Thursday, November 19, 2009

Drugs in prisons show underbelly of prohibition

A story by an ex-prisoner in today's Sydney Morning Herald explains in gory detail the reality of drug use in prisons, where an astounding 50% of prisoners have a history of injecting drug use.

While the story pleads for needle exchanges in jails, it could equally present an eloquent case against prohibition, both because people convicted of drug-related crimes would not be in there in the first place, and because it demonstrates that policing and control simply cannot stop drugs.

In fact, as the story shows, they increase the harms. The tale of one prisoner who bled to death trying to inject himself with an eyedropper is educational to say the least.

The mechanics of full cavity searches are discussed. If prohibitionists imagine a world where each day half the population searched the anal cavities of the other half, the question remains: who searches the searchers? It does not even work in a prison, let alone the wider world.

This is the unpleasant and ludicrous culmination of prohibition. Those people who say "just get rid of the drugs" need to explain how that would be done.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Let's avoid a moral panic about drug driving

Melbourne's Age newspaper published a letter of mine yesterday about the vexed question of drug driving. I was responding to a piece by Beth Wilson who puzzlingly wrote "The likelihood of impairment because of drugs may be three times that of alcohol."

This referred to statistical numbers, not actual danger, so (as my letter said) it only muddied the waters, effectively supporting the latest moral manic about drug driving being generated by state governments and the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC).

Why do I call it a moral panic? NCPIC's own evidence review into drug driving concluded in part that "a clear synthesis of results" was "unlikely". My own review of the evidence concludes that impairment from cannabis driving, for instance, is about the same as driving with .05% alcohol in your blood, which is legal. To throw the same enforcement resources and penalties at cannabis driving as are thrown at illegal drunk driving, then, is plainly wasteful and unjust.

While NCPIC positions itself as evidence-based, its own funding guidelines make it impossible for to provide any information that contradicts government policy. It contributes nothing to the body of scientific knowledge so effectively it is little more than a propaganda outlet. Instead of spending many millions each year to achieve this, the government could simply hire advertising agencies on an ad hoc basis and save themselves a packet.

The very public sacking of Professor Davis Nutt, the UK's chief drugs adviser, because he dared to say that the government's drugs policy was not supported by the evidence, created a media storm. Several of his colleagues have resigned in protest.

Interestingly, Professor Nutt's honorary position was not paid, and he spoke the truth. NCPIC on the other hand is well funded and cannot speak the whole truth. If you want to know what's going on, just follow the money.

Friday, November 13, 2009

ABC Radio reverts to ill-informed sensationalism

ABC Radio's World Today current affairs program departed from its usual high standard yesterday to run a tabloid-style piece blaming most of the problems of remote Aboriginal communities on cannabis use.

The piece is based on a 'study' by Alan Clough from James Cook University. Readers of this blog, or anyone abreast of the current evidence, will recognise the ludicrous basis of the piece from the following:
Cannabis use is now so extensive that psychotic episodes are becoming common place.
Really? This evidence-free assertion, if true, would turn the world of drug research on its head. Mr Clough is not a drug researcher, however, but works at the University's School of Indigenous Studies. It seems he has simply co-opted a few prohibitionist myths and worked them into his otherwise sensible research and scored a national headline.

No authoritative evidence review has yet been able to establish causality between cannabis and psychosis -- only "links" or "correlations" as used in this story. Even then, the numbers affected are so low -- a fraction of one per cent of cannabis users -- that the academic and media focus on this "link", compared to innumerable activities with far higher risk, is ludicrous. This type of issue is why six members of the UK's drugs advisory panel have now resigned -- because political panic merchants have ignored their considered advice about the relatively minimal dangers of cannabis.

That the article treats petrol-sniffing and cannabis use as roughly equivalent is also deeply ignorant and ignores any objective assessment of toxicity. It's similar to comparing rat poison with beer.

There is wealth of reliable evidence easily available online to support my statements. I blog hundreds of such links -- start with this or this; or this from the authors of the new, very well researched Marijuana is Safer book.

Mr Clough's attempt to link cannabis with violence is almost laughable, especially as it assumes withdrawal symptoms from "addiction" which is remarkable for something that is not physically addictive. Even the suicide rate and child sexual abuse were 'clearly linked' with cannabis use.

The piece is a political beat-up, the more so because it ignores the role of prohibition, firstly because it creates the very illicit market the story laments, and secondly because it makes cannabis easily available to minors in a totally unregulated market.

Worse, the story quotes Johnathon Nicholls of Wesley Uniting Care who blames a lack of policing, implying that more policing would somehow stop  cannabis use. Messrs Nicholls and Clough should come to Kings Cross where platoons of police with sniffer dogs make no difference at all.  Clough claims 70 per cent of remote Aborigines are using cannabis -- so what is he proposing? Arresting half the population? What could possibly go wrong?

Any 13-year-old smoking cannabis must be already suffering a deeper set of social and parental disadvantages. Cannabis use is only a symptom of these, not the cause as implied by this misleading story. These disadvantages existed long before cannabis was so popular, as Mr Clough must know.

This research could just as easily have linked chronic unemployment with problems among remote Indigenous people -- but drugs are a much better headline-maker.

The story is arguably racist as well, reading more like a 19th-century colonial report about the Pygmies than balanced discourse.

