Ask An Expert: Adam Winstock From The Global Drugs Survey Talks Uk Drug Policy


Following Fabric’s closure – ostensibly because of the continued use of drugs on the premise, specifically with reference to two drug related deaths that had taken place over the last year- there has been an enormous amount of column space given over to whether the decision was justifiable. Was it a reasonable response to tragic drug deaths or an example of a rigid drug policy that appears to actively work against its stated aims?

Naturally, we’ve offered our tuppence on the topic. But as time has rolled on we realised that the whole conversation around drugs policy is all getting a bit Brexit-y; there’s loads of pundits shouting opinions, but very few experts offering solutions. And we’re including ourselves in that sorry situation. So it seemed that, perhaps, we should speak to someone who actually spends time thinking about drug policy, and who has examined the how, why and where of people using drugs, along with considering methods of harm reduction that might have some impact. As luck would have it, we found ourselves meeting Adam Winstock at ADE. Adam is a consultant psychiatrist who just happens to have founded the global drugs survey, the biggest drugs survey in the world. The Global Drugs Survey started life in 2011 – some years after Adam had been running drugs surveys for Mixmag magazine. Over the last 5 years it has evolved, moving from a niche concern into a worldwide survey that has the ability to influence policy. It’s sent out in ten languages to over thirty countries, and as such it’s the closest thing we have to a comprehensive appraisal of drug use around the planet. We called Adam to talk about the survey itself, current UK drug policy, and whether there were any feasible methods of changing a policy that clearly – from whichever side you look at it- isn’t working.

OK, first off, tell us about the Global Drugs Survey, and the organisation behind it

Our next global drugs survey launches in two weeks. We first set it up in 2011, and now we’re the biggest drug survey in the world. We’re interested in getting information out to drug users so they can use drugs more safely. We’re not funded by government, we’re not funded by political research funds and that’s because we want to be able to say what we want to say without censorship.

So who does fund you?

All our content is free, but we generate income by providing data reports to groups such as City of London. We function as a charity but, we’re set up as a private organisation to maintain independence.

We run the drugs survey every year and there’s always a core that it covers; what people are using, how much they’re using it, how much they’re buying, how much it costs. And we do global comparisons. Each year we also try and focus on different areas that are important. We did Methadrone five years ago, then we’ve also done stuff on the Dark Net and internet drug sales, and synthetic cannaboids and we try and package up our research into useful harm reduction resources for people. We developed a thing called the Highway Code which was the first harm reduction guide produced by people who used drugs. It didn’t just talk about the importance of reducing risks, but also what the impact of decisions were on the pleasure people got from taking drugs. Last year we did the first safer use limits on cannabis – we drew up guidelines like the governments do on alcohol, as voted for by people who use drugs. That’s because the most trusted source of information isn’t middle aged psychologists like me, it’s people who use drugs. We have the people who are experts by experience repackage their experience to share with other people.

What are you focussing on this year?

This year the focus is going to be on drug vaping, that’s vaping drugs other than cannabis, such as crystal meth, DMT, PCP. There’ll be a big section on psychedelics, looking at micro dosing with magic mushrooms and LSD to increase creativity, and the whole of Ayahuasca. Then we’ve a section trying to draw the difference between a bad trip and a difficult experience. The point is lots of people experience challenging situations when they’re on a trip, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad trip, it can be an experience you learn and grow from. Then we’re doing two huge bits on cannabis; part on medicinal cannabis, and then a piece where we get cannabis users around the world to talk about what form regulation should take; should there be minimum pricing? Should it be available in shop fronts? Should it be online? What would your worries be?

It strikes me that everything your doing is starting without their being a particular moral stand point on the consumption of narcotics – would it be fair to say that that was in opposition to the way most drug policy in the UK is formed?

There’s not only a moral standpoint, there’s an ideological one that drug use is dangerous, that drug use cannot be positive, and that you cannot use drugs safely. Most policy has to support this stance that drugs are illegal because they’re harmful. And you can’t deviate from that. If we find out that drugs are harmful we’ll shout it from the rooftops, for example we’ve been saying that about synthetic cannabis products for the last 5 years. But we don’t start off with an answer that we’re trying to prove. I totally accept that lots of people have lots of fun on drugs and that for lots of people it’s a life enriching experience. But I also know, because my day job is working with people whose lives are ruined by drugs, that drugs can fuck you. I think most people who talk about drugs stick on one side or the other, because a polarised opinion is best for the media. I just sit in the boring middle, which is, drugs can be harmful, drugs can fun – and that’s down to how you use, what you use, where you are. I think you could hugely reduce the negative impact of drugs on people if they were better educated. I would go so far as to say that I think you could increase the positive effects people have from taking drugs if they were better educated as well. It’s just about having a conversation with people about ‘this is the best way of getting high, and this is the best way of avoiding harm’ but to have that conversation you have to be OK with the fact that drugs can give you pleasure. Which they can. Full stop.

Because you’re operating in opposition to a government ideology do you have any optimism that the work you’re doing is going to have any impact in changing UK drug policy?

Ummm. I don’t know. I’ve got a mate of mine who a few years ago was very involved in the cannabis law reform in the UK – and for the last few years he’s been begging me to put a question into the survey asking people ‘if a political party said they would legalise cannabis, would that change the way you vote?’ – so we’ve got that in there now. And I think information like that might make a difference.

Ha – pure cynicism!

Well evidence isn’t going to shift drug policy, it’ll be political survival that does. If you’re going into an election and there’s two or three points in it, and someone comes to you and goes, 70% of people who smoke dope didn’t vote last time – apparently 80% of them will get off their arses and vote for you if you legalise cannabis, then I can see a political party going fuck it and doing it.

