Saturday, October 31, 2009

UK government sacks drugs advisor

A few minutes after writing the post below which mentions the UK's Professor David Nutt, I learned that the government had sacked him as head of their scientific advisory panel on drugs.

They could not rebut his findings that some illicit drugs are less harmful than the legal ones, so they simply removed him, acting more like the Stasi or the Gestapo than representatives in a mature democracy.

The move, which followed calls in the shockjock press for the sacking, shows that only 'yesmen' can safely offer advice to the government. Inevitably such advice will often be flawed and decisions based on it will be bad for the country. This is one of the intrinsic weaknesses of totalitarian states and a key reason they fail.

Truth is toxic to ideologues, it seems, and this corruption of democracy will cause far more harm than any drug -- as one Guardian columnist writes.

The news is truly saddening, the action disgusting and its perpetrators guilty of a gross abuse of power.

"Professor Nutt clashed with Jacqui Smith when she was home secretary after he compared the 100 deaths a year from horseriding with the 30 deaths a year linked to ecstasy," reports The Guardian.

That journal also roasted the current home secretary in an editorial, quoting Professor Nutt:

"Alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco is ranked ninth," he argued. "Cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively."

Go figure. Shooting the messenger does not change the truth.

PS (2 Nov): Two of Professor Nutt’s colleagues have reportedly resigned from the Advisory Panel in protest at the sacking, and more may leave. One of them is Dr Les King, a respected chemist and former head of the Drugs Intelligence Unit in the Forensic Science Service, who said: "Academics, medics and others are going to ask themselves if they want to serve on these agencies without payment, on their own time and expense, when the advice that they produce is routinely ignored."

The Independent lays out the small political storm triggered by the sacking.

Even Auntie ABC is on this one, reporting that the Scientists "have joined the criticism of a government accused of ignoring sound science in favour of tabloid driven myth."

Warning: The same danger is present in NSW, with a politically desperate government inclined to opportunism and appointing 'yesmen', while columnist Miranda Devine has called for the sacking of Dr Alex Wodak who campaigns for rational drug policy here.

PS (5 November): The Guardian has weighed in, roasting hypocritical politicians in an editorial:
Half the government, as well as the Conservative leader and three US presidents in a row, have used drugs in their own youth, and yet punitive laws continue to threaten others who do the same with prison...

The politicians from the main parties are thus united in continuing to talk rot. It is hardly surprising that the experts feel a need to make themselves heard – and do so in rather blunt terms.
Notably none of the usual prohibitionists nor the UK government have challenged the advisory panel's evidence and conclusions. The only remaining opposition comes from people with closed minds who deny fact in order to continue an unwinnable war. By Arthur Miller's definition these people are not even idealogues because that would require the 'principled denial of fact'. But hypocrites are not principled, so what does that make them?

Cannabis/schizophrenia link 'minimal' -- UK study

While we are saturated with assertions that cannabis causes psychotic mental illness, prohibitionists always act as if the evidence is concrete and stay very quiet about the very small numbers of users who actually have the disease.

And the numbers are very small. A new UK study looked at it the other way around -- How many people would you have to prevent from using cannabis to prevent one case of Schizophrenia?
The study found it would be necessary to stop 2800 heavy cannabis users in young men and over 5000 heavy cannabis users in young women to prevent a single case of schizophrenia. Among light cannabis users, those numbers rise to over 10,000 young men and nearly 30,000 young women to prevent one case of schizophrenia.
This shows how exaggerated is the moral panic on this subject, when many other activities acceptable to society carry FAR higher risks*. Of course the study stops short of describing the deeper fallacy in prohibitionist ideology -- where is the evidence that prohibition prevents anyone from using cannabis, let alone the millions that might be required to significantly reduce schizophrenia?

Professor David Nutt, who heads the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, also says cannabis does not cause major health problems and repeats his claim that ecstasy is no more dangerous than riding a horse.

The UK government ignored the advice of the ACMD and upgraded cannabis into the Class B category, attracting higher penalties, in a move that Professor Nutt described as "devaluing scientific research". The Liberal Western Australian Government has just made a similar move, also against the advice of its own research  body. In both places, cannabis use had reduced during the period the drug was subject to lighter penalties.

