Friday, February 19, 2010

Death penalty more dangerous than drugs

European drug law reformers are targeting the use of mandatory death penalties for people with drug convictions in Malaysia and many other countries:


From March 8 to 12, 2010 during the yearly meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, governments from all over the world will once again declare their support to the global fight against drugs, i.e. the substances that were prohibited worldwide by a UN Convention in 1961.

In Malaysia, as in 21 other countries in the world, people who use or possess relatively small quantities of drugs, including cannabis, are sentenced to death. These sentences are mandatory: judges have no possibility to invoke any extenuating circumstance. Furthermore, the usual burden of proof is reversed so that an individual is presumed to be guilty unless he or she can prove otherwise.

International Conventions on Human Rights, various UN Human Rights Bodies and the UN Secretary General have expressed that the “death penalty should only be considered in cases where the crime is intentional and results in lethal or extremely grave consequences, not in cases of economic, non-violent or victimless offences. In those cases a death sentence may be considered as an arbitrary execution.”

The use, sale or trafficking of drugs is not intended to have a lethal outcome. People use drugs to feel good or to feel better, and as long as there is a demand there will always be a supply. Also in Malaysia, drug use has continued to rise in spite of the death penalty. The people who are occasionally caught by authorities do not have major responsibilities in this business. Killing them will not scare the drug gangs away. On the contrary: thanks to these punishments, the leaders in the drug business can continue to justify extraordinary high prices for their goods

Legitimized by the United Nations, drug prohibition continues to drive repressive policies and legislation including death sentence. These policies are typically rooted in moral in stead of rational arguments, and impede the development of progressive and effective responses to any problems that the use of drugs may cause.

-- From the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NZ politicians defy drug law review advice

Ruling conservatives in New Zealand have categorically refused to follow the advice of their own drug law review even though its terms of reference restricted it to a prohibition model. The Law Commission Review concluded that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975... longer provides a coherent and effective legislative framework for responding to the misuse of psychoactive drugs... The Act is now outdated and does not reflect current knowledge and understanding about drug use and related health, social and economic harms.
The Commission recommended a caution and diversion approach for people charged with personal use of small quantities of drugs, citing overwhelming Australian evidence that this approach saved police time, reduced the load on courts and prisons and reduced drug use and re-offence.

The NZ government has categorically rejected the conclusions, saying that such efficiency and harm reduction would "send the wrong message". They don't seem to be able to come up with more substantial arguments, and they ignore the rather obvious fact that the government, if it adopted the Review's advice, could use some of the money it saved to send any message it liked through education and advertising.

It seems they prefer 'sending a message' of ideological inflexibility, higher levels of drug use and harm, and wasting police time and money. So much for economic rationalism.

A more thorough report on the issue from the NZ Drug Foundation is published in the Pundit.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Conroy wants to block safe drug use videos

Google should block Youtube videos demonstrating safer ways to use drugs, says Communications Minister Stephen Conroy as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Google is resisting, saying it has a "bias" towards free speech.

Conroy is setting up a filter system to block RC (refused classification) material from Australian web users, hanging his hat on that old standby, child pornography which is to my knowledge not available on the web anyway except on peer-to-peer networks.

Conroy even uses China as an example of how it can be done, raising the spectre of oppressive government control of information and free speech. We used to say "It's a free country, mate," but those days are gone as a succession of freedoms and rights are removed by power-mad governments consumed by moral panic and imposing a nanny state. On my recent trip to China I found all Blogger blogs (like this one) were blocked, along with facebook and, strangely, the newspaper I write for, The City News. Welcome to the Brave New World.

Denying people information about the safe use of drugs can only result in the less safe use of drugs, so Conroy's latest mania can only cause harm. So much for the government's commitment to "harm minimisation".

Other reports claim that his obsession with protecting the rest of us from things he doesn't like will extend to banning pornography featuring women with small breasts, in case someone fantasises about having sex with children. Women with small breasts are angry, saying that yet more big-breasted stereotypes would be of doubtful benefit to society.

