Kathy Gyngell is entitled to her own opinions – but not her own facts

Writing for Conservative Home and Comment is Free yesterday, Kathy Gyngell of the Centre for Policy Studies took issue with Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan’s apparent support for the legal regulation of drugs. She questioned whether he and others who favour such a move are actually aware of the vast body of evidence that indicates it would have disastrous effects. But from her article, it seems as though Gyngell herself should become better acquainted with the evidence. Despite the important contribution she makes to the debate, her track record on the science has not always matched her undoubtedly good intentions. She has in the past misrepresented polling results on her CPS blog (note the comment from Transform), misrepresented a Cochrane study in the Daily Mail, and exaggerated figures in her publications to fit her particular narrative.

In her latest article, she cites a couple of studies that looked at the effects of changes in cannabis law enforcement. The first examined what happened following the downgrading of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug in 2004, and the second focused on the impact of the depenalisation of low-level cannabis offences in Brixton in 2001 (essentially, the police were instructed not to pursue these offences).

Gyngell says these two studies demonstrate, respectively, that cannabis consumption rose by around 30% as a result of the 2004 declassification, and that the number of hospital admissions for class A drug users in Brixton increased dramatically during the time the depenalisation policy was in place.

Both of these claims assume a causal link between the respective reforms and their supposed negative effects – but there’s no evidence of such a link. In the case of the second claim, as Ewan Hoyle of the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform has written, the researchers didn’t control for any confounding variables that might be a more likely cause of the increase in hospital admissions. And, funnily enough, there is a more likely cause: the introduction of a needle exchange programme in the same year that Lambeth depenalised cannabis, a programme whose express intention was to get problematic drug users into hospital so that they could receive treatment for their health conditions.

The other study mentioned by Gyngell, which supposedly shows that cannabis use went up after the drug was downgraded to class C, does not make the claims she attributes to it. As one of the authors of the study himself said after the media misreported his findings:

“Contrary to press reports, we do not find any absolute increase in cannabis consumption, (a) because we never looked at absolute increases in cannabis consumption and (b) because as far as I know there has never been any absolute increase in cannabis consumption.”

What the study did find was that there was an increase in cannabis consumption among people who had never tried cannabis before, but as Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent has pointed out:

“Of course, cannabis use amongst people who had never used cannabis could only go one way: up. To prove that this increase was affected by the 2004 changes would be very difficult to do, and has so far not been done.”

In actual fact, cannabis use declined after it was downgraded to class C in 2004, and this trend has continued after it was made a class B drug again in 2009. Weirdly, Gyngell herself later acknowledges this long-term decline, so I’m not sure why she argues that consumption increased as a result of the 2004 reform. The Home Office figures clearly don’t show any spike in use throughout the whole period that cannabis was a class C drug.  

Extent of last year cannabis use among adults, 1996 to 2012 to 2013, Crime Survey for England and Wales

Source: Home Office

Gyngell goes on to imply that our current drug laws are working because of the decrease in cannabis use among young people. She compares that trend to the far higher numbers of those who consume the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, but doesn’t mention other legal drugs, such as solvents, that are used far less than cannabis. She also fails to mention that both alcohol and tobacco use are also falling in the UK – and that these reductions are occurring without a single smoker or drinker being criminalised.

Furthermore, while cannabis use has been falling, use of some other illegal drugs (including some that carry harsher penalties than cannabis) has been rising. Cocaine use follows this trend, as does ketamine use, which has been increasing since the drug was banned in 2006. What can we conclude from all this? Most obviously, the situation appears to be a bit more complicated than Gyngell’s simplistic prohibitionist theory would suggest. It seems that enforcement of our criminal drug laws has, at best, a marginal impact in deterring young people from using drugs. Instead, rates of drug use are more likely to rise and fall in line with  broader cultural, social or economic trends. This is the conclusion that research consistently comes to – that a country’s rates of drug use are influenced by factors other than its drug laws. How harsh those laws are doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. (The graph below helpfully illustrates this point.)  

Looking for a relationship between penalties and cannabis use

Source: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Finally, Gyngell compares the situation in the UK to that in the US, which she claims is far worse off as a result of 21 states legalising cannabis for medical use over the past 15 years or so. She says “teenage drug use doubled to much higher levels than here and was accompanied by a halving of teens’ perception of harm.” Now it’s true that cannabis use among young people is higher in the US than in the UK, but Gyngell overlooks the fact that, during the past 15 years, there has, again, been a long-term downward trend in rates of use.

As the US National Institute for Drug Abuse states:

“According to the Monitoring the Future Survey—an annual survey of attitudes and drug use among the Nation's middle and high school students—most measures of marijuana use decreased in the past decade among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders.”

Gyngell actually links to the website for this survey in her article, so it’s odd that she neglects to mention this trend. She’s right, however, with regard to the change in attitudes about the risks of cannabis. The NIDA confirms that attitudes have “softened” and that cannabis use has gone up in the past few years, but again, it would be difficult to establish that this recent change is the result of the legalisation of medical cannabis, particularly as US states have been taking this step as far back as 1996.

As for the state of Colorado, which legalised cannabis for non-medical use late last year, Gyngell thinks we can already be certain that it’s been a disaster. Personally, I think it’s too soon for any serious research to have been carried out into its immediate effects the stores have been open for a few weeks and we might expect at least a temporary increase in reported prevalence, both because of the general novelty factor and the media coverage of the stores, but also because people may be more forthcoming in surveys now that non-medical cannabis use is legal. But if Colorado does experience increases in use or cannabis-related harm in the longer term, then this may be due to the more commercial model that Colorado has adopted. Transform, and many other policy analysts, have been keen to highlight the tensions between public health goals and commercial interests in a legal cannabis market. This is a key theme in our latest book, ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’, and it’s why we advocate a stricter model of government control for such markets, one that involves a complete ban on advertising, restrictions on the types of cannabis products that can be sold, plain packaging with prominent health warnings, and price controls. In fact, we’d like to see something that more closely resembles Uruguay’s model of cannabis regulation, which Transform were actually consulted on by the Uruguayan government.

There are also many outcomes of drug policy beyond mere prevalence: it may be that even a commercial model with a marginal rise in use is preferable to the chaos of a criminal trade under prohibition. We will of course have to wait for the evidence and see. Fortunately, we now have a range of cannabis regulation models emerging that will inform future developments.

Ludicrous strawman arguments, ad hominem attacks on named and unnamed individuals, and unreferenced anecdotal quotes will also not be featuring in our analysis.

So while Kathy Gyngell seems to think cannabis legalisation is the pet cause of “ageing libertarians”, the reality is that most drug policy reformers aren’t calling for some kind of drugs “free-for-all” where anything goes. Nor is the support for reform defined by simplistic partisan, ideological or cultural dividing lines, as Gyngell suggests (see, for example, the supporters of reform page of our website, or visit Marijuana Majority). This is not some imagined culture war – it is about finding pragmatic public health responses to the reality of drug use in the face of decades of counterproductive failure. We want to reclaim control of the drug trade, by taking it out of the hands of organised criminals so that governments and other authorities can responsibly manage it within a legal framework. Ultimately, we want to apply strict controls to a risky trade that currently has none.