Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by James McGuigan (DP125)

Executive Summary

The sacking of David Nutt for his scientifically accurate but politically incorrect public comments is highlights the heavy politicisation of the drug policy debate. The governments follow up to this over the rush classification of mephedrone appears to be one driven far more by media and political considerations rather than clear scientific evidence.

In dealing with the rise of legal highs, I bring forward the story of research chemist Alexander Shulgin and the systematic approach he took towards the discovery of hundreds of new psychedelic compounds. Next I expand upon the popularisation of mephedrone and its roots in the recent MDMA drought stemming from the Chinese shutting down a major sassafras factory. Several external reports are referenced in the comparison of legal and illegal drugs.

For the criteria measuring drug policy efficacy, I comment on the difference between measuring the acts of enforcement vs measuring the underlying social issues the drug war is intended to prevent. I further distinguish between the harms caused by the drugs themselves and the harms caused as a result of attempting to enforce drug policy.

In regards the effectiveness of drug policy, I bring out a series of statistics to show that the drug laws are effectively unenforceable and that continually escalation of the threat of punishment, the deterrence effect, is used to compensate for a lack of enforceability. I further highlight how the current scale of punishments for drug offences makes it comparable the most serious of crimes against another individual, such as rape, murder and grievous bodily harm.

In the section under alternative drug policies, I list a series of reports by Transform and CATO, giving special reference to the example of Portugal and their successful policy of complete decriminalisation since 2001. The only other working alternative is Singapore’s draconian policy of a mandatory penalty for all significant drug offences.

In closing I make reference to the great depression being the economic trigger for the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition in the US. I also make a personal recommendation for controlled legalisation of all drugs.

About the Author

I am an UK citizen who is personally affected by the current legal framework on illegal drugs.

I am by profession a computer programmer and also a part time student studying towards a second undergraduate degree in Physical Science. I am a higher rate tax payer and an upstanding member of my local community. With the exception of the laws on illegal drugs I have been an otherwise perfectly law abiding citizen and follow a strong ethical code of harm none and do as thou wilt.

I was brought up by my parents to believe that all drugs where taboo and spiritually harmful. In my early 20s, after leaving home, I had my first encounter with MDMA and it opened my eyes, this lead me to directly question my previous taboos. Slowly over the next couple of years I made a systematic enquiry into all forms of psychoactive, psychedelic and ethogenic compounds conducted in tandem with deep research into the nature of the mind, spiritual awakening and untapped potential of human consciousness. I am a strong believer of cognitive liberty and freedom of thought.

I am a self described psychonaut. In my time have personal ingested almost every drug currently scheduled under the law and many others that not yet been scheduled.

The process has resulted a long and fulfilling path of self discovery, personal insight, spiritual awaking and also been quite fun at times. The nature of the psychedelic experience is that it does not allow you to hide from yourself, it forces you to bring to the surface any unresolved issues that you have not previously dealt with and forces you to deal with them in the here and now. I do not believe I have harmed myself or others through my experimentation, and in fact believe that my range of previous experiences in altered states of consciousness have helped to make me a stronger and more integrated individual with a unique perspective on life. If approached through knowledge, self awareness and responsibility I believe the use of psychoactives can be used as a powerful tool for self development.

From a personal perspective, I am tired of having to hide my experiences from the outside world outside of my circle of close friends and having to live with the slight paranoia that results from the knowledge that my chosen spiritual path makes me a defacto criminal and outlaw according to the laws of the land.

In response to your request for evidence relating to the impact of drug policy, I have decided to answer a selection of the questions you have posted. Where possible I have attempted to provide references to qualified resources and well researched reports in order to back up my statements.

I hope my comments are of assistance to you as part of your enquiry.

In 2009, David Nutt the Chair of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs was sacked for stating scientific opinions that where in conflict with the political message that the government wished to communicate through drug policy. This triggered off a wave of resignations from many of the other members of the committee.1

On 1 April 2010 Eric Carlin also resigned after the announcement that mephedrone would be made illegal, saying that the decision by the Home Secretary was “unduly based on media and political pressure”. He also stated “We had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour As well as being extremely unhappy with how the ACMD operates, I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people.”

