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.