Friday, 29 October 2010

Drug Policy Harm Part Three: The Failure to Regulate

Continued from ... Drug Policy Harm Part Two: Misrepresenting Harms

Prohibition – Generating Harms

If we look at other aspects of prohibition we see the generation of significant violence and harms.  The MDA makes all consumers criminals. A third of the population admits drug use in the British Crime Survey. (Hoare and Flately 2008:5) Of course all these people are not subjected to criminal justice intervention, the system simply couldn’t cope, but all of them are liable to arrest, a criminal record and imprisonment. Events that could have a dramatic bearing on their lives. Jobs and homes are lost regularly by consumers who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  The impact of this is not spread evenly across the community. I have not been able to calculate the racial profile in the UK but figure 5 below shows how this process plays out for African-Americans.
Figure 5 (Source Jones et al 2005:13)
The war in drugs was launched by Richard Nixon. His Chief of Staff recorded in his diary, that Nixon had ‘emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognises this while not appearing to.’ Halderman 1994:53) The war on drugs has proved to be such a system.

The inequality generated by the selective enforcement of drug prohibition in Britain urgently requires detailed research. The Home Office was required to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on their new drugs strategy in 2007. The first section of the assessment, titled Preliminary Screening, includes the question: ‘Could the aims of the policy be in conflict with equal opportunity, elimination of discrimination, promotion of good relations?‘ (Home Office 2008) To which the Home Office replied ‘NO’. This and the document in general demonstrate contempt for equality, which is reduced to a form filling exercise cynically ignoring a considerable body of evidence of inequality generated by the war on drugs.

The illegality of substances does not just impact on crime by criminalising their consumers. It has much wider impacts both within the UK and internationally and generates dramatic levels of harm. Central to this generation of crime and violence is prohibition, which in terms of policy, places the entire market, production, distribution, wholesale and retail, into the hands of organised crime. The illegal drug market is a state sponsored, tax free monopoly for criminals. The consequences of this are dramatic; however because of limited space I will restrict myself to a few examples

1.    Generation of acquisitive crime

Figure 6 below shows the cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003. Having a Cocaine or heroin habit is expensive, raising £300, £400 or even £500 a week is impossible for most people through legal means. They resort to crime. The Strategy Unit estimated that 56% of the total number of crimes; some thirty six million crimes, are ‘drug-motivated crimes’ committed by drug users. (SU Drugs Project 2003:22) This is illustrated in Figure 7, again copied from the Strategy unit report to the cabinet.

Figure 6 (Source: SU Drugs Project 2003:12)

Figure 7 (Source: SU Drugs Project 2003:22)
Home Office Research has estimated that drug-motivated crime in total costs victims just under ten billion pounds per year and the economic costs to the community of the average ‘problematic drug user’ is in excess of £44,000. (Gordon et al 2006:44 & 41) In this market, unregulated prices emerge which lead to increased crime. The government’s own analysis finds that over half of all crime and victimisation are linked to behaviours generated by the economics of this market - which the government chooses not to regulate.

2. Prostitution of drug users

For many women and girls and a few men and boys, fundraising is achieved not through acquisitive crime but by prostituting themselves. Research carried out for the Home Office has shown that the drug and sex markets are intrinsically linked. (Hunter and May 2004) The same factors detailed above for acquisitive crime drive adults and children into prostitution. The Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment makes no mention of the contribution of drugs policy in generating supply within prostitution nor does it acknowledge the gendered status of prostitution. (Home Office 2008)

