Friday, February 06, 2009 

For once, the punishment fits the crime.

It's good to see that good sense has prevailed in the case of Robert Holding, the 72-year-old milkman who also supplied his elderly customers with cannabis resin as a sideline, with Judge Lunt suspending the custodial sentence, despite him warning that he was likely to go to prison. The ostensible reason is that Holding's wife, who has Alzheimer's, has gone into a care home and that in an "act of mercy", the judge suspended the sentence so he could continue to visit her. It would however be nice to think that perhaps he was influenced by some of the reporting of the case, with even the right-wing virulently anti-drug papers taking a quite apparent dim view of him being sent to prison for trying to help people with their pains, however misguided. Further evidence to his "crime" being purely to help was that he was selling the drug at well below street prices, making more money on his milk round itself. If all dealers were so publicly spirited, the war on drugs would be even more of a clusterfuck.

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Monday, January 26, 2009 

Bad law day.

Not just one, but two incredibly bad laws came into effect today - the reclassification of cannabis to Class B, which will inevitably result in more otherwise completely harmless individuals being prosecuted and potentially having their lives ruined just because they smoke one weed rather than another, and the criminalisation of "extreme pornography", which will inevitably result in more otherwise completely harmless individuals being prosecuted and potentially having their lives ruined just because they get turned on by things that others might find repulsive or sickening despite no harm being done to anyone in the making of said arousing images or video.

Next on Labour's agenda is naturally making the buying of sex from someone "controlled" for someone else's gain equivalent in the eyes of the law to rape. To suggest this might be a slow process building up to an even more unpleasant final reckoning might not be any longer being paranoid.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008 

You better hope you don't smoke the reefer.

It's incredibly hard to articulate in words just how mindbogglingly stupid the government's decision to reclassify cannabis as a "Class B" drug is. Let's put it this way - if you repeatedly dropped a baby on its head from a height which didn't crack its skull open but did understandably adversely affect its intelligence, then supplied that child throughout its lifetime with only Ayn Rand books, the Daily Mail, and GMTV for intellectual stimulation, then through your connections sent him to work at Goldman Sachs before he progressed to becoming prime minister through freak luck, not even he, so mentally stunted that he couldn't even tie his shoelaces without needing the help of a civil servant, would not think that making cannabis a Class B drug again would be a good idea.

That's the kind of level of abject intellectual poverty we're dealing with here. There's Gordon Brown, the acclaimed brainbox behind Britain's prospering economy, so intelligent that he went to university at sixteen, and he comes out with such insultingly idiotic statements regarding the "lethal quality" of cannabis that it almost makes you wonder if this isn't just him openly prostituting himself to Paul Dacre as bending over and opening himself up so that the entire Mail team can have a go. We have "Wacky" Jacqui Smith, an Oxford graduate, who has herself admitted to use of cannabis back in her care-free youth before she realised that the drug is in fact incredibly dangerous and that one puff can kill you stone-dead, having the audacity to stand up in front of parliament and announce that she's accepting every recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' report - except the one which says the drug should remain at Class C, because "[she] must err on the side of caution and protect the public."

The sort of doublethink this requires would have utterly delighted Orwell. Here's a drug where the links between mental illness are in the words of ACMD "weak but probable", and so it needs to not just be illegal, as it was under Class C, but to be in Class B, where simple possession of the tiniest amount could potentially lead to your imprisonment for five years. The chances of that happening are minuscule, but then we need to err on the side of caution and warn the public, don't we? The ACMD says that cannabis is a "significant public health issue" which is true; but then so is the use of tobacco and alcohol. The links between tobacco and numerous types of cancer are not just weak but probable but firmly established. Likewise, the link between alcohol and liver cirrhosis and other illnesses are not just weak but probable but firmly established, not to mention the link between alcohol and public disorder across towns and cities across the country every weekend. The Lancet's own attempt at drawing up a rational scale to assess the harm caused by drugs found that both alcohol and tobacco should be ranked higher than cannabis. By the same yardstick being used to measure the harm of cannabis, alcohol and tobacco should both be either Class B or even Class A controlled substances, but neither cause is likely to be taken up by the Daily Mail.

Quite how this issue has been resurrected and reanimated time and time again since David Blunkett took the ACMD's advice back in 2004 and downgraded cannabis is in itself bewildering but instructive. Nothing whatsoever has been learned or discovered in the last 4 years that ought to change the status quo - instead, what has occurred has been a hysterical, unbelievably misleading media campaign, led not just by the Daily Mail, but also by those who really ought to know better on the Independent on Sunday. We've been told that the cannabis on the streets today is not the average two and a half times stronger than the traditional "soapbar" Moroccan resin which up until very recently made up the vast majority of the market, but instead 25 times or even 30 times stronger. We've been told that smoking just one cannabis joint increases the risk of developing schizophrenia by 41%, when the actual study in fact found that an "average user" of cannabis faced an increased risk of developing a "psychotic outcome" by 0.4%. We've been told that despite all the evidence to the contrary, that cannabis can be directly linked to the deaths of at least 3 people, ignoring all the side issues and other factors entirely.

