Heresy: will “The Culture High” change the culture?

Sadly, I fear not.

I saw The Culture High last night (or at least most of it before leaving to catch the last train home) and was very impressed with all that makes a very good documentary; sense of purpose, clarity, humanity (very moving at times), facts, editing and pace. I also liked the audience; committed, honourable, informed, brave…and already converted to ending drug prohibition.

So, how many prohibitionists will sit through this two hour documentary and leave with a new burning desire to end the “War on Drugs”? Sadly, I fear not many.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s very important for documentaries of this quality to be made and seen as widely as possible but I must caution against an over-optimistic view that they will make a significant impact on the prohibitionist culture. The film itself argues that the drugs debate is often more informed by prejudice and self-justifying interpretation than the facts.

I believe that in order to convince those who support drug prohibition to change their minds we need to tell our story through compelling drama. Strong, believable characters can persuasively bring to life powerful tales of the damage caused by prohibition and the manifest benefits of change. Of course we need informed, credible voices speaking out for reform (and there were many in the documentary) but I believe we must also “show” not just “tell” why we need to change.

Although I’m not familiar with how such dramas are commissioned and produced, as a viewer I well understand the power of soaps, plays and films to engage the heart and influence the mind. Should we not try to persuade those actors, writers, film-makers and potential sponsors who support the need for reform to engage in such projects?

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A letter from the Chief Constable about drug policy

We won’t achieve change unless there is awareness of the need for change, understanding of the need to change and finally actions that deliver change. Something like this will need to be part of the process so I thought I’d have a go with this draft.

Policing Drugs in Any Constabulary – Doing What Works

Dear colleague,

You will be aware that I have made it clear that we should change the way we tackle the harms caused by drugs and the criminal markets that supply them. May I make two things clear now: I am not in favour of people harming themselves by taking substances, whether illegally or not, and I remain convinced we must change our approach.

I have the full confidence of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and many other public officials agree the need for change.

I hope this letter will help you play your part in developing more effective ways to reduce harmful drug use, and the crime and violence associated with drug supply.

“We need to do what works, not simply what we’ve always done.”

The PCC is setting new drug objectives for us. He will no longer regard more drug arrests and seizures as a measure of success (we will continue to monitor this activity) but look to outcomes such as reduced harmful drug use, reduced crime, violence and anti-social behaviour and increased referrals for treatment.

So, before using the criminal law to deal with a drug user ask yourself these questions:

Will this help the person I’m dealing with to improve their life? Will this help improve the lives of their families and friends? Will this help to improve the neighbourhood I police? Will it reduce crime in the longer term? Will it help reduce criminal profits from drug dealing?

If the answers are “No”, ask yourself why you are taking this action?

Here are some key reasons for change:

  1. Some drugs are more harmful than others and we should vary our approach accordingly.
  2. Not all drug users are the same.
  3. Some use less harmful drugs moderately with minimal, if any, harm caused, similar to moderate drinking. A criminal record is likely to cause them more harm than good.
  4. Some use drugs, often cannabis, to reduce the pain and suffering associated with conditions such as MS and Crohn’s disease and to tackle other serious conditions. To criminalise them seems to me to be a cruel and unnecessary use of our powers.
  5. Some users are dealing with traumatic incidents in their lives, (e.g. physical, emotional or sexual abuse) or mental illness or both. They need our support, not punishment.
  6. Many low level drug dealers are themselves problematic drug users. They also need our support, not punishment.
  7. Some problematic drug users are also prolific offenders. We should actively seek them out (not wait until they commit a crime) and offer support and treatment to help them change their lives and to reduce crime in the long term.
  8. Some problematic drug offenders engage in very antisocial behaviour and I understand that it’s hard to sympathise with them. But they are all somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father. I find it helps to think of them as the young, innocent children they once were; they didn’t intend to end up this way so let’s help them to overcome their difficulties, not make their situation worse.
  9. Overall, it costs less to treat and support drug users (if they need it) rather than to arrest and prosecute them.
  10. The less time we spend on non-problematic drug users the more we can spend on tackling serious and organised criminality.
  11. I am sure that we will see a change in the law and drugs will become legally controlled and regulated. Until then we must do all we can to tackle the harms caused by the drugs market; but remember this will not end the market, although it might provide temporary respite in a locality.
  12. I believe in enforcing the law; it is our duty, but I think it is helpful to distinguish between two different types of laws. Laws prohibiting crimes like assault and theft relate to actions that are clearly wrong in themselves. Laws prohibiting drug taking are like laws prohibiting religious observance or homosexuality; not wrong in themselves, just offences created according to current fashion.
  13. All drugs are more dangerous when their production and supply is in the hands of criminals.
  14. Law enforcement for over 40 years has not reduced drug use. Under prohibition drug use has increased massively. Criminals promote drug use in order to make huge profits from the illicit market. I don’t like that; I want to see that stop.
  15. Drug law enforcement is very expensive and because we have limited resources it means that we cannot spend enough time on other crimes such as thefts and assaults that cause real harm.

