A blanket ban on psychoactive substances makes UK drugs policy even worse


It is a truth under-acknowledged that a drug user denied possession of their poison is in want of an alternative. The current 'explosion' in varied and easily-accessible 'legal highs' (also know as 'new psychoactive substances') are a clear example of this.

In June 2008 33 tonnes of sassafras oil - a key ingredient in the production of MDMA - were seized in Cambodia; enough to produce an estimated 245 million ecstasy tablets. The following year real ecstasy pills 'almost vanished' from Britain's clubs. At the same time the purity of street cocaine had also been steadily falling, from over 60% in 2002 to 22% in 2009.

Enter mephedrone: a legal high with similar effects to MDMA but readily available and for less than a quarter of the price. As the quality of ecstasy plummeted (as shown by the blue line on this graph) and substituted with things like piperazines, (the orange line) mephedrone usage soared (purple line). The 2010 (self-selecting, online) Global Drug Survey found that 51% of regular clubbers had used mephedrone that year, and official figures from the 2010/11 British Crime Survey estimate that around 4.4% 16 to 24 year olds had tried it in the past year.

Similarly, law changes and clampdowns in India resulted in a UK ketamine drought, leading to dabblers (both knowingly and unknowingly) taking things like (the once legal, now Class B) methoxetamine. And indeed, the majority of legal highs on offer are 'synthetic cannabinoids' which claim to mimic the effect of cannabis. In all, it's fairly safe to claim that were recreational drugs like ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine not so stringently prohibited, these 'legal highs' (about which we know very little) probably wouldn't be knocking about.

Still, governments tend to be of the view that any use of drugs is simply objectively bad, so the above is rather a moot point. But what anxious states can do, of course, is ban new legal highs as they crop up. However, even this apparently obvious solution has a few problems— the first being that there seems to be a near-limitless supply of cheap, experimental compounds to bring to market. When mephedrone was made a Class B controlled substance in 2010, alternative legal highs such NRG-1 and 'Benzo Fury' started to appear. In fact, over 550 NPS have been controlled since 2009. Generally less is known about each concoction than the last, presenting potentially far greater health risks to users.

At the same time, restricting a drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 requires evidence of the harm they cause (not that harm levels always bear much relation to a drug's legality), demanding actual research as opposed to sensationalist headlines. Even though temporary class drug orders were introduced in 2011 to speed up the process, a full-out ban still requires study, time and resources. Many have claimed the battle with the chemists in China  is one lawmakers are unlikely to win.

And so with all of this in mind, the Queen's Speech on Wednesday confirmed that Conservatives will take the next rational step in drug enforcement, namely, to simply ban ALL OF THE THINGS.

In order to automatically outlaw anything which can make people's heads go a bit funny, their proposed blanket ban (modelled on a similar Irish policy) will prohibit the trade of 'any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect', and will carry up to a 7-year prison sentence.

Somewhat ironically for a party so concerned with preserving the UK's legal identity it wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, this represents a break from centuries of British common law, under which we are free to do something unless the law expressly forbids it. This law enshrines the opposite. In fact, so heavy-handed and far-reaching is the definition of what it is prohibited to supply that special exemptions have to be granted for those everyday psychoactive drugs like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Whilst on first glance the ban might sound like sensible-enough tinkering at the edges of our already nonsensical drug policy, it really is rather sinister, setting a worrying precedent for the state to bestow upon citizens permission to behave in certain ways.

This law will probably (at least initially) wipe out the high street 'head shops' which the Daily Mail and Centre for Social Justice  are so concerned about. However, banning something has never yet simply made a drug disappear. An expert panel commissioned by the government to investigate legal highs acknowledged that a 50% increase in seizures of Class B drugs between 2011/12 and 2013/14 was driven by the continued sale of mephedrone and other once-legal highs like it. Usage has fallen from pre-ban levels, but so has its purity whilst the street price has doubled. Perhaps the most damning evidence, however, comes from the Home Office's own report into different national drug control strategies, which failed to find “any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The best that can be hoped for with this ridiculous plan is that with the banning of absolutely everything, dealers stick to pushing the tried and tested (and what seems to be safer) stuff. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case - mephedrone and and other legal and once-legal highs have been turning up in batches of drugs like MDMA and cocaine as adulterants, and even being passed off as the real things.  Funnily enough, the best chance of new psychoactive substances disappearing from use comes from a resurgence of super-strong ecstasy, thanks to the discovery of a way to make MDMA using less heavily-controlled ingredients.

