If you’re a regular visitor to the Ministry then you’ll already know what to expect, but if not then take my advice, grab yourself a nice hot cup of coffee (and maybe even a sandwich) and settle down because this is going to be one of those posts where I really go for it…
…in fact this may well prove to be the longest post I’ve ever written at the Ministry because, starting from just one article in the Independent, I’m going to take a crack a demonstrating precisely where and how the government of the United Kingdom has been systematically and consistent lying to the British people for more than forty years, how this lie has been sustained with the active support and collusion of the press and exactly how this has been done and the kind of tricks that the press use, and have been consistently using, to promote this particular lie without the vast majority of people ever becoming aware of the fact that they’re being lied to and manipulated.
So, continuing with the general theme started in my first post of the new year (Different Year, Same Old Shit) it seems that we’re about to be subjected to yet another futile exercise in evidence-free policy making courtesy of the Home Office:
An independent committee that advises ministers on drug classification is poised to recommend the controversial downgrading of ecstasy to a class B drug. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is expected to call for ecstasy, a drug blamed for the deaths of at least 30 people a year, to be changed from its top-rated class A category when it reports later this month. The proposal will bring the council into direct conflict with the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith (below), who is expected to veto any such move, and propel the Government into a row over its treatment of expert bodies charged with advising ministers on key issues. The controversy comes just months after the Home Office ignored ACMD opposition to the decision to move cannabis from class C to class B.
Admittedly, this is hardly an innovative story, as the reference to last year’s row over the classification of cannabis indicates. Most of what passes for official policy on drugs, not just in the UK but globally, bears little or no relationship to the actual health risks associated with particular drugs, which is why supplying adults with the two drugs which play some part in the largest number of deaths on a year-in, year-out basis, tobacco (an estimated 500,000+ deaths annually) and alcohol (200,000+ deaths), is perfectly legal, while supplying ecstasy, which is implicated in less than 50 deaths a year carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. When you put in those terms and compare the annual number of deaths associated with particular drug (legal and non-legal) its impossible not to think that there’s something altogether a bit perverse about a system which generates billions of pounds in sales (and tax) revenues from the use of drugs which actively contribute to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year while, at the same time, outlawing other drugs which, at most, account for 30-50 deaths a year. It just doesn’t seem rational – and it isn’t.
Making A Hash of the UK’s Drugs Policy
In 2006, what was then the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (which has, since 2007/8 been replaced by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee) carried out a review of the UK’s system of (illegal) drug classification, releasing, in July 2006, a report entitled, with no small measure of unexpected humour, ‘Drug Classification: Making A Hash Of It?‘ (PDF).
The UK’s current ABC drug classification system was, as the report explains, introduced in the early 70’s by the Misuse and Drugs Act 1971, which was also responsible for the creation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The ABC system was, according to a government memorandum to the committee, was “designed to make it possible to control particular drugs according to their comparative harmfulness either to individuals or to society at large when they were misused”. Although a schedule to the 1971 Act assigned a wide variety of drugs to specific classes, the Act, itself, provided no clear rationale for these assignments but it did set up the ACMD to keep the classification system under regular review and advise the government if and when evidence indicated that a previous uncontrolled drug should be added to list of ‘controlled substances’ or the if it considered that the classification of particular drug should be altered.
For the most part, since 1971, changes to the list of controlled substances have entailed either the addition of drugs to the list (ketamine, GHB, anabolic steroids) or the reclassification of drug upwards as its use became more widespread and any problems associated with their use became more apparent. Only very rarely has a situation arise in which its been recommended that a drug should be reclassified downwards, but in 2002, cannabis was downgraded to a class C drug, lower the maximum sentences open to the courts when dealing with cases of possession and/or supply of the drug, and its this decision that really sparked off the current ongoing debate surrounding drug classification in the UK.
Before pressing on (and we’ll be returning to some of the content of the report later on) its important to understand that not only did the 1971 Act not provide any kind of rationale for its assignment of particular drugs to particular classes but it also didn’t specify the basis on which the harm associated with a particular drug should be assessed, even though this is supposed to be the overriding premise on which drugs should be classified under the ABC system nor provide any kind of framework from making such assessments. However, as the report notes, the context under which the 1971 Act was drafted and enacted – at the time the UN were seeking to establish global Convention on Psychotropic Substance (which was ratified in 1971) – did heavily influence the development of the Act, to the extent that the House of Commons were clearly informed that drugs would be classified “according to the accepted dangers and harmfulness in light of current knowledge”, with the system allowing “for changes to be made in […] the light of scientific knowledge”.
At the outset, therefore, it appears that the intent of the government, and of the parliament which passed the Act into law, was that decisions on classification, and [implicitly] on drugs policy, generally, would be made objectively and founded, to a significant extent, on the available evidence at the time – all which sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach to take, in principle, but in practice things didn’t quite live up to the government’s intentions…
…and by far the best example of how things didn’t quite go to plan is to be found in the real history of heroin use in the UK over the last 40 years or so.
The Real Story of Heroin Addiction in the UK
In his book, Flat Earth News (and on his website), Nick Davis gives an illuminating overview of the history and politics of of heroin use and abuse in the UK, one that I’ll do my best to reproduce here without making too many omissions or over-elaborating the story.
So, to start at the beginning, in the 1960’s, the UK’s population of habitual heroin users numbered no more than a few hundred users, the majority of whom were to be found living in and around the South-side of Shaftesbury Avenue; what was (and still is) London’s Chinatown. Most addicts were either Chinese or musicians from within London’s Jazz scene, and surprising as it might seem, today, there was no real black market in heroin at the time for the simple reason that most, if not all of this small ‘community’ of users obtained their supply of heroin on prescription from registered medical practitioners, who were allowed to prescribe heroin, at pure pharmaceutical grade, for the welfare of their patients. This reflected the opinions of the Rolleston Committee of 1926, which considered drug addiction to be a problem requiring help rather than a sin deserving punishment.
