Home Secretary goes crazy on drugs… policy

May 8, 2008

Comment As an example of the brain-gobbling stupidity that affects those who dabble with drugs, you really cannot beat Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s announcement that cannabis is going to be upgraded again, from a Class C drug to a Class B one. This is the sort of drivelling idiocy more normally associated with decades on peyote rather than the few spliffs she has herself admitted to.

The switch moves the maximum sentence up to five years in jail for simple possession: given the three million regular tokers (to say nothing of the larger number of occasional) this is therefore a threat of an extra seven million or so man years of jail time. Insane willy-waving that ‘something is being done’, you might think, when the jails are so full that police cells are being used to hold convicts.

And to what purpose? What will actually be achieved by this?

Our story starts back last year with a claim by Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley that mental health hospital admissions in England due to cannabis had risen by 85 per cent under Labour.

That’s the message that flashed across the newspapers, but the bit that didn’t was the next sentence of the BBC’s report:

In 1996-7, there were 510 admissions, rising to 946 in 2005-6, data obtained by shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed.

Yes, this is all based on the harm supposedly done to 436 people a year, out of those three million regular puffers – that is, 0.015 per cent of those partaking. You find higher incidences of nut allergy in the general population than that, a danger we deal with by displaying the notice “May Contain Nuts” on the packet.

So we start off with a bit of Toryite social paternalism; people really shouldn’t enjoy themselves now, should they?

But even if we were to take the creation of an extra 436 psychotics a year as being sufficient to threaten such punishment, we’ve still got a slight problem here: we’ve not actually shown that it is the use of the drug that creates the psychosis. The specific disease being worried about is schizophrenia, and overall incidence of that has actually fallen in recent decades. As indeed has cannabis use since the downgrading:

Figures from the 2006-07 survey estimate that 20.9 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds used cannabis in the past year. However, there has been a decrease between 1998 and 2006-07 among 16 to 59-year-olds in the use of cannabis from 10.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent.

Declining use, declining number of schizophrenics… maybe they are indeed linked. But then why are there more admissions after the use of cannabis?

Well, not all that surprisingly, people who are going mad tend to take things to take away the pain and the voices. This is self-medication, and it’s traditionally been tabs and booze that are taken. But if cannabis is either easier to obtain or less dangerous to do so (which the downgrading probably did cause) then more of those losing their minds will self-medicate with dope than the other two. So we don’t even have causation here, the evil weed causing reefer madness; we have correlation, to be sure, but the causation seems to run the other way.

It’s really not looking like a very sensible decision now, is it? Since the downgrading we’ve had no increase in people going nuts, a decrease in the number smoking and a lower burden on the prison system – all things to be desired, one would have thought.

So what could be found to keep the hysteria running long enough to get the law changed? A wonderful idea emerged.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the House of Commons there were particular concerns about stronger strains of the drug.

Cue startling tales of “skunk”, something 20 times stronger than the peaceful ‘erb that we all used when listening to Bob Marley. Except, given that THC levels in that herb were six to seven per cent, we can’t actually have something 20 times stronger, not in this universe at least: a smoke of 120 per cent THC really isn’t possible. So those wilder claims were abandoned, but the basic concept remains; that because the modern material is stronger, it must be more closely controlled. Which is really rather odd, for we’re all aware that alcohol comes in a variety of strengths and we don’t see people drinking pints of whisky (the occasional soon-to-be-dead dare-drinker aside) nor people buying 25ml shots of beer. As indeed, we don’t see people smoking the same quantities of skunk as they did of the lighter variety:

The ACMD held a special session in February and heard evidence that 80 per cent of cannabis seized from users was of the herbal variety rather than resin. Experts said the potency of homegrown herbal cannabis tended to be two and a half times that of imported resin. But they said users now often moderated their intake.

As indeed Frank, the Government’s own drugsite, points out:

Clearly a stronger ‘joint’ (e.g. skunk or sinsemilla) may have more powerful effects, but users may moderate this by inhaling and using less.

That’s not a problem either, then. So why are they doing this? Buggered if I know to be honest, but I do know what I’m worried about. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up classical liberal like myself and adhere to JS Mill’s dictum

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant…

in its entirety to see that the War on Drugs simply isn’t going to be won in the way that the drug-crazed are currently trying to fight it. It was Milton Friedman, correct on this as on so many other matters, who pointed out that we simply cannot eradicate, by use of the law, drug use while still remaining in any manner a free society.

As an example of those freedoms and liberties we are losing think of this case:

Four years ago he walked free from charges of trafficking heroin after a jury delivered a not-proven verdict. But despite escaping a conviction then, George Buchanan was yesterday forced to hand over £200,000 worth of assets – including cars in the names of his wife and children – after a judge’s ruling that they had almost certainly been paid for from his involvement in drug-dealing.

Something of a reversal in the normal course of such matters, don’t you think? That even after you’ve been found not guilty they still take your money on the basis of an “almost”? Whatever happened to beyond all reasonable doubt? Thrown out because such cases are not heard as criminal trials, but as civil ones with that lower standard of proof. But that’s not all, here’s the next bright idea from our Jacqui:

Police will be able to seize high-value assets from suspected drug dealers as soon as they are arrested under plans to be unveiled this week by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.

Yes, they’ll take your house, your cars, your bank accounts, anything with a realisable value, at the moment of your arrest. No court case necessary at all, simply forfeiture to the State on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Even better, they won’t leave you with enough money to hire a lawyer to defend yourself on those drugs charges:

More than 30 barristers from London, Leeds and Sheffield were approached to represent the offender, but refused because they felt the new fixed-rate legal aid fees of £175.25 per day does not justify the complex workload that would be involved. The case would have involved 6,586 pages of documents and a total of 4,548 transactions to prepare for an estimated six-week hearing. The offender, who has served a nine-month sentence for two drugs convictions, could not pay for the legal fees himself because his assets had been frozen.

That pretty much puts paid to the idea of innocent until proven guilty, the right to a fair trial and all the rest of that gubbins that our forefathers fought and died for, doesn’t it? That’s what I’m worried about, the leeching away of the very things that make us a free country in the face of this mass hysteria. It’s decades since I last felt the urge to indulge beyond alcohol and nicotine, so the specifics of the drugs laws are an academic issue for me. But the abandonment of even the pretence of a fair trial should worry you as much as it does me.

There is one opportunity for humour though – a hefty proportion of the current Cabinet have admitted to the odd inhalation a time or two. Wouldn’t it be fun if an MP were to ask Brown which of them would have had their lives improved by a five-year stretch?

One last thing – the Government did in fact ask its board of experts, ACMD, what they thought of the idea of upgrading the drug back to Class B. Here’s the introduction to their report, published yesterday:

Dear Home Secretary In July 2007 you asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the classification of cannabis in the light of real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use and, in particular, the use of stronger strains of the drug. I have pleasure in enclosing the Council’s report. You will note that, after a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence, the majority of the Council’s members consider – based on its harmfulness to individuals and society – that cannabis should remain a Class C substance. It is judged that the harmfulness of cannabis more closely equates with other Class C substances than with those currently classified as Class B.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in reading any more of that report, nor paying attention to it – since, obviously, no other fucker has either. ®

Tim Worstall knows more about rare metals than most might think wise, and writes for himself at timworstall.com, and for The Business, among others. He is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.


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