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Submission of Independent Drug Monitoring Unit

Matthew J. Atha BSc MSc LL.B & Simon Davis DipHE (SocSci)


House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee


F1 This memorandum represents some of the IDMU research findings and issues raised in the course of legal casework since our original submission to the committee enquiry dated 26-9-2001.

F2 IDMU is a small independent research consultancy specialising in the study of illegal drug consumption patterns, prices and effects. We are funded wholly via professional fees earned in providing expert evidence for the criminal and civil courts, with experience of over 1200 criminal cases since 1991. The evidence mainly covers personal consumption and drug valuations, but includes yields of cannabis cultivation systems, effects of drugs (re criminal intent, driving impairment etc.), and a range of other aspects, most notably therapeutic uses of cannabis. Our mission is to provide accurate, up to date and impartial information on drugs to all parties to the debate over drugs policy. Other than legal casework, we have provided consultancy for GW Pharmaceuticals, the House of Lords enquiry, the Home Office, Transport Research Laboratory, and Northamptonshire Police.

1 Lambeth Experiment

1.1 Fortuitously, IDMU has been monitoring the drug-using behaviour of survey respondents resident in London who, since May 2000, have completed questionnaires at the annual "Legalise Cannabis" festival in Brixton. The May 2000 data provides baseline figures, June 2001 coincided with the start of the "experiment" where cannabis use became effectively tolerated by the police, and May 2002 was a year into the experiment by which time any consequences of the policy should have started to take effect.

1.2 The preliminary results of this ongoing study show that average monthly cannabis usage, purchase and spending in 2002 had declined slightly, as had the average rating of cannabis by users. Retail prices paid by Lambeth respondents showed a slight, but non-significant increase. Cooperative or commercial purchases were less frequent, with a higher proportion used by the buyer him/herself. The average age of initiation to cannabis use increased significantly, supporting my long-held view that usage would increase more among the older generation than among teenagers were the law to be relaxed further, also reflected in the older average age of the respondents.

Lambeth Experiment - Preliminary Data







Base (no of respondents)




Response Rate




Average Age




Reefers per day (weekdays)




Reefers per day (weekends)




Cannabis Used per Month




Cannabis purchase per month




Avg % personal use




Monthly Cannabis Spending




Cannabis Rating (0-10)




Soap-Bar Resin 1/8oz price




Resin oz price




Resin 9oz




Skunk Herbal 1/8oz




Skunk oz




Skunk 9oz




Age 1st Use of Cannabis




1.3 The preliminary conclusions to be drawn are that the Lambeth experiment appears to have made little difference to the consumption of cannabis users, but that any effect would appear at this stage to be moderating influence on cannabis usage rather than encouragement. Fears of increased cannabis usage as a result of the experiment would thus appear unfounded.

2. Drug Prices

2.1 Cannabis: Prices of cannabis resin are continuing to fall around the country as a whole, although there are signs of the price of cannabis resin "bottoming out", with the typical price now 10 per 1/8oz rather than 15 in the mid 1990s, and a 9oz bar being sold for 250-400 rather than 600-800 in 1994. Skunk (domestically produced) cannabis prices appear relatively stable, with the typical price ranging from 15-25 per 1/8oz, and ounces from 100-160. Imported cannabis bush remains rare, although has been encountered more often in IDMU Criminal cases over the past 12 months, with these prices increasing slightly. More respondents are reporting "exotic" cannabis resin varieties such as moroccan "pollen".

2.2 Stimulants: Purities of amphetamine appear to have returned to the levels seen in the late 1990s, gram prices remain relatively stable within a range of 5 to 10, although "ounce" prices appear to have increased from 50-80 to 70-100 over the past two years. There is still no evidence of any significant levels of methamphetamine use (crystal meth, crank, ice etc) in the UK, despite an epidemic in the USA. There are isolated seizures, mainly in tablet form or powder sold as amphetamine sulphate. Sensationalist publicity for methylamphetamine should be avoided at all costs, lest it create a demand which does not currently exist. The precursors used to manufacture methamphet include over the counter medications and household cleaning materials, thus no control on the availability or tracking of precursor chemicals would be practicable were usage of this drug to become commonplace.

2.3 Cocaine prices have remained stable within a range of 40-60 per gram, and 500-1200 per ounce. Purities are stable or rising. Crack prices again remain relatively stable, but highlyvariable, with rocks of different sizes available in different price bands.

2.4 Ecstasy prices are continuing a dramatic fall from 10-15 per tab in 1994, down to 3-5 per tab in 2002, with similar falls at wholesale levels where prices of 1 or less per tab are now common. Fewer "bogus" tablets are being encountered, due to increased availability and use of DIY pill-testing kits, most tablets sold as Ecstasy contain 50-100mg MDMA.