In regards the criminalisation of mephedrone, it appears that there was a large media circus about the widespread availability of mephedrone, followed by the two reported deaths of Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith apparently linked to the drug in March 2010. The government used these deaths to rush through the classification of this new substance, within weeks. The government did not even wait for the toxicology reports of the two teenagers, which later declared that their deaths were not linked to mephedrone and that they had not taken the drug.2

The current government has further removed the requirement for six specific scientific disciplines from the AMCD, thus reducing the diversity of scientific input into the committee.3

David Nutt’s has since formed the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, to provide a platform for evidence based scientific advice and research into drugs without being restricted by the politicisation of the drug debate.4

I offer the case of Alexander Shulgin, a brilliant biochemist and psychopharmacologist. He conducted systematic research into the Phenethylamine and Tryptamine family of chemicals, discovering hundreds of new and unique chemicals, many of which had the capability of crossing the blood-brain barrier and causing psychedelic and entheogenic5 effects. He personally taste-tested each of these inventions to explore their individual properties on the human psyche. He published his research in the form of two autobiographies, named PiHKAL and TiHKAL, which included full details of how to chemically synthesize each chemical along with experience reports of the effects of each drug at various dosages. His research notes can be found online.

The UK government’s reaction to Shulgin’s work was the Misuse of Phenethylamines Bill which updated the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to systematically classify the entire contents of PiHKAL and TiHKAL as class A drugs.6

Prior to mephedrone gaining popularity, MDMA was the drug of choice for most clubbers and ravers. A couple of years back the Chinese authorities shutdown one of the major factories producing sassafras, a precursor for the most common method of synthesizing MDMA. This was the root cause of a widespread MDMA shortage in the UK. Piperazines where used as a substitute in many ecstasy pills, but it lacks the same effect.

I believe that given the unmet demand for a suitable party drug, various people started searching the medical and scientific literature for undiscovered chemicals that they could experiment with and that might get them high. There are numerous Chinese API manufacturers who given a chemical formula and a recipe will manufacture any unscheduled chemical required. Word of the most favourable discoveries slowly spread through word of mouth and variety of social circles until it was finally picked up as a story by the mass media. This is to the best of my knowledge the story of how mephedrone, ivory wave and the other recently banned “legal highs” came into the public consciousness.

In 2006, the UK Science and Technology Select Committee submitted a report to the House of Commons entitled “Drug classification: making a hash of it?” The government response while accepting many of the smaller points, rejected any significant change to individual drug classification levels and the drug classification system as a whole.7

David Nutt published a detailed scientific report in the Lancet on the relative harms of various drugs in our society, entitled “Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis”.8

Casey Harrison, a campaigner for cognitive liberty and a prisoner of the drug war, is currently attempting to take the Home Secretary to court regarding her choice to abdicate her power and duty under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 with regards to alcohol and tobacco control. Treasury Solicitors acting for the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs have successfully requested the High Court grant them an “Extended Civil Restraining Order” stopping Casey Hardison’s judicial reviews.9

This is an important question. The current policy is based aimed towards prohibition and enforced abstinence. Most of the statistics used by the government in terms of drug policy are related to measuring drug enforcement, the number of arrests, the economic value of drug seizures, the length of sentence used to imprison drug users. Far less focus is given to measuring the underlying harms that the drug laws are supposed to be protecting us from. As such, the drug war can be continually escalated, resulting in ever an increasing quantity of measurable enforcement, and declared a success. This whilst failing miserably at its stated aim of the total elimination of the availability of drugs.

If enforcement in of itself is not the goal of government drug policy, then the underlying criteria should be based around the welfare, health and quality of life of the people of this country. Drug policy should be primarily an issue of national health, with a focus on education and harm minimisation.

It is also important to distinguish the harms caused directly by drugs—anti-social behaviour committed whilst under the influence of drugs:


long term health issues; and


From the harms caused by the prohibition of drugs:

harmful adulterants in drugs;

inconsistent and unreliable dosages;

HIV through needle sharing (due to restricted availability of clean needles); and

stealing to fund black market drug prices.

Prohibition also causes some secondary social effects, which may be hard to measure:

unwillingness to access medical services, for addiction or overdose;

social disengagement and avoidance of police due to the criminalisation of drug users; and

life consequences for young people receiving a prison sentence and criminal record from drug possession.

The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage

One of the fundamental issues of drug prohibition related policing is that, in practice, the law is impossible to systematically and consistently enforce. The result is that the vast majority of drug usage goes undetected by the authorities.

Self-reported drug usage in the previous year (2007–08) for the following demographics:10

9.3% of Adults, 16–59 years of age; and

21.3% of Young Adults, 16–59 years of age.

There were 88,600 arrests for drug offences in 2005–06 (nearest year for stats).

Drug arrests accounted for 88,600/1,429,800=6.2% of all arrests.11

Given a UK working population (age 16–59) of 38 million:

88,600/38 million=0.23% of population arrested for drugs in 2005–06.

9.3% * 38 million=3,534,000 self reported as violating drugs laws.

