Posts Tagged ‘ drugs ’

Rock Star asks to be Convicted of Growing Cannabis

Guest post by ex rock-star and disabled activist Edwin Stratton, who talks about why he asked a jury to find him guilty of growing cannabis. He faces a possible sentance of up to 14 years. This is his story.

I am a disabled cannabis user, with a prescription for a cannabis spray that my Primary Care Trust will not fund. I chose to grow my own and was caught; I subsequently refused a police caution and pleaded Not Guilty. At Snaresbrook Crown Court last week, I told the jury that although my conscience is clear, they should convict me.

It seems a lifetime ago, but I was once a rock musician with a successful international career. In 2001, I developed a sensitive form of Coeliac Disease, an autoimmune condition that began to erode my health. By 2004 I was unable to play music, the pain and nausea had become intolerable and continuous, and I was suffering from malnutrition because I could no longer absorb nutrients. Then the prescription painkillers stopped working.

Cannabis

Fortunately, I discovered the benefits of cannabis. For many thousands of people cannabis is the only medicine that reduces the pain, quells the nausea, stills the tremors, lifts the depression and calms the anxiety. When prescribed pharmaceuticals fail, we have the ‘choice’ of obeying a blunt and pointless law that demands either our passive agony, or opting for a life worth living by breaking it. This is no choice at all. Who in their right mind would accept the immediate imperative of chronic, untreatable pain against the remote threat of prosecution and conviction? Because so many of us can’t derive pain relief through alternative means, and because it is a far, far safer alternative to alcohol, many millions of otherwise law-abiding Britons believe cannabis prohibition to be unfair and unworthy of obedience.

My medical predicament was acknowledged in a letter from the Minister for Policing, Crime and Drugs, Vernon Coaker, to my local MP, Harry Cohen on 21st July 2008:

“…we recognise that there are people like Mr Stratton, with severe pain and debilitating illnesses, who cannot satisfactorily alleviate their symptoms through the use of existing medication… That is why we have said that we would seek Parliament’s agreement to make any necessary changes to the law to enable the prescription of cannabis-based medicine, for the purposes of relieving pain…”I followed Mr. Coaker’s advice, and in due course my medical need for cannabis was confirmed by my pain consultant. I became one of the few people offered a prescription for cannabis in its liquid form: Sativex, on the proviso that my Primary Care Trust would fund it. But in spite of comprehensive peer-reviewed evidence, my PCT declared that Sativex is not sufficiently proven for pain relief to justify funding.

Cultivation

At first I tried buying cannabis on the street, as a less-risky proposition than growing it. But as a disabled person I felt extremely vulnerable hanging around the streets of East London. It’s also the worst of all options because dealer-weed is frequently adulterated. I have bought cannabis laced with silica and glass; I have seen it contaminated with iron filings, and even lead dust. If I am to find relief at all, the only safe solution is to grow my own.

So, in February 2008, I began growing cannabis in my spare room. Three months later, my luck ran out when a neighbouring wine bar was firebombed. The conflagration spread, the police burst into my home to evacuate and found my plants. Arrested and bailed, a week later I was offered a police caution, which I refused on principle. To accept a caution would be as absurd as not growing chamomile for headaches.

On 1st October 2008, I was charged with cultivation of cannabis. Eight days later I appeared at the Magistrates’ Court where I moved to seek permission in the High Court for a Judicial Review of the decision to stand me for trial, on the grounds of unconscionable behaviour by the government. I asserted that I should not have to be before any court, that I was only in court at all because the Home Secretary had abused his powers by not applying the law fairly and equally to all drug users.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is designed to control ‘dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs’ proportionate to the evidence of their potential for causing a ‘social problem’. A reading of its provisions reveals that the Home Secretary has misunderstood the Act, in that crucially it does not mandate prohibition, but instead provides for meaningful controls across a vast range of policy choices; it is beautifully crafted to implement whichever measures reduce social harms most effectively.

It is a neutral Act. It does not imply that the Home Secretary can exempt, for example, heroin dealers or cocaine traffickers from controls under the Act. It’s neutrality also means it does not grant the Home Secretary the power to exempt similar activities involving the most socially obnoxious drugs of all: alcohol and tobacco.

My private activities involving cannabis were harmless to society compared to identical activities with alcohol and tobacco. This double-standard cannot be enshrined in a neutral Act. Therefore, in my legal submissions, I alleged that successive Home Secretaries have abused their discretionary powers under the Act. I isolated three legal errors, which give rise to a litany of unfairness and irrationality, resulting in an arbitrary drugs regime causing the unlawful, unequal treatment of people engaged in identical activities with equally or less-harmful drugs than the most popular ‘legal highs’, alcohol and tobacco. This cannot be lawful.

 

Edwin Stratton playing the drums

The unequal treatment I suffer is clear. In 2009, the supermarket behemoth Tesco was fined a meaningless £6000 and denied a liquor license for 28 days at its Blackpool branch, for “persistently selling alcohol to children”. While for my private activities which do not involve the supply of addictive, lethal drugs, and which might be said to cause a social solution (pain relief) I face up to 14 years in prison.

