The Curious Incident of PETA and the Staffordshire Bull-Terrier

PETA’s support for the Dangerous Dogs Act demonstrates its incompetence in influencing real change.

 

Google ‘Bad Legislation’ and lo and behold you will greeted by the Dangerous Dogs Act in some form or another. Google ‘How to Get Bad PR’ and PETA’s public affairs team… you get the picture.

So what on earth made PETA think submitting a response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s Inquiry into Breed Specific Legislation in support of the Dangerous Dogs Act was a good idea? And why do they want the Staffie banned?

Well according to PETA UK (no name supplied), in a statement which simultaneously manages to be militant and conformist, they state that the Dangerous Dogs Act is ‘what’s best for dogs’ and it’s not just staffies they want to ban, PETA say they are opposed to all dog breeding.

Their reasons, to some extent, are justified.

They state the obvious fact that selective breeding, borne out of human desire to elicit a certain physical traits from dogs, can lead to dogs having to suffer a life of pain and misery. Take the Pug for example, its pushed in face causes it to suffer from severe breathing issues, while dogs bred to be imposing often suffer health problems because of their immense size.

In addition to this PETA also highlight the very genuine homeless-animal crisis, and with good reason, the Stray Dog Survey found that over 47,000 dogs were abandoned in 2015 alone. Consequently, PETA urges:

“Everyone to adopt dogs from shelters rather than buying them from pet shops and breeders and to ensure that their animals are spayed and neutered to help prevent the overpopulation problem from getting worse”

 

So, PETA want to protect dogs from reckless breeding and reduce the number of dogs in animal shelters. Great.

PETA want to do this by supporting the Dangerous Dogs Act and by banning the Staffordshire Bull-Terrier. Not so great.

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is one of the most fundamentally flawed pieces of legislation in British political history. The Dangerous Dogs Act is what happens when British Tabloids carry more influence than cold, hard facts and British Politicians make rushed and ill-informed decisions to appease an even more ill-informed British public – something repeated in recent years with the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

The Dangerous Dogs Act identifies several types of dog as ‘dangerous’, however as the RSPCA’s 2016 report Breed Specific Legislation – A Dog’s Dinner states, there is simply no reliable data which shows that the dogs banned under the Act ‘pose a heightened risk to public safety, are more involved, or are any more likely to be involved, in dog bite related incidents than any other breed or type in the UK.’

In fact, in studies which seek to establish which dogs are most likely to be involved in dog bite incidents or display a higher incidence of aggression it is often the most unlikely dogs which are indicted – for instance one study found that Chihuahuas, Dachshunds and Jack Russell terriers exhibited the highest levels of aggression across the breed.

In addition to this, in the last decade hospital admissions as a result of dog attacks rose by 76% according to the committee in charge of the inquiry – this shows Breed Specific Legislation has failed.

So what should PETA be doing if it really wants to protect dogs?

The first step should be to promote a legislative change that places the onus, in absolute terms, on dog owners instead of supporting a policy which leads to the destruction of dogs which have done little wrong, apart from being born in a country which demonises their appearance. This should include increasing the length of custodial sentences faced by irresponsible owners whose dogs are involved in attacks in order to deter owners from nurturing a dog’s aggressive tendencies.

This view is supported by the British Veterinary Association which says:

“We are opposed to any proposal or legislation that singles out particular breeds of dogs rather than targeting individual aggressive dogs. The problems caused by dangerous dogs will never be solved until dog owners appreciate that they are responsible for the actions of their animals – the “deed not breed” principle.”

 

In promoting this change, PETA should push for restrictions on the reckless breeding of animals which leads to physical characteristics that limit a dog’s quality of life.

In addition to this, PETA needs to increase awareness of the problems of buying pedigree and why pedigree really isn’t best. To their credit, they are campaigning against Channel 4’s continued coverage of Crufts, but in the age of social media they must do more to inform owners of how their preferences on a dog’s appearance will ultimately cost them in vet bills and their dog an early death.

Until PETA can form a coherent and deliverable dogs strategy, they should rescind their support for the Dangerous Dogs Act.

 

You can sign a petition against Staffordshire Bull-Terriers being added to the Dangerous Dogs Act list here:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/222419

 

In loving memory of Cosmo.

 

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What About The Children? Time for a New Approach to Drug Education in UK Schools

Remember ‘Just say no’, Talk to Frank or ill-conceived anecdotes of teenage drugs misuse intended to foster abstinence? Did these ploys prevent you from using drugs? Maybe*. But more importantly, did these techniques equip you with information you would need to manage both the benefits and harms of legal and illegal substances or to understand how different drug policies influence personal health? Almost certainly not.