The ASI has pointed out somanytimes. that the best way to reduce the harms associated with drug use is to decriminalise, license and tax recreational drugs. Sadly, it doesn't look like the Conservatives will see sense in the course of this parliament.  However, at least the mischievous can entertain themselves with the prospect that home-grown opiates could soon be on the horizon thanks to genetically modified wheat. And what a moral panic-cum-legislative nightmare that will be...

Johann Hari is back and he's actually saying something sensible

But while Johann Hari is back and he is saying something sensible he's not, as so often, actually saying anything original. He's back with a book about drugs and the War on Drugs. This is not even remotely true:

Hari’s book turns out to be a page-turner, full of astonishing revelations. I had no idea that the war on drugs was single-handedly invented by a racist ex-prohibition agent, who needed to find a new problem big enough to protect his departmental budget. One of the first victims of his ambition was Billie Holiday, whose heroin addiction enraged him to the point where he hounded her to death. After he’d had the singer jailed for drugs, she was stripped of her performing licence, and as she unravelled into destitution and despair, his agents continued to harass her, even summoning a grand jury to indict her as she lay dying under police guard in a hospital bed.

That specific harrying of Billie Holiday might be, we don't know, but that's not the start of the War on Drugs by any means at all. As Chris Snowden has explained at book length the attempts to fight a War on Drugs begin long before Billie Holliday was being harrassed. Back to neat the turn into the Twentieth Century in fact.

However, this is true:

But something didn’t add up. “Every day, all over the world, hospital patients are given medical heroin, diamorphine, very often for long periods. And virtually none of them afterwards goes out and tries to score on the street. Which made me think, the issue here can’t just be the drug.”

Hari went to Vancouver to meet a psychology professor, Bruce Alexander, who had been similarly puzzled, so had replicated the original experiments. This time, instead of experimenting on solitary rats locked in empty cages, he offered the choice of clean or drugged water to rats kept in what he called Rat Park, a kind of rat heaven full of wheels and coloured balls and delicious food, and other rats to play and mate with. When these rats tried heroin, they weren’t very interested.

“They just didn’t like it. None of them overdosed. Even more strikingly, he then took rats that had become addicted in the isolated cages, and put them into Rat Park. And they almost immediately stopped using. What Alexander had found is that we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what addiction is. It isn’t a moral failing. It isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you; it’s the cage you live in.”

It's not, however, remotely original. Much the same has been pointed out by Stanton Peele for some 40 years now. Most notably in pointing out that the vast majority of those American troops who used heroin in Vietnam came home and simply stopped using it, as various official reports have pointed out.

We'll have to wait for the book itself to see whether he properly attributes his sources, eh?

Where the US justice system is and isn't racially biased


In a timely post Scott Alexander investigates the evidence around the US justice system to see where, if at all, it is systematically biased against African-Americans. He looks at quite a lot of empirical evidence and concludes that:

There seems to be a strong racial bias in capital punishment and a moderate racial bias in sentence length and decision to jail.

There is ambiguity over the level of racial bias, depending on whose studies you want to believe and how strictly you define “racial bias”, in police stops, police shootings in certain jurisdictions, and arrests for minor drug offenses.

There seems to be little or no racial bias in arrests for serious violent crime, police shootings in most jurisdictions, prosecutions, or convictions.

This is important given the news coverage of the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year old African-American in Ferguson, MI, by a white police officer. Although a lengthy grand jury investigation found that the police officer did not act unlawfully, many have rejected this verdict.