Perhaps the most shocking fact about this most egregious of u-turns is that by any standard, the downgrading of cannabis to Class C has worked as it was intended to. The police themselves supported the original decision, having become fed up to the back teeth with having to deal with individuals with tiny amounts of the drug on them when it was a complete waste of time; as a result of their confiscate and warn policy instituted after the downgrading, countless hours have been freed up to go after real criminals. The numbers of those taking the drug over the last few years have dropped according to the British Crime Survey, from 28.2% of 16-24-year-olds who admitted to cannabis use in 1998-9, to 21.4% in 2005-6. The police's new concern, that organised crime is moving in to cannabis production, with Vietnamese gangs being the ones fingered is almost certainly nothing to do with the downgrading but with the economic realities on the ground. It's no longer worth the hassle to import the old resin or different varieties when it can be so easily grown in converted houses, often with the electricity for the hydroponic systems being stolen as well. They can also earn more for the stronger varieties, which is why they are being increasingly grown, although there are also indications that various (incredibly dangerous) ploys are being employed to make it look as if the buds have a higher THC content than they actually do, as it takes longer to grow the plants to their full strength.

That last statistic shows exactly how many young people this change in the law will further criminalise and put in danger of having their lives potentially ruined purely because of their choice to consume a substance which affects absolutely no one other than themselves. 1 in 5 use it; if they don't, then they will certainly know a friend or acquittance who does. The change in the law and the spurious sending of messages will do nothing whatsoever to stop them using it, but what it will do is further disenfranchise them and put them further at risk of having the weight of the law fall on them for no greater purpose except to please Paul Dacre. The hope was that even if the change in classification went ahead that the police themselves would continue with their current policy, something that everyone at the ACMD meeting supported even if they wanted the classification changed. None of them wanted more young people to be criminalised, yet that is exactly what the government is proposing with its system of "escalating penalties" with first-time offenders also increasingly likely to be arrested under Labour's plans.

Let's not pretend however that if even the government had taken the ACMD's advice that it would have been a happy outcome. The entire classification system is a joke, based on nothing more than prejudice and political short-termism rather than actual evidence. How on earth can a system which has MDMA, LSD and magic mushrooms in the same category as street heroin and crack cocaine be taken seriously? The only solution to the entire drugs problem which underpins the vast majority of crime is to abandon the lunacy of prohibition and come to a position where addicts are either treated or provided with the drug by the state in lieu of weaning them off it. Cannabis, and the aforementioned other drugs in Class A should be regulated, age-restricted and taxed, with full education on the dangers of them provided in schools. It's time to take the entire market out of the hands of criminals, end the absurd, doomed to failure drugs "war" and be both reasonable and sensible about our dependency on all chemical highs. The taboos and myths all have to be tackled.

The former is of course a fantasy which couldn't possibly seem further away, and one which we cannot possibly know would work, mainly because we haven't been allowed to try it. The one abiding message about today's reclassification, apart from how it proves that when Gordon said he would listen, he meant he would continue to listen to the tabloids, at least when he wants to hear them, is that it shows just how much both politicians and Labour continue to hate the young. It's to be expected from the Daily Mail, which yearns for the 1950s to return, but this is a government increasingly made up of those who are only just approaching middle age. They surely remember their more hell-raising days, when they binge-drinked, smoked pot and even probably broke the law in more serious ways, yet they only listen to those who seem to have an ever increasing loathing for them. According to UNICEF we're the worst western country for children to grow up in, and it's not because of our addictions to self-fulfilment, but because the young are increasingly regarded as either annoyances, or at the most extreme end of the scale, yobs ready to kick the older generation to death. Is it any wonder when their lives are increasingly miserable for various reasons that they do turn to both alcohol and drugs? Until Labour gets to grips with why we are an unhappy society, and increasing crackdowns on crime and the young for so much as daring to gather on street corners are eschewed in favour of ending the casual criminalisation of an entire generation, then the problems that go hand in hand with them will continue to be false issues flashed up which demand pointless messages to be sent.

Related posts from the ever excellent Transform blog:
Millions quit cannabis following reclassification
Miserable re-classification saga enters its final furlong

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Friday, April 04, 2008 

The tabloids always win part two.

To get into the mindset of why exactly it is that Gordon Brown, despite all the evidence, is determined to reclassify cannabis to "Class B", you only have to read the beginning of this Daily Mail article, written by none other than our old friend James Slack:

You MUST reclassify cannabis: Brown gets message from police chiefs, charities, MPs and victims

Gordon Brown was urged last night to overrule his drugs experts and reclassify cannabis.

Advisers are expected to tell him that the drug should remain in Class C and not be moved to the more serious Class B from which it was downgraded in 2004.

But campaigners, police chiefs and opposition MPs said the Prime Minister must ignore the recommendation when it is delivered later this month.

In the words of the Mail's own Richard Littlejohn, you almost couldn't make it up. The drug experts MUST be overruled and the campaigners, police chiefs and opposition MPs, all of whom know far better just how dangerous cannabis is, HAVE to be listened to.

It's also, as you might expect, complete and utter nonsense that it was just the "one" presentation that made the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs decide that cannabis should remain Class C. While we obviously don't know the reasons for its ruling in full, as it's still at least a month off and all that's happened is that the BBC were leaked the hardly surprising news that nothing in the last two years has changed to make them alter their opinions, we can make an educated guess that a panel of experts is hardly going to be swayed by just the one piece of evidence. As it is, this one presentation is still rather important: if cannabis causes schizophrenia at such a level as the critics claim, then you would expect that doctor's surgeries across the land would have noticed a rise in the number of those seeking treatment. This unpublished data from a confidential paper drawn up for the Home Office, based on surveys from 183 GP practices in fact showed that between 1996 and 2005 there had been significant reductions in the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia. The critics could counter by saying that the "skunk" they so bleat about is a relatively recent development, and that those suffering don't necessarily seek treatment, but it's hardly a ringing endorsement of their continued case for cannabis to be in a higher class.