Currently, the UK government states that schools have a ‘clear role to play in preventing drug misuse’ and should utilise that responsibility to ‘provide accurate information…through education and targeted information, including via the FRANK service’, additionally combatting ‘problem behaviour in schools, with wider powers of search and confiscation’. However, it appears that for consecutive governments, providing accurate information on drugs does not necessitate providing a balanced overview of both the harms and benefits. This is a major stumbling block for the government as research shows that simply providing an account of the negative effects of drug use is an ineffective strategy in reducing consumption.

So policy makers are posed with a question: Continue to pursue ineffective strategies which aim to reduce total consumption or pursue a new path which equips adolescents with the information that will enable them to make informed decisions on drug use?

While the former may suit parents and educators unwilling to accept the possibility of their children or pupils using drugs, the latter appreciates the reality of teenage life and the high chance that adolescents will come into contact with drugs – either through personal or peer experimentation – and could help foster trust in the information that pupils are receiving.

A new path based on the concept of harm reduction would grant drug education the much needed credibility it has lacked since the introduction of hard line prevention education. This is crucial in the digital age where savvy students are instantly able to locate information that challenges the scare tactics employed by schools at the current time, thus undermining trust in the ‘facts’ they are receiving. Therefore, a drug education curriculum based on harm reduction would not patronise pupils but supply them with both the harms and benefits of substances, how to deal with situations arising from drug use (i.e. overdose), the economic and societal impact of drugs and alcohol and initiate an understanding of different approaches to drug policy.

It has been suggested that instead of abstinence based drug education, the Government should adopt the same approach it uses to address sex and relationship education. Insofar as students are provided with impartial advice on sexual health, contraception and accessing support services, among other issues. The theory being that if governments were willing to transition from abstinence-based to harm reduction based sex education in the not so distant past, it wouldn’t be so farfetched that a transition to drugs education, with harm reduction at its core, could be around the corner.

This is exactly what the US based Drug Policy Alliance have promoted through their ‘Safety First’ drug education programme. The programme drew upon an open letter written by Marsha Rosenbaum, Ph. D. in the San Francisco Chronicle, to her son, Johnny. The letter acknowledged that although she wishes that Johnny abstain from drug use, it is vital that he is equipped with the necessary information to keep him safe if he were to experiment and that he should feel comfortable talking to his parents about issues relating to drugs. That letter inspired the harm reduction material in the Drug Policy Alliance’s ‘Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs’ booklet, which aimed to provide impartial, science based information and guidance to parents on how to approach the ‘drugs talk’ with their children.

While Dr. Rosenbaum was delivering talks to PTA’s across the US, based upon the information in that very booklet, the Drug Policy Alliance’s Safety First Programme Manager, Sasha Simon, said the decision was made to develop ‘Safety First’ into a fully-fledged curriculum. This was in order to ‘make the parent education more sustainable’ by bringing together the ‘best practices of education and public health’ into a course of 14 lessons which could be taught by a health or personal wellbeing teacher to high school aged pupils.

The curriculum covers a variety of issues pertaining to drugs and alcohol, such as what the different types of drugs are, the effects they have on the body, what the principle of harm reduction means and the different types of drug policies – including zero tolerance and sentencing laws. The Drug Policy Alliance states that the curriculum is designed to enable students to:

“> Use critical thinking skills to access and evaluate information about alcohol and other drugs.

> Learn decision-making and goal-setting skills that help them make healthy choices related to substance use.

> Develop personal and social strategies to manage the risks, benefits and harms of alcohol and other drugs.

> Understand the impact of drug policies on personal and community health.

> Learn how to advocate for health-based drug policies.”

The course was piloted in Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, NY in March 2018 and recently concluded. It will now undergo an evaluation process which will identify room for improvement and it is hoped that the curriculum will be released to the public in the Autumn.

While the evaluation of the Drug Policy Alliance’s ‘Safety First’ pilot is just getting underway, what is clear is that harm-reduction can be developed into a feasible school curriculum for teenagers in order to provide them with an overview of the realities of drug use. This offers a compelling alternative to the UK’s current approach to drug education and as such policy makers and schools alike should pay close attention to the development of ‘Safety First’.

If you would like to find out more about the Safety First programme click here. Also if you would like to check out the Drug Policy Alliance’s podcast ‘Drugs & Stuff’, which covers a range of topics from the state of Cannabis legalisation to how to stay safe when taking drugs, then click here.

*The Home Office’s Crime Survey for England and Wales 2015/16 revealed that over one third of adults in the UK have experimented with drugs at least once

A Labour Drug Policy for a Post-Prohibition World

Tonight, a lawyer in Ottawa, a lecturer in Toronto and a shop assistant in Montreal will all go home after a long day at work. They’ll put their dinner on, take a shower, check-in with friends and family and finally sit down hunched over their respective coffee tables to roll a joint of their preferred cannabis strain.