3. Generation of Violence

In a review of economists’ contribution to the study of crime, Dills et al (2008:3) concluded that ‘economists know little about the empirically relevant determinants of crime.’ Applying various hypotheses on subjects as varied as arrest rates, capital punishment, gun laws and abortion rates, to an examination of aggregate data over long time periods and across countries exposed the various theories as wanting. However, they did ‘find one theory that is consistent with the aggregate time series and cross-country data on crime: the view that enforcement of drug prohibition encourages violent dispute resolution.’ (Ibid:22) Drug markets operate outside the law and have no recourse to legal procedure to resolve disputes. Drug dealers use violence to collect debts, they use violence to resolve disputes between themselves and they use violence to resist law enforcement efforts. Prohibition makes violence a cost effective business strategy. It introduces guns and knives on to our streets as routine business tools. Sometimes the state responds with violence. China celebrated UN world anti-drugs day in 2002 with the mass execution of 64 drug offenders. (Rolles et al 2006) Thailand’s security services murdered almost two and half thousand alleged drug dealers in just three months, in pursuit of the war on drugs. (Human Rights Watch 2004) Even lawful criminal justice responses generate perverse outcomes. As Sanho Tree has argued, law enforcement operates as a Darwinian natural selector removing less ruthless and less violent market participants. (Tree 2007) Over time law enforcement has driven out the non violent hippys like Howard Marks and replaced them with brutal, callous and vicious gangsters. (Marks 1996, Glenny 2008) The violence of the market raises prices; Caulkins & Reuter (1998) estimate that 33 per cent of the retail price of cocaine is paid to compensate dealers for their risk of death or injury. This in turn increases the fundraising requirements of problematic users, thus increasing crime and its associated victimisation.

4. Destabilisation of producer and transit countries

As well as generating considerable levels of violence in consumer countries like the UK the drug business has a far more dramatic impact on producer and transit nations. In Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia nations have been destabilised as a direct consequence of the so called war on drugs. Last year Michael Schulenburg, the UN Mission Chief in Sierra Leone observed ‘that the exposure to the international drug trade is the single biggest risk affecting the future of Sierra Leone’. (Reuters 2008) Guinea-Bissau has seen both its President and army chief murdered this year, killings directly linked to the country’s status as a transit country for the cocaine trade. (McGreal 2009) Internationally the war on drugs has subjected many poor nations to wave after wave of violence.

Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Four: The legal harms

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Drug Policy Harm Part Two: Misrepresenting Harms

Continued from Drug Policy Harm Part One: Social Harm Theory -v- Criminology

The Myth of the Misuse of Drugs Act and Harm

The prohibition of certain classes of drugs is a policy decision which has cross-party consensus with both the last Labour and the current Conservative/Liberal Democratic Governments supporting this arrangement and indeed keen to include any new drugs that emerge on the market.  The core piece of legislation underpinning this policy is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) which seeks to control specific drugs through criminal justice interventions based on the scientific classification of their harms. (Jason-Lloyd 2007) Although harm appears to be an established component of this regime this is an illusion than needs exposing. To do this I want to highlight the work of David Nutt, an eminent scientist and former chair of the scientific committee, established by the MDA, to advise the Home Secretary on drug policy.

Nutt (2009:4) raises ‘the critical question of why society tolerates –indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others’, highlighting the comparative risks of ecstasy and alcohol, ecstasy and horse riding and the relative harms of legal and illegal drugs. (Nutt 2006, 2009 & Nutt et al 2007) In figure 1 below Nutt (2006:316) compares the relative harms of the two E drugs, ethanol, better known as alcohol, and ecstasy and his figures make clear that the harms caused by alcohol are dramatically greater than ecstasy. 
Figure 1 (Source: Nutt 2006:316)
In fact what is clear from this is how much harm alcohol causes; twenty two thousand premature deaths, one thousand five hundred road traffic deaths and over 10,000 cases of interpersonal violence per annum, and how little harm is caused by ecstasy. Yet earlier in 2009 the government choose to retain ecstasy’s classification as a class A drug under the MDA. (Home Office 2009, ACMD 2009)

In an interesting analysis Nutt et al (2007) attempted to incorporate both legal and illegal drugs in a single hierarchy of harm. The results, published in the Lancet and shown in figure 2 below, clearly demonstrate the lack of any clear correlation between a drug’s harm and it’s classification under the MDA. Methodologically this study is not unproblematic and remains trapped in the paradigm of prohibition. For example, considering the most harmful drug, heroin, it fails to separate those harms intrinsic to it as a chemical substance and those harms that are generated by its legal status. (TDPF 2009:12-13) Hopefully this exercise will be repeated with the harms directly attributable to prohibition disaggregated. Would illegal street heroin have exactly the same level of risk of harm as prescribed heroin?