As Steve R on the Transform blog relates, all the motions of the ACMD were went through properly, perhaps even with a slight frustration that they had to yet again go through the risks and arguments over cannabis, something they've had to do at least twice previously in the last four years, only to reach the exact same decision. All of the myths propagated by the tabloids, the Independent on Sunday and those in favour of a return to Class B also continue to be found to be wrong. "Skunk" is not 20, 25 or 30 times more powerful than the old Moroccan resin: it's instead double the strength it was ten years ago, and only 4% of the "skunk" seized has a THC-content of more than 20%, the highest percentage found being 24%. Skunk might now be the type of cannabis seized 85% (other studies suggest 70% to 80%) of the time, but use of the drug has actually fell since it was reclassified to Class C. The reporting of the most recent study that considered the links between cannabis and psychosis was also predictably sensational and wrong: it found that smoking cannabis increased the risk of developing a "psychotic outcome" by 0.4%, duly reported as increasing the risk by 40% by smoking just one joint.

The reasons for why the Association of Chief Police Officers support reclassification to Class B couldn't be much stupider. Rather than being concerned about more time being wasted by beat officers no longer being able to confiscate and warn when most of the rank and file favour legalisation and view any messing about with cannabis users as about as productive as themselves going around on duty stoned, they instead worry that Vietnamese gangs have taken over the trade and are now mass-growing cannabis in factories concealed in houses. Quite how raising its classification would affect this change in the market as the suppliers have realised that's it far easier to grow it here using hydroponics than to risk importing it from abroad isn't clear, but in their warped logic it must somehow make sense.

Admirably, most of those who support reclassifying the drug as B don't relish the subsequent criminalisation of youth that would go hand in hand with it. It seems to only be the tabloids and the Conservatives that favour that, and even they try and hide their vindictive streak by instead arguing that Labour sent "the wrong message" by down-classing it. That no one who has ever smoked cannabis has ever cared what class it is and instead is only interested in the actual effects doesn't seem to have dawned on the old drug-war warriors yet; it might have given the impression that cannabis was legal, but that ought to be countered by a major education programme, as some of the saner voices have long been calling for, not by penalising those who dare to experiment with it, as most of the current class of politicians have themselves admitted. You mustn't now though, because it's an entirely different drug, as even Boris Johnson tediously said today after his belated statement on his own teenage drug use.

The whole point of the exercise of asking the ACMD for its view was to get Brown through the election he still thought he was going to call without having to make an actual decision, while being a sop to the Mail he has so assiduously courted. Once he'd won, he could then get away with going with the ACMD's decision even if the tabloids turned on him. It's all rather strange: there are very few votes either way in reclassifying the drug or not; now, if he proposed legalising it, which continues to be the only sane way to deal with the dreaded Vietnamese gangs and to end the lunacy of prosecuting small time possessors of the drug, then that would be something worth getting properly worked up about. Instead, Brown's likely to further try to appease the Sun and Mail by completely ignoring the expert advice that he commissioned in the first place, just as they too regard it with such utter contempt.

This is what should happen instead. Labour should be honest with both themselves and everyone else by coming out and saying the following: cannabis is potentially dangerous, just like all other drugs. There is a risk of developing mental illness through its use, especially if you smoke it constantly and you're already susceptible through genetic links to health problems, while those whose minds are still developing, such as anyone under 18, should certainly not use it for the same reasons. This is why we're going to decriminalise it, regulate it, tax it and age restrict it, and continue to monitor the scientific research carefully as it continues to be accumulated, all things that are already done with alcohol and tobacco, both of which, according to the Lancet's recent attempt to draw up a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs are higher on the risk scale than cannabis is. At the same time, we'll launch an unprecedented education programme aimed at establishing exactly what the risks are to children of all ages, while making completely clear what the change in the law means to everyone.

That, however, would be evidence based policy making; and in this country, the tabloids always win.

Related post:
Mike Power - What IS he smoking?
Transform - ACMD cannabis report update...

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Monday, September 17, 2007 

Reefer sanity.

The unpublished results of authoritative research into cannabis confirm the "skunk" now on sale in England is stronger than it was a decade ago, but demolish claims that a new "super-strength skunk" - which is 20 times more powerful - is dominating the market.

Two studies due to be published later this year, which together analysed nearly 550 samples of skunk seized by the police, both conclude that the average content of the main psychoactive agent in skunk strains of cannabis, THC, has doubled from 7% in 1995 to 14% in 2005.

But the findings of the two studies to be reported in Druglink, the drugs charity magazine, contradict recent claims that most of the skunk on sale in Britain now routinely has a THC-content of more than 30%. One of the studies showed that only 4% of the skunk that had been seized by the police had a strength level higher than 20%.