Unequal treatment

In 2009 the Home Office confirmed that alcohol and tobacco fall squarely within the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act.  Now that the government has finally admitted that alcohol and tobacco are harmful drugs, the question arises as to why users of safer alternatives are irrationally singled out.

The government’s answer came in a 2006 Command Paper, Cm 6941. In spite of its acknowledgment that “alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs”, the government defended its provision of civil rights to alcohol and tobacco users on the one hand, versus its criminalisation of users of ‘illegal’ drugs on the other. The government did not justify this unequal treatment on the grounds of science, or for the protection of society. For the first time ever the government admitted that the inequality of treatment is based on “historical and cultural precedents.”

‘Historical and cultural precedents’ are the stock-in-trade of discrimination, the justification for racism, sexism, homophobia and slavery. This is the ‘reason’ that smashed the genius of Oscar Wilde. The same ‘reason’ drove the criminalised homosexual Alan Turing, perhaps our greatest scientist, to depression and suicide. Today, this arbitrary justification continues to destroy the lives of thousands of ordinary people, while permitting identical activities with the most lethal drugs of all. Cannabis has never caused a fatality, where alcohol and tobacco cause over 150,000 deaths every year in the UK.

At the High Court, I claimed that the government’s justification for the inequality of treatment I suffer is irrational, unfair and illegal. I argued that it is disproportionately restrictive of my civil rights and freedom of choice to deny access to safer alternatives to alcohol; that it is invasive of my privacy, and abusive of my freedom of thought. I insisted that a fair trial was impossible, and asked the High Court to prohibit my trial.

On July 1st, 2009, the High Court refused me permission for Judicial Review, ruling that there had not been an abuse of power even if the government did admit to arbitrarily prohibiting ‘illegal’ drugs on the grounds of ‘historical and cultural precedents’, rather than for the protection of society as the law demands. The High Court adjudicated that the law as applied to me, but not to users of the more-harmful drug alcohol was NOT discriminatory, and therefore was not unlawful. I was sent back to the Magistrates’ Court, and committed for trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court.

Trial

My trial began on Monday 26th April 2010. On the Tuesday, His Honour Judge Tudor Owen ruled that there had been noabuse of power by the Home Secretary, and even had there been, the Crown Court is not the place to rule that the law is wrong. The judge told me that the place to argue that the law itself is bad is the Court of Appeal.

On the Wednesday, I was tried for cultivating cannabis. I represented myself, but was forbidden from defending on the grounds of medical necessity, that option having been eliminated at the Court of Appeal in 2005. I could not argue an abuse of power; the Judge having ruled that out the day before. I had no defence in law.

There is another obscure option available for people who represent themselves: ‘jury nullification’. For three centuries juries have had the power to pass a verdict on whether the law itself is wrong. The jury may acquit the defendant, regardless of the evidence or the facts, if they think the law is bad. Judges don’t tell juries they have this power, so few jurors know about it, and lawyers are not permitted to mention it.

Jury nullification would seem sensible for the purposes of damage-limitation. But, if the jury were to acquit me, my journey would immediately stop. Two years of groundwork, of developing and refining arguments, of trying to make an impact on drugs policy, would be over. I would be acquitted, but nothing would have changed. I still risk arrest, prosecution and jail if I dare to address my symptoms.

Clearly, acquittal would be an unsatisfactory outcome. I felt that I needed to come out of my trial with more substance than the mere cessation of proceedings. What value is an acquittal if it affects nobody but me, and then only in the short term? Many thousands of people in similar situations to mine can’t even stand up, let alone stand up for themselves in Court, so it falls to me to do it for them.

The Judge’s instruction that the Court of Appeal is the venue to challenge a bad law made it clear. Per His Honour’s assertion, if I wished to take the matter forward to a potentially more meaningful conclusion for all of us, and not just for me, I would have to be convicted. Only then could I go to the Court of Appeal to exercise a Rizla-thin chance, but a chance nonetheless, at challenging a dreadful law.

Witness

I took the stand determined to tell the whole truth. I argued on behalf of sick people and for adults who choose to relax in the evening with a safer drug than a glass of wine. I told the jury I agree with Professor Nutt, the former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who was sacked for making his scientifically-based opinions public. I admitted my sinful enjoyment of smoking cannabis; only when the pain subsides can I enjoy life. I explained how vicious the law is, how sick people like me, in addition to responsible adults enjoying a cultural choice, are caught in the law’s dragnet for private, peaceful activities affecting nobody else. I told them that guilt is as appropriate to me as would be to them if they chose to brew a demijohn of wine; I had no option but to plead Not Guilty on principle. I said that my activities were partly an act of civil disobedience, and reminded the jury of the words of Martin Luther King – that it is our duty to disobey unjust laws.

