Time to transform drug policy

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A heavyweight new report from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (released this week) has called for the regulated legalization of all narcotic drugs. Under their plans, cannabis and opium would become freely available from licensed, membership-based coffee shops, while cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines would be available to licensed users from pharmacies. This is an eminently sensible idea.

The Home Office, however, has reacted with a predictable display of willful stupidity. A spokesman told the BBC: “[We have] no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs… Drugs are controlled for good reason — they are harmful to health. Their control protects individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse."

What they clearly don’t realize is that prohibition is not ‘drug control’. In fact, it almost the complete opposite: prohibition means putting drugs in the hands of gangsters and forfeiting any control whatsoever. It means huge profits for criminals, who turn inner city areas into gang-warfare zones. It means the destabilization of drug-producing countries like Columbia. And it means no reliable information on strength or quality for drug users, leading to overdoses and poisoning.

Of course, it also means thousands of drug addicts turning to crime to fund their habit. The government’s own figures suggest that 80 percent of UK crime is drug related, at a cost of some £15-20bn a year. This, again, is directly related to prohibition – around 90 percent of the street price of drugs represents an ‘illegality premium’. Few alcoholics, by contrast, are driven to a life of crime.

Ultimately, the fact that even high security prisons are awash with illegal drugs should make it pretty obvious – even to politicians – that prohibition can never succeed in its stated aims in a free society, and that the only way to minimize the harm associated with drugs is to take them away from the gangs and bring them into the legitimate marketplace. Transform’s report is a welcome contribution to this debate.

I discussed this issue on BBC Radio Leeds yesterday lunchtime. Click here if you want to listen, and fast-forward to 0:36:32.

Best placed to be last

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The French and German economies are both reported to have risen for a second consecutive quarter. It is not the amount of growth they hoped for, but it is enough to confirm that they are out of recession. In fact the countries of the eurozone are now collectively out of recession with a growth of 0.4 percent during the third quarter. Even the EU as a whole, including its non-euro countries, grew by 0.2 percent over the same period. The US and Japan are also out of recession, so where does that leave Britain, "best placed of all countries to face the crisis because of the fundamental strengths of our economy"? It leaves us still in recession, a rather lonely position these days.

The thought in the minds of some analysts is that the worldwide growth might simply be a reflection of the massive stimulus packages which have boosted economies artificially, instead of engendering real growth. The BBC's Nigel Cassidy suggests that "Nobody can even guess what will happen to growth when national governments stop pumping credit into the system." Certainly the amount pumped in by the US and European governments must have had some economic effect, even if the contribution by our own UK taxpayers has not, apparently, been enough to do the job.

Governments hope, of course, that real growth will take place alongside the activity they are stimulating, and that the incentive packages can be quietly phased out as real demand replaces government-induced demand. But since the growth of any kind of demand is proving so sluggish in the UK, there have to be fears that its economy will shrink again when the government's drip-feed is turned off.

It won't be Gordon Brown's problem to solve, of course, but someone will have to tackle the deluge of debt he is leaving behind. There will be cuts, but they will be difficult and unpopular, and are likely to leave his successors disheartened. The real solution is growth, massive and rapid. And the way to achieve that is to turn enterprise loose by slashing taxes and regulations across the board, even if they have to borrow more at the outset to do it.

It could happen, but those wise enough and with sufficient means are already buying gold and reading the Swiss property pages…

 

Check out Madsen Pirie's new book, "101 Great Philosophers."

This sucker could go down

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The UK's credit rating is at risk. Fitch, one of the leading rating companies, could take away the UK’s AAA rating if the government doesn’t take care of its extensive government borrowing. According to Fitch's co-head of global sovereign ratings David Riley, Fitch would have removed the UK from it’s AAA rating if it wasn’t for the fact that they expect the next government to consolidate fiscal policies.

Most embarrassingly, the UK is regarded as the only major economy unable to maintain its present rating. According to Standard & Poor, only 17 countries deserve AAA status. The UK is still amongst these, however it is the only economy with a negative outlook, due principally to a forecast predicting that national debt will rise to 100 percent of GDP! 

The Isle of Man, Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg together with all the Scandinavian countries have better economic ratings than the 5th largest economy in the world. It is imperative that the UK quickly sorts out its finances before it is too late.

UK energy – clearing the DECCs

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Earlier this month, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) made a raft of announcements, including six draft national policy statements on energy planning issues; the identification of no less than 10 sites for new nuclear-build; and a framework for developing clean coal plants. After 12 years of Government indecision on key energy issues, policy initiatives are coming out in droves as the decks are cleared ahead of the General Election.

Yet, the prospects for new generation investment, except for gas-fired plants, are not bright. On the nuclear front, new nuclear-builsd are heavily dependent on EdF, which has just recruited a new Chief Executive, Henri Proglio: his priority is to cut EdF’s c£23 billion of net debt. Already, EdF’s Constellation Energy investment in the US is under review. Certainly, there is no guarantee that new nuclear-build in the UK will remain high on EdF’s investment priorities - given that no revenues would accrue before 2018. (Memo to Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron’s Chief of Staff – get the boss to meet Proglio sharpish).

