Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.


The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').


The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.


We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Monday, 31 March 2014

Senedd Watch - March 2014

  • The second Silk Commission report, published on March 3rd, recommended devolution of policing, youth justice, teachers' pay, some transport powers/budgets and raising the limit for Welsh Government energy project consent from 50MW to 350MW. The report also recommended a reserved powers model and an increase in the number of AMs to 80. The report rejected devolution of broadcasting, but called for a review of devolution of the criminal justice system between 2018-2025.
  • An academic study found 4 in 5 workplaces in Wales were dominated by one gender, with 91% of skilled trades occupied by men. The Electoral Reform Society also backed calls to increase women's representation on local councils, setting parties a target of 40% of winnable seats having women candidates at the 2017 local elections.
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), announced changes to how mortality statistics are recorded following concerns about mortality rates at Welsh hospitals. Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West), said the answer was to, “look at the problems, not blame the data”.
  • The National Assembly granted Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) leave to introduce a Minimum Nurse Staffing Levels Bill. She said the Mid Staffordshire scandal in England highlighted how low nurse-patient ratios were a threat to patient safety and care, and her law will, ensure that we have safe staffing levels in our hospitals".
  • Welsh exports rose by 11.2% in 2013 to stand at £14.8billion, significantly outperforming than the rest of the UK (+0.4%). The First Minister said it, "demonstrated the overwhelming success of our approach". Plaid Cymru Shadow Economy Minister, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said his party would establish an Overseas Trade Initiative to further improve export performances.
  • The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee published a critical report into Welsh NHS Finances, calling for greater transparency and more flexible financial planning. The NHS Finance Act 2014 – which comes into force in April – will give Local Health Boards three years to plan their budgets instead of one.
  • The Assembly's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee inquiry into Welsh roles in EU decision-making called for a focused EU strategy, and a review of "soft diplomacy" used in Brussels. Committee Chair David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said, "it was more difficult to make yourself heard in debates which affect your interests" within the EU.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), launched an immediate investigation after GCSE English language results in January 2014 were lower than expected, following course changes as a result of a marking row in summer 2012.
    • On March 12th, the minister announced Glasgow University's Prof. Graham Donaldson had been appointed to undertake a "comprehensive, wide ranging and independent" review of the curriculum and assessments in Wales.
    • On March 18th, the WJEC announced they would re-mark 300+ papers, but said an internal review found marking was "consistent" with "no sizable disparities".
  • Plaid Cymru held their Spring Conference in Cardiff, where leader Leanne Wood told voters to "reject Europhobia" in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, saying UKIP's politics "had no place in our country, not now, not ever". Plaid floated policies such as a £300million full-time childcare scheme and also ruling out lowering the top rate on income tax should tax-varying powers be devolved.
    • Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was sacked from his roles as transport spokesperson and chair of the National Assembly's Environment Committee on March 13th, after describing Plaid's attack on UKIP as "facile" and criticising the wording of a press release.
  • Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), told BBC Wales that the public should have access to information on senior executive pay in local government, following a series of critical reports from the Wales Audit Office and scandals. New guidance will be issued to local authorities in April.
  • The National Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee inquiry into sports participation said more needed to be done to overcome barriers amongst women, girls, the deprived and ethnic minorities. It also called for better statistics gathering and a Welsh Government review into their free swimming scheme.
  • The Welsh Conservatives launched a year-long consultation on changes to higher education, including proposals for two-year bachelor degrees, which is said would enable students to enter the workplace faster and cut student debts.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) launched a consultation on the Financial Education & Inclusion Bill, revealing that financial education provision varied wildly in Welsh schools, ranging from 270 hours to "nothing". The Welsh Government said they had reinforced financial education in the school curriculum, believing legislation was unnecessary.
  • A row broke out between the Welsh and UK Governments on electrification of railways in south Wales, after the First Minister suggested Westminster would pay for rail electrification, while the UK Government insisted costs would be eventually borne by the Welsh Government - despite rail infrastructure being non-devolved.
  • The National Assembly approved the Social Services and Well-being Bill at Report Stage on March 18th by 53 votes to 5. The Welsh Liberal Democrats voted against due to concerns about the legislative process. Deputy Minister for Social Services & Children, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), said it will, "make a real difference to the lives of those who need care and support".
    • Plaid Cymru accused Labour of " blatant hypocrisy" for rejecting their amendment to outlaw zero hour contracts for social care workers, despite Labour's public criticism of the contracts in other walks of life.
  • Unemployment in Wales saw another large fall – by 12,000 – in the three months to January 2014, with the unemployment rate at 6.7% compared to 7.2% for the UK as a whole.
  • The UK Chancellor announced the budget on March 18th, with changes to pension and saving rules, compensation payments for energy-intensive businesses – like Port Talbot steelworks – and an announcement that the Wales Bill on financial devolution would be introduced. The Welsh Government's budget will be increased by £36million over the next two years.
  • The Welsh Government announced £8million in loans towards two housing schemes in Tonyrefail and Newport, which are said to be worth £225million to the Welsh economy and could create up to 2,300 jobs. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said the schemes will, "help transform brownfield sites into thriving communities".
  • The Wales Audit Office questioned the benefits of a £90million Welsh Government project to move civil service jobs out of Cardiff, saying the benefits were "uncertain". However, the project was said to have delivered "all its objectives" overall.
  • The National Assembly approved the Education Bill on March 25th by 37 votes to 4 with 11 abstentions. The Education Act will harmonise term dates and create a new professional body to oversee teaching in Wales. In a significant change to the original Bill, special needs education provisions were removed and will instead be included in separate legislation.
  • Ambulance responses within target times saw a sharp drop in February 2014, falling 5.5% to 52.8%. Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, described it as a "national disgrace", saying ambulance services "had reached crisis point". The Welsh Government announced they would change the targets in order to show clinical benefit, not pure response times.
  • The Assembly's Children & Young People Committee inquiry into childhood obesity said children were having to wait until adulthood to receive obesity treatment. They also called for better monitoring of government health programmes and outcomes. In 2011, around 35% of under-16s in Wales were either overweight or obese.
  • BBC Wales reported concerns from within Natural Resources Wales (NRW) that they were put under pressure by the Welsh Government not to object to developments – pointing towards the Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent, where NRW opposition was withdrawn. Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said the body was "independent" and had "achieved a lot" since it was established in 2013.
  • Opposition politicians criticised Welsh Labour after AMs blocked Ann Clwyd MP (Lab, Cynon Valley) – a vocal critic of the Welsh NHS - from giving evidence to the Health Committee. It follows a row over the care her late husband received at University Hospital Cardiff, the First Minister telling the Senedd she had "produced no evidence" of poor care.
  • At Welsh Labour's spring conference in Llandudno, the party said they would offer "Scottish-style" taxation powers and a reserved powers model if they win the 2015 UK Election. The First Minister admitted his government "could do better" on the NHS, but said his party was, "on the frontline in the Tory war on Wales".

Projects announced in March include : An extra £4.2million towards flood repairs after winter storms, a £21million extension of the Sêr Cymru science investment scheme, a £1.8million fund towards physical literacy in schools, £1.7million towards credit unions, a pilot scheme for a project to provide training places for youngsters in workless households which could eventually help up to 5,000 individuals, and a £15million package to cut business rates.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Wales on Drugs VI : Why don't we legalise drugs?

Although drug legalisation is still a minority political position, the idea
is gaining traction - even amongst those on the front lines of the War on Drugs.
(Pic :

As said in Part I, there's a growing consensus – even in Westminster – that recreational drugs (especially cannabis) should be decriminalised, if not legalised completely.

