Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by the Centre for Policy Studies (DP001)

I am writing to you about your prospective Home Affairs Select Committee enquiry into drugs policy.

I am concerned that the Committee’s line of enquiry is being predetermined by the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s recommendations and that its independence has been compromised. I enclose a copy of the blog I posted on the Centre for Policy Studies website yesterday in response to Home Affairs Select Committee’s published call for evidence “in line with the recent recommendation of the Global Commission on Drug Policy”.

What you may not be aware of is that the Global Commission is not a neutral body or an independent think tank. It is financed amongst others by Richard Branson and the billionaire George Soros. It is clear from its website that is has a professionally coordinated public relations strategy, the goal of which is the legalisation and decriminalisation of drugs.

I enclose a Fact Sheet published by the CPS recently on the Global Commission’s Misleading and Irresponsible Drug Prevalence Statistics.

I would be happy to explain these and other frequently misrepresented statistics to you in person.

September 2011

THE HOME AFFAIRS SELECT COMMITTEE RISKS UNDERMINING DEMOCRACY BY KATHY GYNGELL

The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) is fast becoming our new public moral arbiter. With its urbane and intelligent chair, Keith Vaz MP, it has increasingly taken centre stage, dissecting in turn, responsibility for the riots, phone hacking and border control.

Their launch this morning, of a comprehensive review into drug policy is though, worrying. It is not that it is unreasonable to re-examine drug policy, one of the big social issues of our time; it is, after all, eight or nine years since they last did so. Last time, I note the Committee incorporated a young David Cameron, who has since recanted some of the 2002 Committee’s wilder conclusions (The Government’s Drugs Policy: Is It Working? HC 318, 2001–02) and specifically those on the harms of cannabis.

My concern this time, is their apparent uncritical adoption, lock stock and barrel, of the self-styled “Global Commission on Drug Policy” agenda, as set out in the call for evidence yesterday.

It is surely reasonable to expect all such select committee enquiries to start with a blank sheet of paper, without any pre-conceptions or prejudice within their terms of reference, least of all, for such a Committee of the House of Commons, to be a tool for a lobby group. If they do not do this, what, frankly, is the point? But it is striking, in the case of this new HASC enquiry, the extent to which this is not the case.

By marked contrast with the specific factual questions of previous enquiries HASC’s call for written evidence on drugs policy avoids requests for factual information. Instead it frames its enquiry in the curious terms of: “The extent to which the Government’s 2010 drug strategy is a ‘fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights’ in line with the recent recommendation by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.”

A list of fudged “areas” for investigation follows—for example, “Whether the UK is supporting its global partners effectively” and “The extent to which public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy”. Why HASC has not posed these as straightforward questions is not clear. For surely one of the questions we need the answer to is: to what extent have public health considerations played in the development of drugs policy (particularly in view of that seminal advice from the ACMD in 1988 that Aids was a bigger threat to the public than drug misuse) and what impact have the subsequent mass “public health” interventions of needle exchange and opiate substitution had on the drug problem? Not a question perhaps that the Global Commission wants to hear the answer to.

To use the Global Drug Policy Commission’s recommendations as their starting point makes it almost inevitable that a “skewed” report will result. But worse, HASC’s stated “alliance” with this group begs the question of whether their terms of reference have been “planted” on them (and manipulated) to confer authority on what is a well financed, self appointed pro-legalisation lobby group? It also begs the question of whether indeed, behind the scenes, this body is already providing the committee with their research “expertise”, either directly or covertly?

Putting aside for one moment consideration of HASC’s new “fiscal responsibility policy test”—not one I believe applied previously to their recent inquiries into the riots, border control or policing—it looks suspiciously like the Home Affairs Select Committee Administration has indeed been handed this agenda (possibly by inhabitants of “the other place”) and has uncritically and unquestioningly, regurgitated it.