I repeated the directions of the Judge: that this Court has no power to rule on a bad law, or to make exemptions from it. I then relayed His Honour’s assertion that the place to argue that the law itself is bad is the Court of Appeal.

I informed the jury that they have the power to acquit me if they think the law is wrong, even in spite of the facts and the evidence:


“…but I will not be asking you to do that today.”
 

I want to go to the Court of Appeal, but if I am acquitted, that is the end of the matter, and I will be in the same position next week if I choose to grow cannabis. I will be liable to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment, and nothing has changed. My ambition is to challenge this appalling law, therefore I ask that you convict.”


“Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any sympathy for me, if you think it is unjust for sick people to be persecuted in this way, you will pass a verdict of guilty. Please help me out here today by convicting me.”Verdict

The jury returned after less than a minute to pass the verdict I had demanded of their consciences: Guilty. I flashed a grateful smile at the honourable twelve, and gave them two thumbs up. Most of the jurors returned my smile, apparently happy to have granted my wish.

Thanks to government intransigence, my conviction is an opportunity to argue my case at the Court of Appeal, in an attempt to help myself and many thousands of people to live a better quality of life.

Sentencing will take place at Snaresbrook Crown Court on May 26th, 2010.

This blog usually talks about drugs, queers, sex and anarchism. Subscribe by clicking the button on the right.

Mephedrone: A little perspective?

Calls to ban the legal high mephedrone (or meow meow, mcat, etc.) have increased since the recent, tragic deaths of teenagers Nick Smith and Louis Wainwright after taking the drug.  I want to focus on the harms associated with the drug, and a bit about what we can do legally and socially to reduce those harms.

Lets get this straight, mephedrone has very real harms. Whilst we can’t fully know the cause of Nick Smith and Louis Wainwright’s deaths until the toxicology reports are released, it is likely that mephedrone had some part to play in their death, along with the alcohol they had drank. Whilst the media have previously misrepresented mephedrone’s role in some deaths*, the harms associated with mephedrone cannot be ignored. They should, however, be placed in context.

Mephedrone has been associated with relatively few deaths in the UK and worldwide, especially when compared with other drugs. The few deaths associated with mephedrone pale in comparison when compared to the 22,000 deaths a year caused as a direct result of drinking alcohol, or the 106,000 deaths a year from smoking. Whilst the sheer numbers of deaths due to these ‘culturally acceptable’ drugs should be shocking, they don’t experience the same sensationalist reporting given to mephedrone. Why? Partly because alcohol and tobacco are culturally acceptable; we’re ‘used’ to it killing people. Partly because mephedrone is new, and partly, I think, to some sort of cultural snobbery – people finding the idea of putting things up your nose distasteful.

We know very little about mephedrone, because it is so new, little research has been done on how it reacts with our bodies and what effects it might have. One thing we do know is that it can cause vasoconstriction – the narrowing of the blood vessels – which can put increased pressure on the heart. Vasoconstriction also makes you go pale, make your feet and hands cold, and is the reason many people find it difficult to get an erection on mephedrone (for info on erections and meph, go to the comments section after you have read the rest)  Vasoconstriction as a result of taking mephedrone is unlikely to kill someone on its own, however, so other contributing factors such as underlying medical problems and the effects of other drugs (such as alcohol) taken at the same time are probably significant. There might also be some effects of mephedrone that we simply don’t know about yet.

Banning mephedrone would be a backwards step, for obvious reasons; putting a popular but potentially harmful substance in the hands of unaccountable dealers can only be a bad thing. The legal high market isn’t perfect**, but at least product purity (and so dosage) is something users can rely on. Banning mephedrone would only mean that users would be putting mephedrone + crushed glass up their noses on a night out.

What we need to focus on is getting some good harm reduction information out there about mephedrone. All drug taking involves a certain amount of risk, but there are ways of reducing the risks associated with drug use. So, the safest way of using mephedrone is not to go there. Failing that, avoiding poly-drug use (which seems to be implicated in most of the cases I have read about), doing mephedrone in a safe environment and keeping an eye on how much you are using are all good ideas. It is probably preferable to ‘bomb’ – take it orally – rather than snort, as snorting can damage the nasal membranes. If you are snorting, however, make sure you don’t shart tubes, and don’t use notes. Make sure you keep warm, too, as mephedrone can make you a tad cold. If anyone else has any decent harm reduction advice, please feel free to comment.

*Like the death of Gabrielle Price, which the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Telegraph attributed to mephedrone whilst toxicology reports revealed that she died from broncho-pneumonia from an infection.

** The legal high market is far from perfect. Legal highs are often more dangerous than illicit highs and in the most part severely under-researched. Legal high manufacturers should be able to give out harm reduction information, but in the most cases are restricted in doing so by the law, as giving out such information would be somehow encouraging people to use a substance as a drug and not as a plant fertiliser or a ‘research chemical’. Still, purity and quantity is guaranteed which is a big leap from the illicit drugs market. Hopefully one day both markets will be regulated intelligently, and harm reduction information given out with each purchase.

