28 December 2004

The Decline and Fall of David Blunkett

We had been in the process of writing a piece about David Blunkett and the vendetta against perceived antisocial behaviour.

However, overtaken by events, his removal from power has come, not from pursuing a series of draconian and punitive measures against refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, people suspected of terrorism, drug users and young people.

Instead it came from the hubris of believing that, while the state had every right to stick its nose in to the private lives of its citizens, he was entitled to privacy while he conducted illicit trysts.

Mr Blunkett has overseen a Home Office that has eroded civil liberties to a greater extent than any other peace-time Government. Traditional rights - including property rights, right to free assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of movement have all been stripped away. Not because of someone's offending behaviour - but because of unproven allegations that behaviour could be considered "antisocial."

Other rights, including Habeas Corpus have been ignored and as his last act before resigning, he has introduced the prospect of ID cards on spurious , anti-terrorist grounds.

While we do not hold out massive hope that any successor will adopt a more even handed approach, we are not in the least saddened to see the back of Mr Blunkett, one of the few people to make Michael Howard look relatively liberal!

07 November 2004

Spinning Wheel Blues

Inconsistent policies on drugs and gambling demonstrate Government confusion on both habits.

Amidst all the sound and fury regarding the Government's plans to reform gambling, few commentators have spotted the obvious comparison between Government's approach to gambling and to drugs.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard, was one of the few. He noted "If any law is in urgent need of reform, it is the thus ineffective 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. It does far more harm to minors than do fruit machines. Yet Ms Jowell and her colleagues will touch it."

Looking at the arguments put forward by the Government in support of it's reforms of gambling, one would be hard put to fault exactly the same arguments if put forward for drugs reform.

In an article, again in the Standard, Tessa jowell defended her bill thus:
"if adults nake the rational informed decision to gamble, they should be allowed to do so. They should be encouraged to do it in places tha are crime free and properly regulated. Above all else, children should be protected from the temptation to gamble."

A key thrust of the Govenment's thinking is that a lack of control has created greater risk to young people. The arrival of high-prize gaming machines in venues used by young people exposes them, the argument goes, to temptation and risk. A licensed and regulated market would remove these machies from these arenas, and limit them to venues where only adults would access them.

If one substitutes "use drugs" for "gambling" in Jowell's argument, the argument is all but identical to the arguments put forward by drug policy reformers.

Fear has been expressed, both in terms of drugs and in terms of gambling that proposals to change the law will result in an increase in problem gambling and gambling addiction.

Here, Jowell offers a different analysis, and again one that is wholly appliable to the drugs field. She argues:
"to judge an entire industry by the people who can be addicted by its product is similar to closing down every pub in the country because of the lif story of an alcoholic. It is not possible to close down an industry and prohibit people from what they consider a pleasure because of the tragedy of a few."

Again, these are sentiments that most drug reformers would recognise and applaud.

After this, however, the Government's approach to gambling and the vision of the drugs reform lobby go in sharply different directions. While the current spin put on the gambling reform is one of "protection through regulation," the other is one of "profit through expansion." The licensing and development of larger casinos, the facillitation of local authority licensing and the projected profits for local and state profits are aspects which demand an increase in the number of gamblers and, by association the number of problem gamblers.

This is where the approach to gamblig and to drugs part company. Drug reform proposes control and safety through license and regulations. A key model is distribution through medical routes for some drugs and controlled and regulated markets for others, notably cannabis. Most drug reformers would abhor an approach which saw big corporations take over this market and actively recruit new users.

The Government is, on the one hand, right to think that regulation is safer than a absence of safeguards. This applies to drugs as much as gambling. But to then actively promote and expand such a market would be indefensible to both too.

The Met ain't so pretty either:

The new metropolitan Police campaign that uses the images of drug-dependent women to highlight the dangers of drug use is grotesque.

The images themselves are disturbing and distressing, but they are not new. They have been circulating on the internet, and the Nimby-wesbsite "Crack Cocaine in Camden" has had a link to the images for a couple of years.

Pictures of three women are used; Roseanne Holland, Melissa Collara and Penny Wood. Holland is believed to be dead, Collara was not contactable and Wood is in treatment.