It is understandable how and why this could have happened. In recent months the Committee’s remit has been huge and inevitably beyond the capacity of the staff and the research it has at hand. Staff too, may be naive about the subtleties of high level lobbying and perhaps in some awe of those providing them with this unsolicited but apparently helpful advice, no doubt dressed up as dispassionate.

So I would ask the Committee’s Chair, Keith Vaz, to review the terms of reference urgently. The discrimination he needs to make between preferential “advice” and evidence submission should be clear to him.

Yes, it is reasonable to expect his committee to recognise and hear from legalisation or any other lobby groups, powerfully funded or otherwise.

Certainly they should be taking evidence from such groups.

But when they do so, their concern should also be with asking them searching and probing questions about what lies behind their advice—their funding, their support and their possible future commercial interest—and the philosophy of drug use within those groups.

But no, it is not reasonable for HASC to align itself with one participant in the field whether covertly or manifestly.

For the Global Commission’s media and public relations strategists must be congratulating themselves on this “coup”—a priceless one in financial, media and most of all, in political terms. It is one that will reverberate around the world and, uncorrected, it will do just this before the review has even got out of the starting blocks.

So if the committee is not to become a lap-dog and if this inquiry is to be treated with the respect it deserves, the terms of reference cannot be framed exclusively by the agenda of any lobby, whatever the profile of the “names” attached to that lobby or the massive finance behind it. Nor should it, by naming that lobby, be giving it prior authority over the terms of the debate—not least when its dearth of objectivity, in the misleading and irresponsible statistics it contrived to make its case, has already been exposed.

The call for evidence must be framed as questions. The date for written submissions must be extended from the ridiculously short notice of 10 January 2012.

If HASC goes ahead without rectifying this, then the (ab?)use of a Select Committee by such a lobby group must be a case for referral to the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.

Misleading and Irresponsible Drug Prevalence Statistics

The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s provocative claims of non-existent rises do not further rational drug policy debate.

The Liberal Party Conference (2011) policy motion 24, Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms, emphasised the need for evidence-based policy making on drugs in support of their calls to liberalise drug use through a variety of legalising and decriminalising proposals.

It cited the recent Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy—a newly emerged body whose members include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former heads of state of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland, the current Prime Minister of Greece and a former US Secretary of State—as a source of such evidence.

The central assertion of this report is that international drugs control policy has failed to curtail consumption. The key “evidence” to back this claim is set out in a table at the start of the report (page 4 of the 24 pages) titled United Nations Estimates of Annual Drug Consumption, 1998–2008. It shows dramatically rising global drug consumption (opiates, cocaine and cannabis), specifically in the decade 1998–2008. The inference from the title is that these are “official” figures. However, no specific source is given. Nor is the basis on how they were arrived at, or calculated, provided anywhere in the subsequent text. A subsequent textual reference could lead the informed reader to suppose their source to be the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2008) 2008 World Drug Report: Vienna, United Nations.

The Global Commission’s argument supported by it dramatic figures and its influential backers has been widely reported in the media, The United Nations source of this evidence has been accepted as reliable and, indeed given prominence, adding to their apparent authority. Indeed they continue to be widely quoted even following complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

But searches back through UNODC World Drug Report statistical tables for 2008—and all other years—singularly fail to elicit the evidence for the Global Commission’s claimed rises of 34.5% for opiates, 27% for cocaine and 8.5% for cannabis.

Data defined by reference to other documents and sources, that the majority of the reading and listening audience, including the media, are not expected to have read, can be data to be beware of. This is a case in point. Following a request for clarification from the UNODC, our worst fears as to the provenance and reliability of the Global Commission’s figures have been confirmed.

We now have the UNODC’s own detailed analysis of the figures that the Global Commission misleadingly attributed to the United Nations. Their investigation into how the Global Commission generated the figures shows that global drug consumption, in terms of drugs consumption prevalence, far from rising between 1998 and 2008, remained stable. Their best estimates of the number of cocaine and opiate users show prevalence rates for annual opiate use remaining stable at around 0.35% and for annual cocaine at 0.36%, in the population age range 15–64, between 1998 and 2008.