What once would've been too radical a proposition is starting to gain traction. UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, called for a Royal Commission to explore "alternatives to the war on drugs". Chief Constable for Durham, Mike Barton, called for drug legalisation in September 2013, joined by the force's Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, Ron Hogg, who also supports drug rooms.

Drug liberalisation isn't a "left-right" issue. Among those who've supported a Royal Commission is Nigel Farage (though it's not official UKIP policy), while some Conservatives have supported calls to legalise or decriminalise cannabis to varying degrees. This is an argument that boils down to social conservatism and social liberalism.

I've come round to supporting legalisation of recreational drugs, with a tiered system of restriction. I haven't always supported that, but after 50 years of failure, it's time to change the "victory conditions" in the War on Drugs. Ultimately, "victory" means destroying the criminal drug trade.

If legalising drugs is such a radical, "unworkable" position, why isn't it the same case for complete prohibition of all recreational drugs - including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine?

Because it doesn't work. You have to set reasonable boundaries, but when it comes to drugs, those boundaries are - admittedly - hard to define.

Why is drug liberalisation off the agenda?

Although there is a clear health issue surrounding drug
use, some of the claims are often wild.
(Pic : via Tumblr)

Health time bomb - Looking at cannabis in isolation, its long-term use has been linked to (but never conclusively proven AFAIK) illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. If it were legalised and its use normalised, then you would presume some illnesses would see a rise in cases.

In terms of the effect on usage levels, tolerance of cannabis in the Netherlands was compared to San Francisco (where it's illegal) in a public health study (here). The results showed no impact on levels of drug use regardless of whether a drug is legal/decriminalised or criminalised. Research in the British Medical Journal from The Netherlands also supports heroin on prescription to treat addiction, as it "was significantly more effective" than methadone.

We should perhaps encourage people away from harmful stimulants and opioids that lead to long-term health and societal impacts like cocaine, heroin and tobbaco, towards "soft" depressants and hallucinogens like cannabis, psylocibins and LSD.

Paternalism – Nothing good can come from giving people access to something that damages their bodies. This is the "Welsh Labour" model - a social conservatism based around wanting to protect people from themselves. It's the same line of thinking that's led to public smoking bans and proposals like minimum pricing for alcohol. So it's not a bad argument. Except you have to ask the question whether leaving drugs in the hands of the black market is - in itself - going to do more harm than a properly regulated market?

Protestant morality– Partaking in conscious-altering activities for pleasure is frowned upon unless they're within the confines of a very strict, "traditional", controlled environment. So getting drunk at a pub or party is acceptable because everyone is willing to do it, and it's something that's "always happened". Zoning out on magic mushrooms in a middle of a field isn't. You can argue it's hypocritical, but as the attitudes in Part V show, it's quite prevalent.

Fear – Drug liberalisation could be too massive a change in social policy for people to take. Therefore, it's too big a risk for politicians, whose careers often rely on being in step with public opinion not "doing the right thing". Since the War on Drugs began, drugs have become synonymous with criminality, seen as a "scourge on society" and have provided media outlets with headlines and police forces with good PR. To suddenly do an about face on that conventional wisdom would be a dive into uncharted waters.


Classism - When Nigella Lawson and Barack Obama admitting using cocaine, and Prince Harry cannabis, it was treated with a sense of amusement. Toronto mayor Rob Ford's antics have gone viral, while nobody mentions Katherine Jenkins' previous use of cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. I'll admit that when watching The Taste, I was trying to spot if Nigella was gurning, not concerned about her health or the fact she had managed to get hold of Class A drugs. So to "get away" with drug use you have to carry yourself well, be middle-class, wealthy and well-educated.

Although not on the same scale, a similar leeway hasn't been afforded to the "more common" Tulisa Contostavlos. Double standards? Is drug use only permissible when the elite want to be naughty? Are people worried that drug liberalisation will lead to the lower classes running amok because they "can't handle it"?

Stimulants don't have the same stigma as depressants and opioids. For example, cocaine and ecstasy are exclusive because they promote productivity and sociability, are expensive and seen as high society's drug of choice. LSD and magic mushrooms are seen as things for hippies and twee folk singers. Methamphetamines? They have an anti heroic glamour to them since Breaking Bad, although on the ground it's a completely different story.

Heroin? Human scum and criminals....unless you're Angelina Jolie, Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Robbie Williams, Robert Kennedy Jnr.....

Let's argue about it over ten pints of local craft ale.

Arguments in favour of drug liberalisation

Personal liberty – A principle that people should be able to make a choice about what they do in their free time with their own money – as long as it doesn't harm anyone else or wider society (what John Stuart Mill called the "harm principle"). A less social-minded libertarian (like many in UKIP) might leave out the last bit. That one line means that there's no contradiction in supporting drug legalisation, yet at the same time supporting things like public smoking bans (due to passive smoking – harming someone else) or minimum prices on alcohol (to curb drunken assaults – harming wider society).

Ideally, nobody would take recreational drugs because their lives would be good enough so that wouldn't feel the need to.
Whether children get their hands on them is moot as it already happens. However, I would much rather an adult had the option to take a government-regulated and taxed version of ecstasy, manufactured in Wales and restricted in sale. That's better that some Made in China legal high, or smuggled cocaine, stained by the blood of thousands lost in a "war" nobody's willing to call time on.
No rules means no qualms.
(Pic :
Regulation & Oversight – One of the serious health issues relating to drug abuse is that there are no guidelines or restrictions on what's in them. DrugScope say some amphetamines sold on the street might be only 10% pure, while there are figures of 28% for cocaine and 30% for heroin. Common cutting agents include things like flour and dry wall, through to cleaning products and rat poison.

So some cutting agents are probably as dangerous to a user as the active ingredient in drugs themselves. Setting proper industrial standards for recreational drugs would enable safer drugs to be sold or safer alternatives created. Prof. David Nutt, for example, is working on an alternative to alcohol.

Take the drugs market away from criminals - The reason drugs affect society negatively is because they're illegal – criminalising the act itself – and subsequently places the role of regulator, manufacturer and supplier in the hands of criminals. It's logical that if very addictive drugs like heroin were available on prescription there would be no reason for people to commit theft to obtain them. The state would also control the supply and dosage, possibly reducing accessibility to certain drugs.

People who produce drug crops – like cannabis and coca – will be able to sell them on the market legitimately without having to deal with the criminal underworld. They would be able to run legitimate businesses, subject to whatever taxes and regulations the government decides to lay down.

It would be completely wrong and irresponsible to say legalising drugs would definitely reduce crime. It might; relieving pressure of the police, prisons and court services through falls in convictions, because things like possession would no longer be a crime.

However, all those "nice guys" currently making money out of drugs trafficking aren't suddenly going to "go straight". It could result in increases in crime elsewhere – money laundering, robberies, cyber crime, arms dealing, people trafficking.

In the UK, that man would be looking at up to 14 years in prison.
In Colorado, he has a job and both he and the crop produce tax revenues.
(Pic : The Telegraph, via Press Association)

The economic argument - It's unclear how much revenue a tax on recreational drugs would bring in, but it's not likely to be much. Exeter University's Institute for Social and Economic Research (pdf p112) estimates legalised cannabis in the UK would raise between £540million-£740million in tax (if set at 70%) and the total net-benefit to the economy and budget would be in the region of £740million-£1.05billion.

If you included all drugs (presuming that boosted the figures by 25%), then I'll guesstimate tax revenues would be between £675million-£935million and a net-benefit to the UK economy would be at least £900million, perhaps significantly more.