The German joint venture for UK new nuclear-build between E.On and RWE looks somewhat flaky, especially as E.On’s net debt has reached £40 billion. Moreover, the recent German election result gives both companies far better nuclear prospects in their homeland. DECC’s great green hope has always been Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), but - despite Vattenfall’s 30MW Schwarze Pumpe oxyfuel demonstration plant in Germany - the technology is many years from full-scale deployment. The costs, too, are very uncertain.

Hence, the outlook for new UK coal-fired generation looks grim especially since all such plants with a capacity of over 300 MW will now need full CCS installation at the outset. With renewable generation projects experiencing serious fund-raising pressures and long-term gas supplies being subject to real uncertainty, closing the UK’s widening energy gap looks very challenging.

Is DECC’s confidence misplaced?

Key man in key job?

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Tony Blair's chances of becoming the first president of the European Council are reported to be fading fast. With the horse-trading culture of the European Commission, attention now turns to how the UK might be compensated for failing to secure the top job. The name of David Miliband was raised as a possible candidate for the EU's first 'high representative,' to encourage European countries to show more co-ordination on foreign policy, but the Prime Minister has said he 'couldn't be spared,' and was 'never a candidate.' Now the Evening Standard reports a story from Le Monde that Lord Mandelson's name is being considered for the post.

It would be a bold but controversial choice. Lord Mandelson twice had to resign his cabinet posts after allegations of impropriety, but was cleared of wrongdoing. He had enjoyed a successful stint at the DTI (as it was) and as Northern Ireland Secretary managed to win the trust of all sides. His spell as EU trade commissioner was also a relatively successful one, and with limited room to manoeuvre, he managed to work for generally freer trade.

It would be good for Europe and the world if the high representative were someone with a transatlantic perspective, and someone with a track record in favour of opening trade borders. The danger of Europe setting itself up as a 'counterweight' to the USA and Russia would be diminished if he were appointed. He is an accomplished diplomat and negotiator, and has shown himself quite prepared to back words with deeds when necessary.

His appointment would come at a bad time for the Labour government, and would be seen by some as a public acceptance of the defeat that everyone privately knows is coming.

Madsen Pirie has just published "101 Great Philosophers," summarizing the ideas of significant thinkers.

The BBC: Auntie or Floozy?

Nobody calls the BBC “Auntie” any more. “Auntie” was an affectionate name for someone who might have been a trifle prim and stuffy at times, but who was basically reliable and behaved herself with decorum. “Auntie” was not the type of person who stayed in Las Vegas hotels, clocked up taxi rides at £200 a time, or who went to town on expensive lunches and dinners.

The revelations concerning the expenses charged by top BBC executives are but the latest in a series of blunders and scandals that seem to beset the corporation. Its image was badly dented by disclosures that it encouraged quiz show callers to make costly calls even after the prizes had already been awarded. Nor was it helped by its handling of the prank calls by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, by disclosures that it had made a documentary seem more significant by altering its chronology, or by misrepresenting an apparent row involving Queen Elizabeth.

The bloated expense claims will be taken by the BBC’s critics as further evidence that it cannot be trusted to handle the cash it receives from taxpayers with any sense of responsibility, and that ways of funding it alternative to the licence fee must be found. Certainly some of the claims raise eyebrows. The BBC’s top executives average over £200,000 per year in pay, with many of them earning more than the Prime Minister, yet some of them still find time to claim 70p parking meter charges. And some of their expense claims bear witness to a lifestyle that most of their licence-fee payers can only envy.

Most people struggle with public transport, making the best they can of buses and trains, yet two BBC personnel between them clocked up over £10,000 on taxi bills over a three month period. The BBC defends this, saying that taxis are “more convenient and cost-effective” than public transport. Most people would agree with this, though unable themselves to spend public money on satisfying that convenience.

The claims may not be as exotic as some claimed by MPs, but the same principle is at stake. The public does not like to see those funded by taxpayers living it up while ordinary people have to struggle to get by. It is seen as a bad indicator when a business organization allows bloated expense claims by its personnel, and the same is true of the BBC. Coming after revelations over the huge sums they pay their celebrities, the public is beginning to think that their money is being passed around in buckets. Greater accountability and alternative methods of funding have just moved higher up the agenda.

Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.

Official culture

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David Cameron has stressed the need for a cultural change in Britain, and indicated how big a task this will be. Nowhere is this needed more than in officialdom. A report yesterday told how a 67 year-old grandfather was arrested for using one swear word to a council official. Six days after the incident, police staged a dawn raid on his home at 5.35am, made him dress, took him to the station, held him in a windowless cell for 6 hours, took his fingerprints and DNA, and fined him an £80 fixed penalty.

Some might think this an excessive over-reaction, questioning the need for a dawn raid and detention over such an incident. Some might even suggest, as the hapless victim did, that maybe there could be more pressing demands on police time, given the volume of more serious crimes taking place.

What it does illustrate is the culture, both of council officials and of the police. It is indicative of the attitude of bodies which have ceased to regard themselves as public servants and instead regard themselves as masters. The culture of officialdom which engenders such incidents might be a good place for Mr Cameron to start…

Check out Madsen Pirie's new book, "101 Great Philosophers."