Figure 2 (Source Nutt et al 2007:1050)
 In an editorial in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Nutt returned to comparisons of the relative harm of two ‘e’s, this time Ecstasy and Equasy (Equine Addiction Syndrome). Figure 3 below summarises his results. The legitimacy of his comparison of their respective harms generated a strong backlash with, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, declaring that she was  ‘sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking.’ (BBC 2009) 
Figure 3 (Source: Nutt  2009:4)

Melanie Phillips (2009) commenting on Nutt’s paper declared ‘The only reason there are not many more deaths from ecstasy is that unlike horse riding, it is illegal.’ In fact the relationship between ecstasy’s illegality and fatalities associated with use are more complex. Its illegality removes the opportunity for any quality controls, it has led to moral panics, misinformation and has potentially impacted on levels of consumption. Lack of quality control means the consumer has no reliable information about ingredients and this lack of regulation leaves the control of the exact composition of the product retailed, and the health and welfare of consumers in the hands of organised crime. Moral panics over ecstasy have undoubtedly created harm; Leah Betts, the iconic ecstasy victim, died from water intoxication, consumed on the misunderstanding promoted by the press that vast quantities of water were the antidote to ecstasy. (Joseph 2000:91) Illegality therefore certainly increases the risk of death but does it deter use, thereby reducing the risk as well?

The Home Office claims that ‘(d)rugs are controlled because they are harmful. The law provides an important deterrent to drug use and legalisation would risk a huge increase in consumption’; though they provide no evidence to support their assertion. (Easton 2009) The Number Ten Strategy Unit, whose confidential report on drug policy to the cabinet in 2003 was leaked to the Guardian, concluded that ‘attempts to intervene have not resulted in sustainable disruption to the market at any level.’ (SU Drugs Project 2003:104) This conclusion was backed up by the UK Drug Policy Commission whose research concluded that ‘seizures and enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability, purity and price of illicit drugs in the UK ‘ and that ‘(s)ince 2000, average street prices in the UK have fallen consistently for heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis.’ (Mc Sweeny et al 2008:48 & 40)

Figure 4 below is reproduced directly from the Number 10 Strategy Unit’s report to the Cabinet. It demonstrates how effectively use of Heroin has been controlled since the introduction of the MDA. Illegal drugs are today widely available, at historically low prices, suggesting that prohibition has neither reduced supply nor demand, both of which have actually grown dramatically over the last forty years. Whatever their ambitions it is clear that the MDA and the prohibitionist paradigm in which it operates have not reduced harms.

Figure 4 (Source: SU Drugs Project 2003:38)
The lighter columns are addicts notified to the Home Office, and the darker columns from 1997 when the HO notification system was shelved, are numbers in treatment.

Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Three: The Failure to Regulate

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Drug Policy Harm Part One: Social Harm Theory -v- Criminology

This post is based on a paper I delivered at the University of Wales, Newport in 2009.  I am delivering a modified version at the University of Bath this Friday.

The Elephant in the Room: Drug and Alcohol Policy as Generators of Violence and other Social Harms

The wide-scale use and abuse of legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco inflicts far more harm on individuals and society than illicit drugs … We need a calm non-sensational approach to policy development in this area and one which places these serious problems in context. (Labour Party (1991) Drugs: A Consultation Document)
Things have gone from bad to worse; there is no possibility of an honest discussion now. Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet and calls for a rational consideration of the drug laws gets it shot off and kicked around by a horde of lunatics (Austin Mitchell, Labour M.P. 10 Feb. 2009 cited in Howker 2009)
This paper seeks to do two things. Firstly to introduce an emerging theoretical paradigm, social harm theory, which seeks to refocus our attention from behaviours defined as 'crime' to a wider set of behaviours, those that generate harm. Secondly it seeks to rethink the issues of alcohol and drug harms and violence by incorporating those caused by state policy alongside those generated by individual consumers, producers and suppliers of currently illegal drugs and alcohol.

