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July 13, 2007 - The Independent (UK)

Column: The Very Worst Policy To Combat Drugs

Duncan Smith Believes That Spliff-Smoking Is Such a Catastrophe That Cannabis Needs Reclassifying

By Johann Hari

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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 potency."

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 doctors.

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 pharmacists.

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.

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