At a Welsh level, you would expect tax income alone to be in the £35million-£50million range. Though in total it would take a significant dent out of the estimated £1.1billion cost of drugs to the Welsh economy and public services (Part IV).

In 2010, The Guardian put the total economic benefit to the UK at £5billion (Welsh share : ~£250million).

Is decriminalisation a cop-out?

Decriminalisation removes the penalty for using or supplying a drug. It's like saying, "You shouldn't do this, but we're going to look the other way."

Legalisation would mean society taking responsibility for the matter via the tax system, legislation and public bodies. We would have to confront the problem, not brush it under the carpet.

Decriminalisation might make things worse because the "market" would remain unregulated and in the hands of criminals - so it would still have an "edge" - while there would be no extra tax income to fund schemes to negate the health and social effects. The only people it would benefit are politicians, who can appear liberal or as compassionate conservatives without ending "The War on Drugs", as well as occasional users, not hardened addicts.

Some parties – like Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and the Greens - can support legalising cannabis or decriminalisation, because the policy is mainstream enough for it not be a completely ludicrous proposition, but low enough down the list of people's priorities that it sounds "radical". It's almost a token addition to policy put out to attract students and the "dungarees, drums and dreadlocks" vote.

Legalising or decriminalising cannabis in isolation could also lead to calls for legalisation of ecstasy and LSD, until every drug gets legalised via the back door. So the rational choice should be between continuing prohibition in some form (Part V), or full drug legalisation.


Colorado became the second US state to legalise cannabis for recreational
purposes this year, raising some $3.5million in taxes and fees in the first month.
(Pic : Al Jazeera)

Netherlands – Drugs are illegal, though there's no distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs. The use and sale of certain drugs (in particular cannabis) is "tolerated" and unofficially legalised. Due to concerns about "drug tourism", cannabis sales are restricted to paid-up members of coffee houses who have a proof of residency. The Netherlands has both some of the lowest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe and drug use/cannabis use overall.

Portugal – In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of all narcotics, replacing the criminal offence with a civil offence and placing limits on amounts of drugs for "personal use". According to a 2007 Beckley Foundation report (pdf), cannabis use increased 60%, heroin use decreased 28%, drug-related deaths fell 59% and the number of people sent to prison for drug offences fell 16%. However, overall drug-related crime increased. There was also an increased uptake of drug-treatment programmes due to better and earlier intervention. Overall lifetime drug use rates fell too.

Colorado, United States – Medicinal cannabis was already legal, but the Colorado 2013 Amendment 64 referendum (55.3% yes, 44.7% no) saw the legalisation of commercial sale of cannabis through licenced dispensaries, and growing up to three cannabis plants for personal use. The state sets an excise duty and sales tax, and the changes came into effect on 1st January 2014. In the first month, sales topped $14million and Colorado collected $2million in taxes and a further $1.5million in fees. Washington legalised cannabis along similar lines in 2012, while other states considering it include New Jersey, Alaska and Oregon.

Uruguay – Uruguay became the first nation state to legalise cannabis in 2013, passing a law which allows people to buy a certain amount of cannabis from the government each month. People are also allowed to grow a limited amount for personal consumption. A licensing system will be introduced for future agricultural production. Several South American heads of state and government have called for a rethink of drugs laws in order to end The War on Drugs, including Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos. Uruguay's President, Jose Mujica, has subsequently been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Legalising drugs in an independent Wales

Wales will only get powers over drugs policy through independence – full stop. There's no way in hell Westminster will let those powers go within the UK, and it wasn't even considered as part of Silk II even though social security was.

The case in favour of legalising cannabis, and possibly "soft" drugs like LSD and ecstasy, is open and shut. That's not the case for "hard" drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and heroin. So a tiered system of restriction is appropriate.

Drug Classification

Should recreational drugs be part of a unified classification system
alongside prescription and over the counter medicines?
(Pic : Press Association via BBC Wales)
A Welsh equivalent of NICE could be responsible for setting drug classification and the pharmaceutical standards required, based on scientific evidence, and offer recommendations to the Health Minister and equivalent of Home Affairs Minister.

Instead of the current Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it might be worth creating a universal system covering all drugs based on the Medicines Act 1968, or a new Drugs Act.

  • Class ARestricted under medical supervision – This would include heroin and methadone to treat registered addicts, and other prescription medicines that aren't fit for everyday consumption. They would be available on prescription only and can't be sold commercially.
  • Class B - Restricted – All other recreational drugs, requiring a licence to sell, manufacture, import raw ingredients or supply. There's an argument whether cocaine would be placed here or in Class A. Alcohol, tobacco and high-caffeine energy drinks could be placed here too.
  • Class CGeneral Sale – Drugs that don't require pharmaceutical training to sell or a licence. This would include over the counter medicines and caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, soft drinks etc. No restrictions on sale (where applicable).

Manufacturing and supply of narcotics

  • Manufacturers and suppliers should be licenced three times by the Welsh Government to :
    • import or export raw ingredients (i.e. coca) or a pre-agreed quantity of the drug itself.
    • manufacture drugs (including a distiller's licence to produce alcohol commercially)
    • supply recreational drugs to licenced pharmacies in Wales.
  • Newly-licenced narcotics (cannabis etc.) should be sold in plain packaging, with nothing but the name of the drug, number of doses, instructions on use (where applicable), its ingredients and the manufacturer address etc. The packaging should also include clear and unequivocal health warnings. 

Sale and use of narcotics

"I'll have a quarter ounce of hash and a bag of charlie, please."
(Pic : NHS Wales)
  • Sales should be restricted to those who can prove they're aged 18+ , except for those under medical supervision. Class A drugs should only be available with a valid Welsh prescription.
  • Sale of newly-licenced recreational narcotics (Class B) would be via licenced pharmacies, licence terms including a "fit and proper person's test"; plus police, health board and local authority approval.
  • Current licensing arrangements for alcohol and tobacco would remain unchanged and could be expanded to include high-caffeine energy drinks.
  • Internet sales could go either way as it would be hard to prove identities, so the case for allowing internet sales isn't clean cut and it would be sensible to restrict narcotic sales to in-person only.
Newly-licenced recreational narcotics (Class B) can be sold in licenced pharmacies, as long as :

  • The pharmacy isn't within 400 metres of a primary or secondary school (like measures proposed for fast food outlets).
  • They're not sold in the same place as alcoholic drinks (so no sales in off licences, supermarkets etc), though medicinal alcohol is fine.
  • They meet some sort of minimum security arrangement – including CCTV of customers, regular inspections by the police, possibly separate queues for recreational drug sales.
Other factors :

  • There should be a complete advertising ban, except inside the pharmacy itself. Any advertising has to be boring and can't "glamorise" drugs or drug use.
  • People should be able to cultivate a certain amount of drugs for personal use with a licence.
  • It would be up to individual establishments to decide if they "tolerate" recreational drug use on their premises. Local councils could include the provision of sterile, supervised "drug rooms" in nightclubs, pubs etc. in licensing conditions.

Criminal Offences

Crimes like drug trafficking should remain serious offences with stiff punishments.
(Pic : South Wales Police)
Criminal penalties and prison sentences should remain for :

  • Supplying Class A drugs to someone without a prescription, except in a medical emergency.
  • Selling or supplying Class A & B drugs in public, without a licence, or to under-18s (unless exempt).
  • Drug trafficking into or out of Wales without expressed permission.
  • Manufacturing or cultivating recreational drugs for sale without a licence.