88,600/3,534,000=2.5% police success rate at detecting violation of drug laws.

The primary political response to unenforceable laws seems to be a continual escalation of criminal penalties in the hopes that the deterrence effect will mitigate for unenforceability. The logic seems to be that if the existing penalties fail to deter law breaking, then let’s keep increasing them until they do.

The problem now is that the punishment scale accorded to drug use and drug supply are now comparable to the most serious offences a person is capable of committing against another individual.

Maximum Custodial Sentences:12

Supply or Importing of Class A drugs: Life Imprisonment.

Supply or Importing of Class B or C drugs: 14 years.

Possession of Class A drugs: seven years or a fine or both.

Possession of Class B drugs: five years; or a fine or both.

Possession of Class C drugs: two years; or a fine or both.

Murder: Life Imprisonment.

Rape: Life Imprisonment.

Sexual assault: 10 years.

Sexual activity with a child: 14 years.

Wounding or Inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm: five years.

Possess Offensive Weapon: four years.

Even given these currently very high levels of criminal sanctions, the deterrence effect is still insufficient to prevent a significant percentage from the population from violating these laws.

It is my personal opinion that the primary effect of harsher drug penalties is simply a greater level of secrecy about drug use, especially towards anybody who is not already known a drug user or sympathiser, and incredibly so towards anybody who has a connection with authority. Drug use is not actually reduced, but simply made less visible. The social outcome of drug policy is similar to that of the recently repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality in the US military.

Whether detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma, as recommended by the Select Committee in 2002 (the Government’s Drugs Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318, 2001–02) and the Justice Committee’s 2010 Report on justice reinvestment (Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94, 2009–10)

I strongly believe that the current prohibitionist approach is a significant failure, both in terms of its own stated goals and in terms of the wider social fallout of the current policy.

Transform have published several reports addressing these issues including:13

After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation.

After the War on Drugs: Options for Control.

CATO have released a report Drug Decriminalisation in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs, and should serve as a major case study for the consequences of such a policy choice. From the report it appears that drug usage, drug mortality and drug HIV infection have all declined since the advent of decriminalisation, and the update of public health services for drug treatment has increased.14

It should also be noted that Singapore has undertaken the opposite extreme in drug prohibition, and has instituted a mandatory death penalty for the possession, importation or supply of any significant quantity of illegal drugs. According the report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Singapore has the lowest annual prevalence of drug abuse of all reported UN countries in all categories (Cocaine, Opiates, Cannabis, Amphetamines, Ecstasy). This statistic probably has a strong correlation with their absolute and draconian drug laws.15

Whether drug-related policing and expenditure is likely to decrease in line with police budgets and what impact this may have

From a historical perspective, US Alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933, during the middle of the great depression. While there where many philosophical arguments that had been put forward previously, economics played a large part in the signing of the 18th Amendment. The costs of attempting to police prohibition and the wave of organised crime directly resulting from prohibition where eliminated and once legalised, alcohol taxation allowed the government to raise additional revenue in an age of austerity.


It is my personal belief that the only long term successful drug policy is in the form of controlled legalisation, without commercialisation, with access through licensed pharmacies, even for recreation use, combined with a return to the pre-1960s “British System” of drug control, where a medical doctor had full authority to prescribe any drug.

With the advent of legalisation, policies such the issuance of a “drug license”, which require an educational test to acquire could be implemented, with the threat that this license could be revoked to those involved in crime or anti-social behaviour whist under the influence. Individuals should still be considered fully responsible for their actions, even whilst under the influence.

January 2012

1 www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/nov/02/drug-policy-alan-johnson-nutt

2 www.bbc.co.uk/news/10184803

3 www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/dec/05/government-scientific-advice-drugs-policy

4 www.drugscience.org.uk/

5 www.erowid.org/library/books_online/pihkal/pihkal.shtml www.erowid.org/library/books_online/tihkal/tihkal.shtml

6 www.erowid.org/psychoactives/law/countries/uk/uk_misuse_phen_1.shtml

7 www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmsctech/1031/1031.pdf www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm69/6941/6941.pdf

8 http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2810%2961462- 6/fulltext#article_upsell

9 http://www.drugequality.org/hardison_home_office_acmd_jr2.htm

10 www.tdpf.org.uk/MediaNews_FactResearchGuide_DrugUsageLevels.htm

11 www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/arrests-for-recorded-crime-englandand-wales.pdf

12 www.cps.gov.uk/legal/s_to_u/sentencing_manual/

13 www.tdpf.org.uk/AboutUs_Publications.htm

14 www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf

15 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Singapore#Misuse_of_Drugs_Act

Prepared 8th December 2012