Usually moral panics are started by the tabloids and then enter the public consciousness, forcing the other media to cover them. While the Daily Mail has had a significant role in the recent resurgence in nonsense being written about cannabis or "skunk", it was given additional credibility by the Independent on Sunday, which reversed its campaign for cannabis to legalised, with the former editor Rosie Boycott informing us that skunk is "30 times stronger", although she does still believe all drugs should be legalised. The main article, as Transform wrote, was all over the place with its facts, or rather lack thereof.

It's hardly likely though that the Grauniad article is going to change minds that have already been made up with all the fearmongering. Today this article was in the Mirror:

Cannabis is fuelling a youth crime wave - with 90 per cent of teen offenders using it.

Yes, because cannabis is almost certainly the cause and not coincidental.

A survey of England's Youth Offending Teams, which deal with lawless teenagers, adds that cannabis use had gone up by 75 per cent since it was downgraded to class C in 2004.

Possibly, although the other figures suggest that use of cannabis among the general populace has actually fell since 2004.

And a separate study by King's College, London, reveals 25 per cent of users have turned to crime to fund their habit.

Sounds laughable, considering how cheap cannabis is. Strange also that the Grauniad didn't mention that figure.

Having said that, cannabis is not harmless, and pretending that it isn't only damages the case of those who would like to see it go further towards the legalisation route. Those under 18 shouldn't be using it because of the increased potential damage to both their mental and physical health, as with numerous other drugs. The evidence simply isn't there however for the drug to even be considered for reclassification at Class B: do the Youth Offending Teams want the children they're dealing with to have further convictions for possession of drugs, increasing further the potential strain on the system? There's enough complaints from the police already about their time being wasted with excess bureaucracy and paperwork; do they want to be back with having to bring to book every person they stop who happens to be carrying a tiny amount of cannabis for personal use? The recent Lancet study which attempted to develop a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs placed cannabis as the 11th most dangerous drug out of the 20 they examined, with alcohol fifth and tobacco ninth.

Is it really so much to ask for a coherent, evidence-based policy? Oh, yeah, this is Britain.

Stumbling and Mumbling sums up the ideology of panic over Northern Rock
, while the Times reports on another interpreter murdered in Basra. The we can't turn them away campaign gets ever more vital.

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Friday, July 27, 2007 

The devil weed returns.

Is it possible to go a whole week without yet another scare story about cannabis causing collective psychosis in the media? The Grauniad, usually more immune than others to over-hyping scientific studies, highlighted the scary figure that smoking the drug can increase the risk of schizophrenia by 40%, which most of the rest of the media have picked up on.

Unity provides a lengthy fisk, but the most important points are thus: firstly, smoking cannabis does not increases the risk of developing schizophrenia by 40%, it increases the risk of developing "any psychotic outcome", not just schizophrenia. Secondly, this quite wonderful figure of 40% needs to be put into context. The figure is taken from the statistic that 1 in 100 of the population have a chance of developing severe schizophrenia; according to the Lancet study, smoking cannabis increases this chance by 0.4%. In other words, an average user of cannabis, if there is such a thing, increases the possibility of developing "a psychotic outcome" by a massive 0.4%. Doesn't look so frightening now, does it? Unity additionally points out that that the 1 in 100 figure comes from the US, while the National Statistics Office puts the chance of developing a psychotic disorder here at 1 in 200, further lowering the risk.

The study really doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Those under 18 are at greater risk from smoking cannabis, cannabis increases the risk of developing a psychotic illness, and those with a genetic disposition towards mental ill-health increase the risk of developing such a complaint by smoking cannabis. All these things have been known now for years, and have been considered by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs when coming to their conclusion that cannabis should be, and should remain, a Class C drug.

Still, we can at least be slightly sated that the Grauniad didn't jump to the sheer lunacy of the tabloids. The Mail and Sun, who also just happen to both be hysterical campaigners against the downgrading of cannabis to Class C, try to outdo each other with their own misleading articles. While both claim that smoking just one roll-up increases the risk by 41%, the Mail tacks on the sensational tales of 3 murderers, all of which it attempts to claim were in some way influenced by their use of cannabis. The Sun, on the other hand, just went straight for the jugular. Despite Rebekah Wade previously going on a mental health training course after she splashed "BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP" on the front page when he was sectioned, the piece is tastefully headlined "'Psycho' risk from one joint".

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Friday, July 20, 2007 

Scum-watch: The continuing inability to tell the truth.

Just a quick one today on the Scum's continuing inability to tell the truth:

TALK about mixed messages.

First cannabis is virtually legalised, encouraging thousands more people to try a puff.

BONG! I realise that it says "encouraging", rather than motivating or making people think it's OK to try it, but the reality is the opposite. Rather than encouraging thousands more to try it, the British Crime Survey's drug usage chart (from this PDF) actually shows a consecutive fall since it was was downgraded in 03/04 (you'll need to click it):

Cannabis usage has then effectively fell 2% since it was downgraded. Just slightly undermines the Scum's contention.

Now, as thousands of youngsters pay a high price in mental illness, it is to be outlawed once more.

Not unless the government ignores the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is almost certain to come the same conclusion it has three times in the last five years.

Perhaps to deflect criticism, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith leads a charge of SEVEN Cabinet ministers who confess they once smoked dope.

They were wrong. They were stupid. They were typical.

Now they’re grown-ups.

Years ago, plenty of people in all parties thought cannabis was harmless fun.