Perhaps tomorrow or the day after, when their minimally branded, childproof container of cannabis is looking slightly depleted, they will visit their local dispensary. A facility that adheres to the stringent regulations set out in Canada’s Cannabis Act, requires proof of age, maintains sales records and pays taxes to the Canadian Treasury.

Of course, this is not some novel experiment dreamt up by Justin Trudeau and his merry band within the Liberal Party. Plenty of US states have legalised cannabis for recreational use, as have Uruguay. However, what this is, is a significant step in ending the global drug war and the senseless criminalisation of drug use – Canada being the first member of the powerful G7 to take the leap.

Elsewhere in the world, the direction of drug policy is overwhelmingly progressive. Medical Cannabis is available from Poland to Peru and the Malaysian Government has recently announced that it is pursuing the abolition of the capital punishment within its borders – a penalty often handed to drug traffickers convicted in the country. It appears that progression is pervasive, that is unless you are tin-pot dictator from the Philippines who takes pride in the extrajudicial murder of thousands of your own citizens.

It would be wrong to suggest that progress isn’t taking place in the UK, but the progress that is happening on our shores is at a much slower pace than in Canada or the US. A glaring example of this is the imminent legalisation of medical cannabis, a policy change which puts the UK a full 22 years behind California, 17 years behind Canada and still leaves patients having to clear significant obstacles before being able to medicate.

Like in the rest of the West, British opinions on drugs are changing and some political parties – including the Liberal Democrats – have voiced support for the legalisation of cannabis. More surprisingly, William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party has thrown his support behind the legalisation of cannabis, calling the UK’s drug policy “inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date” in an article he wrote for the Telegraph. However, these calls have seemingly gone unheeded. Home Secretary Sajid Javid ruled out the legalisation of recreational cannabis use in a recent statement in which is announced plans for specialist clinicians to be able to legally prescribe medical cannabis.

There has however been a deafening silence from one party’s leadership. It appears that rather than engaging in grown-up, rational debate about the prospect of the legalisation of cannabis, the leadership of the Labour party would prefer to bury its head in the sand like a prudish ostrich, afraid of addressing a ‘taboo’ subject.

Perhaps the leadership of the party could be forgiven for this though, as such a move may be framed by certain sections of the press as the party being weak on ‘crime’. However, the real weakness in this case is one that is all too present in the Labour Party – indecision.

This stagnation in Labour’s drug policy will be mildly depressing if you were hoping to see the party capitalise on the momentum built in 2018. At this critical juncture in British drug policy, Labour’s silence only serves to reinforce the plight of the victims of prohibition.

By not publicly engaging on the topic of the legalisation of cannabis, Labour will not only damage its standing within its young and educated voter base, it will forfeit its chance to ensure legalisation happens in accordance with its core principles of fairness and equality.

Though indecision seems the default position at the top of the party, there are individuals within the party who are taking a proactive approach to effecting change at a local level.

Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham last year appointed Sacha Lord – Founder of the Warehouse Project and Parklife – as his ‘Night-time Economy’ Advisor, a UK first. In his role as founder of the Warehouse Project and Parklife, Sacha has overseen the introduction of back-of-house drug testing at both events, an initiative which aims to identify and warn partygoers of dangerous batches of drugs in circulation, primarily through the confiscation of drugs at points of entry.

Elsewhere, Labour MPs Jeff Smith (Withington) and Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) have taken a leading role in the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, as well as providing vocal support for The Loop’s front-of-house drug testing. The campaign was launched in July and aims to provide a forum for members to discuss and debate the party’s drug policy for the future. While this signifies a positive move, a more direct approach is required in order to galvanise the party’s leadership into making its position clear on drug policy. Ms Debbonaire recently acknowledged the need for the party’s leadership to be meaningfully engaged on the subject, but a change in policy seems unlikely at this moment in time. Particularly as Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has previously refused to back the legalisation of cannabis.

Certainly, these initiatives are a good starting point, but those who hold the decision making power within Labour need to sit up and listen – swiftly.

So what should a progressive drug policy look like?

While a truly progressive drug policy would argue for the legalisation of all drugs due to the staunch evidence that rubbishes the efficacy of prohibition, at this stage such a move would be unpalatable to the majority of the British electorate. Therefore, Labour should adopt a policy based upon the principles of harm reduction. This would mean accepting that drug use happens, with some users either unwilling or unable to stop and working to reduce the adverse consequences surrounding the use of drugs.

This policy would be formed of two overarching elements: the legalisation of cannabis and the coherent and directed decriminalisation of all other drug use.

A Fair and Equitable Model of Cannabis Regulation

We’ve heard the reasons to support the legalisation of cannabis again and again: reduced access to teenagers, take the cannabis profits out of the black market and into the treasury via taxation. But simply supporting the legalisation of cannabis is not enough, legalisation left in the wrong hands could still go awry.

