Feed Rss

Jun 05 2015

At the collision between reality and policy

Category: The Law Author:

The recently-elected Conservative government has been seeing some well-deserved criticism of its naïve plan to do an end-run around the ‘legal highs’ arms race by simply banning the lot of them. Their new legislation will:

Make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.

There are several good reasons why this simplistic strategy falls firmly in the ‘if it was that easy we’d have already done it’ category.

Firstly, there is a not insignificant and growing list of products that may be unintentionally banned by the law, including but not limited to flowers, deodorants, and glue. The legislation already exempts commonly-used psychoactive such as tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine, and it seems probable that this whitelist will have to be expanded to cover many other unexpected items. But once you start whitelisting anything psychoactive that shouldn’t be banned, you quickly find that instead of constantly maintaining and updating a blacklist of forbidden drugs, you’re instead maintaining and updating a whitelist of permitted consumer products. This seems like a pyrrhic victory at best, and a chilling reversal of the ‘Everything not forbidden is allowed‘ principle of law at worst.

Secondly, there is no simple or objective measure of the degree of psychoactivity of a particular substance. As pointed out by the Guardian, almost any item or experience is capable of producing an altered state of consciousness or mood. You can take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and argue that perception by definition requires the alteration of your mental state in order to see or hear, and it’s tough to mark out a point between that and a full LSD trip that everybody can agree is weird enough to count as ‘properly’ psychoactive.

Ultimately, the problem is that banning psychoactive substances on the basis of their psychoactive nature is a totally illogical pursuit, and this legislation makes that fact crystal clear. One can almost imagine the frustrated Conservative response to the Independent article; “Well, obviously we don’t intend to ban those items! Just the drugs — all the bad psychoactives!” What they seek to eliminate, essentially, is not a class of product but a class of mental state, and this approach forces them to make a clear, legal distinction between acceptable states and unacceptable mental states.

The silver lining, perhaps, is that with legal highs no longer available, people will naturally gravitate back to the tried-and-tested drugs legal highs are designed to imitate — which have already been shown to be less harmful that the legal highs of alcohol and tobacco in almost every instance. Perhaps Cameron should have stuck to his original plan and saved himself a lot of bother.

Tags: , ,

Apr 16 2014

Jenny McCarthy tries to scrub off the stink of ‘anti-vax’

Category: Science and skepticism Author:

I’m heartened to read about Jenny McCarthy trying to claim she actually isn’t anti-vaccination. Not because her views have changed in response to overwhelming evidence – of course they haven’t – but because it means she’s aware that she’s being labelled as anti-vax and that it’s a bad thing. As a person whose loudly uninformed views have contributed to actual harm in the return of diseases such as whooping cough and measles in the US and around the world, she is more than deserving of the slur.

I’m always in favour of people who spread harmful misinformation being made aware of how they are regarded by the people trying to undo their damage.

Continue reading “Jenny McCarthy tries to scrub off the stink of ‘anti-vax’” »

Tags: , , , , ,

Apr 10 2014

Are you aware of homeopathy? It’s a good time to start!

Category: Science and skepticism Author:

If you weren’t already aware of homeopathy, then congratulations! There’s no better time to learn all about this ridiculous scam.

The inimitable Science-Based Medicine has an excellent and detailed primer on homeopathy; however, you don’t need to read the entire thing to understand the three main points:

  1. It’s literally just water

Continue reading “Are you aware of homeopathy? It’s a good time to start!” »

Tags: , , , ,

Apr 04 2014

I’m a terrorist! Are you?

Category: The Law Author:

At last – all the mystique and danger of being an international terrorist, without having to get my hands dirty mucking about with bombs or mass murder. I need to update my business cards.

From The Independent:

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said: “Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.

As usual, this abhorrent attitude comes with nebulous language claiming that it’s for the preservation of all-important societal norms.

From Human Rights Watch:

Article 8: “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”

Inevitably, any hate-based legislation or justification seems to include something to the effect of ‘traditional values’ or the ‘fabric of society’ which are supposedly under threat (e.g. Russia’s recent LGBT propaganda law which included the phrase “distorted ideas about the equal social value of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships”).

When your ‘values’ require threats and hate to keep them going, it’s a good bet that they need retiring.