I need your help and support to develop new approaches for ourselves and for working with our partners. I will be organising opportunities for that to happen over the next few months.

Finally, carrying on the way we are is not an option.

“We Will Change – We Must Change”

Yours faithfully,

Chief Constable


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Does misunderstanding mean we’ll never agree?

I often find myself arguing with drug prohibitionists (no surprise there) and the conversations usually peter out without any real progress having been made on either side. I also find that prohibitionists usually cite the harms they say are caused by drug use as the main reason for continuing prohibition.

My view is very different because I put the harms caused by prohibition; avoidable death and disease, more dangerous drugs produced and supplied by criminals, crime, corruption, massive criminal profits, huge costs, damage to human rights, ostracism, criminal convictions, wasted law enforcement efforts, etc. alongside the potential harms of drug use.

Because I bear in mind the need to balance these factors, and I believe that is the morally sound position, I am content that after the end of prohibition a controlled and regulated system might result in some more users but, as that use would be much safer, overall harm would be less. (It is by no means certain that there will be more users, particularly if resources are diverted from law enforcement to honest education, successful prevention and social support.) In addition the harmful consequences of prohibition would be substantially reduced if not eliminated.

I do sometimes wonder whether my point of view is properly understood. If it isn’t I hope it will be, and if it is I look forward to a balanced debate that takes all parties further forward and away from the mess we’re in at the moment.

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Very draft Ed Miliband drug law reform speech

This is the Speech Ed Miliband should give as soon as possible. It’s very much a draft, written over a couple of hours in a very hot Valencia to honour a twitter promise. Deberia estar haciendo mis deberes Espanoles! (And if that’s wrong it only proves my point!)

Disclaimer: I believe drug law reform should be apolitical so this piece is not an endorsement of the Labout Party or a condemnation of any other party. I feel that it is better written as if it was being delivered by one of the leaders.

Ladies and gentlemen, today I am going to raise an issue that most politicians steer well clear of – drug law reform. I know, I know, you’ll think that I’m taking an unnecessary risk, that tomorrow’s newspapers will condemn me for being soft on drugs, soft on crime and probably soft on a few other things while they’re at it!

Well they can, and they’d be wrong, and I’m going to stick to my principles not bow to media hysteria that so often clouds this issue and discourages rational debate. This is a subject so important, so damaging to individuals, families, communities and the whole country that we must take a grown-up approach and examine the issues calmly, with evidence and firmness of purpose.
Let me tell you that, finally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is going to get a politician who is smart on drugs, smart on crime and willing to risk his reputation for the good of all the people in this great country of ours, the single, united, One Nation that I hold dear to my heart.

Let me explain why I am doing this and how I intend to achieve success.

Why? I want to reduce the harm caused by drug use, reduce crime, reduce criminal profits and reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and increase the fight against serious and organised crime and the support given to the vulnerable and disadvantaged who need support not punishment. For the economists amongst you, support is cheaper than punishment and more effective in improving health outcomes and reducing crime!

How? I will ask the government to set up a review of our drug policy and laws, inviting all interested parties, drug users, police, health and support workers, academics scientists, politicians and experts from all over the world to expose the myths and misinformation and promote the truth, and reliable evidence on this issue so that we can determine and deliver the changes we need.

No doubt there will be those who will ask for a solution now. I can’t give you that; if I could we wouldn’t be here now and we wouldn’t be facing this dreadful situation.

No, we need to take care to devise a new approach, grounded in sound evidence and practice, but incorporating new, bold thinking in order to deliver the best possible world, not the worst.
If, as I sadly and strongly suspect, this government will refuse to take its head out of the sand, refuse to acknowledge the real problems we face and refuse a review. This issue is bigger than party politics, but it needs a big, confident party to deliver the political change so we, the Labour Party, will conduct such a review ourselves.