Civil offences should remain for :

  • Using drugs in a public place (i.e. like smoking). Existing anti-smoking legislation should be extended to cannabis joints, bongs and shisha.
  • Police should have the power to demand proof of purchase for any A&B drugs they find on someone. If proof isn't provided they should have discretionary powers to confiscate them.

  • An excise tax like those placed on alcohol and tobacco should be levied on :
    • The drugs themselves.
    • Drug paraphernalia (i.e. bongs, wraps).
    • Seeds and spores (where applicable) – taxed at 200%+
    • Any specialist equipment associated with manufacture or use of drugs.
  • Class A drugs would be exempt from excise taxes because they would be available on prescription only, as would things like syringes in needle exchanges etc.
  • Licenced pharmacies and drug manufacturers would also be subject to usual business taxes and excise duties.

Problems to overcome

Drug driving would be just one problem....
A foolproof roadside "drug driving" test – The police have tests for drug driving, mostly relating to pupil size and coordination. However, that might not work for all drugs and the best way – ultimately – is a roadside blood test. The technology isn't there yet, though mouth swab tests for cannabis are being piloted.

Employee relations - Would turning up to work under the influence of (then legal) recreational drugs be a valid reason for dismissal or punishment? I'd argue it is for common sense reasons, and doesn't undermine the argument for legalisation. Drug testing for employees would probably have to become routine (it already is for some jobs, like train drivers, pilots, bus drivers etc), but it could be considered an infringement of civil liberties and trade unions would go ballistic.

Imports, exports and trafficking – I don't need to tell you what controversy it would cause if cannabis or cocaine with "Made in Wales" stamped on it appeared on the streets of Bristol.

International reaction – Legalising drugs, whether cannabis in isolation or whole scale, would almost certainly cause diplomatic problems with the United States and most of Europe – especially if it were a unilateral decision. It would openly declare they are wrong on drugs, and if it's anything the global big boys don't like, it's being told they're wrong. South American heads of state would consider us heroes though.

I'm sure there are others too.

Give Peace A Chance

Time to end the war?
We don't have to like it. We should actively discourage people from doing it. But we should respect an individual's right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, free time and money.

People have to be provided with the best information possible that avoids scare-mongering and is based on medical facts. If the truth is scary, so be it; but blanket warnings that discourage one person aren't going to do the same thing for another person.

People deserve to know what they're putting into their bodies. Leaving it in the hands of criminals ,or bucket chemists in the middle of the jungle, is a betrayal of a government's responsibility to protect the public and promote public health - even if what the public are doing harms themselves.

It's a dangerous activity that wreaks havoc on the environment, its raw ingredients leading to military action. It destroys lives and rips apart communities. It leads to thousands of imprisonments and criminal convictions every year. The long-term effects have led to countless hospital treatments and continues to leave hundreds dead – robbing us of talented people.

It's called the car.

We allow it because we trust an individual's judgement, we tax and pass laws to ensure the industry is regulated, we ensure individuals know how to use them safely for their own sake (and everyone else) and we – as a society – punish people appropriately when they abuse that trust.

It's surely time to do the same with recreational drugs.

UPDATE 10/01/2015 : Here's a succinct article covering all of the main points in favour of drugs legalisation from Ethan Glover.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Wales on Drugs V : The Prohibition Question

As well as material considerations (covered in Part III & Part IV) , the biggest psychological/sociological indicator as to whether prohibition is having an effect are attitudes towards drugs.

The Home Office have data on this from 2012-13, covering attitudes towards cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and "getting drunk" (spreadsheet).

Attitudes towards taking drugs

It appears "Hooray Henrys" are, again, more likely to view drug-taking as acceptable
- though the vast majority of people see it as unacceptable and unsafe.
Demographic factors
  • 32% of 16-59 year olds thought it was acceptable to use cannabis occasionally, and 2% frequently. This sentiment regarding cannabis was strongest amongst those aged 20-29 (35-38%), and men (37% vs 27%).
  • Around 10-12% of 25-34 year olds thought it was acceptable to use cocaine and ecstasy occasionally. Again, this is a more common sentiment amongst men. The sentiment is less prevalent amongst younger and older age groups.
  • Only 7-8% of people overall thought it was acceptable to use cocaine and heroin occasionally, compared to just 1% for heroin. Nobody thought it was OK to use cocaine, heroin or ecstasy frequently.
  • 10-12% of younger people (16-24 year olds) thought it was acceptable to get drunk frequently and 74% of all 16-59 year olds thought it was acceptable to get drunk occasionally.

Socio-economic factors
  • People with a degree-level qualification are almost twice as likely to see occasional drug use as  acceptable compared to those with no qualifications (i.e. cannabis 36% vs 19%).
  • People in managerial and professional occupations are more likely to think it's acceptable to occasionally use cannabis (39%), cocaine (10%), ecstasy (11%) and get drunk (78%) than any other occupational group.
  • Those earning £50,000+ per year are significantly more tolerant of occasional use of cannabis (41%), cocaine (10%), ecstasy (11%) and getting drunk (79%) than those earning less than £20,000 (24% - 6% - 6% - 68% for each drug respectively). There's a similar trend for those within the ACORN group of "Urban Prosperity".

Lifestyle factors
  • There's little difference in attitudes towards occasional drug-taking between those who are employed or unemployed; though the economically inactive and retired are less likely to view drug-taking as acceptable. Full-time students are the most likely to see drug-taking as acceptable, while the unemployed and long term sick are more likely to view frequent cannabis use as acceptable (6% vs 2% for those in employment).
  • People who regularly visit pubs and nightclubs are significantly more likely to view occasional drug-taking as acceptable.
  • Respondents living in Wales were more tolerant of occasionally getting drunk (79%) than England (74%), were more tolerant of frequent cannabis use (4% v 2%) but broadly less tolerant of occasional drug use (on the whole) than England.

Attitudes towards drug safety
  • Across all age groups, races and genders, the vast majority view drug-taking or getting drunk as either a little bit unsafe or very unsafe.
  • Though when it comes to alcohol, fewer people thought getting drunk was very unsafe (22%) compared to illegal recreational drugs; and more people though it was fairly safe (24%).

Demographic factors
  • Younger people (16-29 year olds) are more likely to see drug-taking as either a bit unsafe or very unsafe than older age groups. However, this reverses for alcohol, with around 30-32% of 16-29 year olds viewing getting drunk as fairly safe compared to 15-20% of over 45s.
  • Women are more likely than men to view drug-taking and getting drunk as "very unsafe". More than half (55%) believe taking cannabis is very unsafe.
  • Non-white ethnicities are more likely to view taking drugs as very unsafe (73%) compared to white ethnic groups (43%). Mixed ethnicities are significantly more likely to view drug-taking as fairly safe than every other ethnic group (31%). On the other hand, white ethnicities were more likely to view getting drunk as fairly safe (26%).

Socio-economic and lifestyle factors
  • Those with degrees and A-Levels are more likely to view drug-taking and getting drunk as "fairly safe" than those with no qualifications.
  • Those in managerial or professional occupations are also more likely to view drug-taking and getting drunk as safer.
  • Attitudes to drug safety in Wales are very similar to attitudes to drug-taking in general.

The figures almost exactly match data on the types of drug people use (Part III).

It points towards
a hypothesis that if you use a drug, you're more likely to think it's acceptable to do so, regardless of the relative health risks posed by the drug itself. So attitudes towards drug-taking might not be influenced by warnings on safety or legal concerns, but by personal experience of using the drug, social proofing and conformity.

What again stands out are the socio-economic differences. Drugs are more tolerated amongst the wealthy, professionals and the well-educated; and less so amongst the deprived, blue collar communities and less-educated. There are also hints that messages regarding alcohol consumption are going unheeded amongst younger age groups, despite a hardening attitude against other drugs.