Therefore, it is absolutely critical that Labour supports a model of cannabis regulation that delivers fairness, particularly to those who have been most severely affected by the War on Drugs.

Grounding cannabis legalisation in the principles of fairness and equitability – depending on the specifications of the chosen model – could mean reserving a percentage of the permits for the establishment of dispensaries and of the production of cannabis for poorer communities, in order to prevent the market being swallowed up by big business and wealthy investors. Such a scheme was rolled out in Oakland, California and although it has received criticism due to flawed implementation, it does provide a policy blueprint that could be tweaked in order to deliver an equitable model of legalisation.

In order to make legalisation ‘fair’ the expungement of criminal convictions relating to cannabis, excluding violent and driving related convictions, should be sanctioned.

In addition to this, a truly equitable policy would seek to provide formal educational opportunities to those with an already developed skill-set in the cultivation and sale of cannabis. This could come in the form of ‘bud tender’ and ‘gardening’ qualifications, which would follow similar programs in the US, such as at Oaksterdam University an educational facility that professes to provide “Quality Training for the Cannabis Industry”.

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Failure to pursue such policies would put the success of legalisation in jeopardy, as those who have been most heavily penalised by the criminal justice system will find themselves penalised once more by the lack of opportunities at the money end of legalisation. This point is emphasised by recent analysis completed by LSE, Release and Stopwatch, which found pronounced racial disparities in the policing of drugs. Their findings show that black people in the UK are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people and while drug arrests have fallen by half for white people over the period of analysis (2010/11 – 2016/17), they have steadily maintained for black people.

Certainly, legalising cannabis within a highly regulated and fair model would be a positive start in reversing years of misinformed and ill-conceived legislation that comprises British drug policy. However, Labour would be failing users of every other substance covered by drugs laws in the UK if its policy was this one-dimensional. Instead, further action would be needed to ensure the country’s most vulnerable users of drugs are protected and dealt with in a humane manner and to provide the drug users of tomorrow with accurate information on how to reduce the harms associated with the consumption of drugs.

A Coherent Policy of Decriminalisation

The criminalisation of drug use not only negatively impacts those who consume drugs and their friends and family, it also has profoundly negative consequences for society. The law, in prohibiting and creating a taboo around drug use, pushes users to become involved in ‘risky activities’ that they would not need to engage in if the substance they are unable or unwilling to give up were decriminalised. Risky activities such as the consumption of unknown substances and the unsupervised injection of drugs can lead to tragic consequences which may not only cost friends and family a loved one, but also has financial implications for the country. At this point it’s worth noting that it costs the UK an estimated £16 billion annually to deal with substance abuse under prohibition according a 2009 report published by Transform, a cost that would likely fall if the need to partake in risky activities was reduced.

The first port of call in decriminalising drug use should be the transfer of responsibility for the handling of issues of drugs misuse from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care. Firstly, this would enable the UK’s critically stretched and underfunded police forces to reallocate resources to tackle serious crime. Secondly, this would be a step forward in initiating an evidence based approach for dealing with drug use, both of the problematic (user who consume an amount of drugs, or via a method that is detrimental to themselves and others) and non-problematic kinds.

With regard to problematic drug use, the Department of Health and Social Care should oversee the implementation of treatment services for drug addiction, monitor and analyse the outcomes of such services in order to generate a substantial evidence base and develop more effective addiction services using these findings. Furthermore, where a body of evidence already exists that supports a particular method for dealing with problematic drug use, this should be used to shape sustainable and effective policies for their implementation in the UK.

An example being safe consumption sites (also known as: supervised injection sites), which can be seen as a straightforward enactment of harm reduction principles – accepting that people inject opioids and other drugs and working to reduce the adverse effects of this, to the user and to society. The implementation of such sites is “associated with lower overdose mortality” as well as “67% fewer ambulance calls for treating overdose, and a decrease in HIV infections” according to an analysis by Canadian physicians. Such sites should also work to provide support to users and guidance for accessing structured treatment plans – a service that is offered free of charge in Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalised with quite staggering results.

Similarly, an evidence based approach should be utilised in dealing with non-problematic drug use too. For non-problematic drug users, the goal of decriminalisation should be to ensure that their use remains so. Most non-problematic drug users will be those who would have access to legal recreational cannabis if the first element of this drug policy were to be implemented. Additionally, non-problematic drug users would also be comprised of those who occasionally dabble in the use of cocaine or MDMA at the weekend or the consumption of hallucinogens.

In order to ensure this use remains non-problematic and to reduce users’ engagement in risky activities harm reduction facilities should be rolled out countrywide. These facilities should follow the blueprint laid down by the harm reduction organisation, The Loop. Such facilities would provide a holistic harm reduction service including the testing of a person’s drugs in order to ascertain its ingredients, offering advice on how to make consumption safer, discussing how to ensure their drug use doesn’t become problematic and offering access to counselling and treatment services if their drug habit is of concern.