Someone said to Tony Abbott the last time he was on his anti-abortion kick, "Get your rosaries off my ovaries".  Something similar applies to our Minister for Censorship.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pastor calls for end to War-on-Drugs casualties

Pastor Graham Long of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross has called for an end to the War on Drugs, pointing out that it victimises poorand underprivileged people while providing warring factions in Afghanistan with cash for weapons. In his weekly newsletter he writes:

Why on earth don't we get the UN to buy the whole heroin crop from farmers in Afghanistan to use it for legitimate medical needs around the world. Bingo! Instant defunding of all the warring groups who fund their mayhem by the sale of heroin.  I've spoken to people in high places about Afghanistan and the truth is that no one sees any end in sight. I don't often get on a soap box but I just loathe the idea of young Australians dying in some cause that has no end. Perhaps if we took the market away from the Taliban and the other warring factions, they'd be struggling to fund a single bullet. While I'm on the box, I wonder when we'll wake up that our war on drugs is a war on people. Actually, it's a war on poor people. Every time I think of the Bali nine, it sticks in my neck that our AFP handed Australian young people over to a potential death sentence. Do you think the AFP would have taken this action if one of the nine had been the son of the Prime Minister? We could save a fortune as well as some lives if we took the drug market out of the hands of criminals. I'm expressing the view of a small minority but one that I think will start to make sense when governments become motivated to pay off their debt. One day, we'll see that today's orthodoxy is expensive and unproductive. I don't get on my box often but ever since 1964 The Wayside Chapel never pretended to be a not for prophet organisation.

How Science is spun to support ruling agendas

Another look at the UK study in the post below illustrates how research into drugs is reported in a way that amplifies the downside, increases the moral panic about drugs, provides superficial ammunition for prohibitionists and encourages more funding from prohibitionist governments.

I used the study to illustrate the extremely low relative risk of taking ecstasy, comparing it to the thousands of casualties from the War on Drugs.

But Science Daily, reporting on the same study, feeds the moral panic, headlining with: "Fatality Rates Among Young Drug Users A Cause For Concern". 

It quotes lead author Professor Fabrizio Schifano who said: "These data seem to support the hypothesis that young individuals seem to suffer extreme consequences after excessive intake of ecstasy. This is an issue of public health concern which deserves further studies." 

This statement has been likened to Steven Fry's observation that "Too much is bad for you because that's what too much means". It's a classic example of begging the question. 

Note the thinly disguised call for further funding at the end of Prof Schifano's quote, perhaps showing how research findings are reported in a way that foments moral panic in the interests of more funding -- no reflection on the good professor's scientific rigour. The politics of the system are to blame, not, generally, its practitioners who would be out of a job if they openly challenged the funding source. It's a sad reflection on the independence of Science.

New figures prove prohibition far more harmful than drugs

A new UK study shows just how relatively few deaths are caused by ecstasy. Published in the journal Neuropsychobiology, it looked at reported ecstasy-related deaths from 1997 to 2007, comparing them to amphetamine-related deaths. It reports 605 deaths using the widest definition of "ecstasy-related".

By comparison, 6,500 people were killed last year alone in Mexico's War on Drugs according to The New Scotsman. This is starkly illustrates that prohibition causes far more harm than the drugs it fails to control.

While any death is obviously a matter for concern, risks should be put into perspective. The UK study provides data that helps this. Looking at younger users who reportedly took only ecstasy (mono-intoxication), the Abstract says:

...However, mono-intoxication ecstasy fatalities per 100,000 16- to 24-year-old users were significantly more represented than AMP/METH fatalities (1.67 ± 0.52 vs. 0.8 ± 0.65; p = 0.0007). Conclusion: With respect to AMP/METH, ecstasy was here more typically identified in victims who were young, healthy, and less likely to be known as drug users. AMP/METH high mortality rates may be explained by users’ high levels of physical co-morbidity; excess ecstasy-related fatality rates in young users may be a reason for concern. Although the coroners’ response rate was of 90–95%, study limitations include both reporting inconsistency over time and lack of routine information on drug intake levels prior to death.
So we are talking about 1.67 'mono-intoxication ecstasy related' deaths per 100,000 users. That's a percentage of 0.0000167 (ignoring the error factor, and according to my calculator). That makes ecstasy one of the safest substances around -- and the percentage would be even lower if they compared casualties to the number of doses rather than users, given that most users take more than one dose in the drug-using period of their life.