My conclusion is that violence and other social harms associated with illicit drugs and alcohol could be dramatically reduced. However this reduction will not be achieved through a focus on the individual user or indeed on drug and alcohol services. Such initiatives, whilst undoubtedly making significant positive contributions to the lives of individual problematic consumers, are effectively swimming against the tide of avoidable violence and other harms generated by existing policy. Reducing violence and other social harms associated with both legal and illegal drugs requires the government to accept its responsibility for public health and to implement an effective framework to regulate all drugs.

Social Harm Theory

Criminology focuses on crime, the criminal and the resolution of problems through the criminal justice system. However, the events and actors we label crimes and criminals operate in a wider context that criminology often ignores. As Carol Smart (1990:77) has observed, the great weakness of criminology is that it:
cannot locate rape or child sexual abuse in the domain of sexuality or theft in the domain of economic activity or drug use in the domain of health. To do so … would involve abandoning the idea of a unified problem which requires a unified response.
This limitation has inspired the development of a social harm perspective which seeks ‘to move beyond the narrow confines of criminology, with its focus on harms defined by whether or not they constitute a crime’ and instead calls for ‘(a)ll forms of harms’ to be ‘considered and analysed together.’ (Hillyard et al 2004:1,2) We are all vulnerable to a wide range of social harms throughout our life course and social harm theory argues that to separate out crimes from other harms considered ‘outcomes of the market economy, … accidents or mistakes’ creates ‘a very distorted view of the world’. (Ibid:1,2) Social Harm approaches lead away from a focus on individual blame and towards policy responses designed to minimise future harms. (Dorling et al 2008)

Social harm theory rejects the boundaries of criminology and the exclusive focus on crime and criminals. It seeks to place crime in the context of other harms, an approach which allows us to respond to the totality of harms generated by a particular problem. For example it allows us in the case of alcohol to consider the harms generated by deregulation alongside the harms caused by the individual drunk and the harms suffered by the solitary middle aged heavy drinker in the quiet of his own home alongside the harms caused by the drunken teenager disturbing the peace of her local community. Social harm theory seeks to embrace not only physical harms but also financial/economic, emotional and psychological harms. (Hillyard & Tombs 2008:15)

Simon Pemberton (2007:33-36) has highlighted the potential of the social harm perspective to explain the failure of criminal justice policies and generate the space for alternative social policies which, freed from the rhetoric of law and order, can genuinely reduce the harm communities experience. Relating this paradigm to alcohol and unlawful drugs provides the opportunity of exploring the impact of these substances within a much wider perspective than criminology offers. It enables us to give equal consideration to legal and illegal acts, explore individual, corporate and state behaviours and to measure the harms directly associated with the drugs alongside the harms generated by failures to control and regulate their market places.  Most significantly for this talk it allows us to look at all drugs, both legal and illegal, within the same paradigm.

Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Two: Misrepresenting Harms

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Statistics - Do they just make them up? Part Two

Searching for material for my teaching I came across a BBC Radio Four programme A Baby ASBO first broadcast in 2009. About five minutes into the programme a new initiative aimed at Primary School Children called Growing Against Gangs is introduced. The programme ran by an organisation called Gang Resistance Education and Training and is adapted from a similar scheme in the United States. The programme involves police officers delivering lessons to primary school children. In this programme we hear PC Emma Hart "teaching" some young children. She tells the children she is "going to through some facts" with them. She checks that they understand what facts are before telling them:
Most gang members make very little money ... 95% of drug dealers are working for less than the minimum wage you could earn at McDonalds ...
What PC Hart fails to tell the children that her "fact" is based on a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2000 by Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh An Economic Analysis of a Drug Selling Gang's Finances. The paper is based on data collected by Venkatesh on a Chicago gang in the mid 1980s whose activities included dealing crack.  In fact the paper although showing that the rewards for drug dealing were very much concentrated at the higher levels had concluded that average rewards were better than the participants would have gained in legitimate occupations. However these rewards were not sufficiently high as to justify the risks involved in gang activity. The activity could be better explained they argued by gang members hopes of high future earnings (when and if they made it higher up the drug dealing ladder) rather than current earnings.