At this point we need to dispell what is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the use of heroin. While it is an incredibly addicative drug it is also, in reality, a very safe drug to use provided you know two important things, the purity of the drug you’ve been supplied and your own tolerance for it. If you know those two things then its actually very difficult to overdose on heroin unless you’re doing it deliberately and even amongst today’s chaotic heroin users one of the main, if not the main cause of death by heroin overdose stems from a sudden change in the grade of heroin available on the black market. A single batch of unusually pure heroin entering the black market is more or less guaranteed to result in a marked increase in the number of users dying of an overdose simply because users take what they think is their usual amount of the drug only to discover, far too late, that they’ve vastly exceeding their normal tolerance for the drug because their latest fix was at a considerable higher grade than their usual supply.
So, up until the 1960’s, the UK took a throughly enlightened view of heroin addiction, predicated on Rolleston, and very effectively controlled its use, but then the general consensus surrounding this policy of ‘policing and prescribing’ started to break down in the early 60s, during which period the numbers of regular uses began to double every 16 months or so and was dealt a major blow when three London doctors were arrested for selling inflated heroin prescriptions, spawning a media-driven moral panic which, under growing pressure from prohibitionists, prompted the government of the time to take action and put in place a new licensing system under which doctors were prohibited from prescribing heroin without a special license from the Home Office.
To begin with, those doctors who were given a license, all of whom were psychiatrists, operated a liberal prescribing regime under which they continued to supply the drug to registered addicts, but then, in the 1970s, with the media still rumbling on, periodically, about the ‘evils’ of heroin and facing pressure for the US government for full prohibition, the government caved in and instructed these psychiatrists to cut their prescriptions, replacing the supply of heroin with a limited supply of methadone (which is actually more addictive than heroin and more likely to give rise to an accidental overdose) in an effort to force these registered addicts off the drug – and in doing so, the government inadvertantly created the UK’s first real black market in heroin, which developed in and around Piccadilly Circus.
In the beginning, at least, most the heroin available through this new black market, was obtained by the simple expedient of breaking into chemists and stealing their pharmaceutical grade supplies but over time, and with addicts starting to sell to their friends in order to finance their own habit, the market began to expand and new and regular supply lines were opened up, initially via US servicemen stationed in South-East Asia but, later, through Britain’s Pakistani community, with its links to Afghanistan and, by the end of the 1970’s, through an influx of Iranian exiles fleeing the country’s Islamic revolution, who’d converted their case into heroin in order to get it out of the country.
By the beginning of the 1980’s, the black market in heroin has spread across much of London and was beginning to spill out into other cities, and this spawn yet another media-fuelled moral panic and, inevitably, another major government crackdown which saw the Thatcher government actively buy into America’s ‘War on Drugs’. So, the government pumped money into police drug squads and customs teams and choked off, completely, the supply of heroin through licensed psychiatrists, replacing it with a strictly limited supply of methadone and, at the outset, this did cut the supply of heroin reaching the black market. So, you might think that government’s policy was having the desired effect but, somewhat ironically for a government committed, everywhere else, the free market economic reforms, the one thing that the Thatcher government massively underestimated was the economics of the [extremely free] black market and the law of supply and demand.
Cutting the supply of heroin didn’t reduce either the number of addicts or the demand for the drug and this, as happens whenever demand exceeds supply in any uncontrolled market, had the effect of driving up the price of the drug to the extent that the importation and supply of heroin became a much more profitable venture for London’s organised criminal gangs that its traditional, and much riskier, staple of armed robbery, much as the prohibition of alcohol in the US during the 1920’s made bootlegging and running Speakeasy’s and much more profitable and, provided you laid out the right bribes to the right people, less risky activity than extortion and running protection rackets, which had previously been the mainstay of the American Mafia. So, with big profits to be made from supplying heroin to a growing black market, organised criminal gangs got in the game and used their resources and connections to open up their own new, and much more effective, supply lines, and the black market in heroin boomed.
By the early years of this century, a mere twenty years after joining the ‘War on Drugs’, the UK’s original black market of a few hundred London-based registered addicts had turned into a market of 300,000 ‘chaotic’ heroin users with a battery of associated health problems, including HIV, hepatitis, septicaemia, etc., some of whom had become heavily involved in crime and prostitution to finance their habit to the extent that an internal Downing Street report, leaked in 2005, estimated that black market drug users were responsible for 85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.
There’s a pretty obvious lesson here. Prohibition not only doesn’t work but under the right (wrong?) conditions it can actually turn a relatively minor social issue into a major problem of near epidemic proportions, and this really shouldn’t come as any real surprise to anyone. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know about prohibition and its impact on society was neatly encapsulated in a single paragraph, written by the wealthy industrialist (and support of prohibition) John D Rockefeller in a letter reflecting on the failure of alcohol prohibition in the US.
When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.
The Government/Media Nexus
There are any number of interesting facets within the real history of the UK’s heroin market I could elaborate on, but for this purpose of this article the one that’s of the greatest interest and relevance is the role played by the media and its relationship with government. It was, after all, the heavy media interest in and coverage of the arrest of three doctors for supplying heroin to London’s then very small and unobtrusive community of heroin addicts that set the prohibitionist’s ball rolling back in the late 1960’s and what’s particularly interesting about that first moral panic is that its primary focus wasn’t so much on heroin use, itself, but rather on the fact that the ‘dealers’ in this case were all registered medical practioners.