The final piece of the puzzle should be to educate the drug users of tomorrow in the reduction of harms associated with drugs. This would mean ditching the archaic, abstinence-based approach currently utilised in personal wellbeing lessons throughout the UK and instead seeking to integrate harm reduction principles into a deliverable curriculum in schools and universities. Such a move should be seen not as encouraging drug use, but accepting the realities of the human psyche to seek out pleasurable experiences. In the US a non-profit organisation, Drug Policy Alliance, has already piloted such a project in a New York City high school, which was made up of 14 units designed to develop “critical thinking and healthy decision-making” in relation to drug use. While any tangible results from such a pilot will be difficult to pinpoint, by equipping students with knowledge and strategies than can employ it is hoped that the students will “make healthy and responsible choices”.

Undoubtedly, if this model of decriminalisation were to be implemented in the UK drug users would be safer and better informed in how to manage their consumption of drugs, while the treasury could see its spend on drug-related issues fall, particularly in the areas of policing and emergency care. Engaging in decriminalisation without a clear direction would be troublesome, decriminalisation should be seen not as an end, but a means for protecting drug users as part of a comprehensive drug policy grounded in harm-reduction.

Labour, as a party that espouses fairness and equality, must face up to its responsibility to develop a drug policy that aligns itself with these core principles. Its leadership’s apparent indecision over which direction it should take with drug policy is not only detrimental to its electoral hopes, but damaging to drug users and the communities affected most by prohibition. Supporting the status-quo is simply not an option if the party wants to be respected in this policy area.

The Long Journey to Medical Cannabis: A look at the UK’s strained relationship with the drug

By Haig Stringer

On November 1st specialist doctors in the UK will be able to prescribe medical cannabis for the first time. This decision comes years after similar policy changes in the majority of US states and in Canada, as well as many European Countries. As a result, patients have had to endure a long and agonising wait as the UK played policy catch-up on the issue.

The move to make medical cannabis available on prescription follows a prolonged period of mounting pressure on the government. Certainly, the highly publicised plight of Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell would have played into the government’s decision, as well as facilitating a shift in public opinion.

The decision has not only received a large amount of interest because it will enable tens of thousands of patients suffering conditions such as MS to chemotherapy related nausea, but because it is a decision that stands in stark contrast to the entrenched direction of British drug policy. That direction being firmly fixed on prohibitionist policies, with the controversial Psychoactive Substance Act being brought into force in 2016 – a law which essentially bans any substance which alters a persons mental functioning, with exceptions for alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

So how did we get here?

2001: Labour government announce their decision to reclassify cannabis from Class B to Class C and instructs the Home Affairs Select Committee to undertake consultations on the matter.

2004: Following the consultation process the Labour government finalise the decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class C drug, in doing so it reduces the maximum penalty for possession of the drug to 2 years in prison.

2005: Little over a year after the reclassification came into effect, Tony Blair commits to reviewing the reclassification of cannabis during his 2005 general election campaign.

2006: Following a review, Home Secretary Charles Clarke announces cannabis is to stay a Class C drug as per advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

2007: Labour, now under the leadership of Gordon Brown, announce yet another review into the classification of cannabis.

2008: Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announces that cannabis will be reclassified as a Class B drug, increasing the maximum penalty for possession to 5 year in prison.

2009: Cannabis officially reclassified as a Class B drug.

2011: Home Office reject calls from Global Commission on Drug Policy for prohibition to be overhauled.

2012: Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy PM Nick Clegg publicly clash over the latter’s call for drug laws to be reformed.

2016: Highly contentious Psychoactive Substance Act 2016 comes into force, reinforcing the prohibitionist trend in British drug policy.

February, 2018: Conservative government refuse request for medical cannabis licence for Alfie Dingley, a six-year-old boy whose rare form of epilepsy was improved after using cannabis oil.

May, 2018: Home Office issue ultimatum to the GP of Billy Caldwell (a twelve-year-old boy with a similar condition to Alfie Dingley) to stop his prescription of medical cannabis or lose his medical licence. In the following weeks his mother has cannabis oil obtained from Canada confiscated at Heathrow airport.

June, 2018: Following public outcry both cases are granted special licences for the use of medical cannabis. Home Secretary Sajid Javid subsequently announces review into medical use of cannabis.

October, 2018: Home Office announces specialist consultants will be able to prescribe medical cannabis from November 1st, a full 22 years after Californian’s approved Proposition 215 which legalised medical cannabis in the US state.

What does the future hold for cannabis in the UK?

While medical cannabis will be available from November 2018, the legalisation of the recreational use of cannabis doesn’t appear to be on the horizon just yet.

Despite calls for serious drug policy reform from senior politicians, including William Hague, the government has remained firm in it’s opposition to the legalisation of cannabis.