This research has featured in Levitt's best selling Freakonomics and Venkatesh's Gangleader for a Day and have become generalised both in terms of all drug dealers and all places.  Although I am not a great fan of either book at least reading them meant I could spot the dodgy source being used by PC Hart as having established that the children knew what a fact was then provided them with at best spin, at worse a lie.  The sad news is I only heard it on the radio and was not present to point out to the kids the dangers of trusting what a police officer tells them.  A valuable lesson in Lambeth!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Statistics - Do they just make them up? Part One

One of the advantages of spending an unhealthy proportion of your life absorbing information about the criminal justice system is you can often spot the origins of statistics that appear out of no way.  Two examples:

Yesterday the Government issued a press release announcing "Government is tackling homelessness to stop the revolving door of re-offending".  Reading through this rather poor attempt to spin (failing) policies inherited from the previous Government I came across this claim:
Getting ex-prisoners into stable homes could reduce re-offending rates by as much as a fifth.

This claim normally phrased as "almost 20 per cent" can be found in almost any document about the accommodation of homeless ex-prisoners. But where does it come from? 

Whilst in the last 5 or 6 years I have never seen this claim referenced it was footnoted in the 2004 Home Office publication "Reducing Re-offending: National Action Plan" which identified the source as
HO OAsys pilot study, 2001 (unpublished). Data only covered 1 year after release and studied those with severe accommodation problems.
So a small unrepresentative survey, not worth publishing, is nearly ten years later the evidence base that is being relied upon.

Even more interesting is that whilst there is considerable evidence that housing is a key factor in allowing ex-prisoners to escape the criminal justice system the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have not commissioned the research to provide an adequate evidence base on which to base policy.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

John Pilger - Chile's Ghosts are not being Rescued

In his latest column for the New Statesman, written as the 33 Chilean miners are brought to the surface after ther epic rescue, John Pilger describes the unspoken life in Chile behind the media facade that the government of President Sebastion Pinera has skilfully exploited.

The rescue of 33 miners in Chile is an extraordinary drama filled with pathos and heroism. It is also a media windfall for the Chilean government, whose every beneficence is recorded by a forest of cameras. One cannot fail to be impressed. However, like all great media events, it is a façade.

The accident that trapped the miners is not unusual in Chile and the inevitable consequence of a ruthless economic system that has barely changed since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Copper is Chile’s gold, and the frequency of mining disasters keeps pace with prices and profits. There are, on average, 39 fatal accidents every year in Chile’s privatised mines. The San Jose mine, where the men work, became so unsafe in 2007 it had to be closed – but not for long. On 30 July last, a labour department report warned again of “serious safety deficiencies ”, but the minister took no action. Six days later, the men were entombed.

For all the media circus at the rescue site, contemporary Chile is a country of the unspoken. At the Villa Grimaldi, in the suburbs of the capital Santiago, a sign says: “The forgotten past is full of memory.” This was the torture centre where hundreds of people were murdered and disappeared for opposing the fascism that General Augusto Pinochet and his business allies brought to Chile. Its ghostly presence is overseen by the beauty of the Andes, and the man who unlocks the gate used to live nearby and remembers the screams.

I was taken there one wintry morning in 2006 by Sara De Witt, who was imprisoned as a student activist and now lives in London. She was electrocuted and beaten, yet survived. Later, we drove to the home of Salvador Allende, the great democrat and reformer who perished when Pinochet seized power on 11 September 1973 – Latin America’s own 9/11. His house is a silent white building without a sign or a plaque.

Everywhere, it seems, Allende’s name has been eliminated. Only in the lone memorial in the cemetery are the words engraved “Presidente de la Republica” as part of a remembrance of the “ejecutados Politicos”: those “executed for political reasons”. Allende died by his own hand as Pinochet bombed the presidential palace with British planes as the American ambassador watched.