We in the Labour Party can rightly and proudly claim to be the party that stands up for every honest citizen of this country, striving to create a better world of full employment, economic growth and strength, support for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, elimination of waste and the development of policies across the board that seek to solve our problems in the long term not just promise simplistic, superficial quick fixes, burying our heads in the sand as the problems get worse.

I have come to realise, and it’s been a difficult and challenging process, that our drug policy is not working. Alcohol prohibition, as we saw in America in the early part of the last century, led to a huge increase in crime and violence as ruthless, violent gangs fought for control of the illicit market, corrupting law enforcement officers, and endangering the lives of ordinary citizens. The alcohol produced was much more dangerous, with stronger drinks produced, transported fought over and consumed in order to maximise criminal profits.

After over 40 years of the modern so-called “war on drugs” we are seeing the same, not only in this country but world-wide. Criminals are making huge illicit profits, about $500 billion every year, up to £6 billion every year in this country. And not only that we are spending over £10 billion every year trying to stop that illegal trade. It might be worth it if we were succeeding, but we’re not. The amount of drugs produced, transported and consumed in the last 40 years or so has increased many, many times. From a few hundred heroin users we now have about a third of a million people in this country with serious problematic drug use.

This coalition government will say that drug use has fallen in recent years, and in the last few years for some drugs it has, for example heroin and cannabis. But this is not because of the so-called “war on drugs”; when cannabis was reclassified to Class B under Gordon Brown cannabis use continued to fall. We still have a massive drug problem in this country, now compounded by the prevalence of “legal highs”. The may be legal but they are, like all drugs supplied by the illicit market uncontrolled and unregulated. All drugs are more dangerous when their production and supply is in the hands of ruthless, violent criminals. We are deluding ourselves to think that we have any real control over who produces, supplies and uses drugs, the criminals decide all that, and we have no system of regulation to ensure strength and purity of those products, those drugs.

With alcohol, and I’d be the first to say we do not have a perfect system, we do at least have procedures in place so that we can be sure that what’s in that pint of beer, bottle of wine or, trying to be inclusive here, champagne flute or cocktail glass is what it says on the tin.
We have no such confidence in the strength or purity of drugs supplied by the criminal, or quasi-criminal “legal high” market. If nobody took drugs that would not present a problem. The fact is, sadly, people do take drugs. Our system of prohibition actually makes it more dangerous for people who take drugs while at the same time enriching criminals who use their ill-gotten gains to corrupt, fund violence and undermine legitimate business and political systems.

Now I know some of you will say “they decided to take drugs so it’s their problem, just leave them to get on with it and take their chances.” I can understand that view but I am concerned that it will not help us. Most people do not consume potentially harmful substances to excess as most people have no need as they live relatively happy and fulfilled lives. But there are those amongst us who have suffered appalling experiences as children, physical, emotional or sexual abuse and they have made bad choices. If they are now problematic drug users, I include alcohol abuse, surely they need our support to help overcome their difficulties, not expensive and often counter-productive punishment? Isn’t that thinking, caring for others in need that underpins the values and aspirations of our Labour Party? It actually makes economic sense for us to spend less money on support, with the prospect of the individual becoming a valued and productive member of society than spending much more on imprisonment and tackling the criminality that arises from the illicit drugs market.

Earlier I referred to the so-called “War on Drugs”. I think of it now as a “War on People”. Hundreds of thousands have been through our prisons, at great expense and little benefit, and ordinary people’s lives have been blighted by the aggression and violence of the drug gangs devastating their communities. Thousands of individuals, our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers have died from accidental overdoses, diseases and the other harms associated with the criminalisation, ostracism and persecution inherent in drug prohibition.
It seems to be the worst of all possible worlds.

Now, will change makes things worse? Will drug use go up, will criminals do something else equally harmful and will there be other unforeseen harmful consequences? On the available evidence I don’t think so but that is what the review will determine. That’s why we are not prejudging or jumping to easy early conclusions.

If we decide that more problems would be created than solved by change, then we won’t change and just have to accept that this is as good as it’s going to get. Frankly I don’t think that will happen but I do have an open mind.

Some will argue for more law enforcement, some less. Some will argue for more health support, some less. Some will argue for more education, some less. The review I propose will invite evidence and reasoned opinion from all sides and incorporate all views into what will be a rational whole.

Now, let’s return to politics and the need for the Labour Party to be returned to government for the sake of this country that we love. Have I damaged our chances by venturing into this minefield? No, I don’t believe I have.