From memory, a lot of the 'reporting inconsistency'  mentioned in the abstract introduced significant inaccuracy. Because these substances are illegal and unregulated, there is no guarantee that MDMA was even the active substance used. I wonder how many cases of the more dangerous GHB or PMA poisoning slipped into that percentage? Nor, of course, would the actual dose per tablet have been known, and nor were there instructions or warnings available on the non-existent packet they came in -- basic information that comes with a packet of Aspirin because it is legal and regulated, and which presumably prevents much 'excess intake'. Also, because MDMA is illegal, the buyers did not have to provide ID on purchase. Such a regime would to some extent reduce the drug's availability to the under-18s studied.

I wonder by how much that 0.0000167% might have been reduced had these safety factors, routinely applied to pharmaceuticals, existed under a legal, regulated and taxed regime.

And I wonder what the cost of prohibition enforcement is for each of those 1.67 deaths per 100,000 users, and whether there are more cost-effective ways of addressing drug abuse.

Meanwhile in Mexico:
...40 people died in firefights between police and army forces and the drug cartels. More than 6,500 fatalities will have occurred this year alone, topping last year's total, which was double that in 2007...

Of the 220,000 people arrested on drug charges since Mr Calderón took office, three-quarters have been released. Only 5 per cent of the remaining 60,000 or so have been tried and sentenced.
That was written by Jorge G Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-3), a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University, in The New Scotsman.

Even talking in absolute figures, and including multi-intoxication deaths, that's a total of 605 ecstasy-related deaths over ten years in the UK compared to 6,500 deaths in one year in Mexico.

Yet prohibitionists from Drug Free Australia have cited the UK study in their prohibitionist campaign. I have invited them to comment on the relative risks of ecstasy vs prohibition.

PS Another analysis of The Courier Mail recently hyping an ecstasy scare is found at The Australian Heroin Diaries. Do journalists learn this formula at some obscure trash tabloid school, or are they just born that way?

PPS As of 19 February, Drug Free Australia had not taken up my invitation to challenge the above analysis.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Drug War dumbs down police, media

Reporting of the War against Drugs in NSW over the weekend again sunk to a nonsensical level of fallacy and propaganda, covering our police and major media in shame.

Both The Sun-Herald and ABC News parroted inaccurate media output from Police Minister Michael Daley but obtained no opposing comment, breaking rule 101 of journalism.

Here's a summary of what Daley said, with rebuttals in counterpoint.

From The Sun-Herald:
NSW Minister for Police Michael Daley said the heroin seized last year was equivalent to 24 million hits and would hopefully drive up the price of drugs and deter use.
-- but driving up the price increases the profit motive in the black market, and attracts greater interest from local and overseas exporters. And 24 million hits sounds like a lot but is only a tiny fraction of the annual market, same as every year. The article lists increases in arrests for most drugs, especially ecstasy. This could reflect different police priorities or it could reflect greater supply and use, which would make a mockery of the War.