The Global Commission’s statistics are not just over-blown, they are contrived and misleadingly attributed.

The UNODC’s polite explanation for the disparity they found is that the Global Commission calculated their figures “on the basis of a flawed methodology”.

The UNODC analysis and explanation is set out verbatim below (their “bold” has been kept):

Clarifications regarding the Estimates of Drug Use presented in the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Attributed to UNODC

The Global Commission’s report presented the following numbers on the evolution of drug use to support its claim of rising drug use:

Opiates

Cocaine

Cannabis

1998

12.9 million

13.4 million

147.4 million

2008

17.35 million

17 million

160 million

% increase

34.5%

27%

8.5%

According to these numbers the increase would have been particularly strong for opiates and cocaine. The paper did not give precise references, but attributed these numbers to UNODG. After some research, it appears that the source for the 1998 figures were UNODC 2002 Global Illicit Drug Trends1 (which gave numbers for the period 1998–2001, rather than for 1998 only, as presented by the authors of the commission’s report).

As for the 2008 figures used in the paper, they appear to have been calculated by the authors of the paper, as mid-point of the statistical ranges presented in UNODC 2010 World Drug Report. It is not correct to assume that the mid-point of statistical range necessarily represents the best point estimate. As a matter of fact, in the same issue of the World Drug Report, UNODC did present best estimates for cocaine and opiate use, with 15.42 million users for cocaine2 (as opposed to 17.35 million in the commission’s report), and to 15.9 million for opiate users3 (as opposed to 17.2 million in the commission’s report).

Based on UNODC published best estimates of the number of cocaine and opiate users, the number of annual users for opiates increased, between 1998 and 2008, by 19.6% (as opposed to 34.5% as presented in the Global Commission’s report) and by 18.7% for cocaine (as opposed to 27% as presented in the Global Commission’s report).

Opiates

Cocaine

Cannabis

UNODC 1998–2001 best estimate (Global Illicit Drug Trends 2002) in millions of people

12.9

13.4

147.4

UNODC range of annual users in 2008 (World Drug Report 2010) in millions of people

12.84–21.88

15.07–19.38

128.9–190.75

Mid-points calculated by the Global Commission for 2008 in millions of people.

Increase 1998–2008 in %

17.35

34.5%

17

27%

160

8.5%

UNODC best estimate for 2008 (World Drug Report 2010) in millions of people.

Increase 1998–2008 in %

15.42

19.6%

15.9

18.7%

(not calculated)

Increase in world population age 15–64 from 1998–2008 in %

18.5%

Moreover, the extent of drug use is not measured and tracked through absolute numbers only. The prevalence rate expresses drug use as a proportion of the population (the age group 15–64 years old is normally used). During the period 1998–2008, the world population aged 15–64 grew by 685 million people, or +18.5%. Even if the prevalence of drug use remains the same, the increase in population would mean that the absolute number of users would increase proportionally. This important fact was not taken into account by the authors of the Global Commission’s paper.

Based on UNODC published best estimates of the number of cocaine and opiate users, the prevalence rates for annual use in the population age 15–64 remained stable at around 0.35% for opiates and 0.36%for cocaine between 1998 and 2008.

UNODC did not present a best estimate for the number of cannabis users, but one can note that the increase calculated in the Global Commission paper (+8.5%) is actually below the 18–64 age group population increase (+18.5%) which would translate in a decline of the prevalence rate of use for cannabis.

1 UNODC, Global Illicit Drug Trends, 2002, p 213.

2 UNODC, World Drug Report, 2010, p 71.

3 UNODC, World Drug Report, 2010, p 40 (11,314,000 for heroin users, and 4,119,500 for opium users).

Prepared 8th December 2012