In all areas of policy we seek to improve, not deliver perfection. Any new system for controlling and regulating drugs will have flaws; but if we applied the test of perfection to every change we proposed we would never see any change or any improvements. And we know we have delivered great improvements to this country – look at our record.

I believe the British public will understand the need for a careful, considered look at our drug policies and laws, respect us for our approach and admire us for our strength of character and purpose.

To put it simply I believe they’ll vote for us!

Thank you.

Tom Lloyd
20 July 2014

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Is Learn About Sam interested in learning?

Having read this blog on the Learn About SAM website I posted two comments responding to their invitation to “Join the discussion”:

1. Please note: “the study does not determine cause and effect relationships” and what is the total number of fatal collisions; has it gone up, down or remained the same?

2. You should read this objective account

I posted them on the 2nd June and again on the 5th. My comments were, briefly, “awaiting moderation” but never appeared.

Perhaps I’m not surprised that anything not “on message” is unlikely to appear on that website, but I am encouraged to learn (unlike them!) that they lack the confidence in their own cause to expose it to legitimate challenge.

I hesitate to invoke the words of a divisive figure but “Frightened! Frit!” come to mind.

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Smart on Drugs

It is very easy for drug prohibitionists to call drug law reformers “soft on drugs”. This appellation evokes thoughts of weakness, lack of resolve or direction and giving up in the face of a difficult problem. Being “hard on drugs” conjures up images of a mighty struggle against a fearsome enemy, and facing up to adversity with strength, resolve and a certain amount of heroic self-sacrifice. Admirable traits.

No wonder politicians like to present themselves as being hard on drugs; and no wonder most people are concerned about, and reject, a soft approach.

We need to change the language, to choose a different terrain on which to stand, to describe our position truthfully and convincingly.

We need to talk about being “smart on drugs”. People are much more likely actively to consider the choice between “hard on drugs” and “smart on drugs” without automatically dismissing the latter. It’s much easier to choose the smart option, involving thoughtfulness in the face of a seemingly intractable problem, the application of reason, the consideration of all options, managing resources more effectively in a time of restraint and actually doing something that might work.



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A Police and Crime Commissioner’s Dilemma

A member of the public is frustrated by the lack or inadequacy of a police response to an incident and tweets a request for help to their PCC; so far so good and perfectly understandable. The PCC clearly wants to help their constituent and retweets to senior police commanders asking for a response; again at first glance this seems to be a perfectly reasonable response. PCCs were created to give the public a say in how they are policed, and responding to incidents is evidently a major factor in delivering a policing service.

I would argue that this is, in fact, a troubling interference in operational policing, clearly outside the remit of the PCC, and will generate an unintended harmful consequence.

The police receive many calls for service, covering a huge range of different issues, requiring carefully judged responses in terms of timing and resources. Sometimes an immediate response is appropriate, sometimes it’s best to wait and see and on other occasions no more than a reassuring phone call or visit in due course is required. In all cases there is a decision to be made about whether committing resources to an incident will have an impact on other policing duties. This is a difficult balance to achieve, and properly tests the ability of police control room staff (and senior officers as needed) to get it as right as possible.

There are never enough resources to do everything so some requests for service will be delayed or dealt with unsatisfactorily in the eyes of the citizens and, for that matter, from the perspective of the police. Difficult decisions have to be made, and are made impartially in the light of urgency, seriousness and availability of resources, not according to who makes the request.

A real-time request for a police response made by the PCC must be seen as an attempt, albeit well-intentioned, to interfere in this decision-making process; in other words in operational policing.

Not only is this not a matter for the PCC such action will probably have the effect of encouraging members of the public to direct their calls for service via. the PCC (as well as the normal routes). Will those citizens with access to Twitter accounts be able to “jump the queue” and receive a preferential service? Obviously the police can simply ignore the request from the PCC (who has the ability to fire the Chief Constable, remember) or change operational priorities on the basis of influence not evidence.

So, either the PCC’s requests for response are met by the police, thus interfering with operational decision-making and encouraging further such interventions, or the requests are ignored in which case the request was no more than an empty gesture and may lead to further disappointment.

I suggest that an appropriate response from a PCC to a citizen making a request for an immediate police response is to advise that this is an operational matter not within the remit of the PCC.  It would be legitimate to reassure that the PCC will review the overall strategic approach to calls for service with the Chief Constable at their next meeting.

Have I got this right?

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