They may be motivated by a belief that the justice system is predisposed to exonerate white police officers who act wrongfully to racial minorities. This is a phenomenon I have written about in the past – one has to use one's existing beliefs to assess new information to make sense of the world at all. But Alexander's investigation of the evidence suggests that things may not be as clearly biased as they believe (or, indeed, as I did before reading the post myself).

Alexander makes an important point, however. Although law enforcement may be less biased in the US than we think, the laws themselves may still be very biased (even if that bias is unintended, which perhaps it is). Drug laws, which seem extremely unjust, will cause more injustice to African-Americans if they use drugs more regularly than other racial groups. And then there is the fact that African-Americans may be poorer on average than than white Americans, so they cannot access the same quality of legal defence.

The lesson from this may be that, though we can never escape the 'webs of belief' we construct to understand the world, we can try to be aware of the fact that we use these. If instead we decide to view disagreements about politics as existing because bad guys have incentives to fight good guys, we may end up in dark places where no amount of evidence will ever convince us that we may be mistaken.

Isn't this an interesting little finding about drugs?


Isn't this an interesting little assertion from one of the government's own reports?

Decriminalising drugs would have little effect on the number of people abusing illegal substances, a highly controversial Home Office report has said. ... The report – which sources said had caused “panic” within the Home Office – said: “There are indications that decriminalisation can reduce the burden on criminal justice systems.

“It is not clear that decriminalisation has an impact on levels of drug use.

"The disparity in drug use trends and criminal justice statistics between countries with similar approaches, and the lack of any clear correlation between the ‘toughness’ of an approach and levels of drug use demonstrates the complexity of the issue."

The point being, and this can be readily verified by anyone with even the most modest experience of social life in Britain, that all those who want to consume drugs are currently easily able to find the drugs they wish to consume. Meaning that the illegality isn't particularly affecting the availability of supply. Thus decriminalisation seems like a good idea as it's not going to lead to half the population toking itself into a stupor.

However, that decriminalisation isn't enough as we've mentioned around here before. For the major danger of drugs comes not from they themselves, but from the fact that purity and concentration are, given that they are illegal products, entirely unknown to the user. Overdosing is thus depressingly commonplace, as are all sorts of diseases and illnesses from the admixtures. Thus we need to be thinking very seriously about legalisation: not just decriminalisation of small amounts for personal use but the legalisation of supply and production. For that is how we would get brands, reliant upon their quality and consistency, and also get a transparent supply network that can be checked for quality.

It's not just the criminality of taking drugs that is causing our current problems, it's the illegality of supply as well.

The smoke and mirrors of prohibition


On Tuesday, a review of 2 decades of research into the effects of cannabis was released and pounced on by the media, who then broadcast the fact that smoking weed is ‘as hard to give up as heroin’, doubles the risk of psychosis and schizophrenia, and acts as a gateway drug into stronger substances. As part of this reefer madness I took part in Sky News debate on whether the UK is too soft on cannabis. Usually, evidence a that prohibited item or action is harmful or more dangerous than previously thought would justify its prohibition. But this isn't the case when it comes to cannabis, or the 'war on drugs' more generally. This is because many of the costs associated with the use and supply of illegal drugs are exacerbated—and sometimes even caused by—the act of prohibition.

Some forward-thinking countries across the globe have experimented with policies of decriminalization and partial legalization. From the legalization of cannabis in Uruguay to the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use in Portugal, each is an example of viable, harm-reducing alternatives to prohibition. Unfortunately, there remains little political will to see such changes in the UK, where the narrative remains  that evidence of harm equals justification for prohibition.

Most advocates of drug control cite health problems caused by drugs and their impact in the wider community as their biggest concern. This explains why Tuesday's report (with stats like '1 in 6 teenagers who regularly smoke cannabis become dependent on it') made such good news fodder. Certainly we have to tackle health problems caused with drug use, but pushing supply underground and criminalizing users has got to be one of the worst ways of doing it.