The angle the media played out in selling the story to its readers (and selling its newspapers, of course) characterised the actions of the doctors at the centre the case in terms of their selling ‘poison’ to members of the public, completely ignoring the fact that there were actually very sound clinical reasons why doctors, most of whom weren’t profiteering for their ability to prescribe heroin were supplying heroin addicts with the drugs they needed to self-medicate their addiction in order to avoid going ‘cold turkey’. What the media leveraged into the story was not simply the prohibitionist’s moral opprobrium regarding drug use and social conservative dislike of 1960’s pop culture and everything associated with it but also the widespread dislike of the idea of profiteering from the provision of provision of healthcare that was prevalent within the vast majority Britain’s lower-middle and working class communities. From the creation of the NHS in 1948, Britain had very rapidly got used to the idea that health care should be provided free or charge and based on genuine need and collectively decided that it like that way of doing things and liked it a lot.
The London doctors who were caught selling inflated heroin prescriptions to addicted were not just dealing in drugs but, worse still, betraying the founding principles and ethos of the entire healthcare system and demonstrating such a cavalier attitude to the crowning achievement of the Attlee government and the most potent and popular symbol of the better world that justified, for many, the sacrifices that were made to defeat Germany only twenty years before, simply could not be tolerated. So, the press climbed into bed with the prohibitionists, en masse, and with a assist from the US government, which had been committed to prohibition all along and was using its status as a superpower and a major player in the UN to push forward its agenda on the global stage, it wasn’t too long before the government also jumped under the covers and made it a threesome; one that has dominated and dictated drug policy in the UK every since.
So, returning [at last] to the article in the Indy. what we have on our hands, as should be obvious from its first two paragraphs is nothing more or less than by the Home Office against its own advisory committee, which has dared to challenge the prevailing political and media consensus on drug policy by doing nothing more than the job it was tasked to do when it was created back in 1971. And that, in the simplest possible terms, explains the how and why of the next paragraph of the article:
Senior Home Office sources said they “fully expected” the ACMD to call for the relaxation of ecstasy’s classification. Professor David Nutt, chairman of the committee, which is reviewing ecstasy at the request of MPs, has suggested it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and stated that it is “probably too highly classified”.
There are a couple of very interesting things going on in that paragraph that are worth picking out as example of how the Indy, which has almost certainly been spoon-fed the entirely story via a Home Office briefing and it merely regurgitating their preferred line, is introducing a number of subtle biases into their reporting. For example, by quoting their anonymous ‘Senior Home Office Sources’ as have said that they fully expected the ACMD to recommend the reclassification of ecstasy, having first made it clear that the government will disregard any such recommendation, the article creates the impression that the Home Office have more or less completely pre-empted the committee’s thinking on this issue and evaluated the evidence for itself before reaching a very different conclusion. The message being sent, to journalists as much, if not more so than anyone else, it that the Home Office already has the answers it needs to make a decision on the correct classification of ecstasy, so when the ACMD report is published, there’s really no point in trying to pursue and questions relating to the evidence on which it’s based its, contrary, recommendation.
To drive home that idea that there’s really no point in looking too closely at the detail of the ACMD’s upcoming report, the Indy goes on to single out the Committee’s chairman as having merely ‘suggested‘ that ecstasy is less ‘dangerous‘ than alcohol or tobacco and stated that it was too highly classified – all of which adds up to a implied suggestion of bias on the part the chairman of the committee, who is quite subtly presented as appearing to have made his mind up about the outcome of the review, perhaps even before it the committee started work on it.
What we actually have here is a pretty clear case of the Indy misrepresenting the content of a story which appeared last year and, so far as the apparent quotation in which Nutt is suggested to have said that ecstasy is ‘probably too highly classified, there appears to no record of him making any such statement at all, which suggests very strongly that the Indy has either made that comment up or, more likely, that its actually quoting the Home Office source that briefed them on this story and its that source who’s putting word in Professor Nutt’s mouth.
So, what’s the real story here…
Well, the story actually begins back in 2006 with a paper, of which Nutt is one of four cited co-authors, which was provided to the Science and Technology Committee by Nutt, as chairman of the ACMD, as a supplementary memorandum. That paper, which is included in the evidence at the end of the ST&C report sets out what can, I suppose, best be described as a ‘proof of concept’ for a new, systematic, method for assessing the levels of risk and harm associated with particular drugs; one which enables each drug to assessed across three different factors (physical harm, dependence and social harm) with three categories of risk/harm being evaluated for each factor.
So, for example, under physical harm, the assessment would look at the acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) effects of a drug and, if its relevant to manner in which the drug is taken, at the risks and harm associated with its being used intravenously.
On paper, it looks to be a well thought out and well designed system and, more importantly, its a system which, when you see it, makes a lot of sense even if you don’t really know that much about drug use. Having provided the paper to the ST&C in 2006, Prof. Nutt and his co-authors then did what any good scientist or academic should do. He submitted the paper for publication to a well respected, peer reviewed, journal, which, in this case, was the Lancet, and they duly published the paper in full in March 2007 – and to save time scrolling through the ST&C report, here’s the paper as it appeared in the Lancet.
As a journal paper, it does exactly what its supposed to do. Its sets out the methodolgy, clearly and succintly, and because its a proof of concept it also gives a list of 20 common drugs, some controlled (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy) and some not (alcohol, tobacco) a ‘dry run’ through the system to demonstrate how it works and what kind of results its likely to generate. Importantly, because this is dry run designed to prove the validity of the system and not a live exercise is re-evaluating the existing ABC system, Nutt’s presentation of results and supporting dicussion is heavily laced with caveats about its use in practice, one of the more important of which points out that in generating an overall score for each drug put through the system in order generate a ranked list in order of harm/risk, the demonstration paper collates unweighted scores for each drug where, if/when the system is put into practice, the importance relative attached to different categories of harm for different drugs is likely, if not almost certain, to be adjusted in line with the particular characteristics of each drug so as better reflect the real levels of risk/harm associated with each drug.