WA brought its crackdown just as Dr Norm Stamper was in the state with his message of legal regulation. He reports in the Huffington Post on the rude reception he met in Parliament, the refusal to listen to evidence and the political paranoia of the lawmakers.

Check the letter below from one of the WA Liberal politicians. Every statement in it is demonstrably wrong. Truly, as Arthur Miller said, ideology is "the principled denial of fact".

Reply from WA politician Hon Nick Goiran MLC to a letter re repeal of the Cannabis Control Act 2003.


21 October 2009

Dear Mr X


Thank you for your letter regarding Premier Colin Barnett's announcement to introduce legislation to repeal the Cannabis Control Act 2003.

The State Government recognises that illicit drug use is a significant problem which affects the lives of users, their families, friends and the wider WA community and cannabis-related legislation is sending a clear anti-drugs message to the community.

Research shows that cannabis use can lead to a mass of health and mental health problems including respiratory problems and cancer risk, abnormalities in reproductive functioning and schizophrenia.
Drugs are an insidious threat to the fabric of our society. l have personally seen how people are enslaved, threatened and exploited because of drug debts and addiction. Illegal drugs ruin lives, shatter families and can create a downfall on our community foundation. We should seek to protect our fellow West Australians and these initiatives will crackdown on the plague of illicit drugs in our State.

From what you have written, you support a policy of 'Harm Minimisation'- a strategy to ameliorate the adverse consequences of drug use while drug use continues. I firmly believe that harm minimisation strategies communicate a message condoning drug use, a message I do not espouse. Furthermore, in my view harm minimisation strategies have been an abject failure.

Accordingly, l strongly support the Premier's announcement and the use of criminal law to deter drug use and look forward to voting in favour of the proposed legislation.

Yours sincerely

Hon Nick Goiran MLC

Member for the South Metropolitan Region


* Activities which carry FAR higher risks than using cannabis: Playing football (especially Gridiron); mountain-climbing; night yacht racing; rock fishing; riding a pushbike or motorbike; flying ultralight aircraft etc etc.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Some cities transcend the mundane

Just for some light relief, a friend put me onto the Village of Joy site which has a lovely collection of things of the imagination made real. I liked the 'Strange buildings of the world' section.

Sydney developers would do well to spend some time browsing these triumphs of playful, self-confident flights of the imagination.

Pictured is the National Theatre of Beijing (apparently photographed on the one clear day they have had since it was built).

Clive Small reveals size of drugs market

Clive Small, the former senior NSW cop behind much of the information used in the Underbelly series, is out spruiking his next book. He exposes the shallow spin that constitutes most police announcements about drug busts, referring in a radio interview to the four tonnes of ecstasy tablets that was nabbed in Melbourne a few years ago without making any difference to supply or price. Police get only a tiny fraction of the illicit drugs in the market.

Mr Small reminds us of the size of the $12 billion drugs black market and exposes Police successes in that area as mere fiddling around the edges ('Organised crime is out of control', SMH 27 October). He speaks blithely of "spending the big money needed to fight organised crime."

But he ignores the proverbial elephant in the room: that prohibition makes possible the vast profits that feed the beast, which is now so large that financing an effective drugs war would bankrupt whole areas of expenditure elsewhere and create something approaching a police state.

It was the repeal of prohibition that brought down Al Capone's gangs, and the same is required now. Whatever problems drugs cause they are less than the harms of prohibition and are best dealt with by education, regulation and treatment. The tax revenue would be a bonus.

Clive Small would do well to listen to his US counterpart, Norm Stamper, who takes the same arguments to a more logical conclusion.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tricky one for climate change sceptics

A new bit of scientific evidence that humans are causing global warming will be difficult for deniers to rebut. It seems the Earth's orbit cycle has the planet some 966,000km further away from the sun than it was in the time of the big J, when temperatures were 5-6° warmer than they are now.

We should therefore be going through a cooling cycle, according to boffins who have analysed core samples from an Arctic lake that show cycles going back 200,000 years. But the samples show things have been getting much warmer since 1950, bucking the cosmic cooling trend and pointing to human activity as the likely cause.

So much for Senator Steve Fielding's global warming graph beginning in 1998.