An explanation could be that the chattering classes don't live cheek-by-jowl with the negative side effects of the illegal drugs trade – in itself is a result of prohibition. So those who come into contact with that side of drugs on a more regular basis - abandoned houses used as factories, high levels of burglary, street dealers, police raids and street gangs – are likely to take a harsher line.

It could mean that attempts to educate people about drugs have predominantly been focused on less well off communities, whilst falling on deaf ears in posh suburbs, sixth forms, colleges, universities and swanky urban residences.

It could also mean that the professional classes don't see drug-taking and getting drunk as much "their problem" as the deprived. That could be due to media portrayals of drugs or a form of indirect classism (Part VI).

Drugs : How do we determine their safety?

All drugs – even prescription medicines and legal drugs like caffeine – carry risks. They just affect the body and mind in different ways and in different doses.

As mentioned in Part I, illegal drugs are placed into three categories (A, B, C) based on the advice of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The ACMD includes doctors, pharmacologists, police and people from third sector agencies involved in substance misuse.
UK Home Secretaries are obliged to consult with the ACMD before introducing new regulations before the UK Parliament.

The ACMD's job is to review each and every illegal drug and determine their harmful physical and social effects, then advise the UK Home Office as to what class the drugs should be placed into, and what measures should be taken in legal and health terms.

This system isn't without critics, perhaps most famously Prof. David Nutt.

Prof. Nutt set up his own Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs after being sacked from the ACMD for his criticism of political involvement in the classification process (in this case cannabis and ecstasy) at the expense of scientific evidence. There's a case in point where former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, said he would ban methedrone (meow-meow) as soon as he received the ACMD report. I believe that's known as predetermination.

Prof. Nutt developed a rational scale to determine the relative harm of recreational drugs by plotting the risk of dependence versus the risk of physical harm. The result was this chart, related to what was published in The Lancet :

Rational scale of physical harm caused by drugs vs dependence risk
- based off Prof. David Nutt's contribution to The Lancet.
(Pic : via wikipedia)

Three drugs that would almost certainly be controlled substances if they appeared on the street today are caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

Alcohol and nicotine would arguably be Class A drugs, both being a moderate step down from cocaine in terms of dependency and lethal dosage. According to research published in Scientific American, you're almost four times more likely to become addicted to tobacco (32% who try it go on to become addicted) than cannabis (9%), while tobacco is very close to being as addictive as cocaine.

Caffeine would probably be a Class C drug due to its stimulant effects, dependency potential and dangers to the heart if over consumed.

LSD, ecstasy, cannabis, magic mushrooms, khat, GHB, poppers, ketamine....all of them are less dangerous to a user and wider society than tobacco and alcohol - supported by hard evidence.

The drugs that stand up to the "dangerous drug" label are cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, methadone and methamphetamines. You have to include alcohol and tobacco in that too.

One thing we should take from this is that there's absolutely no difference in danger between "natural" and "synthetic" drugs - and it's perhaps one of the most dangerous myths about drugs out there. Opiates are as natural as they come – poppy seeds – but will easily kill a person if abused and are amongst the most addictive narcotics. Meanwhile, there's hardly any harm at all from pure chemical LSD as long as you're in a safe environment.

It's almost funny that a psychoactive mushroom is a Class A drug. You're not even allowed to grow them accidentally "for your own safety", even though they'll do little harm to you at all.  A Dutch study (here) on psilocybins found that although toxicity was "moderate", the potential for physical and psychological dependence was low, and "criminal aspects negligible".

Meanwhile, a death cap will kill you in a day or two but is completely legal to cultivate.

This is a Class A drug and on level pegging with heroin in the eyes of the law.
The scientific term for that decision is "utter bollocks".
(Pic : Beckley Foundation)
All this underlines a culture clash between science and politics; not only on the issue of drugs, but other areas of public policy like climate change, abortion laws, genetic engineering....

On drugs, we currently don't have evidence-based policy making, but policy-based evidence making.

Scientists don't have the luxury of cherry-picking data to present an argument, and science is largely immune from public pressure and spin.
  Ultimately, that's where you find the truth on the harm drugs really do cause. Absolutely everything points to many commonly-vilified drugs being far less harmful to users and society than their current criminal status implies.

However, nobody elects scientists, there's no responsibility to the public as a public official, and no wider moral or ethical considerations to take into account when drafting policies or deciding actions.

With pressure from the media, constituents whose lives are blighted by the drugs trade and the electorate at large – most of whom are scientifically illiterate - politics, almost always, wins in the end. That's even if scientific evidence screams the opposite course of action.

For whatever reason, no politician wants to be seen to be "soft on drugs" - I'll go into more detail in Part VI. If clear scientific evidence on harm and risk is overridden, it makes you wonder what the point of the ACMD is.

We may as well leave the decision on drugs classification to the police and press. Think of how many things would be illegal now if that were the case?

Is drug prohibition working?

Evidence in support :

Drug-taking is generally seen as socially unacceptable – .....though attitudes are softer towards cannabis (in particular), as well as cocaine and ecstasy depending on your social group. The hardening attitudes amongst younger age groups stand out, and it could be that information about drugs has improved to such an extent that young people are able to make a more informed decision, and decide against taking drugs like ecstasy. This is also exemplified in the numbers taking drugs in private - because it's not something people want to be seen to do, unlike alcohol and tobacco.

Drug taking is generally viewed as "unsafe" – Even with the best evidence possible pointing in the opposite direction, the public at large still believe drugs like cannabis and ecstasy are more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Scare tactics sometimes work, and it's very easy to create soundbite headlines about people dying from the latest street drug – even if those claims aren't true. Add the reluctance amongst politicians to challenge failing, but popular, policies and you can certainly say prohibition is well in control, but based on (in scientific and some medical terms) a false premise.

Drug convictions have risen and overall drug use is falling - Drug education and law enforcement efforts to clamp down on the domestic supply and manufacture of drugs are clearly working, as highlighted in Parts III and IV. The falls in drug use could even be a direct impact of increasing drug seizures by police, making drugs harder – but not impossible - to buy. That does, however, increase the risk that drugs could be mixed with more dangerous cutting agents, or drugs produced here will me made stronger in order for supplies to last longer - both being contributing factors in the increases in drug-related deaths in Wales.

Evidence against :

The number of people experimenting with drugs is rising – One of the stand out findings in Part III is that while the number of people using drugs in the last year has definitely shown a decline, the number of people actually trying drugs in their lifetime has risen. Clearly, despite all the education programmes, scare tactics, headlines and education programmes, it hasn't made a difference in terms of people accessing and taking drugs. In fact, the problem seems to have gotten worse in the case of cocaine and ecstasy, and it hasn't made a dent in cannabis use. So all the fuss over whether cannabis should be Class B or C was worthless.

The drugs trade's as big as it's ever been....and growing - If one of the key goals of drug prohibition was to restrict supply it's been a catastrophic failure (Part III). A single police raid on a factory, or assault in the jungles of South America, might take several million pounds worth of cannabis or cocaine off the streets. That won't make a dent in the multi-billions organised drugs gangs make each year, and it won't stop poor subsistence farmers growing drug crops. The War on Drugs is too lucrative to too many people – and that includes the authorities. Drug raids and putting kilos of cocaine on the table are excellent PR - as are successful convictions. But they do absolutely nothing to protect people or their communities. At the end of the day, they're just numbers.

