For her latest article Kathy has also rather stumbled on to my territory by having a go at the Transform/Ipsos MORI drug policy poll reported in the media last week. I commissioned a drug policy poll myself in 2010 with the help of Liberal Democrat colleagues, so it's a subject I follow with some interest.
It's a long article, and she has form, so this might take a while to isolate all the little untruths and distortions, but I feel it has to be done.
[I did have a go at the first paragraph, but it has been criticised very ably already (and better than I achieved) by John Robertson at "The Poison Garden" He used 1,000 words on the first paragraph alone so I shall pick up the baton at...]
Gyngell: “Previously commissioned YouGov drug polls (for the Observer) suggest attitudes towards drug use have hardened, not softened”
An interesting assertion, though no link provided so that we can check it our for ourselves.
Gyngell: “The recent Sun YouGov poll hardly found a ringing endorsement for Nick Clegg’s call for a drug policy review either - 50% of his own party members (known for their often off-the-wall views) disagreed and the vast majority of Conservative and Labour members gave it the thumbs down.”
This is where it really gets good/weird. There was a recent Sun YouGov poll and here's a quote from the YouGov website: “There is majority support for a royal commission across party lines, with 59% of Conservative voters, 62% of Labour supporters and 75% of Lib Dems in favour.” The full results also show a majority in favour of trials of Portuguese-style decriminalisation (a result not replicated by the Ipsos MORI poll using different methodology). And on page 1 there is a trend since June of more people favouring legalisation or decriminalisation of “soft drugs such as cannabis”, such that more people favoured reform than the status quo. Is there another recent Sun YouGov poll that doesn't so utterly destroy Kathy's argument?
Clegg called for a Royal Commission before Christmas, so I assume that's what Kathy refers to when she says “review”. If anyone can point to a poll of party “members” I'd be intrigued to read it, but if 50% of Liberal Democrat members disagree with the call for a review, they must have been outside the walls of the conference hall when my 2011 drug policy motion calling for government to set up an immediate review was passed. It passed “with only one or two votes against” and there were many more than 4 people in the hall.
Gyngell describes Transform's mission as “To persuade understandably wary politicians to throw caution to the winds on drugs”
This is of course entirely unfair to Transform, as their efforts recently have mainly been directed at achieving a wide-ranging, government-initiated independent review of all options for reform (including stricter prohibition). They do this presumably because they think their position in advocating a regulated legal market for drugs is in fact the most cautious means of dealing with drug use in respect to reducing the harms to individuals both from drugs and from criminal sanctions. If Gyngell is as confident in her solutions to the drug problem, then she should surely support their examination alongside the alternatives proposed by Transform. She doesn't.
Gyngell: “Ipsos Mori, the pollster, it seems took Transform’s biased portrayal of UK drug policy as contrasted with ‘decriminalised regimes’ at face value.”
And here is that “biased portrayal”:
“POSSESSION OF ILLEGAL DRUGS IS CURRENTLY A CRIMINAL OFFENCE IN THE UK. SOME OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE ‘DECRIMINALISED’ POSSESSION OF SMALL QUANTITIES OF ILLEGAL DRUGS FOR PERSONAL USE.
THIS MEANS THAT POSSESSION OF A SMALL QUANTITY FOR PERSONAL USE IS USUALLY PUNISHED WITH FINES (LIKE A SPEEDING FINE), ATTENDANCE AT A DRUG TREATMENT OR EDUCATION PROGRAMME, RATHER THAN ARREST.
UNDER 'DECRIMINALISATION', DRUGS ARE STILL CONFISCATED. PRODUCTION AND SUPPLY TO OTHERS REMAIN CRIMINAL OFFENCES THAT MAY RESULT IN PUNISHMENTS CARRYING A CRIMINAL RECORD,
FOR EXAMPLE A PRISON SENTENCE, FINES OR COMMUNITY SERVICE. WITH THIS IN MIND, WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING COMES CLOSEST TO YOUR VIEW OF THE LAW IN THE UK?
Is this not a fairly rigorous description of the reality in Portugal, the decriminalisation model which I certainly favour, and which would likely be the route that Britain would follow it politicians gathered the courage?
Gyngell: “And like the rest of the media, it swallowed Transform’s fallacious presentation of the impact of decriminalisation in Portugal.“
Ok, I'm not sure you could call Ipsos MORI part of the media for starters, but here's what was presented:
SINCE THIS WAS INTRODUCED IN PORTUGAL IN 2001, AND RESOURCES WERE INSTEAD SPENT ON HEALTHCARE, OVERALL USE OF DRUGS ROSE AT A SIMILAR RATE TO NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES.
HOWEVER, THERE WERE HIGHER NUMBERS ACCESSING DRUG TREATMENT, THE JUSTICE SYSTEM SPENT LESS TIME AND RESOURCES ON DRUG-RELATED CRIME, AND THERE WERE FALLS IN PROBLEMATIC DRUG USE,
AND DRUG USE AMONGST SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN ALSO FELL. WITH THIS IN MIND, WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING COMES CLOSEST TO YOUR VIEW OF THE LAW IN THE UK?
The results of Portuguese decriminalisation have been disputed, but the best way to resolve this dispute is to turn to someone who has addressed it and published peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject. If interested, please read Professor Alex Stevens (introduction here) The only potentially biased aspect of this description is therefore the reporting of a fall in use among school-age children, which from Hughes and Stevens' work appears to be a trend also seen in Italy and other EU countries (see British Journal of Criminology article).
What Gyngell fails to mention is that the polled group was split. Half of those polled saw the description of what decriminalisation meant. Half additionally saw the description of what happened in Portugal. So the presentation of the facts on Portugal was not an attempt to skew the poll, but an exploration of what presentation of those facts - or their absence – would mean for public opinion.
Gyngell: “This was what they gave their naïve subjects to consider before the second set of questions they were asked about their preference for a drug policy review.”
I shall repeat, half of the group saw just the decriminalisation description, and half additionally saw the largely accurate (though perhaps slightly biased) reporting of what occurred in Portugal. These separate groups were reported separately for the subsequent polling questions (though their answers were pooled for the press release).