Add me on twitter @charliethescarf  and subscribe to my blog 🙂

Life on the inside: queer prisoners

Life in prison is hard. Separated from family and friends, prisoners spend a lot of time doing nothing but staring at the walls of their cell for a potentially long time, in harsh conditions. Most people I know can’t really imagine being incarcerated. Yet, the government itself thinks at least 33% of our population to deserve incarceration*, so it is very much a potential reality for a lot of people. But what is life like inside for LGBT prisoners?

Prisons are traditionally seen as a place to put the ‘bad people’; however practically speaking, prisons are a tool of the government to place people with difficult social problems (problematic drug users, etc.) out of sight, and thus out of mind, so the government doesn’t have to make any effort in sorting out the root causes of these problems. As a result, prisons are often places where racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills abound, as social groups hit out at each other as a way of working through their dissatisfaction with their situation. For this reason, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are endemic in prisons.

This homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is perpetuated by the Home Office and the managers of prisons themselves. The Offender Policy and Rights Unit, the group which sets policy for ‘good practice’ in prisons, ignores this blatant discrimination within the system and has yet to produce any guidance on LGBT issues within prisons, or any guidance on how best to deal with the needs of LGBT prisoners. This is evident in some of the policies of UK prisons, where most trans prisoners are placed not by their current gender identity, but by their birth gender, and where LGBT prisoners are often placed in Vulnerable Prisoner Units (VPU’s) as a matter of course. VPU’s are a place where prisoners deemed vulnerable from attack in normal prisons, such as ex-gang members, or paedophiles, are usually kept to keep them separate from those who may do them harm. The existence of Vulnerable Prisoner units often doesn’t ameliorate the discrimination prisoners experience and their existence definitely should not provide a meaningful excuse for tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within the wider prison.

If all the inmates in prisons were as pretty as these, I would probably be more enthusiastic about committing crimes

Life inside for LGBT prisoners can be tough, with LGBT prisoners often being the targets of verbal, physical and sexual assaults. Indeed, Human Rights Watch report that “sex slavery is common in prisons”, and LGBT people are more likely to be targeted – their non-normative sexuality or gender identity being presumed as ‘consent’ by their perpetrators. HIV rates on the inside are 15 times that of the outside world, and Hepatitis 20 times greater. Prison management often do not provide condoms to prisons; some prisons have a limited supply of condoms/dams that would effectively require a prisoner to ‘come out’ to staff to access. As such, all prisoners engaging in sexual activities, consensual or not, are put at risk.

When you look at it, it seems surprising that Stonewall, the LGB Equality Lobby, would award the HM Prisons service an award for equality and diversity, but, they did do just that. GALIPS, the LGBT Prison staff association won an award in 2008 and is on Stonewalls ‘Diversity Champions’ list.** This underpins the blind-sightedness of lobbying groups such as Stonewall, who clamour to praise an organisation for their LGBT rights record when that same organisation is at worst actively oppressing some of the vulnerable LGBT people, or at best deeply complicit in their oppression.

Jokes about "dropping the soap" may be funny, but represent a reality for some queer prisoners

However, its not all bad for LGBT prisoners, there are some organisations doing work to try and improve their situation. The most notable and progressive being the Bent Bars Project, an active but under-resourced collective of activists who aim to campaign and show solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners by  sharing resources, providing mutual support and drawing public attention to the struggles of queer and trans people behind bars. They also have a really amazing pen-pal scheme, which currently has about 600 people waiting to be fixed up with a pen pal on the outside. They are desperately in need of your support. Find out more about how to get involved here:

Add me on twitter @charliethescarf

Think about subscribing to my blog by clicking the button on the right.