In a written statement to parliament, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “I have been consistently clear that I have no intention of legalising the recreational use of cannabis. To take account of the particular risk of misuse of cannabis by smoking and the operational impacts on enforcement agencies, the 2018 regulations continue to prohibit smoking of cannabis, including of cannabis-based products for medicinal use in humans.”

However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists announced at the beginning of October that they will undertake a review of their current position on the legalisation of cannabis. Significantly, if the college were to adjust their position on legalisation it could leave the government treading water as it has leaned heavily on the organisation’s research when defending the continued prohibition of the drug in the past.

While the Liberal Democrats included a pledge to legalise cannabis in their 2017 election manifesto, support for legalising cannabis is also growing within Labour and the Conservative party with both parties’ playing host to pro-legalisation panel events on the side-lines of their 2018 conferences.

Although Sajid Javid’s stern opposition to full legalisation of cannabis may have disappointed many liberal-minded Brits. There does appear to be a growing cross-party consensus that prohibition has failed dramatically in it’s goal of eradicating drug use and there are positive signs that parties are readying policy ideas for a post-prohibitionist Britain.

Royal College of Psychiatrists to Review Position on the Legalisation of Cannabis: Could this shift the debate in British drug policy?

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has announced that it is to carry out a review into its opposition to the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Traditionally the organisation has resisted calls for its opposition to relaxing laws for the Class B drug to be dropped and this move may signal a shift in the beliefs held by the College’s leading psychiatrists.

Significantly, this announcement comes just a week before cannabis derived medicines will be available on prescription to patients fulfilling strict criteria and after a summer of gathering momentum for campaigns seeking to relax drug laws in the UK.

It is important to note that at this point the Royal College of Psychiatrists will only be reviewing its opposition to the decriminalisation of cannabis and not of the legalisation of the drug. The review will mainly be conceived of an analysis of evidence gathered from countries where cannabis has already been legalised, which will enable it to identify whether decriminalisation and legalisation has an impact on incidences of mental disorders associated with cannabis use.
Royal College of Psychiatrists Head of policy and review chair said “We need to look at it in more detail to get more evidence. One of the arguments for legalising cannabis has been that you will get purer forms of it and you can tax it so governments benefit.”

Irrespective of the scope of this review, it could be a pivotal moment in British drug policy as some of the College’s leading psychiatrists have been involved in research which the government has utilised in its frequent rebuttals of arguments for decriminalisation and legalisation. Additionally, a number of its members occupy powerful positions advising the government, including Dr Owen Bowden-Jones who is the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Therefore, without the scant backing of a few of the College’s psychiatrists, the governments current position would become increasingly untenable.

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So what evidence is already exists?

From an analysis of Dr James’ interview with the Daily Telegraph it is possible to identify the areas that the review will be delving into.

The link between Cannabis and Schizophrenia

Dr Adrian James reiterated the College’s official view that its opposition to legalisation of cannabis is due to concerns that is can cause psychosis in users.

“Our official view is that we are concerned about the health risks and we are against legalisation of cannabis on that basis but there may be arguments that outweigh the psychiatric arguments”

Despite the numerous headlines each year purporting that a ‘link’ between high-strength cannabis and schizophrenia has been found, there is still no evidence that a causal link exists, instead studies find an association between use and schizophrenia. This is critical as an associative link does not account for other factors in a users life that may have caused the onset of schizophrenia.

It is important to note that this area of debate is highly nuanced and while there is an association between high-strength cannabis or ‘Skunk’ and schizophrenia, there are also a number studies which have found CBD (Cannabidiol) to have anti-psychotic effects and in one study scientists found CBD to protect against the long-term negative psychiatric effects of THC in mice. Therefore it is possible that cannabis strains higher in CBD could reduce the risks of cannabis induced schizophrenia.

Additionally, a number of studies have found an increased association between cannabis use and schizophrenia when consumption was initiated during adolescence. In this regard, legalisation and decriminalisation provide positive policy signals as there appears to be a minor link between legalisation and a reduction in consumption by teenagers.

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Cannabis and Criminal Justice

Dr James also highlights the issue of criminalising an act that is so prevalent throughout the UK.

“As a forensic psychiatrist, the strongest argument is decriminalising behaviour that is widespread and avoiding people getting caught up in the criminal justice system and ending up on a conveyor belt. If you can decriminalise it as an activity, you prevent that and the stigma associated with it”

On this front the panel will be able to draw from an array of data which shows that the criminalisation of consumption of any drug is wholly ineffective in reducing use and such efforts have a negative impact on harm reduction.

Furthermore, while we already know that police are arresting less and less people for cannabis offences – which may be in part due to police prioritising more serious crimes owing to funding cuts. Therefore were the burden of policing cannabis related offences lifted off police entirely it may enable the resources utilised in policing cannabis to be reallocated to areas of greater need and significance.

