A response to Neil McKeganey

The below was written in response to this article on the Conservative Woman website, written by Professor Neil McKeganey.
 

Hi Neil,

I respect your academic work and have had useful and civil conversations with you personally, so I was disappointed with your comments on the GCDP report on the Conservative Woman blog, which I felt were ill-informed and reactionary. They give the impression that you have not actually read the report or listened to the live-streamed presentations from the launch, but were responding to some of the headlines. I was involved in the report's production so perhaps notice these misrepresentations more than most.

The headline was odd as they are not a 'front' for legalisation (which implies some sort of sneakiness or deception). Legal regulation of drug markets is one of the core calls of the report, as indeed you make clear.

You have also got the title of the report wrong.

Your description of the Commission as "a collection of ex-political leaders and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson" feels somewhat dismissive. The Commissioners do include Branson, but also seven former heads of state (the Prime Minister of Greece, incidentally, was still in power when he joined the Commission), the former UN Secretary-General, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the former UN commissioner on refugees, and the serving UN special envoy on HIV in Eastern Europe (also the former head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria). You detail none of this and don't even provide a link to the report or the Commission's website, which is good practice even if you don't like what you are writing about.

You say that they are "promoting the legalisation of all currently illegal drugs". That is not accurate and fails to capture the more nuanced position of the report. The report clearly outlines a range of possible regulation approaches for different drugs associated with different risks, but specifically states:

"exploring regulatory models for a range of drugs does not suggest that all drugs or drug preparations should be made legally available. Maintaining prohibitions on the most potent and risky drugs or drug preparations, such as crack ... is also a health imperative" (p.28).

and:

"Inevitably, while some of drugs will be accessible with appropriate controls and some only available via medical prescription, other more harmful drugs will necessarily remain prohibited."

There is a summary of the "massive evidence of the failure of the 'war on drugs'" in the report on page 12 (all carefully referenced, and links to further reading are also provided at the end), and their previous reports have explored these themes, notably regarding HIV and Hepatitis C, in considerably more detail.

That this evidence, as you sweepingly claim "strangely manages to elude those who currently occupy those positions" conveniently ignores the numerous sitting politicians who don't ignore it. Indeed many - including the presidents of the USA, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico - are prominently quoted in the report. Nearer to home is, amongst many others, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, whom you have actually written about on the same blog.

You say that it is a Global Commission in name only, and "It has no representatives from Africa, China, Russia, India or the Islamic world". It does in fact very prominently include Kofi Annan from Africa, and Asma Jahangir, the former UN special rapporteur on arbitrary, extra-judical and summary executions - from Pakistan.



Members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy - one of whom is a particularly famous African man
 

You then say "Its advice on drugs policy is that drugs should be regulated by governments across the world irrespective of their political, ethical, religious, philosophical, and moral colour or the nature of the drug problem they are dealing with, or the drugs treatment infrastructure they have in place." This again does a disservice to the actual content of the report, which states that:

"A legal regulatory framework therefore establishes strict and transparent parameters for the drug trade. Rather than expand what is available, it would instead control what is permitted and set guidelines for the availability of specific products. The precise details of which drugs or drug products should be available and under what regulatory framework would need to be decided by local jurisdictions themselves, based on their specific realities and challenges."

You say the commission is a "a single-issue lobby group with a one size fits all drugs policy". Single-issue with regard to drug policy, well yes - hence the name (although I dont recall referring to you as single-issue academic or lobbyist, although arguably you are both), but the chair's foreword to the report is clear: "There is no one-size-fits-all pathway to enacting drug policy reform". Whilst they are clear that the health reorientation, decriminalisation, and essential medicines recommendations are urgent and universal, there is also a clear commitment to greater environmentally determined flexibility regarding enforcement strategies and regulation.

You say that "claims that huge (but unspecified) numbers of addicts are having their human rights abused, are being jailed for no offence other than drugs possession and, shock horror, are being forced into treatment" are "unevidenced". In fact, referenced numbers are provided in the examples in the opening section (see p.12) on coerced treatment and human rights abuses - and much more is provided in the further reading sections. It is bizarre that you would just sweep these horrendous issues aside as if they were not happening - if this is what you are indeed claiming.

There is also a much more nuanced discussion of treatment and drug courts than you suggest. It only specifically rules out coerced treatment for possession-only offences. This may not be an issue in the UK but abusive coerced treatment is a huge issue in many other countries, and it is obviously not only the Global Commission pointing this out. Many UN agencies have also done so.

It is ridiculous to suggest that the unregulated legal high free-for-all in the UK is somehow the "embodiment" of the commission's approach - as even a cursory reading of the regulation section will make more than clear. They are very clear that strict regulation is needed and specifically highlight the problems with unregulated or inadequately regulated legal markets. To suggest the Commission advocate "legal drugs for everybody, available everywhere" is extremely misleading.

You also inaccurately report developments in New Zealand (again). The NPS regulation model passed in the 2013 law is still in place and progressing. What has happened is that the interim licences for a small number of products (which was serving as a bridge between the unregulated system and the newly established regulatory model) have been withdrawn. This was largely driven by election-time panic, but had in fact already substantially reduced the number of 'headshops' selling completely unregulated products and put in place some regulation where previously there was none. The new law is still on track so please stop claiming it has been abandoned - only the temporary licenses have been withdrawn. there is a short description of the New zealand model in the report that details the nature of what NZ has developed (p.30).

The comment about Portugal, that it is "trumpeted by the legalisers as the Mecca of their cherished policy" also makes no sense as they haven't legalised any drugs, and no "legalisers" I'm aware of, let alone the Commission, claim that they have. They have decriminalised possession for personal use and reoriented drug policy spending from enforcement to health and harm reduction - the results have generally been very positive. For a summary with the latest data see here.

You seem to have totally misunderstood the whole thrust of the regulation argument. One of the Commission's headlines is: "The regulation of drugs should be pursued because they are risky, not because they are safe."

Please actually read a publication before critiquing it next time. You are welcome in the debate but please at least report others' views and statements accurately.