For example, although you may not have come across it yet, there is a relatively new ‘designer drug’ available on the black market called MPPP, which is, specifically a synthetic opioid with effects similar heroin or morphine. MPPP has one very major downside to it, its chemical composition is similar to another drug, a neurotoxin called MPTP which doesn’t produce any opioid effects but which, in a single dose, can and does cause severe damage to a part of the brain called the substantia nigra giving rise to permanant symptoms of the kind found in Parkinson’s Disease. In fact the two drugs are sufficiently similar in their chemical composition that MPTP can easily be accidentally produced as a byproduct/contaminant during the illicit production of MPPP. All of which means that, because quality control tends to not to high on the list of priorities in most illicit drug labs, that anyone who fancies giving this new designer ‘high’ a try out does so at the risk very rapidly developing of Parkinsonism.
So, Nutt et al reason in their paper, as this is a very major acute risk associated with the use of MPPP, the only sensible thing to do when assessing that drug for classification (and with a potential side effect like that, its a Class A all the way) is place considerably higher weight on score assigned to the drug for its acute physicial risk.
On the other side of the coin, there’s dear old tobacco, a drug which presents very little by way of acute risks – nicotine poisoning is possible but its not something easily done by accident, so if ever someone does ship up in A&E with acute nicotine poisoning then its pretty safe bet that someone, somewhere has seriously got it in for them – but its well known to have a whole series of chronic long-term risks associated with it (lung cancer, heart disease, respiratory diseases), which, naturally enough, add weight to its chronic physical risk/harm score and illnesses arising out of cigarette smoking also lay a phenomenon burden on the healthcare system in terms of treatment costs and providing care for people with chronic illnesses. So, for tobacco, the obvious thing to do is add significant weight to its scores for social harm to go with its chronic risk/harm rating.
Now, I don’t about you, but that all makes perfect sense to me but, predictably, when the press picked up on Nutt’s paper, the first, and in some cases only, thing they went after was a graph showing the drugs included in the study in rank order according how ‘dangerous’ each of them is based on thier combined, unweighted, scores, and what appeared in the press, therefore, was articles such as this effort from the Telegraph:
Alcohol is ranked much more harmful than the Class A drug ecstasy in a controversial new classification system proposed by a team of leading scientists. The table, published today in The Lancet medical journal, was drawn up by a team of highly respected experts led by Professor David Nutt, from the University of Bristol, and Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council. The authors proposes that drugs should be classified by the amount of harm that they do, rather than the sharp A, B, and C divisions in the UK Misuse of Drugs Act.
To be fair to the Telegraph, the article in question was written by its science editor and once its gets over the cheap headline it does settle down and provide a fairly decent overview of the content of the paper even if, as with all such article, a direct link to full paper would have been a major improvement.
Elsewhere, as you may well imagine, press coverage of the story was rather more ‘uneven’. The Guardian tossed the ball to its science correspondent, James Randerson, who promptly dropped it by resorting to grabbing quotes from politicians rather than explaining the content of the paper, once he got over the inevitable lead-in of pronouncing that “Alcohol [is] worse than ecstasy on shock new drug list“.
Moving downmarket, and over to the International Journal of Health Scares (The Daily Mail – and the gag belongs to Ben Goldacre) we got ‘Alcohol ‘should be considered a Class A drug’ say experts‘, prompting the resident green inkers to complain loudly about experts giving contradictory information and ‘do-gooders getting on their high horse’ – you’ve actually got to give the Mail a bit of credit for knowing their audience, and which buttons to press set them going, very well. Some of the best trolls in the business seem to write for Daily Mail. Oh, and lets not forget the tabloids where The Sun appears to have missed the story entirely (no tits on display in the Lancet?) but the Mirror did weigh in with “BOOZE BAD AS COCAINE” – and I don’t know if anyone’s noticed but there’s an interesting class thing going on here in which both the broadsheets (Telegraph and Guardian) concocted headlines which juxtaposed alcohol and ecstasy, the latter being most associated with the kind sweaty loved-up teenagers that generally scare the living Bejeebus out of their middle class target audience, while the Mirror went the alcohol and cocaine combo, the latter being the drug of choice of the Porsche-driving, red braces wearing, Gordon Gecko wannabes that its readers must imagine infest the City of London, and the banking system, like a plague of locusts.
The point of picking through this raft of typically shoddy press coverage of a science story is to take us into the observation that, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, Professor Nutt has never actually expressed a personal view on the currently classification of ecstasy, although one of the co-authors of this paper, Colin Blakemore, does appear to have indicated that he, personally, thought the current Class A grade attached to the drug was excessive and unwarranted in terms of the risks associated with its use, but only within the context of discussing this particular paper, which suggests only that he has a considerable amount of confidence in this proposed system and is not afraid to stick his neck out and say so.
So, what we have here – and this appears to be the sole basis for the Indy’s quite subtle attack on Professor Nott’s integrity as chairman of the ACMD – is nothing more than the kind of textbook misreporting of a science story of the kind that promises to keep Ben Goldacre in fresh material for as long as he cares to continue ripping journalists to shreds in print.
Bring on the Critics
Before we step back up to the plate, maybe this is a good time to go get yourself another cup of coffee…
If we take brief step back to the last section then part what we saw was two very different styles of reporting applied by the press to a science story. On on-side, there was the Telegraph’s reporting of Prof. Nutt’s Lancet paper which, fairly quickly got over its asinine newsy bit at the start and then settled down nicely to provide a reasonable overview of what was actually in the paper. Then, there was the Guardian, which went with the tried and trusted route of ignoring the chance to put up a bit of factual content in favour of ring round for a few quotes and soundbites.
