Friday, 28 May 2010

When will government drug policy reflect empirical reality?

In April, the government banned the "legal high" mephedrone, reclassifying it as a class B drug. At the time, critics noted that this was an extremely unwise decision, an unfounded and knee-jerk reaction after recent deaths were attributed to the drug. Now, it appears, toxicology reports have proven them right.

As BBC News report;

Toxicology tests have shown that two teenagers whose deaths were linked to mephedrone had not taken the drug. 

The deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, in March 2010 sparked concern about the synthetic stimulant, which was then legal. 

The Labour government banned the "legal high" in April, making it a Class B drug. 

Former chief drugs adviser Prof David Nutt said the test results undermined the reasons behind the ban. 

But Professor Les Iverson, the current chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), said the decision to recomment a ban on mephedrone was based on "thorough research". 

It is thought further tests are being conducted to try to establish what, if any, substances the pair had taken. 
David Nutt, a Governmental scientific advisor sacked for having a sensible position on cannabis, notes that "if these reports are true, the previous government's rush to ban mephedrone never had any serious scientific credibility - it looks much more like a decision based on a short term electoral calculation." Indeed, "this news demonstrates why it's so important to base drug classification on the evidence, not fear, and why the police, media and politicians should only make public prouncements once the facts are clear."

This is all aside from the fact that bans are completely counterproductive to their stated purpose. Almost immediately after the ban came into effect, the Times reported that "clubbers continue to use mephedrone despite ban."

This comes after news in March that cocaine use "had increased five-fold among 16 to 59-year-olds during the past 12 years and the purity of street samples had decreased." On top of this, "growing numbers of children were being treated for cocaine addiction," illustrating the point that the war on drugs is killing people.

On the other hand, in 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, and has actually seen a decline in use.

Except for some far-right politicians, very few domestic political factions are agitating for a repeal of the 2001 law. And while there is a widespread perception that bureaucratic changes need to be made to Portugal's decriminalization framework to make it more efficient and effective, there is no real debate about whether drugs should once again be criminalized. More significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents—from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for "drug tourists"—has occurred.

The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. Those data indicate that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.


The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.
You can download the full report in PDF format here.

Though it seems increasingly futile to make the call when facing a blizzard of hysteria, there needs to be a rational debate on drug policy. Not one dominated by the screaming reactionism of the tabloids and the conservative right, but by reason and facts where Portugal's policy is not treated as utterly insane and unworkable for entirely dogmatic reasons.

As I have noted before, "lives are at stake, and it is blindly obvious that prohibition isn't working."