Hypocrisy on legal drugs – If prohibition were working, we wouldn't tolerate the use of any recreational drug. Abusing alcohol is seen as an unpleasant, but largely acceptable, vice. Smoking is almost viewed as heroic since laws clamped down on public use. Nobody mentions caffeine, yet it some aspects it's arguably on level pegging with amphetamines in terms of physical harm - especially if mixed with alcohol. None are seen as criminal for largely pragmatic cultural and traditional reasons. They've done more damage to the health and well-being of wider society than all other recreational drug use combined, yet they're completely legal, regulated and taxed - tolerated even. Perhaps not even considered drugs. Beer's a drink, innit?

Continuing Prohibition – Policy Options

If drug powers were devolved, or if Wales were independent, and if the government of the day decided to continue with drug prohibition, what sort of policies could they enact?

The best way to reduce drug use is to solve the big socio-economic and health issues where drug use is a symptom (Part II) :
  • Reducing unemployment and economic inactivity caused by long-term ill health.
  • Reducing boredom amongst teenagers – this might include widening access to things like sport, offering more vocational subjects in schools and improving the school curriculum and school experience (i.e reducing bullying).
  • Reducing homelessness.
  • Discouraging "self-medicating" behaviour by the public. That could include measures like widening access to GPs, or extending GP opening hours.
  • Maintaining and building upon drug rehabilitation programmes in prisons.
  • Early intervention and awareness with regard mental health and "mainstreaming" it into the NHS.
  • Reducing overall social inequality.
  • Tackling stress amongst professional jobs like medicine and financial services, and making people overall "happier". It can be monitored via Gross National Happiness or another measure, like well-being, which the ONS uses.

In terms of specific drug-related policies, there no real need to diverge away from the current track (Parts I and IV), but here's some ideas.

Drug Classification & Law Enforcement

Is it worth making possession of "soft" drugs a civil, rather than criminal, offence?
 Following a comprehensive re-classification of all drugs, of course, based on scientific evidence.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
  • Maintain most provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, including the drug classification system and the use of ACMD advice.
  • Completely overhaul the drug classification system so it fully takes into account evidence of relative social and physical harm - including legal drugs. That could see ecstasy, cannabis, magic mushrooms etc. downgraded to Class C and alcohol made a legal Class A drug.
  • Subsequently, consider making possession of Class C drugs a civil offence punishable by on-the-spot fines but without incurring a criminal record. Police and court resources can then be diverted towards "harder" drugs like cocaine and heroin.
  • Decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of recreational drugs, with police priorities concentrating on suppliers, dealers, manufacturing and trafficking. Powers of confiscation and greater use of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders could be given to the police and probation service as an alternative to fines and a criminal record, taking pressure off the courts.

Drugs and Public Health
Are supervised "shooting galleries" like those in Copenhagen a way to
reduce the number of accidental overdoses and improve health of addicts?
(Pic : BBC)

  • North Wales Police piloted a syringe vending machines outside Rhyl police station, though a similar machine was rejected in Colwyn Bay. French research (here) has shown that needle vending machines could help reach people who don't otherwise use ordinary needle exchange programmes. There is, however, the problem of responsible disposal of used needles.
  • The introduction of supervised Copenhagen-style "drug rooms", where addicts and users can use drugs in a sterile, safe environment - though drugs would remain illegal. This would reduce the risk of accidental overdose as medical attention would be close by. This approach might be appropriate in areas with proportionally higher levels of drug use.
  • Relax licensing restrictions on currently controlled substances for medical research, in order to find legitimate treatments for medical conditions, whilst retaining laws against recreational use.
  • Consider licensing "head shops" in the same way as sex shops.
  • Emulate part of New Zealand's policy - the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 - of regulating the ingredients and sale of recreational drugs, in particular "legal highs", in order to ensure their safety.
Repeating what I said in Part IV, the War on Drugs is at a stalemate.

It's increasingly coming down to whether policy makers should admit defeat on prohibition? Or where, and in what form, the next "big push" to win the war will come from?

I suppose I'm saving the best till last. Part VI – Why haven't drugs been decriminalised or legalised? Should they be? How could they be legalised?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Wales on Drugs IV : The Welsh War on Drugs

Pictured above is a public menace, contributing to more deaths and
misery than some Class A drugs. Don't believe me? Read on.
(Pic :

The "War on Drugs" - first coined by paragon of human virtue, Richard Nixon - describes the international efforts undertaken to combat the supply, trade and use of recreational drugs since the UN's Single Convention on Narcotics in 1961 (Part I).

Just like the "War on Terror", it's hard to fight a war against a concept, though in some parts of the world it genuinely resembles a war. It's estimated up to 100,000 people have been killed in the Mexican Drug War (once you include murders) and 220,000 killed in the Colombian Civil War. That's before you consider the millions of people displaced as a result, and all the wars indirectly related to the War on Drugs - like Afghanistan.

In areas where drugs are produced, force might well be necessary in order to destroy the drugs themselves and the capability to manufacture or traffick them. Though if it were a conventional war, t
he War on Drugs resembles a stalemate, and we would now be suing for peace.

In Europe, the War on Drugs is more about winning hearts and minds, with the front line role resting with the civil authorities and legal system.

Drugs and the Police

Welsh police forces have been relatively successful in
terms of drug seizures per head of population.
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
Neighbourhood policing teams made up of PCSOs and constables are involved in street-level reporting of drug use. That includes responding to queries, PACT meetings, patrols, gathering intelligence and recording things like discarded drug paraphernalia. Drug use isn't considered an emergency, usually dealt with via the 101 service.

Operations targeting drug dealers, as well as supply and manufacture of drugs, are usually left for CID units, covert operations or the National Crime Agency. In Wales, it's also the responsibility of the specialist organised crime unit - Tarian - run cooperatively between all four Welsh police forces.

Preventing drug trafficking is generally the responsibility of the UK Border Agency here, and the Royal Navy elsewhere around the world. With the exception of cannabis plants, the majority of drug seizures in the UK were made by the Border Agency - not the police. (spreadsheet Summary Table 2)

In 2012/13, police and UK Border Agency seizures included (street prices based on this and this) :

Drug Amount Seized (2012-13) Approximate Street Value 
Cocaine 3,032kg + 41kg Crack £142million
Heroin 750kg £41.3million
LSD 23,000 doses £60,000
Herbal Cannabis 12,267kg £65million
Cannabis Resin 11,320kg £44million
Amphetamines 1,375kg £17.9million
Anabolic Steroids 1,457,000 doses £292,000
Ketamine 244kg £5.1million
Ecstasy 434,000 doses £2.75million

According to the Office of National Statistics, (spreadsheet Table P1) in 2012-13 there were 12,217 recorded drug offences across the four Welsh police forces, with most occurring in the South Wales (4,954) and Dyfed-Powys (3,263) force areas.

This was a fall of 10% nationally on the previous year – a bigger fall than the EnglandandWales average (-8%) - with North Wales experiencing the sharpest fall in drug offences (-21%). Drug offences made up approximately 4% of all recorded crimes in Wales – though 6% of recorded crime in Dyfed-Powys.

Drug seizures by police force area 2003-2013
(Click to enlarge)

The total number of drug seizures in Wales (spreadsheet Area Table 1) is higher now than in 2003 (12,400 seizures vs 9,140). South Wales saw a spike in seizures between 2005 and 2008, but they've subsequently fallen to a similar level as 2003. Echoing the crime figures further up, Dyfed-Powys has seen a marked rise in drug seizures.

Drug seizures by category and force area 2012-13
(Click to enlarge)

When it comes to the types of drugs being seized, one stands out (Area Table 3).  71% (8,800) of all drug seizures in Wales in 2012-13 were related to cannabis, with Class B drugs being the main category for seizure.

