide are increasingly looking at new ways to reduce harms caused by drugs, and harms caused by the illegal drug trade.

Arfon Jones is simply joining this global debate. There is a wealth of new evidence and examples for us to draw from. Of course different people will have different views covering the full spectrum of the debate, but attempts to shut this conversation down through calls for his resignation demonstrate extraordinary arrogance and ignorance. These calls are in opposition to challenging the status quo, opposition to free speech, opposition to an open mind, opposition to reviewing the evidence. And given that the Police and Crime Commissioner is elected by the people, these calls are in opposition to the democratic process.

It seems highly unlikely that people who try to shut this conversation down are actually in opposition to any of the above mentioned, but it also seems part of the brain is often shut down when debating drug policy. Fear mongering rules over rational thinking, anecdotes rule over evidence, and opinions rule over science. The worst examples of drug use are focused on in astronomically disproportionate levels. If we applied this thinking to other walks of life, we would never get in a car, never light a fire, never go out at night.

If we want to reduce the harms caused by drugs and the illegal drug trade, it cannot be a taboo topic. We must be able to discuss it with an open mind, and without fearing the repercussions of doing so. The more people that join this conversation the better, but attempts to silence people in this way should be called out for the regressive, ignorant and small-minded rhetoric that it is.