Unless of course 90% of other voters wouldn’t vote for them because of legalisation

I think the moral outrage of the Melanie Phillips’ and the Daily Mails isn’t as powerful and motivated as those groups who want to stand up for their rights. And I think there’s a bunch of people who‘d make very good fiscal arguments for changing the law. But changing the law outright is very hard and very scary for a government – I think they’re much better off doing baby steps – the first baby step would be saying that there is no criminal sanction or record of any sort for possessing cannabis of less than an eighth. Period. Police aren’t interested, there’s no record, no caution, nothing.

In some parts of England that’s been an unspoken deal for a while anyway

We did some research a couple of years ago – and it’s something like 70% of people caught with a couple of grams of cannabis are let off with a slapped wrist. I do lots of work with the police, and I ask them what’s the thing that determines whether or not you arrest someone, they will say ‘it’s the attitude test’ – if you’re nice and polite to the police, most of the time they’ll be like, piss off. If you’re cheeky to the police they’ll take you.

Or if you’re black…

Well yes, or if you’re black. You’ve got me there, if you’re black and in Hackney that doesn’t help. But things are shifting. The fact that there is drugs testing at festivals, that there’s lots of people like me now who will quite happily have conversations in the media saying you can use drugs and it won’t ruin your life. I think ten years ago that would have been seen as a very reckless thing to do and you would have received a lot of negative backlash.

What do you think of the American model for medicinal cannabis use? Does that change the conversation over here?

What’s really changed it is commerce. This is big companies who are pushing this. There are huge amounts of money involved, and the thing that’s shifting the law is powerful lobby groups and huge amounts of tax revenue. There’s a darker side to it all. I think some fundamental errors are being made in places like Colarado and Oregon. Before you legalise cannabis you need to make sure you’ve got some excellent treatment centres, you need recommended limits, you need harm reduction advice every time you buy a baggy, and my sense is that there isn’t anything like that. The idea of happy hippies setting up a local pot stall and selling weed, all of that’s been taken up by big business, it’s worth multi billion dollars. And you have to think, how do you stop the cannabis industry becoming like the alcohol and tobacco industry who make the vast majority of their money off their dependent punters. Even raising that point, people don’t want to hear it, they think legalising cannabis is either good or bad, but you have to look at the fact that increased availability of any drug tends to increase the number of people using, and as you increase the number of people using, you increase the number of people with problems. And you’ll also have a company whose profits and shareholders depend on flogging people more shit. And it’ll be; well, what’s the most profitable stuff to flog? – and you could argue quite cynically, well maybe it’s best to sell the most potent form of the product that generates the most dependence amongst users – and you get something like butane hash oil, smoked in a beautifully designed pipe that gets you stoned super quickly at a high level. We’ve done lots of research on butane hash oil, and it doesn’t seem to give people as enjoyable a high as nice weed, but it gets them stoned super quickly, and people report high levels of craving. That’s not good, but equally, those poeple who use butane hash oil don’t use tobacco, which is brilliant. There isn’t a totally happy ending either way. You don’t make a drug safe because you’ve made it legal. What you do is increase the ability to educate and inform and regulate. But if you look at how well we’ve done with alcohol… We haven’t done a great job there…

How would you rate cannabis harm against alcohol?

It’s way down. But if you take tobacco with cannabis, you’re getting all the cardiovascular and cancer causing harm you get with smoking tobacco. That’s bad. One of my saddest patients is a 48 year old guy who’s been smoking weed for 35 years, he has the lung age of a 95 year old. He will probably die in his early 50s. That’s the reality for most of the world – if you take tobacco out of the picture, cannabis certainly doesn’t rot your organs in the way that alcohol does. It’s hugely safe. 8000 a year in the UK die from alcohol related illness, but no one will die from cannabis, except maybe a road crash caused from it. Cannabis can have a severely negative impact on your life, but it depends who you are. If you’re an illiterate, unemployed 38 year old who’s been smoking dope for 25 years and you’re sitting there stoned from early morning to the end of the night, and your kids are sitting in an environment filled with clouds of smoke, that’s quite different to if you’re a 38 year old lawyer who happens to smoke every day when you come back from work and your kids are in school. Basically, being poor screws your life if you use lots of drugs as well.

Do you feel something like the Fabric closure is the end point of current drug policy in England, or more of a case of drug policy being used as an excuse by cynical councils?

There are lots of possible reasons why Fabric was closed down; council profit, land sales, all sorts of things. But I think it reflects that the government’s only response to reducing drug related harm is to ban drugs. The only way the police think you can reduce drug related harm in a club is by closing the club. It’s a very blinkered but consistent approach to say the only way you deal with drug related harm is to stop drugs. For me, it’s a pointless exercise. Fabric was a place where, if the council and police had been really smart, they could have used it as an example. They said, ‘fuck there are people dying in this club! You have to do everything you can to stop people bringing drugs in here. And if you don’t you’ll be closed down.’ That wasn’t the right focus. What they should have said is, ‘you have to do everything you can to make sure you’re venue is the safest in the world. And one of those things is to try and stop drugs coming in. But there are other things you can do as well – we want you to have a website where if you want to buy a ticket, you have to go through information about safety and drug and alcohol use. We want every member of your staff and security to be trained in how to recognise a risk arising from drug or alcohol use. And we want you to make a safe environment, and we will work with you because we know you’re an excellent hub for people to change their behaviours from.’

Would you say that the act of closing Fabric down will actually be detrimental in the pursuit of stopping people dying from drugs?

People dying from drugs is so complicated and there are so many factors at play that closing a location that could have been championed and supported to change the way promoters, councils, police and health groups work with people who take drugs? That was a great loss. I can’t say that closing it has made things different, but I can say they missed a great opportunity to do something different that could have had huge positive effects. 

Find out more about the Global Drugs Survey at their website: HERE.

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