The usual justification that the media gives for padding out articles with quotes rather than doing a bit real journalism and providing a bit of explanatory information is the well-worn canard about writing ‘balanced’ articles by providing the reader with opposing viewpoint. Sometimes this is a valid approach, most of the time its a load of bollocks and no more than cover for the fact that they’re using quotes as a cheap way of generating filler or, when dealing with a contentious subject, a device intended to try and keep the number of abusive e-mails hitting the journalist’s in-box down to just a small torrent. There is, however, a third use for going quote heavy on an article, and that uses quotes as an indirect method of surreptitiously editorialising the article and putting over a biased viewpoint with giving the appearance that the paper is taking a specific editorial line, and to do that all a journalist has to do is ensure that while the first 2-3 paragraph give what appears, to the reader, to be both sides of the story, everything the follows by way of quotations supports one side of the argument…
…which is precisely what the Indy does next by loading up on critics.
Anti-drug campaigners have attacked any move to downgrade ecstasy. The shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said: “Drugs wreck lives and destroy communities. Ecstasy is a drug that is very damaging.”
At this point it worth mentioning that neither of the two journalists whose name appears on the byline of the story is actually a science correspondent. Brian Brady, who gets top billing, is the paper’s Whitehall correspondent, which explains both how and why the Indy came to be briefed about this story, while Jonathan Owen billed (elsewhere) as simply a ‘home news reporter’, albeit one who provides a little more interest here than you run of the mill generic journalist because Owen was also bylined by the Indy as the author of this editorial ‘apology’, which the Independent put out the occasion of its performing a complete volte face on its previous stance of supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis, a U-turn that, not uncoincidentally, took place during the course of the 2007 ‘reefer madness’ scare.
The absurdityities and lousy journalistic standards prevalent during that scare are something I dealt with, myself, in this article which dealt with a delightful exercise in the overblown misreporting of an interesting but otherwise largely inconclusive study published by the Lancet, by Polly Curtis of the Guardian.
To my delight, it also turns out that Owen’s apology make an appearance, even if he doesn’t get namechecked, in Ben Goldacre’s book, ‘Bad Science’, in the course of section in which Ben shreds the widely reported claim that today’s skunkweed is 25 times more potent than the ganja of yesteryear. In a final bizarre twist to the whole reefer madness saga, which Ben may (or may not) be aware of, in July 2007, the Indy finally got around to reporting that the whole ‘superskunk’ story on which their U-turn on Cannabis was predicated had been roundly ‘debunked’…
… by the ACMD’s report on cannabis. Oh, well – never mind.
Owen’s byline on this current story provides little more than a bit of welcome light relief. Brady, however, is a bit of different matter. Gaining access to private, semi-off the record briefings by government officials – the batallions of unnamed ‘spokespersons’ who seem to generate so much of today’s political ‘news’ – is one of the perks that goes with holding down the job of Whitehall correspondent with a national daily newspaper but its a perk that brings with a few obligations, not least of which is one which requires the journalist to pitch promote the Government’s preferred line on the story on which they;ve been brief on pain of excommunication from future briefings – and if a sad fact of life that a Whitehall correspondent who gets themselves excommunicated for failing to toe the line tends to remain in the position of being a Whitehall correspondent for very long.
So, if you followed all that properly, you should have come to the realisation that the Indy has both the means and motive to engage in a bit of carefully concealed editorialising on this particular story, which means its to look at, and pull apart, the execution.
Courting the Opposition
This is being treated as a political story and so, ordinarily, the inclusion of a quotation from an opposition spokesman on a government briefing is something you’d write down as nothing more than a standard journalistic practice, that of ‘balancing’ an article by providing an opposing viewpoint sourced from an opposition politician except, of course, that the Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, isn’t providing an any kind of opposition at all here.
What makes this a bit more interesting, however, is if we compare this story with the editorial approach taken by the Indy on the last occasion that a disagreement arise between the ACMD and the Home Office over the classification of a controlled drug, in April 2008, where the bone of contention was the government’s decision to disregard the recommendations of the committee and press ahead with the reclassification of cannabis upwards from class C to class B. On that occasion, the Indy did follow standard practice in reporting the story by including a quote from an opposition politician, but on that occasion they chose to take their primary soundbite not from the Conservatives but, instead, from the Lib Dems:
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne demanded that the panel’s recommendations be published. “The Government must stop playing politics and publish this advice as soon as possible,” he said. “There should be nothing secret about the scientific advice being given to ministers on this important issue.”
Only after Huhne’s somewhat critical opinion had been aired did the Indy put up the views of Dominic Grieves’ predecessor, David Davis who, predictably, fell into line behind the government.
Shadow home secretary David Davis said: “This would not come a moment too soon. “While Gordon Brown has dithered over this, over 24,000 people – including nearly 9,000 under 18s – are estimated to have been forced to seek treatment for cannabis misuse in England alone. “One cannot underestimate the real harm cannabis can do to a young person. “The demotivating and debilitating effect cannabis can have at the most crucial stage in a young person’s development can seriously harm their life chances.”
Admittedly, Huhne didn’t actually oppose the government’s position but his comments were reported in a manner which drew attention to the fact that the government were going against the advice of their own advisory committee which, of course, draws the readers attention to the fact that somewhere in all there there’s actually some evidence that the government is deliberately ignoring in order to pursue a political objective.
As it turns out, Huhne was invited to comment on this latest spat between the Home Office and the ACMD and it turns out, from an article in the Scottish daily newspaper, The Herald, which appears to be the only newspaper carrying the quote, that he’s taken much the same line now that he took last April:
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: “There is no point in the government maintaining an expensive advisory body of scientific experts on the misuse of drugs, if ministers repeatedly ignore their advice and follow their prejudices instead.”
Covert editorialising of news reports is often as much a matter of what a newspaper chooses not to print as it is the material in actually includes in a given article, and the Indy’s decision not to give Huhne’s comment an airing fits very neatly into that category, particular when you contrast Huhne’s omission with the series of comments that the Indy did find space for and take a good close look at their provenence.
It Only Happens When It Raynes.