Vitally, a move to decriminalise cannabis would remove the fear of prosecution for over 7% of the adult population who use the drug.

What does this mean in reality?

Due to The Royal College of Psychiatrists close ties with the government and the use of it’s members’ research by the government in defending the status quo this review could be a defining moment in British drug policy.
It’s possible that a change in the College’s opposition to legalisation of cannabis could be the catalyst for the decriminalisation of cannabis and in-turn potential legalisation. If the College were to publicly withdraw their support for prohibition owing to concerns over how the substance can affect a user’s mental health, it would make the government’s current position on the drug unsustainable.
While scepticism may remain about how independent the review will be due to the College’s links with the government, Dr James has stated that the panel will be looking at research from countries where the drug has been legalised with an “open mind”.

A move to decriminalise the drug would not only help to end the stigma associated with cannabis, following the Spanish model it could mean citizens would be able to cultivate a small amount of the drug without fear of prosecution, while the sale of the drug would remain illegal.

Crucially, such a move would enable researchers to conduct studies on the drugs effect on the brain, free from the constraints and hurdles they can encounter when working with restricted substances and may eventually open the door to legalisation.

So you want a Career in Cannabis?

It might appear that the green-rush is upon us, but don’t quit your job just yet.

If like me, you got a little excited when the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that the government would conduct a review of the scheduling of medical cannabis. You probably exploded when William Hague, yes that William Hague, called for the full legalisation of cannabis and stated the war on cannabis has been ‘comprehensively and irreversibly lost’.

Of course this news is fantastic for the families of chronically-ill children, such as Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, who have been forced to endure life-threatening epileptic fits, as well sufferers of Crohn’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis. A change in the law will grant people suffering avoidable pain, legal access to the medical cannabis they desperately need.

But could it also be fantastic news to the secret green-thumbs amongst us who have always dreamt of their own legal weed empire?

Maybe.

You see, ‘legal’ medical cannabis already exists in the UK. It’s called Sativex and it’s only manufactured and sold by GW Pharmaceuticals, to whom the Home Officer issued an ‘Open General Licence’ in 2011. Seems a bit strange doesn’t it? The government has continued to claim that cannabis has no medicinal value, despite it being available via GW Pharmaceuticals on Private Prescription (in some cases via the NHS in Wales) for the sum of £375 excluding VAT. Yes, the treasury make money from the medicine they believe has no medicinal value. Mind. Blown.

If somehow your brain hasn’t been blasted into the Exosphere, it might be when you find out the UK is the world’s largest exporter of legal cannabis. According to the International Narcotics Control Boar in 2016, the UK produced ninety five tonnes of cannabis for medical and research purposes, exporting just over two tonnes of the crop.

So if you want a job in cannabis in the UK right now your best bet is to keep checking the GW Pharmaceuticals careers page. However, there are other options open to you but you may need to look a little further away from home.

Canada has just passed the Cannabis Act and will become the second country in the world to fully legalise cannabis in October, ending 90 years of prohibition. Although the legislation to legalise cannabis was passed at the federal level, it will be up to Canadian provinces and territories to determine exactly how people will be able to obtain their weed and cannabis derived products. Some states, such as Newfoundland, will only have privately owned weed shops, whereas residents of British Columbia will also be able to buy their provisions from publicly-owned stores.

Founded in 2015, Cannabis at Work are at the forefront of the recruitment of weed specialists in Canada. Their site hosts hundreds of jobs in the legal cannabis sector across Canada, from Regulatory Scientists to Master Growers and every job in-between.

Those seeking to find a role in the industry in Canada should be cautious and realistic with regard to their salary expectations. An average wage for someone working as a general grower hovers around $50,000 (£28,000), while a director of production could make $100,000 (£56,000).

Prior to securing a job in Canada you will need to obtain the appropriate work permit. To find out more about working in Canada, go to Work in Canada.

Alternatively, you may wish to pursue a career in one of nine US state that has legalised recreational cannabis or one of twenty nine that has legalised medical use. Like Canada you will need to obtain a work permit, although you may find it more difficult to gain employment straight away in the US legal cannabis sector.

“For UK citizens, obtaining work in the US cannabis industry is an uphill battle” says Jace Grantham, founder of Cannabis Verified, a cannabis focussed talent and staffing agency which hosts the profiles of verified cannabis professionals. “Most states require a person to be a resident for at least 6 months before they are able to work with legal cannabis.”

Once you have fulfilled this qualifying period, you could initially expect to earn around $28,000 (£21,000) as a cannabis production-line worker in California, while as a President or Chief Operating Officer you could take home in excess of $200,000 (£150,000), plus performance bonuses.