For example, a key argument against cannabis legalization is that it has grown much stronger over the decades, thanks to the intensive breeding of strains with a high THC content. However, this 'skunkification' can be understood as an effect of prohibition. Given that the punishment for getting caught with x amount of marijuana is the same whatever its potency, dealers have an incentive to source something which is measure for measure stronger, and buyers have the incentive to buy it. Just as liquor replaced beer during prohibition, the bud 'arms race' makes sense within a framework of crude legislation and illegality. There's certainly demand for less potent weed, but given competition between dealers and the fact that suppliers would need to grow and shift bigger volumes to make the same amount of money, there's little incentive to supply it—especially in an industry where there's little capacity to advertise the product.

In contrast, a regulated market can offer anything from mellow hash to super-skunk, as evidenced by a visit to any of Amsterdam's coffeeshops, where information about product, advice on what to expect and stringent quality control are also the norm. Decriminalization and the marketing of less potent strains not only allows users to find what suits them best, but could potentially reduce the harms and mental health issues which have been associated with today's super-strong cannabis.

Risks associated with other drugs are similarly exacerbated by prohibition. In an underground market it's difficult (and expensive) to be exactly sure of what you're purchasing, there's few routes of recourse or warning others, and accidents happen. In the last few years 'ecstasy' pills containing PMA—a compound with similar effects to MDMA but with a far high toxicity—have been poisoning clubbers and were directly responsible for 17 deaths in 2012. In Portugal, the decriminalization of the personal possession of heroin alongside innovative public health programmes has seen the number of new HIV cases amongst intravenous drug users plummet from over 1,000 in 2001 to 56 in 2012, with the total number of drug-related deaths falling from 80 to 16 in the same period.

Whilst drug use will always carry health costs, money raised by taxes on substances like cannabis or MDMA could contribute to the public coffer, and fund research and treatment centres for users. It's also worth putting these harms in perspective; the risk of death from illicit drugs is minuscule in comparison with lack of physical activity or a poor diet. Most recreational drugs are far less harmful to us than alcohol and tobacco—and in the case of ecstasy, apparently no more dangerous than horse riding.  And whilst dependency on a drug is no good thing, dependency alone doesn’t necessitate harm, as the UK's casual caffeine addicts demonstrate.


Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.50.47

Source: http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/NHSAtlasofrisk.aspx

In fact, health isn't really the biggest issue when it comes to drug prohibition—crime is. It is staggering that we continue to expend resources every year maintaining a model which gives an industry worth hundreds of billions of pounds to cartels and criminal gangs who cause violence, fear and instability from Peckham to Michoacan. In fact, one of main reasons Uruguay legalized cannabis this year was to prevent a rise in organised crime there spiralling out of control.

Back home, the Home Office estimates that drug-related crime costs the UK £13.3bn a year. It's thought that between one third and a half of all acquisitive crime in the UK is drug-related, with three-quarters of heroin and crack users admitting to committing crime to fund their habit. However, dispensing with outright prohibition and instead treating addiction as a public health issue before ensnaring addicts in the criminal system can have significant benefits. For example, providing access to drugs like heroin in a controlled manner has been shown to significantly cut the level of crime users commit, and costs far less to fund each year than a prison sentence.

On top of this, the criminalization and subsequent marginalization of casual drug users is a catalyst for further criminality. From school expulsion to a criminal record, the sanctions imposed on individuals lead to lost opportunities and closed doors, particularly for the under-privileged. With other options ruled out, a further life of crime can be the most rational choice for some.

Decriminalizing drug use would also allow police to redirect their time and resources to more effective pursuits than booking stoners and stop and searches. Early indications post-marijuana legalization in Colorado suggest that crime is down 10% over the year and violent crime down 5%, thanks in part to freeing up police time for more serious offences.

There seems little reason for such a harsh and wasteful system as prohibition to still be in force across so much of the world. Of course, prohibitionists are also afraid of the 'normalization' of drug-taking culture and the message this might send (someone does, of course, have to do this). Many genuinely worry that legalization would lead to a spike in drug use, degeneracy and harm. Evidence from places like Portugal (where if anything, drug use has declined) simply hasn't hasn't borne this out, though. In fact, Release's survey of global drug laws concluded that a country's drug-enforcement policies have very little correlation with the levels of drug use and misuse in that country.