Shame on The World Today -- it's a stain on your usually excellent standard of journalism. Do a bit of basic research, please, before broadcasting such sensationalist tripe again. At least get a balancing view (Journalism 101). Same goes for Mr Clough.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kings Cross glitz glamourised again

A lovely piece on Kings Cross appears in The Sydney Morning Herald today. Dugald Jellie writes of the suburb's starring role in the coming third series of Underbelly:

...a dissolute cast of strippers, gamblers, gunmen, hookers, dealers, bouncers, bagmen and boys in blue who ran the fabled red-light district in the days before the 1995 Wood Royal Commission.

This crossroads of debauchery – a place of shoot-outs, bright lights, ceaseless parties and all too many sordid nights to remember and mornings to forget – never has strayed too far from the headlines. Chk chk boom!
He quotes writer George Johnstone:
A cocky, callous place,” was how writer George Johnston long ago summarised this capital of deviance. He thought it an “awkward masquerade”; a strip with “misfitting foreigners about and odd eccentrics, [where] a raffishness has persisted, and it is better than Melbourne and better than the rest of Sydney”.
All of which strikes me as pretty true, and puts the lie to a few locals who write to newspapers claiming that The Cross used to be a "genteel" place "but now it's gotten worse" and the place should therefore be regulated into suburban blandness.

In fact the place is now tamer than it has been for nearly a century, even as Clover Moore, the Police and the State Government intensify their purse-mouthed War against Kings Cross with road closures, selective laws against licensed premises, sniffer dogs and anti-cluster rules designed to remove adult entertainment from the strip. Clover Moore in particular seems obsessed with turning it into "a mother-and-child-friendly shopping precinct" -- like every other suburb of Sydney. Don't these people realise there is a fringe of individuals and eccentrics who do not fit into suburbia, and we have a right to just one district that's different? Gentrification is death.

Pictured: Kings Cross last Saturday night – the testosterone swirls around Dugald Jellie’s "more bare legs than a man ought reasonably expect" as Sydney's youth in their thousands conduct their mating rituals. If only a few old locals hadn't lost their sense of humour and zest for life.

Monday, November 09, 2009

UK sacking backfires on prohibitionists

The British government must be regretting the sacking of its chief drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt. This heavy-handed attempt to gag the facts of the drugs debate has backfired -- an international media storm has broken out with most pieces mentioning Prof Nutt's argument that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than equestrian horse riding.

This is not the 'message' prohibitionists want spread about.  While they and the tabloid rags have been forced to retreat to a very suspect argument that Science is one thing and Policy is another, throwing the term 'evidence-based' out the window, the debate nevertheless rages on. A new piece in The Guardian not only collects a lot of evidence to show that tough-on-drugs policies (including alcohol) don't reduce drug use, but it also lists some unquestionable harms of prohibition.

Meanwhile the editor of Horse & Hound commented in a BBC News analysis that "Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it."

A blog entry on the Release site picks this up, venturing into into previously unmentionable ground by stating that the risks of drugs, like horse-riding, can also be weighed up against their benefits, writing:
Every weekend millions of UK citizens perform the same kind of cost-benefit calculation in relation to their drug use. “Doing an E tonight? Yes, there are risks, but the reward and the thrills more than make up for it,” says the blog post.
This is heresy to prohibitionists who pretend that drugs have no benefits, or at least that the harms greatly outweigh them. How many times have you heard them say "Drugs ruin lives and destroy families"? Not for the vast, vast majority of users, they don't, any more than horse-riding, car driving or mountain-climbing.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Needle exchanges bring 27x cost-benefit

A clear and concise piece published in The Australian shows the tremendous success of needle and syringe programs (NSPs) in Australia which were yielding a 27-fold return in health, productivity and other gains. Gino Vumbaca, executive officer of the Australian National Council on Drugs, then calls for such services to be extended into prisons.

After pointing out that drug use is only a temporary part of most users’ lives and explaining the logic of protecting their health during this period,  he writes:
In particular prisons are a real blind spot in Australia’s response to HIV and hepatitis C. Prisons have over 30,000 people pass through their gates each year, often for less than 6 months, much higher hepatitis C rates than we see in the broader community, extremely risky injecting practices with at time dozens sharing the same old needle and syringe repeatedly, a high level of sexual assault and other violence and a large number of people with drug problems.

After leading the world for so long on preventing HIV, no prison in Australia has a needle and syringe program operating, or has even trialled one. This is despite such programs already operating in other countries including Spanish, Swiss and even Iranian prisons.

The opposition in Australia to a prison needle and syringe program generally focuses on two areas. First, just stop the drugs getting in. The reality is that there probably isn’t a prison in the world where drugs are unavailable. Huge numbers of people go in and out of prisons every day other than prisoners, such as staff, contractors, legal officials and visitors. Drugs are so easy to hide that it would require a full body cavity search every man, woman and child every time they entered a prison to find them.
His piece comes after the conservative-Christian-dominated group Drug-Free Australia issued a 'Parliamentary Briefing' attempting to persuade politicians that NSPs don't work and should be abolished. Mr Vumbaca's last paragraph above shows how unrealistic is any claim that prohibition can create a 'drug-free Australia'. If they can't keep drugs out of prisons, imagine trying to keep them out of a whole continent, and imagine the oppressive police state we would all be suffering and paying for during the attempt.

I'm pretty clear which side of the argument Jesus would have backed.