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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 18th November 2011

This is the second part of a two part post about the lies and distortions used by a whole variety of official bodies to attempt to support prohibition. You don’t have to read the first part, first, but you’ll find it here.

I set out to cover this topic in a single post but found I could not control my anger sufficiently to keep myself within that constraint. Yesterday was mostly about bodies who claim to rely on science and then use the most unscientific methods to try and dupe readers into believing the ‘official’ line. Today is about how drug seizures are used for political propaganda.

I should start by saying that I’ve always been suspicious of the figures given in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (ONODC) annual ‘World Drugs Report’. In 2006, just to pick one example, the UNODC stated that there were 237,819 hectares under poppy cultivation in 1998. I doubt if it is possible to quote the worldwide production of a legitimate crop to the nearest 1,000 hectares so suggesting that you can evaluate an illicit crop to the nearest one hectare is just laughable.

That sort of false precision continued throughout the report so that global cannabis production was estimated to the nearest tonne at 10,692 tonnes. It should be said that, elsewhere, figures were given to the nearest 100 or 500 or 1000 whatevers, which is a little more realistic.

More recently, the UNODC has recognised the flaw in presenting point numbers for what are little better than guesses and the 2011 report, for example, puts annual prevalence of adult drug use at ‘between 149 and 272 million people’ though it still assumes it can predict the boundaries of its estimate to the nearest one million.

You would think that data on drug seizures would be more reliable. Assuming you have a robust reporting system in place and law enforcement agencies that are capable of using weighing scales, it should be possible to collate data on all drugs intercepted anywhere along the supply chain. But, it would seem, there is either something very wrong with seizure figures or production estimates are complete nonsense. This article looks at both production and seizure figures for cocaine and concludes they are ‘entirely fictional and arbitrary’. In essence, the US State department claims to be seizing almost all of the cocaine that is being produced. Or rather, because it knows that such a claim would be ridiculed, it claims that global production of cocaine is about 50% higher than the UNODC estimates.

The UNODC says that, for heroin, seizures are, broadly, a year after production. So, the 100 tonnes of heroin seized in 2009 should be seen against the 667 tonnes produced in 2008 rather than the 396 produced in 2009. But leave that aside and take the direct comparison meaning that that 25% of all heroin produced is being seized. Take the US State department figures that 760 tonnes of cocaine is seized from a total production of 1,100 tonnes (rather than the UNODC’s approximately 800 tonnes) and the authorities would have you believe they are seizing 70% of all cocaine.

There are complications, of course, from the fact that the further down the supply chain you go the greater the dilution becomes and you have to rely on estimates to get back to the pure equivalent. But those apply to both heroin and cocaine in some measure. You are still left with being asked to accept that the same enforcement agencies are around three times better at interdicting cocaine than they are heroin.

Given that one part of the anti-prohibition arguments is that money spent on enforcement is wasted money, it is no surprise that the bodies involved in enforcement want to overstate their success rate. But, when the numbers collapse as soon as you look at them, their credibility on all matters related to drugs is destroyed.

This high alleged seizure level also doesn’t sit well alongside the long-term trend to lower cocaine prices that, in the view of one commentator  has led to part of the reduction in violent crime in the USA since the profit to be made from dealing cocaine at the lowest level is so small that the territories are not worth fighting over.

And, finally, we come to a story from the UK. When the Conservative party was in opposition it repeatedly attacked the Labour government for its habit of providing press releases about some statistical report ahead of the release of the actual statistics knowing that lazy journalists would write their stories from the release without troubling themselves with the actual numbers. In this way, the government could get the public to believe that statistics always showed it was doing a good job.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) even joined in the criticism commenting that it would be very dangerous for democracy if the public lost confidence in the independence of the information coming from the ONS. Eventually, the pressure became so great that the government was forced to agree not to comment on statistics before they were publicly available so that people could check the validity of those comments.

But, that was then. Now we have a coalition government whose larger partner is that same Conservative party that so championed the truth when in opposition. And what happens? Well, they stuck by their principles in refusing to comment on a statistical report on drug seizures before it was released. Instead, they created their own report, a week or so before the ONS was due to publish giving a completely different take on the situation.

On 6th November, media reports with headlines like ‘Cocaine haul beats previous year’ and ‘Class A drug seizures rise - UK Border Agency’ appeared after the UK Border Agency, an arm of the Home Office, released figures for the first six months of the latest year, i.e. from April to September 2011. These showed that, at 2,116kg, more cocaine was seized in that six months than in the year to March 2011, providing, of course that you include the 1,200kg that was seized in Southampton when en route to the Netherlands. Heroin seizures were also up, as long as you didn’t factor in the very poor poppy crop the previous year in Afghanistan that was known to have produced a shortage of heroin.

But, assuming most people wouldn’t make those adjustments, the picture is clearly bright as far as clamping down on drug smuggling is concerned.

But, when the ONS released its official figures for the year ended 31st March 2011 these showed that both the number of seizures and the total weight seized for cocaine and heroin had fallen from the previous year. For cocaine, the number of seizures fell 17% and the total weight fell from 2.6 tonnes to 2.4 tonnes. For heroin, seizures were 16% fewer in number with a total weight down from 1.5 tonnes to 0.7 tonnes. (This also puts the ‘increased’ heroin seizures for the first six months of this year in context. The 773kg seized in six months suggests only a return to trend levels after the ‘blip’ in 2010/11.)

As already mentioned, the poor poppy crop in Afghanistan in 2010 is known to have affected total output but, in the same way that people could be assumed not to make adjustments to the UKBA’s press release, people might not go beyond the headline to understand that there was more to the fall in heroin seizures than the failure of enforcement.

The Home Office was, it seems, so concerned that the official ONS figures might encourage the view that interception efforts are a costly failure that it ignored its previous principles and sought to mislead the public. Fortunately, the head of ONS is sufficiently committed to the importance of accuracy that he publicly rebuked the Home Office minister, Damien Green, for this attempted manipulation.

In one of those wonderful ‘You couldn’t make it up’ situations, the head of the ONS is Sir Michael Scholar. Wouldn’t it be nice if all discussions about drugs could be scholarly?