Strong-Arming the Steroid Hysteria: Taking on the IPED panic and how to reduce harm to the UK’s steroid users

Steroids and their users are no strangers to sensationalised media reports, however their use is increasingly being placed under the spotlight. From court hearings for the London Bridge terrorist attack which claimed the assailants had taken dehydroepiandrosterone prior to their killing spree, to warnings from health care professionals that with up to 1 million people in the UK taking anabolic steroids a public health emergency is imminent, it appears a perfect moral panic has been created. This has been particularly evident as many harm reduction and pro-legalisation advocates have placed an emphasis on dealing with drugs more frequently associated with the ‘night time economy’, culminating in a disturbing imbalance in the reporting of steroid related issues. Therefore, it is vital that progressive drug policy advocates do not turn a blind eye to the treatment of steroids and their users in the media, thus ensuring any discussion on the reclassification of the substance is not a one-sided affair.

While tabloid newspapers and even respected news outlets emphasised the role played by steroids in the killing of eight innocent people by Islamic extremists, the reality is that the overall harm caused by anabolic steroids is comparatively low in relation to commonly used illegal and legal recreational drugs. The 2010 “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis” study into the harms caused by twenty substances, gave anabolic steroids a ‘harm score’ of 10, placing it behind Ketamine (15), Cannabis (20), Tobacco (26) and Alcohol (72). Nonetheless, it is important to contextualise these findings, as Prof. David Nutt noted, the legal status of drugs will have an impact on harm levels, with the availability of alcohol going some way to explaining its ranking. Likewise, if a drug were to see its number of users increase it could also expect to see its harm level increase as the ‘harm score’ takes into account indicators such as ‘economic cost’, ‘environmental damage’ and ‘crime’. As such, it would be feasible that anabolic steroids would now, eight years on from the study, have a marginally increased ‘harm score’. Certainly, with a surge in the amount of users over the past decade it would be reasonable to expect a slight increase in the economic cost of the substance owing to the ill effects on the health of users and the subsequent costs this has on the NHS. However, the continuing reports of an imminent steroid-induced public health emergency are misleading and unhelpful in attempts to reduce harm and ultimately stigmatises users.

So how can the rise in steroid use be addressed within the current legislative framework before it becomes a major public health concern?

As with any drug, legal or illegal, the reduction of harm must begin with information sharing and the educating of users. State and charity run NSPs (Needle Syringe Programmes) offer a natural avenue for providing users with an understanding of the side-effects of anabolic steroids and how these can be reduced. The focus of education should revolve around ensuring users have regular health checks and highlighting the risks of poly-drug use. The findings of a 2017 study into the use of IPEDS (image and performance enhancing drugs) emphasises the need for this type of education, as its results show that regular alcohol and cocaine consumption is common amongst steroid users – a combination of drugs which place stress on the cardiovascular system, as well as the liver.

Another venue which has been utilised by steroid users to provide information to fellow users is YouTube. While YouTubers, such as Thomas Maw, are not health care professionals their steroid information videos play an important role in informing users of both the practical use of anabolics – such as how to inject – to the side effects experienced and how to address them, but they also play a key role in de-stigmatising users. However, in recent months YouTube has begun to scrutinise steroid-related content more robustly, with accounts which discuss the topic being issued warnings and viewing numbers for steroid related videos falling dramatically. Perhaps understandably YouTube is concerned that its platform is being utilised by steroid users to provide what it views as ‘unqualified’ advice to fellow consumers and the potentiality of being implicated in drug related deaths. Although, it would be wrong to suggest that P2P (peer to peer) information sharing cannot play a role in harm reduction.

P2P information sharing is currently being utilised for substances more commonly associated with the ‘night time economy’. Pillreports.net is a database created by an online community of Ecstasy users based on both ‘subjective user reports and scientific analysis’ which provides information to its membership regarding the content and safety of Ecstasy pills. Certainly, with the production and supply of anabolic steroids being dominated by black market imports and domestic underground laboratories – where the danger of contamination is a real issue due to unregulated production practices – P2P information sharing can play a crucial part in ensuring the harm faced by users is reduced.

Indeed, some underground laboratories have started to take precautions in ensuring the safety of their consumer base, with vials of anabolic substances being stamped with codes which can be inputted into their respective websites and subsequently validated as official products. While this practice may show that laboratories are willing to make themselves accountable to their consumers, it does not go far enough and may lull users into a false sense of security. Instead, with an estimated 1 million users of anabolics in the UK it is vital that substance testing is made readily available to this group to guarantee their safety from contaminants. The Loop has blazed a trail in a similar domain with its efforts to reduce the harms associated with recreational drugs at nightlife venues, but an equivalent organisation dedicated to the safety of IPEDs users is notable in its absence.

As efforts to safeguard users of recreational drugs from unintended harm intensify, it is important that consumers of anabolics are not left behind due to the ‘hard man’ stigma attached to their use.