From ABC News:
Police praised for cannabis busts
The New South Wales Government has commended the state's police for seizing $50 million worth of cannabis in the past three months.
-- With the national Crime Commission estimating the imported drugs market alone at up to $12 billion annually, police interceptions are and always were just a scratch on the surface. But they never put their overblown estimates in that context.
"We have intelligence from the public. We used helicopters heavily this week in the Tweed, went up in the air and looked down for the plantations on the ground [and] different colouration of vegetation," he said.
-- So they rely on people dobbing in their neighbours and spending a fortune on polluting helicopter surveillance to stop a few people using a recreational drug that's far safer than alcohol.
Unfortunately some people think of cannabis as a soft drug. It isn't. 
-- but it is, Mr Daley
It does cause psychosis. 
-- maybe, but only in a tiny fraction of one percent of users, making it far safer than just about anything.
It's a gateway drug to heavier use
-- No it's not, Mr Daley, although your War on Drugs makes sure that anyone who has access to it on the black market can likely get harder drugs from the same source. For a start, simple mathematics shows that only a tiny percentage of cannabis users ever inject harder drugs. However propagandists like Mr Daley will quote the opposite statistic, that nearly all hard drug users used cannabis first, ignoring that they probably used alcohol before that. Here's some recent research that Mr Daley should read before mouthing discredited truisms in future...

But his fallacies continue:
and it's a cash crop for bikie gangs and organised crime.
-- only because your War on Drugs creates the opportunity for criminals to get into the business, Mr Daley. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy.
New South Wales police say they have seized more than 50,000 cannabis plants - with an estimated street value of $190 million - over the past year.
See above re the total value of the drugs market. And the police always overstate the value of seized drugs.

But Mr Daley is not just spouting discredited information to a slavish, unprofessional media. he is attempting to shore up his own police force. This from the USA's Alternet blog, asking why police always say the same sort of stuff:

"Plain and simple. They are motivated by self-interest. Their very jobs depend on a steady stream of arrests and prosecutions. And marijuana users are their cash cow, with arrests totaling a staggering 847,863 in 2008. As long as the marijuana arrests keep coming, so do their paychecks. Keep this in mind the next time you hear a law enforcement official explaining why we need to “protect our streets” from this “dangerous drug.”



Thursday, February 04, 2010

Another climate sceptic mantra blown out of the water

A letter of mine published in the SMH today makes a small contribution to the climate change debate, noting that Tony Abbot would be "talking to industry" about penalties on industry for increasing carbon emissions. Comforting. It's like the judge asking a criminal what sentence they would like.

But the real heavy hitting came from a brilliant report by Matthew Wright that explodes the climate sceptics' eternal mantra that renewable energy cannot provide 'baseload power'.

Wright documents many cases where renewable energy IS already providing 'baseload power' in other countries on a scale similar to our own dirty coal-fired power stations. Much of it uses technology developed in Australia but activated overseas because our government will not support the industry here. As Wright points out, our coal-fired plants were developed with public subsidy, so the argument that renewables cost more is also compromised -- never mind that wind and sunlight are free and inexhaustible. These industries overseas employ similar numbers to our coal-based system, so the jobs argument raised by sceptics is also false.

As one commenter pointed out, noting that we have far more sunlight than any of these countries "We could be the Saudi Arabia of solar thermal instead of the saudi arabia of coal and uranium."

Wright's report lands some heavy blows on the nuclear lobby, too:

"Compared to the 10 years it takes to get a nuclear plant up and running, solar thermal plants with 24-hour baseload capacity have construction times as short as nine months."

The report also backs up my position in reports I published in The City News based on my street-level observations of renewable energy I saw installed in China over the summer break. Solar hot water systems were everywhere, a glaring difference between Chinese and Australian roofscapes. I saw many residential developments (like the one pictured, in Pingyao) which were low-rise, offering plenty of roof space to install the units. Our high-rise model, I suspect, houses no more people per hectare but locks out the solar hot water option. I priced a household solar unit in Dali (a quote that took about 15 seconds with no common language involved except sign language and a calculator!) at around $400. Wright puts the price at "Under $500." The technology was invented in Australia, so why are we charged several times this price? Are you there, Kevin Rudd?

No, he's not. All the above has been endlessly broadcast by The Greens, those "irresponsible radicals". It's time the media stopped focusing on the meaningless Liberal/Labor debate and got real by comparing  those farcical deceptions to Greens' policies that are already reality in other more progressive countries.

Links to previous China Postcards in The City News: Drop the red Lanterns, It's the small things that add up.