2.5 Heroin prices are in long term decline. A "tenner bag" may still cost 10, but whereas in 1994 it might contain 80-100mg, these days they contain 100-250mg, and 5 bags of around 100mg are increasingly common. Gram prices vary across the country in a range of 30-80, ounces 500-1000.

2.6 The Court of Appeal held in R-v-Edwards [2001] that evidence in court by police officers or defence experts as to drug consumption and prices would be ruled inadmissible hearsay unless supported by statistical or scientific evidence. In many cases prosecutions are undermined by excessive valuations of drugs by police officers, many of whom display a woeful ignorance of the drugs market (e.g. claiming cannabis or cannabis resin is sold by the gram), and who quote prices which those drug users among the jury (statistically around 3-4 jury members will have used cannabis or other drugs at least once, and 1-2 members may be regular users familiar with current prices).

3 Drug Prevalence (among drug users as a whole)

3.1 The prevalence of use of other controlled drugs among users as a whole has declined since our 1994 survey, however regular use of cocaine and crack has increased (the apparent decrease in 2000 due to a survey design flaw which left such questions to the end of a long and complicated survey, causing a much higher proportion of incomplete questionnaires). The decline in usage of other controlled drugs may reflect increasing social acceptability of cannabis and use by a wider segment of the population, not restricted to pre-existing "drug subcultures" where use of different drugs is tolerated.

3.2 It would appear that the popularity of ecstasy has passed its peak, with fewer users reporting regular use, despite the dramatic fall in price. Whether this reflects a decline in the dance culture, maturation out by the first waves of ecstasy users, or increasing concerns about the long-term mental health risks of ecstasy use remains an open question.

3.3 It is clear that with drugs other than cannabis, experimental and occasional use remains the norm, with a very small proportion using daily. The proportion of daily users to lifetime, or regular, users is highest for heroin and crack cocaine. However even with these "hard" drugs, the majority who try them, or use occasionally, do not become dependent.

4. Supply-side Interventions - Operation Pirate

4.1 Operation Pirate led to the discovery in late 1998 of the largest illicit drugs laboratory operation ever uncovered on mainland Britain which saw 10 men sentenced for a total of over 40 years for being part of a multi-million pound amphetamine production conspiracy1

4.2 While usage of amphetamine by young people had been increasing throughout the 1990s, with 8% of 16-29 year olds using the drug in 1998, by 2000 that figure had fallen to 5%, and the average purity had fallen from 16% to 5%, before returning to pre-operation levels towards the end of 2001.

1 http://www.nationalcrimesquad.police.uk/Hot_off_the_press/info/106_record_jail_terms.html

4.3 Prosecutions and seizures for amphetamine also fell sharply, with the total number of amphetamine seizures falling from over 18600 in 1998 to just over 7000 in 2000. A major victory in the War on Drugs or was it?

4.4 Britain"s "speed" users were suddenly left without amphetamine to satisfy their cravings, at the same time as record amounts of cocaine and crack were entering the UK. Consequently although use in the past year and past month of amphetamine halved between the 1998 and 2000 British Crime Surveys, usage of cocaine and crack had doubled, such that by 2000 an equal number had used amphetamine and cocaine in the previous 12 months.

4.5 The implications of this finding for supply-side control and interdiction policies are gloomy. The most successful anti-drugs operation in recent UK history merely resulted in a high proportion of amphetamine users switching to cocaine, and possibly also crack. One reason the UK never experienced the US "crack" epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and for the relatively low prevalence of cocaine usage, has been the wide availability of amphetamine, which provides a similar effect for a longer duration at a fraction of the cost.

4.6 The argument for "legalising" amphetamine is undone by the propensity of the drug to cause aggression and violence if used to excess, as well as physical health risks associated with all stimulants. Thus an unrestricted retail market would have adverse consequences for public order and safety. Nonetheless, a form of controlled availability - e.g. re a smart card for registered users specifying a maximum daily or weekly "ration"/dose, or prescription by GPs of dexamphetamine tablets or linctus (to prevent injection) - might represent an alternative method of "maintenance" treatment for individuals with cocaine or crack dependency problems.

5. Medicinal Necessity (Cannabis)

5.1 I am possibly the busiest court expert in this field, having been involved as an expert in over 150 court cases. Where a defence of medical necessity (duress of circumstances) is put before a jury and supported by credible medical evidence of a relevant condition, the jury almost always acquits.

5.2 The principle of medical necessity in such cases has been approved by the Court of Appeal in the case of Lockwood [2002] ironically one of the few defendants to have been convicted. The defence has successfully been used by patients with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, irritable bowel disease, cancer chemotherapy, gout, arthritis, asthma, stress, anxiety, depression and Opiate dependency, among other conditions, with juries tending to give a wide interpretation to what is meant by "serious injury". Where the defence is a mere "smokescreen" to avoid conviction of dealing cannabis to non-patients, juries rightly continue to convict.