As we’ve just seen, the Indy failed to find space for a comment on this story from the Home Affairs spokesman of the UK’s third largest political party but, as we’re about to see, it did manage to find room for a few remarks from a number of critics who’s mere presence adds a number of interesting angles to the story, starting with…
Critics have also called into question the ACMD’s fitness to advise ministers. David Raynes, a member of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, said the ACMD should be “an impartial centre of expertise carefully weighing evidence and public good”. He added: “Recent behaviour leads me to believe it is being controlled by a few ideologues, pursuing a broadly liberal and pro-drug, legalisation agenda.”
David Raynes is a former Customs Officer who spent 25 of his 37 years working for HM Customs and Excise in its investigations service before retiring, in 2000, having reached the rank of Assistant Chief Investigation Officer and, to say the least, he has both an interesting personal history and and some even more interesting and illuminating ‘associates’.
Shortly before his retirement from HM C&E, Raynes was the lead officer in what appears to be one of the most spectacular foul ups in the history of the service, one which resulted in the collapse of a multi-million pound prosecution and the acquittal of ten defendants, including two serving Royal Marines on cannabis smuggling charges despite several of the defendants being caught in possession of four tonnes of cannabis with a street value estimated, at the time, of £14.5 million. You may well wonder exactly how a customs officer could blow such a major case, one in which several of the accused were caught red handed, well the answer to that question lies in the circumstances under which these individual were caught and arrested, which turns out to be have been on a Maltese-registered freighter in international waters off the coast of Portugal. As was revealed when the case came to court in Bristol, Raynes, acting on what he described as a ‘hunch’ that the freighter was bound for the North-East of England, mounted a major seizure operation on the freighter while it was sailing in international waters, an operation which involved three Royal Navy warships and members of the Special Boat Squadron, the naval equivalent of the SAS.
Unfortunately, Raynes had no hard evidence to show that the freighter was, indeed, bound for the UK as opposed to the Netherlands, which is where the defence claimed its was heading when the case came to trial and he also neglected to obtain the necessary authorisation, from Malta’s attorney general, in order the mount the operation, relying, instead, on ‘authorisation’ obtained from the Maltese Marine Authority. To compound matters further, Raynes, in obtaining the ‘authorisation’ of the Maltese Marine Authority, also neglected to mention one rather important detail – the fact that the freighter was situated, at the time, in international waters off the coast of Portugal and, during the case itself, he hubristically informed the court that even if the Maltese authorties had enquired as to the freighter’s location, he still wouldn’t have told them where it was.
In the course of a single customs operation, Raynes successfully violated British, Maltese and International Maritime Law to such and extent that the trial judge, Judge John Foley said, in giving his ruling on the case, that the operation revealed ‘ “a catalogue of flawed proceedings, illegality and incompetence at a number of levels” and added that:
“This case has revealed a culture and climate of carelessness, recklessness and disregard for the rules, procedures and convention of Maltese law, British law and international law.” [source]
So, our first critic is a massively overzealous ex-Customs Officer who represents the ‘National Drug Prevention Alliance’, an organisation that, today, exists in name only having merged in 2005, with its sister charity ‘Positive Prevention Plus’, at which point the NDPA was removed from the Register of Charities and ceased to exist as a legal entity – and this brings us on to the question of some of Raynes’ more interesting known associates.
Raynes is, as mentioned, associated with the National Drug Prevention Alliance/Positive Prevention Plus, a UK registered charity that has only exceeded the financial threshold at which its required to submit accounts to the Charity Commission on two occasions in the last five years (2006 and 2007), i.e. only since the 2005 merger of the two organisations. In the three years prior to 2006, the charity had a total income of only £3,400 and, in 2005, recorded no income whatsover. 2006 was, however, a pretty good year for the charity, one in which it received a grant of just over £31,000 from an organisation called, in its accounts, ‘Drug Free America’, which funded an ‘international conference’ for which the funder provided four of the twelve scheduled speakers. The information provided about this conference and its content is, to a considerable extent, less important than the fact that this section of the report positively identifies the funder as the ‘Drug Free America Foundation’ rather than the ‘Partnership for a Drug Free America’.
The latter is a quasi governmental organisation set up in the mid 1980’s by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and operates on the premise that if the Madison Avenue crowd can successfully market ton after ton of unnecessary crap to ordinary Americans then they should also be able to ‘unsell’ drugs to America’s youth – that’s theory, at least, but in practice things haven’t worked out as our captive marketing geniuses thought it would and pretty much the most notable thing about this particular ‘Drug Free America’ is that it took a sizable hit to its credibility, in the 90s, when its Federal tax returns revealed that it had received several million dollars in funding from major alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies including the ubiquitous Phillip Morris (Marlboro cigarettes), Anheuser Busch (Budweiser), Merck & Company and Proctor & Gamble. Since 1997, the Partnership for a Drug Free America ditched its links to the alcohol and tobbaco industres but still takes money from Big Pharma.
This is all moderately interesting in its own right but of no relevance to the matter at hand, which is the other Drug Free America [Foundation, or DFAF, for short], which is where, in 2006, the NDAP got the vast majority of its funds. This particular Drug Free America has a much more interesting history, having emerged from the ashes of an organisation called ‘Straight Inc’, which was set up in 1976 by Mel and Betty Sembler, and which operated a series of ‘drug rehabilitation camps’ which operated until 1993, when the organisation collapse under the weight of a steam of bad publicity, civil litigation and state health board investigations, having become, in the intervening year, synonymous with the physical abuse of children and adolescent abuse.
What Straight Inc offered was a boot camp style ‘tough love’ approach to drug rehabilitation that critics likened to the brainwashing techniques employed by the Viet Cong or, if you prefer, the psychological programming techniques used by religious cults. In 1993, the Sembler’s got out the direct rehab game and switched to drug ‘education’ and lobbying against the use of harm reduction approaches to drug treatment/prevention while, not uncoincidentally, they’d also become biggish wheels in Republican circles thanks, in no small measure, to Mel Sembler’s efforts as a fundraiser for the Bush clan, starting with George H W’s 1988 presidential campaign. Sembler went on to become US Ambassador to Italy under George W and is currently the chairman of the Scooter Libby legal defense fund. Meanwhile, some of the young people who were ‘rehabilitated’ by Straight Inc went on to form their own survivor groups in an effort to get over the whole experience.
