12 July 2007

If at first you don't succeed - have another go at cannabis reclassification until you get the result you want

Gordon Brown announced today that he intends to review the reclassification of cannabis with a view to moving it back to Class B. This is purely political. Charles Clarke sought the same outcome, and referred the matter to the ACMD to do as he is required to do. The ACMD made their recommendations, which was that cannabis should remain a class C drug and the Home Secretary complied with their recommendations. So all Gordon Brown can do is refer the matter back to the ACMD. Will there be any substantial new evidence for them to consider? Will they be able to hold their nerve and not be browbeaten into acceding to the Government.

No suprise this; there's the draft drug strategy due out soon. But why wait on public consultation. Make policy on the hoof! Or as seems more likely make policy as a direct response to the conservatives newly published "Breakthrough Britain" strategy document. They wanted reclassification and by reviewing the issue again, the Government seeks to steal their thunder.

All this does not bode well for drug strategy. It looks like the issue will be as political and reactionary as ever.

KFx July 18 2007

First They came for the crack users..pt 2: Closure orders extension

First they came for the crack users... pt 2

Brown announces intention to proceed with Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007 - Measures to extend Closure Orders Proposed

Right at the very end, just before the demise of the old Goverment, the pulication of the Criminal Justice Bill 2007 was announced. Then the people behind it, John Reid at the Home Office and Tony Blair, stood down. Leaving the bill behind.

At the time the Bill didn't get a lot of attention. The section that received the most publicity was a section relating to prostitution. No-one seemed to mention the proposal to extend the power to close premises.

Any hope that Brown would drop the Bill was dashed on the 11th July when, in a speech describing the Government's business for the coming term, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill was included in the list.

The Section of the Bill of most interest to KFx is S.17 which extends closure orders to cover non-drug related premises.

The proposal is not dissimilar to the existing powers for closing houses associated with Class A drug activity.

A first striking difference is that the power to issue a Closure Notice and apply for a Closure Order is not limited to Police; it has been extended to Local Authorities too. This is a substantial change and should be the source of some concern. Given in many situations the Local Authority will be the Landlord, and the person seeking the Closure Order, this is likely to represent a conflict of interest for the Local Authority. Likewise, it means that the same workers who are providing support may also end up in court providing evidence of nuisance or disorder.

The power can be applied to premises as follows:

(1) This section applies to premises if a police officer not below the rank of superintendent (“the authorising officer”) or the local authority
has reasonable grounds for believing—
(a) that at any time during the relevant period a person has engaged in anti-social behaviour on the premises, and
(b) that the use of the premises is associated with significant and persistent disorder or persistent serious nuisance to members of the public

This bill, if enacted, would hugely undermine existing housing rights and laws. It undercuts licenses, tenancies and centuries of property ownership. It will result in exclusion from housing, increased homelessness and affect many families, including those struggling with drugs, alcohol, mental health problems, children with special needs and so on. It allows for a situation where the behaviour of a child with behaviour problems could see the family removed from their home, even though no offence has been caused.

This is hugely loose wording. "antisocial behaviour" is loosely defined, and so will affect numerous people where behaviour could have caused alarm or distress to another person. The words "persistent" will need to be further defined. But the "relevant period" will be activity that has taken place over the preceding three months. Defining significant and persistent nuisance will be a challenge!

The net effect of this, as with the Antisocial Behaviour Act (Power to close Premises) is that if the Magistrate's Court is satisfied that antisocial behaviour and nuisance is taking place, a Closure Order can be issued, and any body resident in the property will be required to leave, made homeless or face arrest if they refuse to leave.

Despite protestations in the past that this measure was to be used as a "last resort" where other measures had failed, this is not reflected in the legislation. The Magistrate is not required to consider if other measures have been used, or that they have failed. They are only required to consider if they think issuing an order: (c) the making of the order is necessary to prevent the occurrence of such disorder or nuisance for the period specified in the order.

This does leave some room to move for a magistrate and is probably a better wording than the one in the Antisocial Behaviour Act. A sensible magistrate could find that it was not "necessary" if there were other measures available which might work.

As before, the Closure Order doesn't determine a tenancy - it merely denies access. The Tenant has the choice of surrendering their Tenancy (and risking being found intentionally homeless) or refusing to surrender it, not being eligible for alternative housing, and challenging the order through the courts.

And as before, the status of those thus evicted is not clear - in many situations the people evicted will need further housing, and may well be in priority need. So the simple locking out of one house will be a fatuous gesture when the people in question will still need to be housed, probably by the same local authority.

When the Antisocial Behaviour Act was passed, there was hardly a mutter about it because it was aimed at "crack dens" the new bogey-men of UK society. They were considered fair-game and unworthy of rights afforded to the rest of society. This extension may prove more contentious - as people start to realise that what one person considers a normal lifestyle may, by a neighbour, be considered "significant and persistent nuisance." Repeated mowing of lawn in the morning? DIY in the evening? One barbecue too many when smoke blows over the neighbours fence?

This is an illiberal, draconian piece of law, and as before with the Antisocial Behaviour Act removes important protections from individuals and places huge powers in the hands of the State. This time, the legislation must be challenged and concerted lobbying by all agencies will be required to prevent the passage of this Bill. In theory and in practice it is too important to stay silent on this Bill.