So the Met are exploiting the images of three tragic women. Depersonalised and exposed to the shocked looks of public they disintegrate before our eyes. UK arrest pictures could not have been used as it would breach confideniality. But the Met have no such qualms about scooping images off the net and using them. They are exploitative, breach decency and ultimately they are ineffective.

The images are as much a condemnation of the US war on drugs, and the failure of the US penal and treatment system as they are of the drugs themselves. Collara was arrested 18 times in three years. Where were the interventions, the opportuities to engage with both harm reduction and with treatment. Holland was arrested at least five times in eight years.

Collara had (according to the Daily Mirror) been sexually abused and had lost her mother at an early age. She was engaged in drug use and prostitution. But despite repeated arrests, the help she so badly needed was clearly slow in coming. Ultimately it was not that the "system" got it right for her but one police officer who viewed her as a person needing help rather than a criminal.

The failure of the war on drugs is manifest. The failure of the criminal justice system that failed these women is written across each face. And the failure of a policy that makes needle exchange illegal and fails to offer adequate education past "just say no" is etched across these billboards.

In the good old days of drugs education, the police used to use the gore fest "Better off dead" to scare would-be users away with footage of autopsy - again of a dead female user. Thirty years later they are using the same approach - but with new images. But where do they go next? More shocking images? More gore? As any body with any media-awareness knows, this process is ultimately self-defeating. We become inured to horror, harder to shock. We cease to care or even notice and the images cannot touch us.

The effects of crack can be extremely damaging; but ill-considered advertising can damage us too. And this damage is so much less obvious

23 February 2004

Drug Testing in Schools

An example of a drug strategy now just gesture-politics.

The widely-reported announcement that the Government was to endorse random drug-testing in schools came as a surprise to many.
The mystery of the DfES Guidance Document:
Certainly it seems to have come as a surprise to Drugscope, to the teaching unions and associations and to other Drug charities. It will also come as a surprise to the DfES who published their "Drugs - Guidance for Schools" this month.

This Guidance Document, for headteachers, Governors and LEAs covers all aspects of drugs education and prevention in school settings. The Guidance Document was put together by Drugscope, Alcohol Concern and the DfES, and is endorsed by Stephen Twigg, the Undersecretary of State.

The Guidance document makes little reference to sniffer dogs or drug testing. The report "Headteachers are within their rights to invite the police or private companies to bring sniffer dogs onto school premises or employ drug testing."

However, the report does not advocate such an approach, and does not go in to detail about how to implement such a strategy.

What the report does stress is the need to ensure that any enforcement measures such as sniffer dogs or drug testing are "consistent with the pastoral responsibility of the school to create a supportive environment," and that "A headteacher requesting the use of sniffer dogs [and/or drug testing] solely as a deterrent,where there are no reasonable grounds for suspicion and where prior consent has not been sought, will need to consider possible challenges by parents and pupils under the Human Rights Act."

The announcement made by Blair go far beyond the guidance reccomended by the Guidance document and put a greater weight on sniffer dogs and drug testing than have ever been discussed before.

Blair and the Cult of the Sparkly New Idea

So why should Tony Blair use an interview with the News of The World as an opportunity to announce that the Government is to put its weight behind random drug testing in school settings.

The actual comments made by the PM are not in themselves earthshattering. All he has actually said is 'If heads believe they have a problem in their school then they should be able to do random drug testing,' he told the News of the World. 'Guidance will be given to headteachers next month which is going to give them specifically the power to do random drug testing within their schools.'

But since his announcements, a range of ministers have spoken on the subject and elucidated on the subject and, it seems, added a range of meanings to the PMs comments.

So Ivan Lewis (Education Minister) spoke on Channel 4 news as a process of identifying people early so they could be refered for treatment and counselling. He went further on the Today programme on Monday, arguing that schools could use it as a part of the school policy and pupils or parents who refused to accede could be rejected from the school. He stated that the Government "expected schools to take all appropriate measures [to prevent drug abuse]" suggesting that the Government expected schools to introduce drug testing. But Lewis was clearly under-prepared and under briefed for this interview, saying that he thought most headteachers wanted this power, but unable to say what consultation had taken place, and what the outcome was. John Prescott spoke about testing being a deterrent. And Downing Street added commentary, saying that the aim would not be to see pupils expelled from school.