So, on the one hand, Raynes is associated with, through the NDPA, with a bunch of Republican ultras and on the other, as a member of the advisory board of the Foundation for a Drug Free Europe, along with Peter Stoker, also of the NDPA, he’s a member of an organisation which has been happily working with and actively promoting the ‘Church’ of Scientology’s Narconon ‘drug rehabilitation programme’.
Of the 14 listed members of FDFE Advisory Board, only one, Agnes Bron-Singla, discloses any association with Scientology:
Agnés Bron-Singla Coordinator, Non à la Drogue – Oui à la Vie. French organization focused on drug education and drug prevention, supported by the Church of Scientology. Ms. Bron-Singla has been a speaker in many drug conferences.
However, using information on Scientology ‘Service Completions’ complied and provided by the ‘Truth About Scientology’ website, it transpires that six further members of the FDFE Advisory Board have undertaken and completed Scientology ‘services’, including Xavier Deluc, whose featured on the site’s list of Scientology Celebrities, along with Asa Graff, Elena Roggero, Dr Virginio Maino, Michael Neilsen and Emanuele Ruffinego.
So, fully half of the FDFE’s advisory board appear to be active Scientologists, which seems to more than adequately validate the suggestion, made in some quarters, that the FDFE is nothing more than a Scientology front organisation.
And with ‘associates like these’ the Indy allows Raynes to label the ACMD as:
“being controlled by a few ideologues, pursuing a broadly liberal and pro-drug, legalisation agenda”
For the record, the ACMD currently has a membership of 31 which includes 3 Professors and 2 other Academics, 6 other members with medical degrees and experience covering general practice, psychiatry, psychology, forensic science and pharmaceutical research. Then there’s a Peer of the Realm, who also one of several members from a voluntary sector drug prevention/education background, plus three members from the law enforcement side, including a Chief Constable, a Metropolitan Police Commander and the Executive Director of SOCA. There’s also a research chemist, who also happens to a former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a District Judge, a qualified Mental Health Nurse (and Service Director), a couple of civil servants and a Vet… that’s some hotbed of liberalism you’ve got there.
Whenever someone starts complaining loudly, and conspiratirially, about liberal ideologues or, to be fair, conservative ideologues then it usually a pretty good idea to at least spend some time figuring out just exactly where our vocal critic sits on the political spectrum, which in Raynes’ case (and when it comes to drugs policy) seems to be somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun verging on Genghis Khan. He may well be a critic of the ACMD, but his criticism is anything but reliable, balanced or credible.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Moving on to critic number two (and if it help, try humming the theme tune to Blind Date to pass the time while we work through all this) we find:
Mary Brett, spokesperson for Europe Against Drugs, said: “The present ACMD includes few members who take a definite drug-prevention stance. It is imperative that a committee of this importance needs to be properly balanced.”
On the background information side, there’s little to report. Brett is a retired biology teacher and Europe Against Drugs (EURAD) is a coalition of ‘Just Say No’ prohibitionists, although the Drug Free America Foundation, who we met earlier, do ship up on its website as a affiliated member, and their problem with the ACMD is that is that it isn’t ‘properly balanced’, i.e. it doesn’t contain enough members who share their absolute prohibitionist views. Brett also, does a nice line in writing letters about the evils of cannabis to politicians and making personal submissions on the same subject to House of Commons Select Committees, specifically the Home Affairs Committee in 2000, which veer wildly between obvious Glendaisms:
“Decriminalisation would inevitably increase use—it always does!”
And errant nonsense:
4.6 Attempts to answer this question [whether cannabis causes brain damage] by experiments and brain scans have been inconclusive. But there are many things we accept without conclusive proof, such as the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Surely we should err on the right side of caution.
By way of the usual raft of personal observations and anecdotes that campaigners of this kind fall back on in lieu of actual evidence. I won’t go into the history of research into the link between smoking and lung cancer, suffice to say that if she genuine thinks the evidence linking tobacco and lung cancer isn’t conclusive then, frankly, there’s no hope of explaining it to her now.
Of course, in all this, what neither Brett, nor Raynes for that matter, even attempt to explain is precisely what purpose ‘balancing’ such a committee with people who have no interest whatsoever in the evidence relating to drug use and the risks associated would actually serve. The fact of the matter is that Brett, like other fully paid up members of the ‘Just Say No’ brigade have no interest whatsoever in any evidence that doesn’t fully support their prohibitionist viewpoint, which would make their inclusion on such a committee a complete waste of time. They’re no more than one trick ponies whose response to any given situation is entirely predictable in advance. Introduce anything to the committee which even hints at downgrading the classification of a drug, never mind decriminalisation, or which proposes the use of harm reduction methods to tackle any of the problems associated with drug use, and you might as well just put them down for a no and save yourself the time and earache of listening to them bang on about their limited agenda.
Moreover, when it comes to dealing with scientific evidence, in any field, the who notion of ‘balance’ is a complete nonsense. The evidence is what it is and it isn’t going to suddenly turn into something completely different because it doesn’t coincide with the preconceptions and beliefs or a particular committee member. Sure, when dealing with evidence, there may be room of legitimate dispute as to how best to interpret a particular piece of evidence and such disputes are very much part of the lifeblood of scientific debate, in reality, even the best and most exacting scientific research rarely produces a complete ‘slam dunk’ and at any given time there is no real shortage of research evidence generated by scientists of a kind which is most interest not for the answers it provides but because it opens up new question and suggests new avenues of enquiry. However, that necessary and valuable aspect of scientific debate and discourse still relies heavily on one very important faculty, the capacity of those seeking to interpret and understand the evidence maintaining at least something of an open mind and a willingness to entertain the possibility that they may not have the right interpretation of the data, or that there may be alternative interpretations that better fit the available evidence.