Exploring the Mexican Drug War

On the 1st of February, 14 young people were killed in the Mexican border city of Juarez, caught in the cross-fire between the Mexican War on Drugs.
The victims, barely older than children in some cases, were at a birthday party when gunmen drove up to the house and opened fire. 14 people were killed, and 20 more injured. Young people were seen climbing over fences in order to escape. Mexican authorities suspect the murders were enacted by the “La Linea” cartel, who mistakenly believed the address to be associated with a rival cartel. This tragedy comes in a time of increasing violence associated with the government/drug cartels conflict in Mexico.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon effectively declared his own “War on Drugs”, when in 2006, just 10 days after he was elected, he sent 65,000 troops into Michoacán, cracking down on drug cartels in the area. Since Calderon came to power, violence has escalated massively; a total of 18,095 people being killed in this ‘Drug War’ since Calderon came to power, the numbers increasing every year. 7726 people were killed last year, and so far 1118 people have been killed this year.
Mexican drug cartels have become more powerful in recent years due to the effects of American interference in the Columbian drugs trade increasing the amount of drugs that trafficked through Mexico into America. The “Plan Columbia” initiative instigated by President Andres Arango and the US government has caused much devastation in Columbia; an increase in drug related violence, regional political instability, and massive environmental and social destruction associated with US fumigation of coca plantations (and anything else in the surrounding area) with powerful herbicides. The collapse of the Columbian Medellin and Cali Cartels also had a massive impact on pushing more trade through Mexico.
When looking at how aggressive interventionist tactics such as “Plan Columbia” and Calderon’s self declared “War on Drugs” have had on combating the harms associated with drugs we must first ask ourselves 2 questions:
1. Have the harms associated with the drugs trade decreased?
Clearly, the answer in both these cases is no. Calderon escalated violence in the area by giving drug cartels a new enemy to fight against. Whilst it might seem like every gain for the Mexican government in the ‘War on Drugs’ is a good thing, this is often not the case, every cartel leader removed from power means more factional in-fighting as to who replaces them, increasing violence further.
2. Has the drugs trade decreased in output?
No, at least not in the long term. Supply channels have just moved to compensate for American aggression. The ‘Plan Columbia’ initiative caused more drugs to be trafficked via Mexico and the Caribbean, taking the harms associated with the illicit drug trade into new areas. The actual quality of the substances, however, is likely to decrease, increasing the harm to consumers on the American side of the border.
The “War on Drugs” is clearly counter-productive. What we need is a “War on Harm”; where we take into account that an illegal drugs trade will always exist whilst prohibitive laws are in place. Take steps to reduce the harms associated with drugs; regulate their trade so cartels don’t get a look in. Spend the money that would be spent on guns on education. Be proactive rather than reactive.
An organisation that I’m involved in is holding an online vigil and discussion on Thursday 11th, between 9 and 11pm (GMT). We are also asking people to take photos of themselves holding their own vigils at home (think candles) and sending them to mexico@ssdp.org.uk to show solidarity. Come join us at http://www.ssdp.org.uk
Add ssdp on twitter @ssdpuk
Add me on twitter @charliethescarf

Why I support Release’s “Nice People Take Drugs” Campaign

Release, the human rights charity that gives advice and campaigns on drug policy are running a campaign simply
called “Nice People Take Drugs”. In June 2009, they paid for the slogan to be plastered on the side of London
buses, which were pulled a few days later by advertising regulators even though no complaints about the slogan
or the adverts were received by members of the public.

The slogan itself was designed to challenge the moralistic way many people view drugs and drug-users, and to
try and foster an atmosphere where an open dabate on drug policy can held. In a world where drug-users are demonised
by the press, ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ is a powerful thought-provoker, encouraging the public to view drug users as
human beings, instead of rabid criminals out to recruit your children.

The advertising regulator responsible for pulling the ad told Release that they would have to amend the slogan to
“Nice people ALSO take drugs” or “Nice people take drugs TOO”. I suppose the argument is that “Nice people take drugs”
could somehow be conflated as “In order to be ‘nice’, you must take drugs”. I think the general public need to be
credited with more intelligence than that, especially in a world where every other message is saying “Drug takers are
innately evil”.

Whilst the conventional media use easy soundbites about drug harms to justify their reactionary veiwpoints, making
an argument for drug law reform and harm minimisation requires a more nuanced approach. Explaining why control and regulation
of drugs is the best way of dealing with the harms they cause to society and the individual today is complex and often requires
several footnotes to back up your point. But, in a world where the soundbite in the media rules, and a world where politicians
gain from accusing eachother of being ‘soft of drugs’ for taking a progressive approach, that argument is hard to access
through conventional ways. Whilst we as drug law reformers can (and do) win the scientific, moral, social, environmental and economic
arguments, when in a fair debate; the press and legal system is set against us. The slogan “Nice people take drugs”, as much as
a soundbite as any government official could produce, is refreshing. Were now playing them at the same game, and when it comes down to
it, if people actually look at the arguments, were winning.

To find out more about Release visit: http://www.release.org.uk/
Add me on twitter @charliethescarf

What about heroin?

Originally posted as a facebook note way back when.

Yep. “What about heroin?” is *the* first thing that anyone asks when you talk about decriminalising drugs. Its a hard question, as, according to the Parliamentary Select Committee on science, heroin is the most harmful drug. (For reference, alcohol (legal) is the fifth, tobacco (legal) is the ninth, cannabis (class B) 12th, LSD (class A) 15th, and MDMA (class A) 19th out of the drugs investigated).

So, what to do with the world’s most harmful drug when we decriminalise drugs? It’s a hard question, and it’s important to look at the facts. Heroin use was prohibited in the 70’s when the Misuse of Drugs act came into force. Since then, all drug use in the UK has shot up by 300%, but heroin in particular has shot up by 1000%. Heroin, because it is highly addictive, expensive, and impure due to an unregulated, illegal market, means that the harms associated with its use are many.

I’m a firm believer in a harm reduction approach. I feel that if a policy should be pragmatic, and seek to reduce the number of people harmed by drug use, and minimise the intensity of that harm should it occur. So here are my steps to harm reduction. Im first going to focus on the experiences of heroin users, and then society as a whole.