Years ago a lot of people thought cigarettes were harmless fun.

Now everyone knows better.

Except that err, cigarettes are still legal. Cannabis has never been. No one claims either is harmless, just that they should be treated on an equal footing; on a day after the British Crime Survey identified alcohol as being to blame for most violent offences, the continuing illegality of cannabis looks ever more unjustifiable.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007 

Reefer insanity.

Jacqui Smith as a student, no doubt stoned out of her gourd.

This latest crop of politicians really do hate the kids, don't they? A day after announcing yet another idiotic reassessing of whether cannabis should be Class B or C, 7 cabinet ministers, prompted by Jacqui Smith, all confess to have consumed the wicked weed when they themselves were students. Notice that not a single one of them dared to admit that they actually rather enjoyed the experience, and that compared to other substances it's by far both the most pleasant and the least dangerous in equal measure, but then we are talking about the typically stuffy ex-left-wingers who seem to like to dress themselves up in hair shirts in later life. It's fell upon the Tories previously, including Tim Yeo, Norman Lamont and Boris Johnson, who do often seem more fun loving (Tories, not those three, well apart from the latter), to dare to suggest that they rather liked it.

You see then children, it was perfectly all right for those politicians to smoke that illegal drug way back then, because unlike today, it was weak and just brought on the good vibes. Today, thanks to the friendly neighbourhood Vietnamese, stealing electricity to power his rented home full to the brim with marijuana plants and hydroponic lighting, the substance is so full to the brim with THC that not only will it quite literally blow your head off but it'll also instantaneously turn you so psychotic that you'll think you're the Dark Lord himself, obviously resulting in you chopping up your former bud buddies into small pieces. Or at least, that seems to be Smith's argument, although I might have paraphrased it somewhat.

It's all rather depressing really. As Transform explains, this will be the third time in 5 years now that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will be called upon to review their recommendation that cannabis be a Class C drug, resulting usually in a caution if you have a small amount for personal use in your possession. The whole thing is a direct result of media hysteria about the effects of skunk, and at least two recent murders where it was alleged that the person subsequently convicted was either "addicted" or a heavy user of cannabis, despite the evidence in both cases suggesting that the use of the drug had only exacerbated the deterioration in their mental health.

As Unity states, the only real conclusion that has so far been reached is that use of cannabis in a person who has a genetic disposition towards mental illness has been shown to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. As for the supposed massively increased potency, with some claiming that the amount of THC has increased by 25, 30 or even 50% over the last few decades, all the statistics show that this is a complete and utter myth,
with at most the potency of indoor grown herbal cannabis reaching 12% or 14%. A report from 2004 (PDF) showed that the strongest varieties additionally only make up 15% of the market. It's also complete nonsense that there hasn't always been strong cannabis around, as the UN figures from 1975 show, with the more exotic imports being even more potent than the average today being sampled for their strength.

No, the real reason for once again raising this reefer insanity is that Brown is trying his best to get into the Daily Mail's good books. Last week, following the fulsome praise which the Mail give to Iain Duncan Smith's report on social breakdown which recommended tax cuts for married couples and, you guessed it, the reclassification of cannabis to Class B, Brown dropped a sort of bombshell at prime minister's questions and said that supercasinos, a pet hate of the Mail associated with today's moral decadence, would be looked at again, the subtext being they were dead in the water. The Mail responded accordingly. This week, again prompted by a helpful question about the medical benefits of cannabis to those with multiple sclerosis and other ailments, he stated that cannabis would be reassessed. Brown again gets praised by the right-wing media that is hopelessly stuck in the past, while everyone with even the slightest knowledge of the dangers posed by cannabis, the police included, sigh and wonder whether we'll ever get out of this ridiculous cycle of reactionary, hysterical ignorance.

If we're to ever get to some state of near sanity on not just cannabis, but all drugs, we have to examine the risks inherent in all of them calmly and without wild-eyed prejudice. Cannabis is potentially dangerous, especially among those predisposed to mental illness, with those under 18 also being at risk. This shouldn't however mean that everyone else should be potentially criminalised for having a small amount for personal use, just as alcohol, which a recent Lancet report considered far worse for the average person and society as whole than cannabis, is age restricted. Tim Worstall gets it right:

the only sensible question anyone should be asking is whether the corner shop can sell it in packs of five or ten.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007 

The building of a moral panic.

Following on from coverage last month of the conviction of Tom Palmer for murder, today's Daily Mail appears to be attempting to raise the stakes in the growing hysteria about the ill-effects of "skunk" cannabis.

This latest case concerns 17-year-old Ezekiel Maxwell, a paranoid schizophrenic who stabbed grandmother Carmelita Tulloch 7 times in an unprovoked and motiveless attack. The Daily Mail claims that he had been smoking cannabis
and skunk since he was 14, as well as taking cocaine.

As is nearly always universal in these supposed cases however, the evidence is by no means clear cut. Maxwell himself claims that he started to hear voices after smoking the drug. It's quite possible that smoking skunk could have triggered or exacerbated his apparent descent into schizophrenia, but we have to take into consideration what else was happening in his life at the time, as well as whether the illness would have developed if he hadn't been smoking cannabis. The Daily Mail article provides few details about his family life, other than the fact that he was additionally "obsessed" with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. We also don't know just how "heavy" his use of skunk/cannabis was; a Torygraph report mentions that the psychiatric reports simply say that they believe his condition was exacerbated by heavy use of skunk.