Most Class A drugs seizures were made in South Wales (57% of all Class A seizures in Wales), with cocaine and heroin making up 90% of all Class A drug seizures in Wales. In comparison, there were only four LSD, 155 ecstasy and 43 methadone seizures over the same period. The other stand out drugs from Categories B and C are amphetamines (753 seizures) and benzodiazapines (592 seizures).

Drug seizures per million people in Wales (Area Table 4) (4,027) are higher than the EnglandandWales average (3,544), and the second highest of the nations and regions after Greater London (6,134). In fact, Dyfed-Powys has the highest rate of drugs seizures per million (6,521) outside the City of London.

That doesn't mean drug use is higher in Wales – it isn't (Part II). It could mean Welsh police forces are more effective at seizing drugs, or see it as a higher operational priority.

Drugs : Courts & Costs

Recording drug offences in EnglandandWales 2003-2013
(Click to enlarge)
I provided an overview of current drugs laws in Part I, but it's worth considering the effect drug crime has on the criminal justice system and the economy.

As you can see from the graph, according to the latest Ministry of Justice figures (spreadsheet) the number of drug cautions in EnglandandWales fell from 47,300 in 2003 to 40,900 in 2013 (-13.5%), while drug-related convictions have risen from 84,000 in 2003 to 87,900 in 2013 (+4.6%) - peaking at 97,500 in 2010.

You would estimate the Wales-only figures being around the 2,100 and 4,400 mark respectively.

The only Wales-specific statistics I could find were for cannabis warnings (Table 6b), the four Welsh police forces issuing 3,200 in 2013.

According to the British Medical Association, the cost of drug crime to the UK criminal justice system is up to £4billion per year (including strategies, prisons and policing), and the wider socio-economic impact is up to £16billion. DrugScope claim up to half of all theft-related crimes are drugs related, with the total value of goods stolen to fund drug habits worth between £2-2.5billion.

At a Welsh level, proportionally it works out to be £200million in criminal justice costs, £800million in wider socio-economic impacts and between £100-125million in stolen goods – an estimated total  cost of £1.1-1.25billion.

Drugs and the Prison Service

Despite the introduction of mandatory random drug testing, obtaining drugs in prison is
said to be "easy", while some inmates start using hard drugs like heroin after imprisonment.
(Pic : The Guardian)
In addition to dealing with those convicted of drug-related offences, prisons also have to deal with the rehabilitation of offenders with drug habits, whilst simultaneously clamping down on supply of drugs within prisons.

Prisons in EnglandandWales now have a mandatory random drug-testing regime, which has seen a 71% drop in drug use between 1997 and 2011.

According to the UK Home Office Select Committee, 70% of offenders misuse drugs before imprisonment, half have a drug addiction of some kind, while they quote a Prison Reform Trust report that states 19% of prisoners who've used heroin started using after being jailed. That could be because heroin only stays detectable for as little as 48 hours, while traces of cannabis can be left for up to a month.

Despite mandatory testing, drugs remain a serious issue in prisons, with "boredom and lack of structured activity" (Part II) cited in the Home Office account as reasons why drug abuse remains prevalent. Many prisoners report it being extremely easy to access drugs inside – whether smuggled in by visitors, or bought via corrupt staff.

The extent of the problem was revealed further by a recent Freedom of Information investigation by The Western Mail which revealed a single search at Cardiff Prison, "found three bags of methedrone (meow-meow), two bags of cannabis, two bags of cannabis resin and four tablets of opioid painkiller subutex."

Statistics cited in the report say use of hard drugs is higher amongst those serving sentences of under a year (i.e for crimes like theft) compared to those serving longer sentences, which they say is evidence that drug addiction makes a prisoner more likely to re-offend.

Of course, there's the question of what happens after release. There are UK Government programmes  funding drugs rehabilitation in prison – resulting in a reduction in re-offending. However, it's claimed these programmes are understaffed and vary depending on the prison. The success of such programmes ultimately determines whether prisoners with drug problems slip back into old habits upon release.

Drugs and the Health Service

The Welsh NHS has four tiers of drug rehabilitation programmes, while there
were more than 11,000 referrals for substance abuse (excluding alcohol) in 2012-13.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
If the courts, police and prisons are left to deal with the legal side of drug use, the Welsh NHS is left to pick up the human costs.

As mentioned in Part I, the Welsh Government and NHS have a 10-year substance misuse strategy. It's applied in practice via the Substance Misuse Treatment Framework (which also covers alcoholism), and includes specific provisions for prisoners and veterans.

Health Challenge Wales and Dan 24/7 are the main public health campaigns which raise awareness of the effects of drug abuse. While in terms of the Third Sector, organisations like Drug Aid Cymru and – at a more local level – Ogwr D.A.S.H provide independent information, support and services like needle exchange to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

According to the Welsh Government's 2009 Substance Misuse Services Review (pdf), substance misuse services are tiered :

  • Tier 1 - Early intervention by GPs etc.
  • Tier 2 - Open-access drop-in services.
  • Tier 3 - Structured drug treatment in the community.
  • Tier 4 - Residential/in-patient drug rehabilitation.

Most services in Wales are Tiers 2 & 3, with Tier 4 centres dotted around the country in major settlements.

At the time of the review, there were concerns raised in the National Assembly that released prisoners with addictions were re-offending to access rehab facilities in prisons, due to patchy coverage in Wales. Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) was the only AM who questioned whether the War on Drugs was working as is.

It's worth taking a look at how many referrals for substance abuse have been made to get a better idea of the geography and demographics of substance misuse in Wales.

According to StatsWales, in 2012-13 there were 25,000 referrals for substance misuse, with 54% of them related to alcohol. Discounting alcohol, most referrals were for heroin (3,677), cannabis (2,085), cocaine (941), methadone (722) and methedrone/meow-meow (651). Only 116 referrals were for crack cocaine, 80 for hallucinogens (like magic mushrooms) 17 for ecstasy and 14 for steroids.

The vast bulk of people referred were age between 20-49, with those aged 30-39 the largest single group. Amongst under-19s, cannabis (924) and methedrone (321) were the two problem drugs. In the case of cannabis, even more so than alcohol (636). There were only 34 referrals for heroin abuse amongst under-19s.

If the figures on the number of people using drugs in Wales during their lifetime are true (135,700) then the percentage who would go on to develop a problem that requires medical intervention is around 8.5%.

In the case of a drug like heroin, the chances of developing a problem are a near certainty, as (based on the figures) Wales' proportional share of people aged 16-59 who've used heroin in their lifetime is just 1% (1,370 people), yet there were more than 3,600 referrals for heroin.

For cannabis, the percentage of lifetime users (~41,000) going on to develop a problem is just 5%.

Substance misuse referrals per local authority 2012-13
(Click to enlarge)

Next, it's worth looking at where the referrals are and how often they occur (StatsWales).

The number of referrals is near enough directly proportional to population, so there's not much you can tell from it. The highest number was in Cardiff (859), with Rhondda Cynon Taf (654), Carmarthenshire (483), Newport (469) and Swansea (468) standing out.

Drug misuse referrals along the north Wales coast are lower than you might expect considering the reputation, with Denbighshire (188) and Anglesey (145) having some of the lowest number of referrals in Wales, with Anglesey and Ceredigion (145) coming in joint-lowest.

Although drug abuse has been linked to high levels of deprivation as a result of industrial decline, some parts of Wales fare better than others.

Neath Port Talbot (256) and Bridgend (266) have almost the same number of referrals as Merthyr Tydfil (244) and Blaenau Gwent (259) - despite the big differences in population.

