Friday, 30 October 2009

To err, or not to err

There's a clear split in opinion over the classifaction of drugs, as highlighted in all the papers and discussion programmes.

Basically the government has decided to ignore the advice of its' chief expert Prof David Nutt, who has been outspoken in criticising the government.

Either the government should sack him, or they should accept his arguments - he is appointed by them, after all. To do neither shows they are weak, divided and lack principles.

But I think the debate has been distorted by simple primary school level of confusion over the 'soft' drug, cannabis.

On one side it is the perception of cannabis as a 'soft' - and therefore harmless - drug which is causing confusion. And on the other it is the blatant ignorance of basic information which is yet more causing confusion.

This graph (from the Lancet) provides the best visual representation I can find for helping understand the difference between different drug types and how we should classify them (note alcohol is in the mid-range ie technically a class-B drug).

Cannabis is not a 'drug' in the sense that it is a pharmaceutical - it is only a 'drug' in the sense that it is an organic herb containing various active chemicals.

Whereas Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) or Heroin (diacetyl morphine) are trade names for refined chemical products on the criminal black market, Cannabis refers to a general name for a genus of flowering plants (which includes cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis).

The different origins of the vernacular names is an interesting linguistic question, which black-marketeers couldn't care less about, politicians simply don't have the general level of education to distinguish between and most news reporters simply brush over - even when they do know better. It underpins the separation of fact and opinion and has huge implications for public policy in the matter.

So, while 'Ecstasy' or 'Heroin' refer to single chemical agents which have measurable effects, 'Cannabis' refers to a set of unique chemicals in various combinations of multiple chemical agents, each of which have different properties and each combination of which has different effects.

The unique group of chemical agents in Cannabis are described as cannabidols (hence the name). The most commonly occurring are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and the pater familias CBD (Cannabidiol).

The first of these is considered to have psychoactive properties (which has associations with triggering schizophrenia), while the second of these as anti-psychotic properties (associated with treating schizophrenia).

While it is not just the strength of the drug which should be considered when classifying cannabis, it is also the relative proportions between the numerous various different agents in each individual batch.

Mark Easton gives a typically excellent summary of some of the issues. He provids details of the governments' own survey that showed more 43% in favour of no change, while roughly equal numbers in favour of reclassification and legalisation (19% each). So there's clearly more at stake than the government claims...

...yet the government has subjected us to a constant barrage of ill-informed scare stories about how super-powerful strains of 'skunk' are flooding the streets of the nation in a bid to retain control of the situation. The head of the Forensic Science Service's drugs unit, Dean Ames, provided evidence of the new 'deadly' variety (2-3 times stronger) which had started to dominate the market and that this higher quality product justified a change in the law to change the way the market operates. Except the change in the law didn't change the function of the market, only the conditions in which it operates.

The political problem is that the public is now so far ahead of the establishment politicians that the law has become irrelevant in helping inform public behaviour: only this week I was walking behind a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds who were smoking something they'd purchased illegally, but they were complaining that it was 'bad shit' and they should go back and beat up the guy who dealt it to them. Way to drive kids underground!

As Professor Nutt said:
"If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you're probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth."
It didn't smell like nothing to me, and they obviously knew about the differences between different products. They also clearly knew that the knowledge of their own experience is far more reliable than the guilt trip some morally repugnant fusty old biddy like Jacqui Smith wants to send them on as an excuse for her to absolve her own youthful indiscretions. Prosecuting her own insecurities by persecuting those who are in a similar position now as she was then is no penitance and does not resolve any wider situation.

Frankly speaking I'd court the disapproval of public fugures who are such blatant frauds as Ms Smith and I can understand why anyone else would too.

Unless and until the lectures from the authoritarian pulpit can demand our attention in such ways as through automatic transmission into every mobile phone and PDA (and I'm not sure this isn't the dream of the aspirant omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent force in an irreligious time), then it must be accepted that there are simply millions of people who are just not listening and will not listen to whatever the latest innaccurate, ineffectual and irrelevant outbursts of 'initiative' the PM and his self-absorbed colleagues in Parliament choose to congratulate themselves with as a means to justify their reelection crusade.

The establishment habit of trying to make individual decisions on our behalf while distorting the information they give us - when they choose to provide it - goes to the heart of why the public distrusts the current political system. It suits their purposes, but it doesn't fulfil our needs or our aspirations.

The fact that certain political figues actively choose to go against considered expert advice and their better instincts says all you need to know about them. You've also got to wonder how the rest of the public will respond to their advice if that is the example they set!

So I'd prefer it if we erred on the side of reality, if we must err at all.

And if the government were serious about banning dangerous plants then they should start by eradicating poison ivy from all our churchyards.

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