PS 27/10/09: Funnily enough, that climate change expert Cardinal George Pell was using the temperatures at the time of Jesus to argue the opposite on radio yesterday -- saying that it was warmer then so global warming isn't happening. He also brought up the 1998 fallacy which has been rebutted so many times, so publicly, that it beggars belief how much information these dogmatists can ignore. No doubt God has fed him his factoids direct.

'Experts' repeat the dogma of moral panic

They've been around for years but the Adelaide Advertiser has just discovered a website for ecstasy users who exchange information about different pills. The users see it as a way of safeguarding  against the dangers of bad or dud pills, a risk that prohibition creates in the first place as there is no regulation or quality control beyond the efforts and goodwill of those who make the product.

But the Advertiser demonises the site as "an open forum for illicit narcotics dealers and users... exposing the truth about Adelaide's drug underworld." Not that ecstasy is even a narcotic but that's a minor detail to tabloid hacks.

"It's a really worrying trend," opines one sententious 'expert' who would apparently prefer kids swallowing pills to have absolutely no information about their effects (given that total abstinence is just not going to happen).

One user reported on the 'horrific' results of taking his pills:

"I was dancing and chatty and had some nice feelings on them," 'machetevip' said.

The Police were not impressed, saying the site provided no safeguards. But then, neither does prohibition.

A look at today reveals warnings about adulterated pills circulating, while it leads with a news story about a death in the UK possibly connected to a "rogue batch" of pills. There is a link to an online counselling site.

In its introduction the site states "Please Note: exists as a harm reduction tool and does not condemn or condone ecstasy use."

Far from exposing the 'underworld of narcotics dealers', this site appears to be a responsible and effective tool to safeguard the millions who prefer ecstasy to the coarse effects of toxic alcohol.

But then the Advertiser did publish the web address, so I guess they are really doing users a favour, while covering all bases by couching the report in shock-horror language that reinforces assumptions that prohibition is valid.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More high-level studies show cannabis fights cancer

A slew of recent studies have shown that cannabis fights cancer, including one major population study by UCLA Medical professor Donald Tashkin who had previously fuelled reports that it caused cancer. He had earlier conducted several small reductive studies analysing the components of cannabis smoke and finding it had lots of nasties in it, then extrapolating that cannabis might be more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke. The media of course jumped on these with glee and ran shock-horror headlines world-wide.

Most media of course ignored the much larger population study which reversed the findings.

A good summary of such findings appeared today in Northern California's Times Standard newspaper, currently its most-read story.

Of course this does not mean cannabis brings no harms -- like everything, it has its dangers and can be abused. But let's get things into an accurate perspective please!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Just another noisy night in the Cross

I was awake anyway, listening to Sean Jones trying to start his Mr Bean Mini, when all hell broke loose.

The Sun-Herald bought the story from me, heading it: 'It's a nine-car wrecking machine' as a rampaging Nissan Pathfinder careened through Brougham and McElhone Streets, finishing up on its side outside our place after a 15-metre slide.

The hard copy edition also ran four of my photographs like the ones below:

Monday, October 12, 2009

WA returns to the dark ages with tough drug laws

Well, the Western Australians voted the Liberals in and now, true to form, Premier Colin Barnett has returned to a harsh prohibitionist regime without a shred of evidence that it will actually help anyone or reduce the harms of drugs.

Police will need no grounds to justify searching anyone they like. This will make it easy for police to persecute people and will inevitable fall harder on people who don't fit the 'normal' middleclass stereotype (although Liberal voters should be pretty safe). No-one can now call Australia a free country.

Premier Barnett even trots out the old saw that cannabis is a 'gateway drug' leading to the use of harder drugs. The fact that 99% or so of cannabis users never inject seems to to have escaped Mr Barnett -- but then ideologies are notoriously blind to fact.

Anyone caught with ten grams or less of cannabis will be forced to attend the Cannabis Intervention Requirement Scheme (CIRS), which will attempt to inculcate prohibitionist myth into the heads. Anyone who does not attend will be prosecuted. The joke is, a five-minute Google search can refute most of the message being preached at these sessions.

Anyone selling 'implements' now faces a $5,000 fine, double for selling to a minor.

