29 October 2007

Drug Testing Times


Another big merger in the drug testing market - and testing spreads in to more arenas. Is it time for clear legislation and policy to regulate this growing market?

At the end of September 2007, AIM listed company Concateno bought the drug testing company Cozart. Since 2006, and following a rapid spending spree, Concateno has acquired most of the drug-testing companies in the UK, and now controls a portfolio including Medscreen Ltd, Altrix HealthCare, Euromed, TrichoTech, Marconova, CPL, and Cozart Bioscience.

Part of the rationale for the acquisition of Cozart was to gain access to the Cozart Rapiscan technology which allows for portable drug testing in places such as road-side testing.

Concateno is now a hugely powerful player in the international drug-testing field, covering most aspects of testing (except Ion Scan technology). Having gained control over the key testing companies, logic suggests that we will now see an increase in lobbying to expand drug testing in a variety of settings. At present drug testing has been focussed on safety critical, criminal justice and drug treatment settings. The next expansion is likely to be in non-critical settings - general workplace, education and social settings.

We've already seen the start of this expansion - the random drug testing of school-children, for example. But this is only the start. At the moment, most of the testing technologies are, to a greater or lesser extent, invasive. The exception, and one of the companies not yet owned by Concateno is the Ion Scan.

It is this last technology, probably the most controversial of all the drug testing modalities, which is the greatest cause for concern. As the cost of Ion Scan technology has decreased, and as the availability of the equipment increases, we are seeing this technology being used in a range of settings.

Alongside the use of Ion-Scanners in school settings as part of so called "drugs awareness sessions" they are also increasingly being used in pub and club settings, random (consensual) testing of motorists and other public arenas.

Some police forces have even approached and 'encouraged' hostels and direct access services to allow the use of testing equipment on residents.

All this leads to a couple of inexorable conclusions: the first is that the use of the Ion Scan technology is going to increase and the second is that there is insufficient regulation or protection in place as to how and when it can be used. Given that results from Ion Trace technology are especially prone to generating "false positives" due to extraneous contamination, the unmoderated and unverified use of this technology has to be a cause for concern.

At present there is no obligation to consent to scanning with an Ion Trace detector in a public place. However, there is less clarity as to whether or not refusal to consent to a trace should be reasonable grounds for a stop and search. PACE needs to be amended to make it clear that refusal to be Scanned should not, of itself, be considered grounds for a search.

Likewise, to date much of the testing has taken place in semi-voluntary settings such as pubs and clubs. But its imposition in involuntary settings such as schools, or essential services such as hostels changes this dynamic. In these settings the 'choice' to be tested or not is severely restricted.

Finally, the status of Ion Scan test results are not well established in the UK. But given the rise and rise of this testing technology, we are long overdue legislation and guidance to manage this burgeoning technology.

Dr Kay Lumas' book "Drug Testing in the Workplace - A Pilot study on trace detection technology is now available. For information and review see here

Concateno buys Cozart: http://www.hemscott.com/news/latest-news/item.do?newsId=51002736731140

18 October 2007

Can Frank still tell the Truth? - our lying drugs propaganda service

Frank is starting to develop real problems with the truth. Frank has often been a stranger to accuracy in the past, but some of Frank’s recent pronouncements have seen Frank drift further from the world of drug facts and into the heady worlds of drug propaganda.

Before we go any further we should disabuse ourselves of the manufactured image of Frank being some kind of avuncular character who understands the foibles of youth but was old enough to impart sage advice. Frank is no such thing. Frank is a branding concept, developed by marketing consultants, tested in focus groups, assessed, reviewed, honed. The brief: hip, but not too hip; funny, but serious; accessible to the youth but don’t alienate the parents; understanding but not overly tolerant.

The evidence is that the marketing consultants succeeded in their aim. Brand Frank was created and supplanted the “National Drugs Helpline” with the Frank logo, website, helpline and campaigns.

Frank however, attempts to fulfil two very different roles. On the one hand, Frank is responsible for delivering the phone-service that was once the National Drugs Helpline. The Government has funded Essentia Group to the sum of £1.45 million in 2006-07 for FRANK (drugs), Sexual Health Line, Drinkline and Know The Score, the Scottish helpline on drugs. The Government can’t say how much Frank helpline actually costs specifically but estimates the cost at around £800,000 in 06-07. To put this spend in to some sort of context, the previous year the Home Office spent almost twice this amount (£1,588,007) in advertising FRANK http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm060911/text/60911w2347.htm

According to Government figures, and despite extensive advertising spending, the number of people accessing the Frank Helpline has not increased over the past three years, and the figures for 2006-07 are lower than the previous year, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070719/text/70719w0032.htm

Despite spending significant sums on advertising, only 4,444 under sixteens phoned Frank in 2006-07 – despite the fact that more that at least 40% of young people in this age bracket have experimented with drugs.

The Ask Frank service can deliver good quality information and does, at times, demonstrate a level of imagination and free-thinking. But, too often, Frank call handlers limit their responses to the on-screen information, referring anything more complicated to local drugs services. Frank really doesn’t want to get bogged down on a thirty minute call; Frank’s not set up for it. So Frank would rather signpost the caller on, send some information out or bring the call to an end, rather than undertake more open-ended telephone support.

Such a limited service would be just about acceptable were the Government still funding other services such as Release to undertake more in-depth, open-ended or longer interventions. Unfortunately the Government is no longer willing to do so. They claim that the funding mechanisms that hitherto supported Release no longer exist – and argue that there is no need to fund two drugs helplines. Either way, the Ask Frank service is now the lynchpin of low-level drugs advice to young people and their families in the UK.

