Here is an interview with Dasha Anderson, the chapter leader of our newest chapter, SSDP Durham!
Tell me a bit about yourself, what you study, your interests and why you decided to start a chapter.
My name is Dasha, I’m a Durham University 4th year student studying towards an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience. I’ve had an interest in drugs and drug research since my final years of school, but I first properly got involved in this area of policy debate during my 3rd year at Durham. Initially, my interest in drugs was very much focused on the biochemistry and neuropsychopharmacology of drugs – that is, how do drugs affect the brain and behaviour?
However, when I started studying drugs and drug use from more of a sociological perspective through an optional Sociology module called ‘Drugs, Crime and Society’, I began to take a serious interest in how drugs affect societies, and how people who use and/or sell drugs, their communities, and their families are affected by drug policy.. This Sociology module was run by Dr Fiona Measham who heads the drug testing charity the Loop and I had the fantastic opportunity of working with her at a number of festivals over the summer, including Boomtown and Reminisce, where I interviewed festival goers to gather information about drug use patterns at festivals.
The Durham SSDP society was originally opened at the end of my first year by one of my close friends, Estia, which was how I initially came to know about SSDP UK and got involved in drug policy debate at my university. In its initial stages, SSDP Durham saw the first free drug testing service (run by the Loop) come to Durham and a number of guest speakers. After Estia graduated, I became the chair of the society and decided to open a Durham chapter of SSDP International in the hopes that this membership would allow us to have further reach and empower us to enact real change within our university and local community.
Tell me a bit about the war on drugs in the UK and what needs to change.
In the UK, illegal drugs are classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) into classes A, B and C, with possession, supply or production of class A drugs carrying the toughest sentences. These classifications are intended to reflect the level of harm associated with different drugs, with Class A drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, being the most dangerous. Distribution or production of Class A drugs can carry a life sentence. However, a number of organisations and government bodies, including the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Royal Society of Arts and the UK Drug Policy Commission, have argued that the UK’s classification system is no longer fit for purpose, and requires urgent reappraisal. Indeed, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006) recommended introducing a new classification system dissociated from legal penalties that ranks drug harms entirely on the basis of empirical evidence. This would give greater flexibility to update rankings in light of newly emerging scientific evidence, which would improve the accuracy of drug harm rankings.
The major problems with the UK’s current drug classification system are:
a) The classification system contains glaring inaccuracies. For example, psilocybin mushrooms were put into the Class A category despite there being no evidence that it carries the same risks as other Class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Between 1993 and 2000, there was only one case in which psilocybin mushrooms were identified to be the cause of death compared to 5,737 deaths caused by heroin (Levitt, Nason & Hallworth, 2006).
b) The Government considers factors other than the recommendations of its advisory committee, rendering the decision to place a particular drug in any category essentially a political decision, rather than an evidence-based classification of drug-related harm. For instance, following a media storm surrounding the harmfulness of methamphetamine, the ACMD recommended moving methamphetamine from Class B to Class A, despite having announced that there was no scientific basis for reclassification just months previously.
c) The current classification system excludes legal psychoactive substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, despite the fact that, together, these drugs account for 40x as many deaths as all other drugs combined (Nutt et al, 2007).
d) The current classification system assumes that assigning drugs to a higher class deters people from using them and communicates the unacceptability of their use, however a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006) concluded that there is limited evidence that drug classification decisions actually deter against drug use.
e) Clearly, the current system fails to fulfil its aim of classifying relative drug harms and is, thus, no longer fit for purpose. This sentiment is mirrored in public opinion, with 3 in 5 individuals believing that the UK’s drug classification system should be substituted with a new system that “better reflects health risks” (Royal Society for Public Health, 2016). Research shows that the health risks associated with drugs are actually a greater deterrent against drug use than drug classifications, while an inaccurate classification system simply fosters distrust in the information it provides.
f) Finally, the Government has argued that changes to drug classifications are not necessary because police officers are given discretion when applying the law. For instance, there is a presumption against arrest in the case of cannabis possession. However, this has not been specified for other drugs and also means that the law is likely to be applied inconsistently across different contexts, raising the potential issue that the implementation of drugs laws may be hijacked to discriminate against particular people or groups. An interesting development in the last year in UK drug policy has been the legalisation of cannabis for medical uses. Although this represents an important step forward in drug policy reform, so far only 100 patients have been prescribed cannabis. The question is, what is the point of creating a medical cannabis system if patients can’t access it? Why is that? First, cannabis-derived medicines can only be prescribed by a specialist consultant and it must be the doctor’s own decision that cannabis is best for the patient, however doctors have a tendency against prescribing special prescriptions. Second, patient access is held back by doctors’ education surrounding the legislative changes and surrounding the complexities of the plant. Many doctors are unconvinced by the effectiveness of cannabis medications. Finally, NHS guidelines state that medical cannabis should only be prescribed when there is clear empirical evidence of its benefit and when all other options have been exhausted. As such, doctors are advised against prescribing cannabis in almost all cases, except in cases of extreme pain in cancer patients, which is far more restrictive than in other countries. Now, medical cannabis firms are urging the UK to loosen cannabis prescribing laws to enable better patient access to this medicine.
What are you goals, what actions do you hope to achieve, tell me a bit about your members, what will be your focus as a chapter?
In terms of our aims for the year, we have a dual aim of improving drug education at Durham University and opening up the space for policy debate among a student body with little knowledge in this area. In terms of drug education, we will be providing practical harm reduction information to students through leaflets, lectures and through online resources on our Facebook page. We are also planning to apply for a grant to begin providing drug checking kits to students and would like to work with the Loop again to provide another drug testing service in Durham. As part of our ‘Just Say Know’ campaign, we will be inviting guest speakers from a range of backgrounds to give talks on different drugs and issues in drug policy and are hoping to team up with other Durham University societies to hold panel discussions on specific topics of interests, for instance ‘Are psychedelics the future of mental health research?’ in collaboration with Durham’s Psychedelic Society.
With regards to policy debate, we would like to address Durham University’s zero tolerance drug policy and emphasise the importance of welfare and harm reduction over deterrence. At the moment, lenience is only given to students who admit to having a ‘problem’ with drug use, but with 77% of Durham students having used drugs according to a Tab survey, and the vast majority of UK students reporting not having experienced problematic drug use (Release, 2018), we do not believe that this approach is realistic or appropriate to the student population.
At the moment, drug use is still highly stigmatised and misunderstood in Durham University and, as such, our overall aim is to start to change the minds of people both within the University and within the student body in terms of their attitudes towards drug use and drug policy.