1. Decriminalise.

From talking to a friend of mine who is a drugs worker in Wakefield, there seems to be much anecdotal evidence of overdosing heroin users being left by friends and associates out of fear of legal recriminations, when the ambulance comes. This has reduced somewhat locally in West Yorkshire when the police made the decision to not go out in response to these emergency calls, but people still die unnecessarily out of fear of the police. Whilst i haven’t got any stats for the UK, in America, only 10% of ambulances are called when someone dying of a heroin overdose is still alive, something that could be avoided by decriminalising heroin possession

2. Active Education

Provide adequate education for drug users and their friends on how to recognise a heroin overdose (see the end for information on what an heroin overdose looks like) so an ambulance can be called earlier. At the moment, the drugs education system takes a similar to ‘abstinence only sex education’, and as such is failing the third of us, who choose to do illegal drugs, by not providing us with information on harm reduction and danger signs.

3. Quality Control

If the market for heroin was quality controlled, which is likely to happen in a decriminalised market, many of the health risks associated with heroin use would decrease. Quite a lot of the medical issues heroin users face are caused not by using heroin itself, but by the impurities present in the drug. The impurities are only there because of the government’s policy of prohibition, putting the supply into hands of unaccountable dealers.

4. Sort out needle exchanges.

In this country, our needle exchanges are relatively good. However, not all needle exchanges distribute the essential ‘accessories’ for safe IV drug use, such as filters, sterile water, stericups, and vitamin c. A study also showed that there is a big difference between Scotland and England, with Scotland less likely to give away some accoutrements, and England less likely to give away swabs and wipes, etc. Scotland also has a cap on the amount of needles they can give away to one user in a session, which seems silly as many users may be collecting for others and this could lead to people having to share needles. England are more likely to ‘intervene’ and refuse to give you needles if you are/look under 18, which is horrendous, as this is a likely cause of people under 18 having to share needles – putting our youth disproportionately at risk.

5.. First Aid Training

Train drug users and their friend’s basic first aid such as CPR so the victim of an overdose is likely to get vital help before the ambulance comes. Also, the more IV users know about first aid, especially the importance of sterility and not sharing bodily fluids, the better.

6. Naxolone Provision

Give out naxoline in emergency kits to users and drug workers, and others likely to come into contact with people overdosing on heroin (much like the system with people prone to having anaphylactic shock carrying epi-pens). Naloxone is a drug which has anti-opiod effects, it combats the effects of a heroin overdose when administered to a patient. The dissemination of this drug could save many lives. It also has other interesting properties, which I will come to later.

7. Heroin Maintenance

Methadone maintenance is undoubtedly a good thing, but it is prone to certain problems. The success rate of methadone maintenance programmes are lowered simply because in many cases, people don’t enter them voluntarily, but are coerced (i.e. they are given the choice of either going to prison or going through methadone treatment). So many people in methadone treatment either don’t want to be there, or don’t feel the need to give up heroin. Another problem is that methadone is still a highly addictive drug, which is potentially harmful (especially in its street form), so programme dropouts are put back onto the street with another addiction, often making their problems worse. One solution to these problems would be to actually administer quality controlled heroin to patients. This has all the benefits of methadone treatment (reduction in crime, reduction in the harms associated with an individual’s drug use, increased chance of getting sober, etc.) with a lot less negatives.

8. Expansion of methadone+ treatment

As I mentioned before, methadone treatment is currently one of the best treatment programmes offered at the moment. Studies on heroin maintenance programmes in Switzerland show that quite a lot of people passing through the system end up opting on to methadone or abstinence treatment after a while (showing that after a period of heroin maintenance and emotional therapy, many feel able to start kicking the habit). It is essential that methadone treatment carries on being available. The feasibility of using other maintenance drugs such as Buprenorphine or naloxone (see above) which have the same effect but need administering less often (once every 3 days rather than once a day), which should in theory decrease the cost of these programmes. It is also suggested by some sources that a maintenance programme that requires the patient to be in the clinic less, increases chances of recovery.

9. LSD/ Ibogaine therapy

LSD and Ibogaine are drugs that can, under clinical supervision, break addictions relatively quickly. The main reason why LSD and ibogaine are not used in addiction treatment is because they are currently illegal (because they also happen to make you high, although it isn’t physically possible to be addicted to either drug), and having ‘official acceptance’ of a drugs therapeutical effects calls into question the legitimacy of the illegal status. And so, the drugs remain unused for treating addicts, and remain illegal. Another issue with Ibogaine is that in huge quantities it is neuro-toxic, which is a barrier to its use in treatment. However, a derivative of ibogaine, 18-methoxycoronaridine has no side effects in terms of getting you high, or in terms of toxicity. It is essential that we at least explore further the use of these drugs in treatment of addicts.

