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A Conversation with Dr Christian Jessen - Drug Policy

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Drug policy reform has received many endorsees, from Kofi Annan and Richard Branson, to a fleet of Nobel Prize winners and an array of prominent figures. Despite this, little media attention has been given to the damaging nature of current policy. There is, perhaps, someone who could hold court and break the hyperbolic vacuum: Dr Christian Jessen.

In his recent column for the Evening Standard, Dr Jessen wrote a compelling piece that detailed the harms of present drugs policy and conveyed the success of nations who have taken a health based approach over punitive.

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Photography (c) 2009
Sue Rider Management

When I enquired to how well the Evening Standard article was received, Dr Jessen replied,

"The response was positive. There were lots of private notes saying well done. The responses ranged from: 'This is outrageous! You're a healthcare professional, you should know better' - to - 'Well done, at least someone is talking commonsense'."

This sentiment is indicative of how the drugs debate is fielded. The view is divided and often skewed by the media's interpretation. I was curious to learn about a respected health professional's view of the media's handling of drug policy, Dr Jessen replied,

"It's very polarised, but not equally. You get the obvious, 'all drugs are bad, everything will kill you' type reaction. If one poor person dies on a night out, and it's seen that they've taken something illegal, then that was the cause of their death. If you read further, you soon discover that these poor kids haven't even gone to autopsy. That's just shoddy reporting and scaremongering."

Previously having written a piece about Mephedrone, and with an obvious interest in science, Dr Christian Jessen is quite vocal on the issue.

"Very often you get these news reports; the headline will be: 'Mephedrone causes two more deaths' - there's no evidence that that's the case at all. The irony is that we prescribe, probably, far more dangerous drugs on a daily basis than people take recreationally, but the reasons they [prohibited substances] are dangerous is owing to what our laws have done to them."

There has been a growing and keen interest in holding scientific journalism to account. Dr Ben Goldacre of Bad Science famously takes to task any pseudoscience that litters the inked pages. I was curious if Dr Jessen held a similar view.

"With the phone hacking scandal, it's possibly not a bad time to try and tighten up science and health reporting; presenting the facts, and not a skewed version. I suppose people like myself have a responsibility; when I see bad reporting, I try and correct them with facts. We all have opinions, and my articles of course are going to reflect that."

The rise of public figure support plays a vital part in drug policy reform. It's incredibly noble for the Chairman of the BAR Council to support reform, or indeed, for a Professor of Criminal Justice and the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians, but the general public doesn't seem to relate to such titles of eminence. A well liked public figure and medical professional such as Dr Jessen could explain the reformation of drug laws where other efforts have fallen short.

"It's such a tricky subject, no one is going to say: 'Take drugs, drugs are safe'. - It's all about how changing the law will make a difference, and that doesn't make for the most exciting headline.

It's naive to suggest people won't take drugs. Just because it's deemed illegal, people won't take them, that's a very silly view. My take is let's look at how we can make this as safe as possible."

From the appeals for a Royal Commission on Drugs, to the All Party Group, calls for a policy based on science and evidence have been stifled. An emphatic reply was given to me when I asked Dr Jessen if he endorsed the need for an evidence based policy,

"It's key, it's key. This is the one big area that clearly not evidence based. This is the one area where they can base policy on kneejerk reactions rather than actuality."

And are our drug laws creating an apathy for other substances and stifling the dialogue of all drug related harms?

"It's easy to say that all kids are taking Ketamine, and it's those naughty drug peddlers that are killing our kids; well actually, it's not really. More damage is done by alcohol than anything else. So yes, I do concur with that."

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Photography (c) 2009
Sue Rider Management

Recent campaigns reiterate Dr Jessen's sentiments. The marketing of alcohol is proving to have a direct significance on the consumption of drink, especially in minors. So, under reform, could we open up a lucid education of all substances?

"The obvious answer is yes, but the trouble is, it's all about informed choice. It's very difficult for schools to stick their necks out and give information about drugs that are unbiased owing to the fact, 'it's illegal, so don't take them'. What we could do is look higher up. I hope to do things like this on a bigger public scale, there are some things moving in that direction."

Dr Jessen holds great concerns over an overlooked aspect of current drug policy; 'legal highs'.

"The numbers of these so called 'designer drugs' are a direct result of our drug laws; these are only a result owing to things being illegal, and they're pouring out. Whereas MDMA for instance, we've researched it a lot and we know what we talking about."

If the law was reformed, would people seek help and treatment?

"I think they would. The whole reason that it's underground is due to the law. I certainly think that changing the law would be beneficial all round; peer group pressures would possibly rescind."

When we've seen the success of the Needle Exchange Programme, and it doesn't endorse drug use, what's preventing us from not taking the next logical step?

"I don't know, to me it's incredibly obvious and it's not a matter of huge debate, I think that's the same for a lot of other people. I suspect it's a matter of votes and Middle England who don't understand the issue and aren't prepared to look into it for themselves; they've only got their information from fairly extremist sources. It's fear through lack of knowledge.

We have examples from other countries where this has been done, it's not like we're having to stick our necks out and try something new. We're simply trying it on the back of a forward thinking country. There's plenty of evidence, fear of reform is not really justified."

Dr Jessen continued to say that a medical approach to drugs is:

"Common sense really isn't it? I find it fairly exasperating when you read some of the reaction to reform which is never based on anything other than, well, almost superstition. We need to get away from that because it's damaging.

I find it funny; there's an inability to see drugs in a similar light to prescription drugs. In America, they have massive problems with prescription drugs, but that's all legal and above board. And actually, there is no difference apart from a law. As I said; people are knocking back, probably, far more lethal drugs on a day to day basis that are prescribed by their GPs - unquestionably knocking back these drugs. Similarly, the whole, 'Why is alcohol and tobacco use legal?' - This whole issue is just full of conflictions, hypocrisy, and contradictions, and that's what I find most frustrating."

Far from endorsing a free market, reform efforts would take drugs out of the hands of criminality, and into the hands of medical professionals - simply put, they would be regulated. Dr Jessen makes a hard hitting comparison,

"Herbal medicine was a massive unregulated market. There were huge doses of funny herbs that didn't appear on the ingredients list. Finally, they've put in a regulatory body. Quite honestly, this wasn't a really a massive problem in the grand scale of things. But for some reason - on drugs - there's a blinker to common sense, and I don't know why. There's this black-hole that refuses to budge on this one."

Dr Christian Jessen concluded,

"Bring in some regulation and you can control who's making them, where they're coming from, what's going in them; the amount, and dosage of them. You can fund better research into how to stop people taking them or get people off them; you can fund better treatment programmes. The opportunities are endless. Plus, you can cut the few deaths that occur.

It's already been shown in other countries that we're not going to turn into a nation of drug takers; it didn't happen in Portugal, despite it being said that the country would be a hotspot for drug taking and tourism. We should be comforted by that."

I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing to thank Dr Christian Jessen.