Somewhat buried in the Mail article is a fact that is probably far more of an explanation for the murder. Last June he had been referred by his GP to his local mental health team, who had prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. His case had been reviewed four times, and was due to be considered again the day after he stabbed Tulloch to death. Maxwell had not taken his medicine for two weeks. Countless previous cases of paranoid schizophrenics committing violent acts have documented the dangers of sudden stopping in the taking of medication, often being found to be the trigger or the explanation for changes in behaviour. It was only after handing himself in that he was definitively diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, something that had been missed in his previous sessions with the psychiatric team.

Also worthy of mention is his "addiction" to Grand Theft Auto. The Mail mentions that Carl Johnson, who you play as in GTA:SA carries a knife, which is true. You can also carry an AK-47, a chainsaw, a pool cue, a samurai sword, grenades and countless other guns as well. As the game progresses you can also pilot a US fighter jet and shoot down other planes on exercises, but that doesn't really enter into what Maxwell did quite as well. The prosecution also states that Maxwell had been playing the game almost exclusively in the months before the murder. This doesn't necessarily suggest that he was obsessed with it: GTA:SA is a lengthy, time-consuming game. It took me around a month to "complete" the in-game missions, and then afterwards you're given free-reign to roam a vast area modeled on Los Angeles in the early 90s, where much of the repeat playing fun comes from.

There's no denying that the GTA series of games are violent, but it's up to you how you play it: hacking down/shooting everyone on the streets not only draws the attention of the police, but also rival gangs. The character you play as only tends to kill in the game as revenge; it's not a bloodthirsty gore fest, however the media would like to paint it. The game also has an 18 certificate for a reason: Maxwell, being 17 at the time of the murder, shouldn't have been playing it.

The whole highlighting of GTA is reminiscent of how violent horror films were often blamed or linked to murders during the 80s and early 90s. The Sun in one case reported of how "mad Michael", the killer in the Halloween series of films had "talked" to a paranoid schizophrenic and told him to kill. That Michael Myers in the films is a mute escapee from a psychiatric ward didn't enter into it. How Maxwell's own lawyer described it is thus:

"The game allows the player to take on the role of a criminal in a big city. This persuaded him to stab someone. He was powerless to resist."

Just how much Maxwell was genuinely influenced by playing GTA is again unclear. The reports by his psychiatrists have not been properly presented in their write-ups by either the Mail or the Telegraph, so we have to rely on what was produced in court by both his own lawyers and the prosecution. The prosecution says that he believed he was Carl Johnson, and his own lawyer that he "powerless" to resist the voices in his head. One has to wonder whether if he'd been taking his medication these thoughts would have become so overwhelming and irresistible.

While the Telegraph focuses more on GTA, the Mail goes overboard with the references to skunk. It says this case highlights the dangers of skunk: it rather highlights the danger of smoking cannabis while not taking prescribed anti-psychotic medicines poses. You have to wonder whether the mental health charities commenting on the case are also doing more harm than good -- the more cannabis gets the blame the more "normally" developing mental illness gets swept under the carpet. Statistics may well be useless, but it ought to remembered that 1 in 4 will suffer from some form of mental ill-health during their lifetime. We also have to remember just how the Mail and others are building a wave of hysteria over cannabis when the evidence for the massively increased potency of cannabis is itself simply a myth, as the ever-excellent Ben Goldacre set out in a recent Bad Science column. It was also only a couple of weeks ago that the Lancet presented its own detailed investigation into the actual harm posed by various drugs: it unsurprisingly found that heroin and cocaine (especially crack) are by far the most dangerous, while ecstasy and cannabis were less relatively harmful than both alcohol and tobacco, findings which are examined here by Transform.

As with the Tom Palmer case, skunk may indeed have exacerbated Maxwell's descent into schizophrenia. This however shouldn't be used to build a wave of panic over brain-meltingly strong weed that's inflicting mental illness on our teenagers when there is absolutely no evidence to support such a thing. Instead, the apparent failings both in the treatment of Maxwell, and his own failure to take his prescribed medicine are buried while his quite possibly incidental "addictions" to both skunk and GTA are over-hyped. The threats from all drugs are relative: we only have to see town centres at the weekend, another favourite of the Daily Mail, to see that binge drinking is far more destructive than cannabis is. Instead, perspective is thrown out in the window in the rush to scare middle England into yet more worry about just what their children are doing.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 

Drugs! Blades! Death!

The brutal murders of Steven Bayliss and Nuttawut Nadauld by Tom Palmer were almost a wet dream come true for the tabloids (and other media). Obsessed with knives! Addicted to skunk! Watched a movie about a serial killer stabbing his victims to death repeatedly in the days before the murders!

How much any of those things actually influenced the murders is open to question. Sentencing Palmer, the judge told him the most likely explanation for his behaviour was "a sudden and lethal explosion of anger, although what caused it remains something of a mystery". The whole addiction to skunk and developing schizophrenia defense was the one actively pursued by Palmer's lawyers. The psychiatrist who has been treating Palmer since his arrest himself said that cannabis had exacerbated Palmer's descent into mental illness, but that it was not the cause.