It can’t reitereated enough that the only people who complain about a ‘lack of balance’ in a committee set up to consider, at least in part, the scientific evidence relating to specific issue are those who support positions for which there is no credible supporting evidence.
The Angry Professor
Our last critic is, in many respects, the most interesting because, for once, the Indy have actually managed to dredge up someone with a credible scientific background:
Professor Andy Parrott, an expert on ecstasy, said he was concerned that there were insufficient scientists on the committee. “It is quite an odd committee. It is not very scientific. This issue should not just be about opinions – it should be about the actual effects this drug has on people’s brains and bodies. I have conducted years of research into ecstasy and I can tell them that it is not possible to take this drug without being damaged by it.”
Unlike our previous critics, there’s actually quite a lot to like about Andy Parrot.
He is, for starters, a genuine academic, a psychology professor at Swansea University with all the right qualifications obtained from good universities (BSc from Durham, Phd from Leeds) and a solid body of published research under his belt – I count 81 paper, articles and responses listed on PubMed, all in credible peer reviewed journals. Better still, he makes a lot of his published research available, free of charge, on his personal homepage, a considerable quantity of it does deal with MDMA (ecstasy), and the kind of material he’s publishing is very much what you’d expect from someone working in a field in which the ‘gold standard’ research methodology of randomised, double-blinded study against a placebo is unavailable to researchers, or at least to those who don’t fancy taking their chances with an extremely stern and unforgiving ethics committee. There’s a fair old mix of case studies, animal studies, evidence reviews, cognitive studies and various other bits and pieces of all which you’d expect to find when you’re looking through the published works of a credible academic.
All of which makes his comment that the ACMD is an ‘odd committee’ and not very scientific just a little bit disconcerting – as I noted earlier, on the current committee I count three professors, six medical doctors and a smattering of other academics, including a research chemist, and the committee isn’t, nor has it ever been, purely a scientific committee for the obvious reason that there’s rather more to formulating a drug policy, which is enforced under criminal law, that just the science relating to drug use and abuse.
Then there’s the whole ‘I’ve been studying this for 14 years and I can tell you that…’ comment which comes across as being a bit of wrong side confidence and heading in general direction of hubris, which is not really what you’d expect from an academic whose professional field is behavioural neuroscience, a discipline, much like immunology, where we’re only really starting the scratch the surface of developing an understand of what exactly is going on, although I’m certainly not going to take against Andy on the back of one over-assertive remark published in a newspaper without any supporting context.
However, in addition to supplying the Indy with a quote, it turns out that Andy also had an open letter to the ACMD on the subject of ecstasy published, in November, in Addiction Today, and this provides some useful additional information.
For example, the article is prefaced with this statement, which I’m assuming was added by the magazine:The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been devoting time to reclassifying ecstasy downwards, even though not requested by government to do so. Deirdre Boyd recalls parliament’s criticism of the ACMD here.
Assuming that this statement was tacked on the top of Parrot’s open letter by Deirdrie Boyd, who turn out to be the editor of Addiction Today, then I find it interesting that, in recalling the Science and Technology Committee’s criticisms of the ACMD, the one criticism she appears to have forgotten all about is the committee’s view that the ACMD had been operating on a reactive basis and only conducting reviews when asked to by the government, rather than conducting its own reviews as and when there was evidence to indictate that a review should be carried out. Review the classification of particular drugs within the current ABC, even if the government hasn’t requested a review, is precisely what parliament decided that the ACMD should be doing.
Moving on to the open letter, after we get past the obligatory ‘I’m very concerned about…’ opening, we start to get into the meat of Andy’s beef with the committee:
I cannot believe that I have spent the past 14 years undertaking numerous scientific studies into Ecstasy/MDMA in humans, then for the ACMD to propose downgrading MDMA without a full and very detailed consideration of the extensive scientific evidence on its damaging effects. My research has been published in numerous top quality journals, and can be accessed via my Swansea University webpage here.
As mentioned a little earlier, a search on PubMed turns up 81 articles and papers with Andy’s name on them, a little under half of which related to Ecstasy/MDMA. Searching PubMed for ‘MDMA’ turns up over 2,800 papers and articles, of which 2547 reference both the terms ‘MDMA’ and ‘Ecstasy’. There’s a hell of a lot of research information out there, most of seems firmly dedicated to the task to demonstrating just how bad a drug ecstasy is, much like Andy’s own research.
But, as you pick through some of the research you also come across abstracts which say things like this:
Although there have been several reports linking ecstasy use with lowered cognitive function, much previous research suffers from substantial methodological limitations. The present study aimed to examine associations between ecstasy use and higher-level cognitive functions, using a larger sample size than most previous research and better controlling for a range of potential confounds.
All of leads to conclusions like this:
Although the results suggest that heavy use of ecstasy is associated with some lowering of higher-level cognitive functions, they do not indicate a clinical picture of substantial cognitive dysfunction.
The results reported here show low levels of depressive symptoms among a sample that, after 24 months, consisted of both current and former MDMA users. The low and declining mean scores suggest that for most people MDMA/’ecstasy’ use does not result in long-term depressive symptomatology.
There’s no uniform or definitive picture here, particularly when it comes to the question of whether ecstasy has any long-term negative effects on those who use it.
Because it would be unethical to seek to evaluate the effects of ecstasy using the ‘gold standard’ methodology of a large scale, randomised, double-blinded controlled trial, what you have to work with in trying to assess the risks associated with taking the drug and how serious they may be is a mixed bag of small scale studies, animal studies, epidemiological data and other types of study, not on which, on their own, will provide you with any definitive answers. Fortunately, there’s a way of getting around th