Who leads on drugs?
But the implication was the same: Blair had produced a "policy" from nowhere, in contradiction to what the DFES was saying and without reference to the drugs or education field. ANd on the back of Blair's statements, a range of other Government heads were wheeled out to speak on the subject. But not, crucially, Caroline Flint or Blunkett. So is this a strategy that has been approved by them or is it Blair's alone.

There are potentially a number of driving forces behind Blair's statement. One has to note that Blair's direction here mirrors (once again) that of George Bush. Just as Blair seems willing to follow Bush into a war on Iraw without a robust evidence base, so it seems that he is prepared to pursue Bush's campaign of schools drug testing, even though the worth of such an approach is not proven.

Similarly, Blair was visited by Sweden's PM may have influenced Blair's view of drug policy. The Swedish drugs policy is credited in some quarters as having reduced the extent of problematic drug use in Sweden and is held up by critics of liberal drug policy as a viable alternative.

But alongside the obvious influence of Bush and the possible influence of other European countries, we must look at influences much closer to home. Either actively or tacitly, we are in to the initial stages of an election campaign. And as predicted elsewhere on this website, drugs are going to form a core aspect of this campaign.

Blunkett and Blair seem to be lurching to outdo Michael Howard and Letwin. But without any loud, effective voices to challenge this drift, there is little scope for stopping it. With most major drugs charities now wholly or partly tied to Government funding, there are fewer and fewer with the independence and scope to get their voices heard.

And let us also not lose sight of how some of the research in to school drug testing was funded. The most recent study in Scotland was funded by Euromed - one of the leading manufactures of drug testing products. Not necesarily the most objective of sources. Yet this report is now being cited as grounds for the expansion of school drug testing.

A resounding 'NO' to random drug-testing in schools:
The proposals to endorse or encourage drug testing in schools is ill-thought, unworkable and counter productive.

School Drug Testing:
  • Cannot take place without the consent of the young person in question in school settings: to do so otherwise is likely to be assault
  • Is a poor indicator of substance use; most drugs have a very short window of detection
  • Breaks down trusting therapeutic relationships between schools and pupils
  • Cannot differentiate between use that has taken place in leisure time and that which has taken place in school time
  • Is likely to result in more school exclusion and truancy to the most at-risk
  • Will not deter those who use drugs
  • Is unworkable in practice and
  • Is contrary to all good policy and practice on the subject

25 January 2004

Cannabis: Discussion deteriorates and Home Office produces its leaflets

Under increasing pressure from the media, drugs professionals, users and the medical profession, Blunkett came out of his bunker with all guns blazing. After he had put both feet in, many in Government may have wished that he had kept quiet and let the more-capable Caroline Flint try and deal with the flack.

On the Today programme, Blunkett said that the cannabis policy that he had implemented would be "transparent, non-variable and understandable." Given that the policy being rolled out is the exact opposite of this, it is hard to fathom if Blunkett is just utterly in denial or is simply unaware of the amount of confusion.

Given a policy that is being interpreted in a different way by individual forces, where ultimate decisions are left to an officer's discretion and has confused everyone, it is hard to see how Blunkett can think that the policy has achieved Blunkett's aims.

But, even more astonishingly, he has already concluded that his approach is right, saying that he is "not prepared to consider reversing it." So no matter what the evidence base, Blunkett has decided that this is the correct approach and he will not be changing it.

It may be indicative of the Home Secretaries increasing inability to grasp these points that, rather than continue to engage with the debate in a meaningful way, he instead launched an astonishing attack on Michael Howard, and asking him to confirm or deny if he had ever smoked cannabis, a question that Michael Howard refused to answer.

This undignified spat put Blunkett and Downing street on the back-foot. Downing Street dismissed it as 'political knockabout,' but others held this up as evidence that the Home Secretary is becoming increasingly gaffe-prone.

Certainly in a week when the Home Secretary was keen to see his Anti-Social Behaviour Act take pride of place in the media, he will not have been pleased to see it knocked into the inside pages while cannabis dominated all the papers.

In this flurry of media coverage, sniping and counter sniping, the Home Office produced its series of leaflets which, according to Caroline Flint, have been extensively piloted.

The leaflets are very poor: the one aimed at children makes no reference to school exclusion; it fails to make it clear that for young people on their second or third offence, they will be refered to the YOT and go to court. And the emphasis is primarily on the good jobs that cannabis could spoil or the holiday abroad. Certainly not the two things that are going to put off young people in Hackney from smoking!