To read the full text of the bill click here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmbills/130/2007130.pdf

Speaking Frankly! - frank confused on cannabis

At the end of May 2007 FRANK published their Action Update, "Cannabis Explained." It was made available as a hard copy, distributed to DATs and drugs services, and available as a download from the Home Office website.

At the end of June, a month later, the document was withdrawn from print and off the Government websites. This withdrawal was not accompanied by any notification or official explanation. Indeed, if you didn't know that the document existed, one might not have known that it had ever been there. But the short life of the "Action Update" and the tale of how it came to be removed from circulation raises some important questions about Quality Standards and accountability at Frank.

When the Action Update came out, KFx, alongside other organisations such as the UKCIA noticed some rather glaring errors. These are discussed here. Now while we would accept the interpretation put on Frank to be partisan and loaded, we don't expect it to be factually wrong. But on this occasion there were a number of errors and ommissions which were both obvious and serious. So for example, the document misrepresented the law on cannabis as applicable to under 18s; it said that smoking cannabis in a joint was the least hazardrous, and it didn't mention cannabis contamination at all.

We, alongside the UKCIA and others made representations to the Home Office about these errors and ommissions. And a long and fairly convoluted process began.

For the first couple of weeks, the document remained available on the Home Office website; although serious concerns about its accuracy had been raised, there was not attempt at this stage to suspend distribution while it was reviewed. Given that at least two of the errors were so obvious and so easy to check, this seemed inexcusable. All we got was reassurance that it was being looked at.

A phone call to Frank at this time was illuminating: The initial call handler referred the case swiftly to her senior call handler. The senior handler didn't know about the Frank Action Update, and was unaware of its content. He was suprised at what the action update said about spliff smoking and said that was different to the information on his screen. He said I should contact the Home Office to discuss this.

Frustrated by lack of action - and that the Home Office still hadn't retracted the document, we followed up the initial emails to the Home Office with a phone call. As a nice factual example of a serious inaccuracy, we used the coverage of under 18s and the legal process in relation to cannabis. This was a fairly charged discussion, with the contact at the Home Office not understanding the legislation and explaining that the relevant section had been "signed off" by a Senior Police officer and so had to be right.

Undaunted, emailed to the PA of the senior police officer in question; this email was forwarded to several officers in the relevant force until a helpful Officer emailed me back. after a couple of to-and-fro emails he emailed me back, confirming that he thought the position in the Frank document was wrong.

Back to the Home Office with this information, and after a short delay, they came back describing this information "of concern" and suspending distribution from the website. But in practice the update could still be found after a quick Google search.

A week later, the person in the Home Office wrote back again; this time, followig feedback from the Department of Health, they said

"In the interest of ensuring FRANK provides up-to-date and credible information, DH have recommended that some of the contents of the pack be amended or the issue explored further...As you are aware we have suspended distribution of the pack and removed it from the drugs.gov.uk website. We intend to re-issue the pack later in the year."

This was the right decision by Frank, and should be applauded. But it was a slow decision and an unpublicised one. While the LCA issued a press release about the withdrawal FRANK didn't. Unfortunately few agencies picked up on the LCA announcement. Unfortunately the Daily Dose, who now receive sponsorship from Frank, either didn't get it or didn't consider it sufficiently newsworthy.

There are a number of things about this story that cause concern. How did this flawed document slip through various proofing stages, why were the Home Office so slow to suspend distribution, and why was the suspension so low key when they did decide the document was flawed?

Authorship of the document is not clear; some of it appears to be cut and pasted from other sources. It has the same spellings (and even the same typo at one point) as other FRANK written documents so it suggests that some of the information has merely been recycled from other sources and not been reviewed.

One would hope that a final draft of the document would then be passed to others for scrutiny but clearly this didn't happen or if it did, the scrutiny was severely flawed. The information that we have gleaned suggests that the senior police officer would have understood and checked about the new ACPO guidance on cannabis - which was accurate, but wouldn't have checked the sections on Under 18s and processes under the Crime and Disorder Act, which were wrong.

But most worrying, we would hope that Frank would have a rapid and effective method of first suspending distribution and then informing readers of their errors. They were slow to do the first; they simply didn't bother to do the second.

Despite the branding and publicity material, FRANK is merely a vehicle to distribute drugs information. This epidode has demonstrated that the arbiters of this content are the Home Office. And on this occasion the Home Office have demonstrated their difficulty in commissioning and distributing accurate copy on an important subject.

And let's be clear, this is not the first time that FRANK's content has been found to be wanting. The initial content of the FRANK website was riddled with factual inaccuracies. The revised information still has many items which are of dubious accuracy. So, as one correspondent to KFx noted, if you go to DF118s you get taken to information on Methadone. Different compounds, different information?

FRANK urgently needs to review how it manages content. Remember that the FRANK image includes marketing and branding "experts" who know nothing about drugs. There's the call handling service, which knows something about drugs but has a tendency to regurgitate what is on the screen. And there's the Home Office and DoH which so far haven't managed to produce the level of accuracy that users and workers need.

Perhaps Frank would be best served bringing together an independent panel which could proof, review and advise on their output. That, and an improved system for responding to serious errors, would go some way to ensuring that they do not spend their million-pound budget distributing factually wrong information.

KFx: 12.7.06