But the Frank helpline is just once facet of Frank’s many faces. Because Frank also runs campaigns, places advertisements, and has the Ask Frank website. Frank also lends his name to any of a range of information, resources, materials or events produced locally or regionally.

Frank (the Helpline) and Frank (the advertising and campaign machine) are two very different beasts. Frank (the Campaign Machine) is effectively a manifestation of the Home Office’s drug strategy. Rather than branding resources with the Home Office logo, and making it clear that the information is prepared, vetted and distributed by the Home Office, the illusion is created that it is more independent, more free-thinking, less agenda driven.

But raise questions about content on the Frank Website, in adverts or in publications and all enquiries inexorably lead back to the Home Office. Some content has been externally commissioned; others has been drafted in house and then signed off by other bodies such as the Police or the Department of Health.

Take as an example the recent Frank Action Update, which focussed on Cannabis but was subsequently withdrawn due to serious factual errors. The legal sections (some of which were incorrect) were meant to have been produced by a senior police officer on Merseyside; the sections on reducing cannabis related harm were referred back to Health Advisors in the Home Office.

Ironically, the Frank phone advisors were unaware of the Action Update and, when it was brought their attention, disagreed with the content.

Does it matter that Frank has a Home Office run campaign arm? The answer to this should be a resounding “yes!” It is imperative that people who use drugs, especially young people, should have a source of information that is balanced, impartial, non-judgemental, and above all accurate. This may mean giving people information which is politically sensitive, which runs counter to Government policy, or which is in other respects controversial. Such an approach assists the credibility of the information, and the extent to which young people will retain – and act on this information. To do this information should not be slanted to serve a political agenda, or watered down to make it acceptable to Government.

The Frank branding exercise are intended to create the illusion of this credible, trustworthy and balanced information source. And certainly some call handlers at the Helpline work towards these standards where they can.

But, cynically, having created the illusion of Frank, the Home Office seeks to impart partial truths and untruths about drugs and bolster their credibility by putting Frank’s name on it.

This is a short-sighted approach and hugely damaging. Because as people become aware that the Frank adverts are simply the Home Office dressing up the Government’s messages in yoof clothes, why should anyone trust the Helpline? And if trust in the helpline is diminished, where can young people get this independent and impartial information?

Trust – in organisations like Release (for example) was cultivated over a number of years through action and words. Frank has attempted to nurture the same sort of trust in a fraction of the time through branding and image management.

Having done so, the Home Office seeks to use this trust to promote anti-drug messages, under the guise of the ersatz-honesty of Frank.

Trust in services should be developed over time, through a framework that ensures integrity, accuracy and independence. Trust cannot and should not be manufactured by marketing consultants. Frank hasn’t earned out trust, and doesn’t have these hallmarks to ensure that further pronouncements reach the high standards of accuracy and impartiality we so badly need.

KFx: October 2007

03 October 2007

War Amongst the Angels: How Caroline Coon's attack on Release is ill-judged and ill timed

Caroline Coon launched a wordy and savage attack on Release, through the medium of her website. Entitled "the Plight of Release" she lays in to the organisation that she cofounded, describing it as "irrelevant," and accusing it of simply being an aspect of the "prohibition industry" She argues that the organisation should either close or substantially restructure to become viable and relevant.

Having worked for Release and having had contact with Caroline in the past, I certainly can't claim to be objective. But Coon's diatribe is ill-judged and had the potential to be hugely damaging.

Release was co-founded by Caroline Coon, but she has had little engagment with the organisation over the past couple of decades. It seems strange that she should choose to break her silence now, and in such a public and damaging way. Over the past forty years the organisation has had to evolve and change. It ceased to be a collective, had to fight harder for funding, needed to ensure that it operated within the contraints of charitable law.

Coon rails at the "ludicrously unambitious Directors" but her bile would have been better directed at previous Trustees, who undermined and hounded out former Director Mike Goodman, obstructed and hampered the refocussing of the organisation and, without discussion with existing staff imposed the ill-fated "Forward Thinking on Drugs" project on the organisation. Coon's opinion was that these Trustees operated with "wise discernment in the interests of the organisation." Nothing at this point could have been further from the truth.

Release is increasingly operating in a hostile environment, with Government policy moving further and further away from any revision to the drugs legislation. Funding of helplines has been focussed on Frank, which has become less independent and more a voice of Government strategy.

Revision and lobbying on drugs law has become equally competitive. There has been a recent proliferation of bodies lobbying for change. Whilst one would hope that this proliferation would result in more widespread and unified lobbying on legal change this has not happened. Instead, different fiefdoms, keen to garner profile and support, choose not to cooperate and stress difference from their peers, rather than working together. Release has suffered badly within this increasingly crowded field.

But (and this is the is a big but) Release is undoubtedly one of the "good guys." Profile may have dropped, it may not shout as loudly as it once did. But that is no reason to spuriously accuse it of being part of Prohibition industry. Such an accusation is deeply offensive, especially given the history of Release staffers such as Sebastian Saville and Gary Sutton.

Something has prompted Coon to think that Release should now be taken down. Perhaps it stems from conversations with Release staff. maybe she has been the subject of external pressure. Possibly, she thinks she is doing the best thing. She is not stupid. She may think that her contribution could be a needed kick up the behind. She should also be aware that it could be the knife in the back. If she is indeed trying to kill off the organisation that she co-founded, then she does the field a huge disservice.