The second leaflet, aimed at adults is, if anything worse. It oversimplifies, contains misleading legal points and forgets to mention things like allowing use on premises. Worse still, although FRANK is branded all over the leaflets, when you phone him he hasn't seen them, and doesn't know what they say.

The war on drugs: who calls the shots in the looming policy war: Blair, Blunkett or Johnson?

On Friday the 25th January the Independent, along with other papers, ran a news piece about some of the recommendations spilling out from the Forward Strategy Unit in Downing Street. One of the ideas to make the news was that a new offence of using drugs should be created and a conviction for use should act as a trigger either for enforced treatment or for imprisonment.

The news article was not new; rather it first ran in the Independent at the end of last year, under the banner "PMs drug report shifts focus to high harm users."

The ideas described in both articles have emerged from work coordinated by the Forward Strategy Unit; this Unit within 10 Downing Street is headed up by civil servant Geoff Mulgan, former head of DEMOS. Work is undertaken by a number of advisors, most famously John Birt.

The report prepared by the FSU concerning drugs has not been published, and is supposed to be a confidential document within Downing St. The 'Birt report on drugs' supposedly looks at a greater emphasis on enforced treatment, and looking at a regime that orders imprisonment or treatment for anyone testing positive for heroin. Other measures in the report are said to include increased monitoring of identified users through a register of addicts.

The measures proposed in the report are alarming and would result in many more people being unjustly targeted, criminalized or forced inappropriately in to prison. Yet the report is supposed to be the result of a year's research and presumably involved input from various 'experts' in the field.

Unfortunately, the report has not been published, so the researchers involved and the authorities consulted are, at present unknown. The research is, according to the Independent "too sensitive to publish," and Downing Street has described the research as a private piece of work.

The report, its contents and its status within Government throw up some intriguing questions.

Why, for example has this private report been cited, twice now, in the Independent. Given that the Indy ran it at the end of December, it suggests that it was intentionally leaked from Downing St or by someone within another department attempting to expose the proposals in the report.

The fact that the news story reappears again in the Indy this week is probably more to do with the Indy trying to tag an old story on to the current controversy surrounding cannabis. If it isn't it would perhaps suggest that parties unknown are leaking the story again, presumably also to fuel controversy around cannabis. Either way, the timing would seem to be either to distract from the Home Secretaries fumblings with cannabis, or to let the public know that he means to deal with other drugs robustly.

But more importantly, the issue of the report indicates deeper and more worrying concerns. Because all the indications are that three or four departments are now tugging in different directions when addressing drugs; instead of a joined-up strategy, different factions are fighting, presumably over both resources and profile.

The Home Office has been primus inter pares for a while now. While its status was somewhat reduced during the brief reign of the drugs czar, the mantle for drugs has been firmly taken back into the Home Office since Blunkett moved.

However, this position of pre-eminence is being gently eroded on several sides; the ODPM is taking a lead on some aspects, most notably efforts to move rough sleepers and other street populations into hostels and treatment. Given the associations between substance use and antisocial behaviour, the Antisocial Behaviour Unit, under Casey and Brady, is effectively directing a substantial swathe of drugs policy and money.

Similarly, the role of the Prime Minister's office (and the Forward Strategy Unit) suggests that Blair is interested in playing a more active role in directing drugs policy. The article in the Independent talks about Home Office sources expressing unhappiness about how policy is being shaped, and questioning the nature and reasons behind the PMs involvement.

The almost unheard voice in all this is that of Melanie Johnson. As the undersecretary in the Department of Health whose brief includes drugs, one would expect to hear more from her, nor her departmental boss John Reid.

Aside from a single written response regarding links between cannabis and schizphrenia, little can be found of her thoughts in Hansard. A better glimpse is provided in a newspaper report at the time when Blunkett was seeking to extend the Closure powers in the Antisocial Behaviour Act to cover class B and C drugs too. Johnson was quoted at the time as saying ""I have serious concerns about the possible impact that the extension of these powers to class B and C drugs may have, as suggested." Whilst hardly conclusive, it would suggest that she was sufficiently unhappy with the Home Secretaroes stance that she was prepared to disagree and do so publicly.