Indeed, Palmer's family background itself may hold just as much light for why he eventually came to murder two of his friends for no apparent reason. Even the Daily Mail is forced to admit that:

[But] they did report that the 20-year-old has a family history of breakdowns, nervous disorders and even schizophrenia

This isn't to dismiss out of hand the effects of strong cannabis and the links between those who smoke it and go on to develop psychosis. Those who already have a family background of mental illness, or who have in the past suffered from mental ill-health are those most at risk from habitually smoking the drug. As with any other drug, teenagers, with their minds still developing, are better off leaving well alone at least until they're 18. The risk posed however is far more slight than that which the media has tried to present. At the weekend, the Independent on Sunday claimed it had got it wrong in campaigning for the decriminalisation of cannabis, leading Transform to fisk the arguments of the Sindie into oblivion.

One friend, giving evidence, gave further insight into his mindset just before the murders. He had carved swastikas into his stomach, which ought to be enough for anyone to realise that he needed to talk to someone, and urgently. We're not told of his relationship with his family, but it seems bitterly ironic that his father is apparently a nurse at Broadmoor.

His so-called obsession with knives is also open to question. The Daily Mail's article does its best to hype this up, then's forced into admitting:

He had access to weapons and knives through his interest in outdoor activities and sport - hobbies which appear to have begun innocently enough, but by the time of the killings he was proficient in several martial arts and kept stocks of practice equipment in his bedroom.

It appears then that he good excuses for having knives, and that it was only with his mental health apparently in decline, with paranoia levels rising, that he started carrying them.

Which leaves us with his other "obsession", horror films. His favourite, according to both the Sun and the Daily Mail, or at least the one he watched in the days leading up to the murders, was the Last Horror Movie. Here's the Sun's take:

The court had heard Palmer was obsessed with violent horror films. His favourite was The Last Horror Movie, in which a serial killer videos himself slitting throats.

The 1982 movie also features a gory beheading.

Just a slight problem with this. The Last Horror Movie was made in 2003, and as far as I'm aware, as I own the DVD and have just flicked through it to be reasonably sure, there's no beheading. Sure, there is at least one throat being slit, someone's set on fire while tied to a chair, and he feeds the cooked flesh of his victims to his friends and family amongst other things, but there's no beheading.

The Last Horror Movie is in fact more a pitch-black comedy than it is a horror film. Taking its lead from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, it's one of those films on the edge of the genre that make the viewer question their own complicity in watching the carnage associated with stalk and slash. The whole plot itself is ridiculous, as the protagonist, despite leaving mountains of evidence, is never caught. The conceit is that this is a slasher film that's been taped over by some lunatic (or rather not a lunatic, as he claims convincingly that he isn't mad) with his own graphic home video, and that his next victim is in fact you for not turning it off. Compared to the glut in gory horror now coming from America, exemplified by the likes of the Saw series, the Devil's Rejects and Hostel, it's on a whole different intellectual plane, and I would of thought not been too appealing to someone more interested in blood and guts than in the whole debate about what role horror films play in the modern consciousness.

The case sparked warnings about the dangers of gruesome DVDs and using skunk. Labour MP Martin Salter said some horror films were “practically snuff movies”.

Would this possibly be the same Sun newspaper that was last week giving away a free horror film DVD every day? Indeed, one of the films it gave away (Evil Dead, banned in the aftermath of the video nasties moral panic, was only classified by the BBFC on video in 1990, and then with nearly 2 minutes cut) was one it along with the Daily Mail lambasted in the 80s and early 90s as being responsible for general moral decay and for warping the minds of children. As for Mr Salter's daft comments, there are films that are practically snuff movies, but they're the ones currently being produced by jihadist groups as propaganda, not the ones that Hollywood and independent film makers in this country are making.

We may well never find out exactly what caused Palmer to kill his two friends on that day. All the evidence however suggests that he had suffered a slow descent into depression and psychosis, even if neither had became fully developed. Skunk may indeed have exacerbated this, as the psychiatrist said, but it seems unlikely that it was the sole cause. More does need to be done to teach youngsters that cannabis is not risk-free, as the head of Rethink states, but then neither are cigarettes or alcohol, with some evidence suggesting that it poses far less of a risk than either. As ever, an apparently unexplainable act of murderous violence has been blamed variously on drugs, horror films and obsession with knives, when none of these in actual fact come close to making clear what actually happened. It's easier to do than instead realise that the warning signs may well have been there, and simply weren't noticed.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007 

Scum-watch: Silence, torture and police grandstanding.

I'm unsure of what to make of the complete silence from the Sun over the decision by Alistair Darling to ask Ofcom to review whether Sky's purchase of a near 18% stake in ITV is in the public interest. As the Grauniad report makes clear, Sky executives and no doubt the Murdochs themselves must be furious. After nearly 10 years of complete sycophancy towards the Blair government from the Sun and the Times, the scratch our back and we'll scratch yours pact seems to have come slightly undone.

On one level, Darling's decision is incredibly inflammatory. For a government that has gone out of its way to try to keep the Murdoch tiger in check, such a snub which could potentially lead to Sky's acquisition of the shares being blocked is like a red rag to a bull. However much Murdoch has denied it, it's always been thought that he would at some point try to buy a stake in one of the terrestrial broadcasters, and most assumed it would be Channel 5. As Nils Pratley suggests, the 2003 Communications Act even seemed to prepare for this to happen. The surprise was that Murdoch instead went for ITV, with no warning that such a purchase was coming, and only very shortly after NTL (now Virgin Media) had attempted a takeover. Many justifiably saw this as Murdoch's attempt to stop Richard Branson from building his own rival empire, and it's most likely been the rage of Branson, however hypocritical and opportunistic it is, that has led to Darling ordering Ofcom to investigate.