10. Questioning 12-step programmes

12 step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous frankly make me rather uneasy. I know their members feel strongly about the benefits of the programmes, so I’m not going to be too critical here. However, they do seem to be based around a belief in G-d, most of the steps mention G-d or some other sort of moral code. The NA produces literature similar to daily prayer books, and encourage recruitment or in their words “planting the seed of recovery in the minds of others”. 12 step programmes have a relatively low success rate of 10%, which makes them an inferior route to recovery than the above options. However, one of the reasons why they are so popular is the community based around them, something that groups like Rational Recovery, which don’t subscribe to pseudo-religious bs, can provide.

11. Changing Attitudes towards heroin use

One of the most important changes that needs to happen is one of attitude. As a society, we view heroin users as losers, dropouts, scumbags. In reality, all we are seeing is only a section of heroin users, the less privileged ones. Drug use here is fundamentally a class issues. Often people with money and privilege can obtain a steady supply of relatively good quality opiates (especially if one works in the medical profession), whereas what the people who we associate with heroin users are the less prividged, those who cannot always afford a steady, good quality supply, and often have to resort to crime to feed their habit. The fact of the matter is that the man who is credited as being the ‘Father of modern surgery’, Dr. William Halsted, was using quite heavily all through his eminent career with most of his colleagues not noticing. He managed not only to hold down a steady job, but to rise to the top of his profession. Why? Because he had access to a steady supply of good quality drugs, something which heroin maintenance treatment would provide.

12. Shooting Galleries

Kind of related to Heroin Maintenance, but Shooting Galleries are basically places where people can go to have supervised injection facilities. This massivley reduces the harm associated with IV drug use (such as HIV, collapsing veins, etc.), and can often simultaneously serve as needle exchanges.

Cost Implications

The implementation of the above steps could involve a lot of money. Just where is this money going to come from? Should tax payers stump up the cash for selfish drug users?

The answer is YES. Currently, we spend a hell of a lot of money on punishing drug users. It costs between 5 and 6 times as much money to put a keep a person in jail, opposed to the cost of providing a heroin user with maintenance treatment. Out of the 105,570 people arrested in 2004 for drug offenses in England and Wales, 85% of the were arrested for simple possession. 11% of those were given a custodial sentance. That equates to around 9900 people in prison for possession of drugs.[1] As the average cost of housing someone in prison is £32,358 [2], so we would save £320,344,200 in one fell swoop. If we decriminalised drugs and allowed regulate businesses to take the place of street dealers, we would save another £52,606,924 just from not having to put the dealers in jail. If you think of the VAST amount of money that we would save from not having to waste police time and resources on drug offenses, that would make a massive saving. According to Transform, the cost of drug motivated crime in Britain as a result of prohibition is costing the taxpayer £19 billion, a third of all UK crime cost.
So, it seems the money is there.

Social Effects of Decriminalsation.

1. Less Crime

Obviously, taking drugs out of the hands of dealers and into the hands of accountable businesses would massively reduce crime, especially violent crime as a result of dealers squabbling to control illicit markets. In fact, harsh prohibitionary ‘crack downs’ on drug crime actually are associated with creating more crime, moving crime to a different areas and initiating territorial disputes which often get violent.
In terms of heroin, crime is reduced massively in an area where heroin prescription/maintenance is present, as people no longer have to find the money to pay dealers. A swiss study found that in the areas where Swiss heroin maintenance programmes were readily available, drug dealing was low, as was property crimes lower than average and possession of other (non-heroin) drugs by the participants.

2. Less Drugs
Many people would imagine that legalising heroin would cause more people to use it, but the ‘medicalisation’ of heroin seems to have had the opposite effect in Switzerland, where the average age of people popping up on the radar for using heroin is getting lower, and the age of those people getting higher, suggesting that less new people are getting into drugs as a result of its medicalisation/decriminalisation.

3 Less Harm
I think the above steps showing harm reduction techniques adequately show that the harm associate with heroin (and other drug) use can be greatly reduced if drugs were decriminalised.

[1] – Home office Statistical bulletin, 2004, Drug offenders in England and wales
[2] National Prison Service Figures

the war on drugs is a war on women!

Ok, everyone here knows i have issues with prohibition of drugs; drug prohibition drives the lucrative market underground, into the hands of violent criminals and away from accountable organisations. Since the first UN Drug Convention in 1961, which was annexed into UK law, and then formed into the 1971 Misuse of drugs act, drug use has risen by 300%, and use of more dangerous drugs like heroin has risen by 1000%. The UK government spend £19 billion on drug motivated crime that is an unnecessary symptom of prohibition. (Transforms statistics). Indeed, prohibition of drugs maximises the harm they have on our society, by putting them in the hands of unregulated, unnaccountable dealers peddling substances of unknown purity, to anyone who they can persuade to take them.

At the NUS LGBT conference, I made a speech on drug law reform comparing the prohibition of drugs to the prohibition of that stalwart of feminism, abortion. Both have similar consequences, by putting the practice underground, it causes people to accept more dangerous services in desperation, and users of those services face similar outcasting from their communities, and often find themselves disenfranchised for making a decision about what to do with their own bodies. After making this speech, I was called ‘appalling’ by another delegate for making this comparison.