Libertarians and the curious can go one further, and ask if it would really be such a bad thing if drug use were to rise post-legalization. Some illegal drugs might make a good substitute for our legal ones: it's feasibly better if some people chose to stay at home and smoke a joint, or pop pills on a night out instead of drinking a bottle of vodka, scoffing kebabs and getting in fights. And there's also the important fact that's often overlooked in the 'sensible' drugs debate: that most people who've taken illegal drugs have enjoyed doing so. Pleasure is derived from them in the same way it is from alcohol, nicotine, chocolate and sex. Experiences with drugs will make some people's lives richer, and there's a strong case for allowing people to weigh up their personal costs and benefits to find this out.

Of course, this epicurean argument will never sit with Westminster politicians or the Daily Mail. But it shouldn't have to—the huge cost and the utter failure of prohibition should be enough to spark a genuine dialogue on alternatives.

In this respect, the UK seems caught in a strange place. A recent Observer survey found that 84% Britons think that the war on drugs is futile, and over half back the trial of Colorado-style cannabis legalization in this country. The Lib Dems also recently pledged to end jail sentences for drug possession. Yet just days after this announcement the mainstream media goes crazy for a 'definitive study' apparently equating cannabis with heroin, leaving it up to others to point out the that paper was a narrative review and thus not systematic, and was written by an author who wants to decriminalize cannabis and has called for liberalizing the international control system.

We'll never end up with a satisfactory solution to the drugs question until the media and politicians start discussing the topic with honesty. Perhaps the optimum solution isn't a libertarian paradise. But whatever it is, and whatever your political leanings—if you are concerned about the social cost of illegal drugs, it's high time to accept that prohibition has failed.



An ageing libertarian on drugs

Over at ConservativeHome I've written a response to Kathy Gyngell's piece that claimed that "ageing libertarians" (!) are pushing drug legalization on unsuspecting youths:

No, “ageing libertarians” are not pushing legalization on abstemious youngsters – in the US, at least, a recent poll found that 67 per cent of under-30s supported legalisation, compared to 58 per cent of the population in general.

No, it is not legitimate to dismiss inconvenient research because it comes from “pro-drugs lobby groups”. Nobody should dismiss Kathy’s arguments simply because she is anti-drugs either. We should all play the ball, not the man.

And no, it’s not good enough to say that drug laws don’t matter because drug use is ‘marginal’ compared to alcohol and tobacco use. In the 12 months ending March 2013, there were around 87,000 convictions for drug offences. If our laws are unjust, then roughly 87,000 people are being wrongly convicted every year. Around 70 per cent of drug offenses relate to cannabis possession.

Read the whole thing.

An alternative ‘Agenda for Hope’

Owen Jones has written a nine-point ‘Agenda for Hope’ that he argues would create a fairer society. Well, maybe. I’m not convinced by many of them. Then again, it would be quite surprising if I was.

But it got me thinking about what my nine-point agenda would be — not quite my 'perfect world' policies, but some fairly bold steps that I could just about imagine happening in the next couple of decades. Unlike Owen’s policies, few of these are likely to win much public support. On the other hand, most of the political elite would think these are just as wacky as Owen's too.

Nine policies to make people richer and freer (and hopefully happier):

1) The removal of political barriers to who can work and reside in the UK. Removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%. Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Those GDP benefits would mostly accrue to the poorest people in the world. We can’t remove these barriers everywhere but we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Any step towards this would be good – I suggest we start by dropping the net migration cap and allowing any accredited educational institution to award an unlimited number of student visas.

2) A strict rule for the Bank of England to target nominal GDP instead of inflation, replacing the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee. Even more harmful than the primary bust in recessions is what Hayek called the ‘secondary deflation’ that comes about as people, fearing a drop in their future nominal earnings, hold on to more of their money. That reduces the total level of nominal spending in the economy which, since prices and wages are sticky in the short run, leads to unemployment and a fall in economic output. NGDP targeting prevents those ‘secondary deflations’ and would make economic busts much less common and harmful. In the long run, we should scrap the central bank altogether and replace it with competition in currencies (see point 9, below).

3) Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much, much easier. The extra economic activity from the new home building alone would probably add a couple of points to GDP growth.

4) Legalisation of most recreational drugs and the medicalisation of the most harmful ones. I think Transform’s outline is pretty good: let cannabis be sold like alcohol and tobacco to adults by licensed commercial retailers; MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines sold by pharmacies in limited quantities; and extremely dangerous drugs like heroin sold with prescriptions for use in supervised consumption areas. The sooner this happens, the sooner producers will be answerable to the law and deaths from ‘bad batches’ of drugs like ecstasy will be a thing of the past. Better yet, this would bring an end to drug wars like Mexico's, which has killed around 100,000 people in the past ten years.

5) Reform of the welfare system along the lines of a Negative Income Tax or Basic Income Guarantee. As it is, the welfare system disincentivises work and creates dependency without doing much for the working poor. A Negative Income Tax would only look at people’s incomes (not whether they were in work or not in work), reducing perverse incentives and topping up the wages of the poorest earners. This would strengthen the bargaining position of low-skilled workers and would remove much of the risks to workers associated with employment deregulation. Of course, the first thing we should do is raise the personal allowance and National Insurance threshold to the minimum wage rate to give poor workers a de facto 'Living Wage'.

6) A Singaporean-style healthcare system to replace the NHS. In Singapore, people have both a health savings account and optional catastrophic health insurance. They pay a portion of their earnings into the savings account (poor people receive money from the state for this), which pays for day-to-day trips to the doctor, prescriptions, and so on. The government co-pays for many expenses but the personal cost disincentivises frivolous visits to the doctor. For very expensive treatments, optional catastrophic health insurance kicks in. This is far from being a pure free market system but it is miles better (cheaper and with better health outcomes) than the NHS. (By the way, if you really like the NHS we could still call this an ‘NHS’ and still get the superior system.)

7) A school voucher system and significant reform of the state education and free schools sectors. This would include the abolition of catchement areas and proximity-based admission, simplification of the free schools application process, and expansion of the free schools programme to allow profit making firms to operate free schools. These reforms, outlined in more detail in two ASI reports, would increase the number of places available to children and increase competition among schools to drive up standards.

8) Intellectual property reform. As both Alex Tabarrok and Matt Ridley have pointed out, our IP (patent and copyright) law is too restrictive and seems to be stifling new innovation. Firms use patents as barriers to entry, suing new rivals whose products are too similar to their own. In industries where development costs are high but imitation costs are low, like pharmaceuticals, patents may be necessary to incentivise innovation, but in industries like software development where development can be cheaper than imitation, patents can be a terrible drag on progress. Tabarrok recommends that we try to tailor patent length in accordance with these differences; as a sceptic about our ability to know, well, anything, I’d prefer to leave it to private contracts and common law courts to discover.

9) Last but not least, the removal of the thicket of financial regulation and the promise of bailouts for insolvent banks. Known as ‘free banking’, this system of laissez-faire finance has an extremely strong record of stability – though bank panics still occurred in free banking systems, they were much less severe and rarely systemic. Only once the government started to intervene in the financial system to provide complete stability did things really begin to go wrong: deposit insurance, branch-banking restrictions, and other prudent-seeming regulations led to extremely bad unforeseen consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 probably owes more to asset requirements like the Basel accords, which heavily incentivised banks to hold ‘safe’ mortgage debt over ‘risky’ business debt, than anything else. Incidentally, the idea that having a large number of local banks is somehow better than having a few large banks is totally wrong: during the Great Depression, 9,000 of America's small, local banks failed; at the same time not one of Canada’s large banks failed. The small banks were more vulnerable because, unlike the big banks, they were undiversified.

Now, if only there was a think tank to try and make these dreams a reality.