But far from protecting young people, these laws will push more young people to improvise toxic 'Orchy bongs' made from plastic bottles, PVC hose and aluminium foil cones. Or will Mr Barnett also ban all those materials?

By driving illicit drugs further underground Mr Barnett also perpetuates an unregulated illicit supply model that contains no mechanisms to block supply to young people. As Dr Norm Stamper says, dealers don"t ask for ID.

To any small extent that Barnett succeeds in reducing cannabis use it's likely that alcohol consumption will rise correspondingly, which is a shame as cannabis is safer than alcohol by any objective comparison -- including in its connection with mental illness which is far less for cannabis than for alcohol.

The bad news is, the Libs are likely to win in NSW in 2011 and are likely to act in a similar way.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Confronting the fear of legalisation

The demonisation of recreational drugs has been a sustained and well-funded campaign going back to the days of Reefer Madness and beyond. As a result, many people have an acute fear and loathing of illicit drugs, which divides them from users who have tested the truth and found the War on Drugs to be largely based on scaremongering.

Last night Dr Norm Stamper, ex Police Chief of San Diego and Seattle and who now campaigns for regulated legalisation, spoke in Sydney about this.

"I agree in principle to what you are saying," said one listener, "but how can any government possibly consider the legalisation of a drug like methamphetamine [ice]?"

Dr Stamper told the story of a person he met who had been an ice addict for ten years before getting clean, and who was similarly horrified at the prospect of legalising it. Dr Stamper replied by asking where had the addict obtained his drugs every day for ten years, and pointing out that this continuous availability showed prohibition had failed. The man hadn't thought of it that way, and neither do prohibitionists want you to see it like that.

But, as Dr Stamper pointed out, "It doesn't matter what the drug, the principle is the same."

Listeners at the Centre for Independent Studies last night went through the usual litany of objections, the next one being a concern that regulated legalisation would tempt more people to try such drugs. Dr Stamper referred to the recent Zogby Poll which asked 1,028 people this very question. Only 0.6% said 'Yes'. After all -- as I keep asking people -- if heroin was legal would you start sticking a needle in your arm? So-far the answer has been 100% 'No'.

Another scary drug is LSD which, while inspiring the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Martin Sharpe, has also messed with the brains of various 'acid casualties' -- all under prohibition of course. Yet the drug is making a research renaissance as Swiss and US clinicians find its guided use can produce excellent results in treating cluster headaches, depression and post-traumatic stress, often removing the cause of the problem rather than just masking the symptoms like legal antidepressants. Such research was shut down in the 1960s when acid was made illegal. So much for the evidence base of the War on Drugs.

Warning: Don't try this at home, especially with a new 'super LSD' available on the black market in Australia called DOI which police claim produces a three-day trip.

Pictured: Dr Norm Stamper speaking at a meeting in Parliament House last week.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Signs of sanity in the WoD

Michael Duffy again sortied into sensible analysis of Australia's War on Drugs in the Herald this weekend.

'Australian governments spend about $4.7 billion a year on the war on drugs,' he wrote.

And: 'John Humphreys, an economist with the Centre for Independent Studies, says: "It gets interesting when you try to do a cost-benefit analysis on the prohibition. Basically, there aren't any benefits."

Today I'm going to hear Norm Stamper speaking at Parliament House -- He's the ex-cop from Seattle who is a spokesman for LEAP, (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), also featured separately by Michael Duffy in the SMH this weekend, quoting Mr Stamper:

"Every once in a while, someone in government has claimed progress," he said, "but they've been wrong. The immutable law of supply and demand will continue to work its magic for ever. Purity and prices will fluctuate, people's behaviour will fluctuate, but there has never been any point in the drug war where we've come close to winning. It is unwinnable, and it's immoral."

Still, the drug warriors will continue their moral panic and our local police will continue believing the fairy stories they learned during their training at Goulburn so they can continue fooling themselves they are doing something useful as they persecute Sydney's counter-cultures.

But for how long can they keep it up?

I wrote my own piece last week on the travails of Oxford Street, highlighting the role of over-regulation in aggravating the problems it seeks to solve -- including the way sniffer dogs frighten the nice people away from the inner city and thus promote the drinking culture people complain about so regularly. Here's the link to the City News piece.