This got me thinking, how else does the prohibition of drugs oppress women?

Firstly, one of the more obvious effects of drug prohibition on women, the forcing of them into sex work. In 1999, the number of women prostitutes numbered 80,000, this number is estmated to be much higher now. 95% *of those women have a problematic drugs habit, 78% of them are heroin addicts and the number of crack addicts among prostitutes are growing fast. (Home office figures). Im sure you all know, prostitution is dangerous work. More than half of UK women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted. At least three quarters have been physically assaulted. 68% of women in prostitution meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans undergoing treatment (Ramsey et al 1993). The mortality rate for women in prostitution in London suffer is 12 times the national average (Home Office 2004a). The most tragic thing here is that the problem of women entering prostitution to feed a drug habit is a symptom of our governments prohibition laws, and thus completely unnecessary. In a system of substance control and regulation, quality controlled heroin/other hard drugs could be prescribed to addicts, making the need to engage in sex work to pay dealers go away. Not only would this benefit the women involved, but a Swiss study of 1300 heroin addicts, showed that prescribing heroin to addicts caused crimes in the test areas to drop by 60 per cent since it began in 1994 (Swiss Federal Office of Public Health).

A quick glance of Home Office figures show that 25.3% of white women and 51.3% of black and minority ethic women are in prison because of non-violent drug offences (dont get me started on why the drug war is racist!). According to the Ministry of Justice, the latest figures (from 2 days ago, no less)show that 4299 females/women are staying at her majesty’s pleasure. According to ‘Women in Prison’, one of the biggest complants by women prisoners is the way the prison system is structured; women are often sent to large prisons away from their families.And, in the words of one woman: ” Many women are thrown out of prison without anywhere to live, with no job, only £46 in their pocket and no real means of survival. If they put you in a hostel and you are an addict, it is usually full of drugs and alcohol, so you have no chance of going straight. There is little or no support for you outside, so the government has just thrown all the money it cost to put you in prison down a hole, as those who are repeat offenders have little chance of surviving outside”.

Having a stance of prohibition causes people to be afraid of asking for help if they need it, because of fear of legal consequences for doing so. This affects women disproportionately, as often they are primary care givers to children and other relatives and often dont ask for help for fear of having them removed from them. 12-step programmes like Narcotics Anonymous don’t usually take any figures on gender, but basic observational evidence suggest that women are massively underepresented in NA, and, to a lesser extent in Alcoholics Anonymous – probably due to alcohols more legal, and therfore more ‘acceptable’ status, as well as it being a less harmful drug than heroin and crack in most cases – . This in turn affects their chances of recovery (already so low with only 1 in 10 staying clean for 5 years or more for addicts entering the programme), as women need to talk openly about the context of their problematic drug use, often in the presence of other women as that context is so often gender based. Without a decent network of other women addicts to draw support from, the chances of recovery can be very low indeed.

The UK drug treatment scene is currently geared up for an outdated idea that most problematic drug users are heroin using men, which has lead to a national shortage of female/women drug workers, women only rehab centres, women only open prisons, and other services. At the moment, the government is considering a £1 million investment into furthuring these services, which is way too little.

One of the reasons why women who have a problematic drug use issue dont ‘pop-up’ on the radar as often as they statisitcally should, is that they often have to engage in another, less obvious, type of sex work to feed their habit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women (especially younger, prettier women) end up with dealer boyfriends, and with having a regular supply, dont enter the realm of ‘officialdom’ in terms of stats for accessing services. However, just like 1950’s men holding the pursestrings from their housewives, these dealers can often control when, where, and what type of drugs these women take, and how often they take them. Now, as you can probably imagine, dealers arent necessarily the nicest of people and there are a surprising amount of stories of dealers coercing women into having sex with them in return for their next fix. Taking drugs out of the hands of dealers by controling and regulating the market would stop these women being exploited.

When it comes to taking drugs, women have always been seen to be cautious and men as reckless, and so drug using is more acceptable for men in this male dominated culture. Male establishment still divides women into good girls and bad girls, and drug-using women are always the latter. Women often have more to loose as a result of taking drugs (and the drug war) and have a higher rate of being disowned from their families than drug using men.

So, in short, not only does the system of prohibition force women needlessly into dangerous prostitution, but our societies patriarchal bias means that women face discrimination every step of the way, having a higher chance of disownment, having a rougher time in prison, and, when they get out, not being able to access the services they need to stay (or indeed, get) clean. I think its time that the problem of drug prohibition is placed squarely on the feminist agenda, and i think its time for a real feminist campaign against the oppression of women, against patriarchal bias, and against prohibition.

*This figure is disputed by the English collective of Prostitutes. Other studies has placed the figure between 7o- and 98%. Anyhow, the figure is high.