So to get a real indication of how prevalent harmful levels of drug abuse are in a community, the important figure is the incident rate (of referrals) per 100,000 people. It's clear some parts of Wales have a bigger problem than others.

Substance misuse referrals per 100,000 residents
by local authority
(Click to enlarge)

There's one big cluster in south east Wales, headed by Merthyr Tydfil (414 referrals per 100,000), Blaenau Gwent (370) and Newport (320). Swansea (195) defies stereotypes by having a lower referral rate than Carmarthenshire (262); while Wrexham (263) and Anglesey (206) also stand out as areas with high incident rates.

It's therefore hard to tell which parts of Wales have the most pronounced drug problem. It would be a mistake to put much truck in the high incidence figures in Anglesey, Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent because it's skewed by low populations - though it will almost certainly mean that the public will be more likely to come across drug problems there and see its visible effects.

The "worst" local authorities will score highly on both number of referrals and incidences relative to their population size. Weighing it up, Newport probably tops the table.

Illegal drug use has skyrocketed in North Korea as people try to escape their miserable existence under a totalitarian regime. So it's no surprise that Carmarthenshire – The Best Local Authority in Wales™ - arguably has the second worst drug problem of any Welsh local authority. This is exemplified by news yesterday that 1kg of cocaine (street value ~£46,000) was recently trafficked into the county.

Drugs and The Funeral Industry

Number of deaths from drug misuse and drug poisoning in Wales 1993-2012
(Click to enlarge)
Although 131 people died specifically from drug misuse in 2012 (spreadsheet Table 1), 214 people in Wales died from all drug-related causes (including drug poisoning) - excluding alcoholism.

As you can see from the graph, the number of deaths has steadily increased over the last two decades. Roughly two-thirds to three quarters of all drug deaths are men, and that trend has remained steady throughout the period.

This could imply several things :

  • Street drugs are getting "stronger" – it's a unregulated market after all.
  • Street drugs are being cut with more dangerous fillers due to disruption to supplies around the world – again, it's unregulated.
  • People are increasingly mixing drugs into more dangerous combinations, or taking them with alcohol (around 30% of all drug poisonings involve a drug and alcohol being taken at the same time - Table 6c).
  • People who've developed long-term drug problems over the last few decades have done enough cumulative damage to their bodies they're dying in greater numbers.

Across EnglandandWales, most deaths were related to accidental poisoning (Table 3 1084 of 1496), though a significant chunk (308) were suicides by drug overdose, with the split roughly 50-50 between men and women (in terms of suicides).

It's worth taking a look at precisely which drugs cause mortality, once you include legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco (figures from 2011 here pdf p34) and prescription drugs. There are no official figures for caffeine-related deaths, but it does happen.

Mortality by drug - including tobacco and alcohol
(Click to enlarge)

The first thing to note is that tobacco-related deaths are way out in the lead in terms of deaths caused by all drugs in Wales, killing as many as 5,450 people in 2011. Alcohol was second, with 504 deaths in 2012 – though I'm not sure if that includes all deaths indirectly as a result of alcohol, like fights, accidents, choking etc.

Deaths from other drugs are just a tiny slither, and not all of them will have be caused by illegal narcotics. Although the only figures I could find for mortality where a single drug was implicated (Table 6b) were for EnglandandWales combined, I'm sure the figures ring true at a Welsh level alone.

Unsurprisingly, the most lethal drugs in terms of prescription drugs and narcotics were opioids – heroin, morphine, methadone and prescription opioids like codeine and tramadol. Combined, they were the sole cause of death for 590 people in EnglandandWales in 2012.

However, paracetamols (97) killed more people than ecstasy (13). Anti-depressants (169) killed more than four times as many people as cocaine (39) or three times as many as amphetamines (49).

In 2012, a single person in EnglandandWales was reported to have died exclusively as a result of cannabis.

If I told you that there was something fifty five times more deadly than that, you would be worried.

You would wonder what public menace would be so many times more illicit, dangerous and lethal than an illegal narcotic like cannabis. The same cannabis we're fighting a "war" to eliminate from the planet, and to which the police and other authorities like the NHS devotes so much time and resources towards fighting.

If you couldn't be bothered to look at the chart above, the answer is....

They all float down here.
And you'll float too!
(Pic :

55 people were killed by helium in 2012.

This isn't some bizarre short term trend either, it's been noticeable for several years. Helium is an inert gas so to kill you it has to be the only thing you breathe in.

Those fifty five must've been so desperate to sound like The Chipmunks they accidentally picked up a Darwin Award. Or – more likely to be the case, and a lot less funny – they were committing suicide.

The cold hard fact is, more people in
EnglandandWales died in 2012 because of helium abuse than cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy combined - and twice as many people died from helium than "legal highs" (notwithstanding the fact that helium probably counts as a "legal high" itself).

Cannabis has nothing on Pennywise the Clown. I look forward to AMs discussing this threat to public health as a matter of urgency, declaring War on Balloons.

It's right to point out that if the figures were based on how many people were actually using the drug (paracetamols are used by tens of millions in EnglandandWales, ecstasy by a few hundred thousand) then the chance of being killed by a narcotic are greater. The actual numbers dying or becoming addicted on the ground though are relatively small - drugs like heroin aside.

Substance misuse education

The Welsh Government issues guidance on how misuse of drugs
should be taught to schoolchildren via PSE lessons and police visits.
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One of the best ways to tackle a problem is prevention. The Welsh Government's guidance on substance misuse education (pdf) covers tobacco and alcohol as well as solvents and narcotics. In terms of lessons, it mostly falls under Personal and Social Education (PSE).

Precisely how the subject is delivered is up to individual schools, though the Welsh Government provides an All Wales School Liaison Core Programme which sends School Community Police Officers (SCPOs) into schools to help deliver lessons on substance misuse. This approach also draws together youth services and local authorities, leading to things like a recent film highlighting the dangers of methedrone.

In terms of what's covered, the guidance says lessons on drugs should, amongst other things :

  • Identify young people's existing awareness of substances.
  • Offer a range of styles and learning activities.
  • Provide accurate and balanced facts, and not arouse fear.
  • Be age-appropriate for the audience.

For younger children (7-14 year olds), the emphasis is on taking action to keep themselves safe, knowing that their behaviour has consequences, evaluating media messages and being able to identify the substances themselves.

For older children (14-19 year olds), the emphasis is more on the legal consequences of substance misuse, knowing how to make an informed decision, how to access advice, and coping with lifestyle changes that could impact their self-esteem and lead them down the road to drug abuse.

School exclusions for substance misuse - by length
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There's also guidance on how to treat drug incidents in schools – ranging from drug paraphernalia being littered, to sale of drugs on school premises. It states "immediate action is required if there's a clear safety risk" , and that covers pupils, parents/guardians and staff.

When I was at school, anything involving drugs meant an immediate permanent exclusion and police involvement. It appears that's changed since, and there's more emphasis on health and counselling, keeping police involvement to a minimum.

It doesn't always work of course. Use of drugs at home was cited in an Assembly inquiry last year as a cause for truancy and poor school behaviour, while a BBC Wales investigation in 2010 found some 404 Welsh children aged 12-17 were hospitalised for drug abuse, and 833 for alcohol abuse.

In addition, according to StatsWales, in 2011-12 there were 418 exclusions relating to substance misuse in Welsh schools, and 8 of those were permanent.

Part V explores issues around drugs classification, legality of recreational drugs and public attitudes towards drug-taking, asking "Is drug prohibition working?"