The really interesting thing is that Darling has apparently come into agreement with Branson. Although Virgin is now ubiqitious, Branson simply cannot compete in the power stakes with Murdoch. This makes me wonder whether this is either a ploy or a backup plan by the Brownites (of whom Darling is certainly a member) in case Murdoch decides with the departure of Blair to switch allegiance back to the Tories. Brown has courted Wade and Murdoch, most recently at the conference in Davos where they sat side by side, but he would be wise to beware of the knife in the back. John Major believed that it was the Sun switching to Labour that was the final nail in the coffin for the Tories, and with Cameron racing ahead in the polls, Brown must be more than aware that Murdoch backs winners, not losers, however much he got it wrong over Iraq.

It's this that would lead me to expect some suitably outraged editorial or simply a report from today's Scum, making it clear to Labour where its bread is buttered. Instead, there's nothing, not even a report about Darling's decision to bring Ofcom into the equation. News International often doesn't cover things that are potentially embarrassing towards its masters, or that might provoke uncomfortable questions from newspaper readers, but the Times has covered the story. I've tried every search combination possible on the Scum website, and there's nothing there. For now, silence seems to be the order of the day to stop the issue from being further inflamed.

There is however a quite wonderful ranting leader about Abu Qatada (Qatada, Qutada, whatever):

VILE Abu Qatada has spent a third of his life enjoying the warm embrace of the democracy he wants to destroy.

Sadly our indulgence of him is not over yet.

His family scrounged hundreds of thousands of pounds in state handouts after he arrived here on a fake passport in 1993.

Surely took advantage of the welfare state like every other citizen can?

He was granted asylum despite a dossier detailing his extensive links with terrorists.

Taxpayers have since forked out £140,000 to keep him locked up and a scandalous £200,000 in Legal Aid for him to fight the deportation he obviously merits.

This despite £180,000 in cash being found at his home.

Well, if this £180,000 was his, it should be used to pay for his legal representation. If it isn't, there isn't much that can be done about it. Being a "terrorist suspect" does not and never should disqualify you from seeking legal aid. If the government had attempted to try him instead of simply getting rid of him, then he might well be now languishing in a cell like Abu Hamza.

This is the man whose sermons against the West inspired the 9/11 hijackers. How he must chuckle as a Western legal system continues to bend over backwards for him.

Or continues to treat him like anyone else would be. Whichever you prefer.

At least one obstacle to his exit is gone: Jordan, where he has already been convicted of terror attacks, has agreed not to torture him.

A pity, but we all have to compromise.

The Sun being witty about a man potentially being tortured? Who woulda thunk it?!

Elsewhere, the Sun reports on the judge rightly chastising the police for remanding in custody the teenager who so nearly shot dead dear old Dave Cameron with his converted fingers:

A JUDGE attacked cops yesterday for locking up a hoodie who pointed an imaginary gun at Tory leader David Cameron.

Judge Wendy Lloyd said she was “concerned” the yob, 17, had been kept in custody for possessing just £5 of cannabis.

She said: “I am extremely angry about this case. There are robbers and burglars at large. But if you make a silly gesture behind Mr Cameron’s back then you are remanded in custody.”

She fined the lout £25 and released him from custody, where he had been held since Saturday. He faces a burglary rap next week.

It's been a while since I last indulged, but back then an eighth was £10. If prices have stayed broadly the same, he had about a sixteenth of the drug, which is barely enough for a couple of spliffs. Cannabis is a Class C drug, and until recently possession of such a small amount as this young man had would not have been an arrestable offence, unless there were mitigating circumstances. It seems that his boasting was enough for the police to raid his house, and the tiny amount he possessed resulted in his appearance before the judge and being remanded in custody.

You can argue about the merits of the police going after casual drug users, yet there seems to have been little reason for him being kept in custody. He is as the police themselves recognise tagged and under curfew. For such a minor offence, there was no reason for keeping him in, other than to make an example of him.

But police were furious at the judge’s reprimand. A senior source said: “The comments are unbelievable. Maybe this lad will get sent on a holiday camp or skiing to show him the error of his ways.

“He’s already tagged for previous offences. It’s a case of another judge who doesn’t know the reality of life. We certainly hope for the judge’s sake that he doesn’t re-offend.

“We took proper guidance and it was completely correct that he was kept in custody.”

The fact that he's tagged for previous offences doesn't matter when he was arrested simply for possessing a tiny amount of a drug. The whole thing was a complete waste of time and effort on the police's part, and their petulance at being given a dressing down for seeking such publicity by arresting the kid in the first place, when they could have just confiscated his weed and gave him a caution is telling. This isn't to defend the boy for being a thick little prick, but the police ought to know when to leave something alone, and this was one of those cases. He'd already proved that he was a moron, and the police's interference has if anything victimised him for simply being an idle prat around a politician.

Not Saussure also made some good points surrounding the case and contempt of court, and although I haven't named him in this post, the whole issue is something of a grey area.

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