5.2 Nonetheless, the Crown Prosecution Service almost invariably proceed to trial in such cases, rather than abandoning the prosecution when a medicinal defence is presented. Despite my advice to both the Lords and Commons enquiries, there are as yet no national guidelines as to which conditions could provide a reasonable defence to cannabis possession and/or cultivation charges. Each case must be examined on its individual merits, but all such decisions to prosecute, or continue with a prosecution, should first be reviewed by a medical expert or panel of experts with the power to discontinue proceedings where there is clear merit in the defence, before further public money is wasted on a jury trial.

6. Implications of Reclassification

6.1 In our original submission of September 2001 we drew attention to the pros and cons of different approaches to drug policy. Our view remains that reclassification represents mere tinkering at the edges of policy reform, where a root and branch change could bear real results.

6.2 Our concern is that reclassification may make little difference to the problems (social and financial) which drugs cause society, unless the changed status is reflected in police attitudes. It is the criminal record acquired by the user which causes most damage to his or her future prospects, irrespective of the penalty which results from it.

6.3 I can envisage a situation where some police officers or forces allege "intent to supply" on ever-smaller quantities of drugs, to "improve" their compliance with performance targets, or to give themselves additional powers (e.g. s18 PACE search) following an arrest. This trend appears increasingly evident already, particularly in rural forces (where users may have to travel to buy their drugs and consequently buy more for themselves when they have the opportunity). I would estimate that somewhere around 60% or more of persons convicted of drugs supply offences plead guilty on the basis of social supply (to partner or friends) yet are convicted, on their record, as drug dealers, but pleading (despite protestations of innocence) due to the fear of being found guilty and imprisoned as a result.

6.4 There should be national guidelines issued to police forces for the quantities of drugs which would:

(a) involve no action (e.g. up to 30g cannabis or up to 15 flowering plants)

(b) charged with possession only (30-100g cannabis, 15-50 plants)

(c) charged with possession only, unless there is supporting evidence of dealing (cash, packaging materials, scales, wrapped deals, dealer lists or documentations) where "intent" charges might be brought (100-250g cannabis, 50-100 plants)

(d) where intent charges may reasonably proceed on the basis of quantity alone (over 250g cannabis or 100+ plants)

(e) The burden of proof would remain on the prosecution to prove an "intent" charge, based (e.g.) on the defendant"s ability to fund a claimed level of usage without resorting to dealing drugs.

6.5 For other drugs, the equivalent thresholds could reasonably be


No action

Poss only

Poss unless intent








1-10 tbs



>100 tbs


1-10 tbs



>100 tbs
















6.6 In the longer term, a coherent control policy would involve controlled availability of different drugs according to their potential dangers to the individual user and to society.

6.7 Cannabis could be treated in a similar manner to tobacco or alcohol, although to reduce the present availability to children I would consider members-only clubs to be the most appropriate legal outlet.

6.8 Stimulant drugs should be rationed, to deter the user from consuming excessively and creating social problems as a result, with cocaine users encouraged to use amphetamine as a marginally safer alternative.

6.9 Heroin should be made available to existing users (verified by urinalysis) on prescription, in an injectable or smokeable form (e.g. laced cigarettes), as a matter of urgency, in order to undercut the illicit market and make a significant impact on acquisitive crime, as well as helping to stabilise the chaotic lifestyles associated with problem use.

Controlled Availability?


Licensed premises (coffee shops or members-only clubs), excise duty


Licensed premises, excise duty


Licensed premises, excise duty


Prescription only or rationing (smart card)


Prescription or rationing (smart card), low dose preparations (e.g. coca leaf), alternative stimulants (maintenance)


Prescription or rationing (smart card), low dose preparations (e.g. opium)


Rationing (smart-card) develop safer but effective legal alternatives


No availability, users could prepare from cocaine "ration" alternative stimulants

6.10 The financial argument for licensing of cannabis (or other drugs) has never convincingly been aired. There is no doubt that substantial funds would become available to the Treasury as a result of excise duty, although the dramatic fall in prices of cannabis and ecstasy in recent shows the limitations of any fixed duty levels.

6.11 Already the UK is moving towards self-sufficiency in cannabis, with nearly 50% of the market now involving domestically-produced (indoor) material. However any moves to licence the sale of any currently illegal drug would require secession from, or renegotiation of, existing international treaties. I note the move towards reclassification has been criticised by members of the the UNDCP executive. However as these represent the very people who have presided over the failures of international drugs policy for the past 30+ years, such criticism is an understandable response to proposals which could overturn their world view, particularly where alternative approaches (e.g. the Netherlands) have proven successful in reducing both the level of drug use and of drug-related harm.

Matthew Atha - Director

Simon Davis -Research Co-ordinator

6 March 2003

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