Unfortunately it is very clear at this stage that the Home Office, the ODPM and the Prime Ministers office are taking a lead and also perhaps wrangling for the upper hand somewhat. In the meantime, the DoH, who should be taking a strategic lead, are left languishing. And as it does so the health agenda is still further subsumed by the other three Departments.

This situation will only get worse as the General Election draws closer. The latest that this could be is June 2006. But if this an earlier date was preferred, then key policy areas like drugs will become a political battle ground. A contest for the drugs vote is not likely to offer many favours to harm reductionists or policy reformers. And if the ground is to be fought out between Blunkett and Michael Howard, we should be very worried indeed.

19 January 2004

Media furore over cannabis legislation

With the reclassification of cannabis only a fortnight away, all sections of the media were running cannabis stories like they were going out of fashion. Indeed, the number of hacks that were walking the streets purchasing cannabis samples either for their own use or for testing must have seen them tripping over each other.

The coverage in the press has been generally critical of the Government's stance. The criticisms are varied according to the political leanings of the source, but primary concerns include:

  • the confusion relating to how under 18s will be treated. The Evening Standard highlighted widespread confusion amongst young people and teachers who were receiving the erroneous impression that cannabis was now legal, and the reality that according to the ACPO guidance they should be arrested under all circumstances;
  • the ongoing debate regarding the relationship between cannabis use and mental well-being. With ongoing research exploring how cannabis impacts on mental wellbeing, many papers concluded (without a robust evidence base) that reclassification would result in an increase in mental illness amongst young people;
  • the fact that police nationally are not sure how the law should be implemented despite the ACPO guidance. The Metropolitan Police have produced their own guidance, described by the Independent as being 'subtly at variance' with the ACPO guidance. Sources within the Met were quoted in the Indy, saying:" Senior Met sources have flagged significant differences between the wording of the recommendations and those issued by the Met to its borough commanders. "The Met guidelines say there is a presumption against arrest. It is urging officers not to make arrests."
A number of high profile figures have started to criticise the way that the reclassification has been pursued. Ruth Runciman is quoted in the Standard as saying "We recommended that the position on cannabis should be that it is no longer an arrestable offence. What Mr. Blunkett has done is to take specific steps to maintain its arrestability. We still have some of the most punitive laws on cannabis in Europe. It is a very confusing situation."

With high levels of criticism of the strategy across the media, it was left to Caroline Flint MP to defend the strategy to the media. Blunkett remained strangely silent throughout. She is by and large in the right; she has inherited a muddle created by Mr. Blunkett and, barring a cabinet reshuffle post-Hutton, it is unlikely that Blunkett will accede to a change in direction now.

With the reclassificatio due on the 29th January, the Government insisted that publiciy material was being prepared by the Mentor Foundation and would be distributed in good time for the reclassification. The Mentor Foundation is avowedly an organisation that pursues a Prevention agenda; as part of the justification for this stance, the Mentor Foundation cites sources including the UN, stating "Drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development and generate crime. " No analysis is included to consider how international prohibition contributes to drug-related crime and harm.

Having looked at the content of the drug-specific information on the website, there is a great deal of inaccurate, value laden and sensationalist information which reinforces myths and misconceptions. Much of this is US-based and not relevant to the UK drug scene.

Quite why the Mentor Foundation should have been chosen to prepare literature for the reclassification is unclear. One of its trustees, the pro-hunting Tory Peer lord Mancroft, has come out against the use of criminal justice sanctions for cannabis use, saying "The use by successive governments of the criminal justice system in dealing with cannabis - "a health and social problem" - had produced "no results" and had led to "a massive increase in drug use." [BBC:18.10.2000]

To compound the above problems and confusion, the Observer [19.1.04] reports that, due to funding problems, a large number of Drugs Advisor posts are to be cut in April. These posts, who help schools to develop policy and practice in schools-based drugs education, support and responding to incidents, will come to an end as core funding is removed. While some LEAs will continue to fund the posts, others say they cannot afford to. WIth the piloting and role-out of Blueprint in the pipeline, this seems like a short-sited response.

In short, with the reclassification less than ten days away, we have an inconsistent and unworkable policy on cannabis which increases risk, increases confusion and utterly fails to increase the credibility of the drug laws. One person is responsible for this: Mr. Blunkett. The reclassification was a simple process and it is astonishing that he has been allowed to meddle with it with such disastrous results.