Today, Chile is a democracy, though many would dispute that, notably those in the barrios forced to scavenge for food and steal electricity. In 1990, Pinochet bequeathed a constitutionally compromised system as a condition of his retirement and the military’s withdrawal to the political shadows. This ensures that the broadly reformist parties, known as Concertacion, are permanently divided or drawn into legitimising the economic designs of the heirs of the dictator. At the last election, the right-wing Coalition for Change, the creation of Pinochet’s ideologue Jaime Guzman, took power under president Sebastian Piñera. The bloody extinction of true democracy that began with the death of Allende was, by stealth, complete.

Piñera is a billionaire who controls a slice of the mining, energy and retail industries. He made his fortune in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup and during the free-market “experiments” of the zealots from the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago Boys. His brother and former business partner, Jose Piñera, a labour minister under Pinochet, privatised mining and state pensions and all but destroyed the trade unions. This was applauded in Washington as an “economic miracle”, a model of the new cult of neo-liberalism that would sweep the continent and ensure control from the north.

Today Chile is critical to President Barack Obama’s rollback of the independent democracies in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Piñera’s closest ally is Washington’s main man, Juan Manuel Santos, the new president of Colombia, home to seven US bases and an infamous human rights record familiar to Chileans who suffered under Pinochet’s terror.

Post-Pinochet Chile has kept its own enduring abuses in shadow. The families still attempting to recover from the torture or disappearance of a loved bear the prejudice of the state and employers. Those not silent are the Mapuche people, the only indigenous nation the Spanish conquistadors could not defeat. In the late 19th century, the European settlers of an independent Chile waged their racist War of Extermination against the Mapuche who were left as impoverished outsiders. During Allende’s thousand days in power this began to change. Some Mapuche lands were returned and a debt of justice was recognised.

Since then, a vicious, largely unreported war has been waged against the Mapuche. Forestry corporations have been allowed to take their land, and their resistance has been met with murders, disappearances and arbitrary prosecutions under “anti terrorism” laws enacted by the dictatorship. In their campaigns of civil disobedience, none of the Mapuche has harmed anyone. The mere accusation of a landowner or businessman that the Mapuche “might” trespass on their own ancestral lands is often enough for the police to charge them with offences that lead to Kafkaesque trials with faceless witnesses and prison sentences of up to 20 years. They are, in effect, political prisoners.

While the world rejoices at the spectacle of the miners’ rescue, 38 Mapuche hunger strikers have not been news. They are demanding an end to the Pinochet laws used against them, such as “terrorist arson”, and the justice of a real democracy. On 9 October, all but one of the hunger strikers ended their protest after 90 days without food. A young Mapuche, Luis Marileo, says he will go on. On 18 October, President Piñera is due to give a lecture on “current events” at the London School of Economics. He should be reminded of their ordeal and why.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Some photos from my trip to Mytilene

Last month I spent a week at the European group's conference in Mytilene. A few pictures to remind myself of the place before my memories are totally buried under the new terms teaching!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

H3 now available through Amazon

I first saw H3 when I attended the European Group Conference in Belfast in 2005. As I recorded at the time
Next stop was the Conway Mill community centre where we got to see H3 a film about the hunger strikes in the early 1980's when Bobby Sands MP, and nine of his comrades died in a protest at the removal of political prisoner status. I am normally good at controlling my emotions but I found this film overwhelmingly powerful. At times I was unable to watch the screen and like many others ended the film with red eyes. But before I could recover we were introduced to the films writer Lawrence McKeown, and Seanna Walsh. Lawrence McKeown had been the eleventh hunger striker, and in a coma, when the action was called off. For years IRA statements have been issued in the name of P O'Neil, but the recent announcement of the end of the armed struggle had a human face, Seanna Walsh, a former cellmate of Bobby Sands, had made it. Yet again we were involved in dialogue with major actors. Listening to their stories and their responses to challenging questions from conference participants from across Europe was a real privilege. We then had the best food of the conference, cheap wine, passionate debate, local music and a late night.
When I got back to the UK I tried to get a copy without any luck eventually buying my copy through a Northern Irish political group.  I was pleased to notice recently that it is now available through Amazon at £5.99 including postage.  A strongly recommended viewing