Tags: , , , ,

Jun 28 2012

Full moon at the asylum: Reactions to the PPACA decision

Category: Politics,The Law Author:

Early this morning the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling on the controversial PPACA bill (often referred to as ‘ObamaCare’) that has been the subject of much rhetoric and what passes for ‘debate’. In short, they voted to uphold the entire bill – and the reactions by some on the right are a worthy example of how an utter disconnect from reality has become standard for a substantial amount of political discourse.

I’ll pause briefly to interject my own opinion on the bill; I (as, I suspect, many people from a country with a functioning universal healthcare (UHC) system) find it perplexing and disappointing that America has once again decided to be obstinately different and overly-complicated in its approach to social policy that has frankly been settled for decades everywhere else. Instead of expanding the already extant (and almost universally loved) Medicare program to cover all Americans, the new bill instead further entrenches the dominance of private health insurance by requiring almost all Americans to purchase it, or else be subject to a tax increase. America with PPACA is better off with it than without it, but only because the situation so far has been embarrassingly terrible. The USA finally has healthcare for all, but in a makeshift, capitalistic, awkward sort of way. And even then only barely.

Continue reading “Full moon at the asylum: Reactions to the PPACA decision” »

Tags: , , , , ,

Apr 03 2012

It’s past time to reclassify data service

Category: Technology Author:

An article from the Wall Street Journal reconfirms what most people already know – the data plans offered by US carriers are completely out of touch with modern usage and are becoming comically inadequate. At what point will it become clear to these companies that data, like water or electricity service, is a utility and must be billed accordingly for any further progress in the industry?

If it wasn’t already clear, the incoming adoption of LTE should (one hopes) make it abundantly obvious to everybody that overly restrictive metering is going to have to go for the full potential of these technologies to be realised.

Tags: , , ,

Mar 21 2012

Afghan shooting as a simple litmus test of media credibility

Category: Bad News Author:

On the night of March 11, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked out of the Kandahar Army base in which he was stationed and (allegedly) murdered 16 civilians – nine children, four men and three women. Mostly children. While I’d like to say that the Western media’s approach to covering this gruesome saga is surprising, it’s sadly merely enlightening in serving as a crude litmus test of journalism. Which organisations approached the issue with a view to making sense of what happened and why; and which ones approached it with a view to making excuses for Bales’ behaviour so as to engender sympathy for him and avoid losing support for our occupation? Let’s find out.

Continue reading “Afghan shooting as a simple litmus test of media credibility” »

Tags: , , , , ,

Apr 16 2010


As you’ve probably already heard, the British Chiropractic Association has dropped its court case against Simon Singh following the overturning on appeal of the previous ruling against him, marking the end of an expensive and mostly pointless legal battle. Mostly pointless, because it has at least served to focus national attention on Britain’s hideously illiberal and outdated libel laws; it was only earlier this week at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub that MPs from all three major parties were present to pledge their support for libel reform.

The battle is over, though the war continues. And thanks to the BCA’s poorly-considered legal action, the smart money is on our side.

Tags: ,

Nov 04 2009

Keep your pesky science out of our policy

Category: Politics,The Law Author:

The laughable state of drug laws in the UK has been getting some play recently, with the news that Prof. David Nutt has been sacked for daring to intimate that perhaps placing cannabis in the same broad category as amphetamine and codeine is somewhat unreasonable. Understandably, his colleagues have begun resigning in a show of solidarity; most people don’t take kindly to bluntly being told their job is a sham and that they are required to act merely as yes-men.

It’s rather perplexing to witness the government admitting so openly that they 1) create and enforce policy based on nothing more than gut instincts and uninformed opinions, and 2) are in possession of instincts and opinions in direct contradiction to considered scientific evidence. And moreover, that they are so invested in these assertions that they must engage in peculiar twists of argument in order to keep them propped up against all the evidence, rather than graciously acknowledge the results and change policy accordingly. The result, our misinformation-based antidrug laws and propaganda seem to me to be taking on characteristics all too similar to rituals and traditions based on fear and legends instead of any rational base.

Prof. Nutt has written an interesting response in the Guardian, which highlights not only the massively overstated risk from cannabis, but also the incredibly biased way in which drugs are reported in the media. We’ve had the evidence of cannabis’ low-risk status for a couple of years now; I remember when the BBC first reported on Nutt’s Lancet paper in 2007 with its telling graph ranking drugs by actual harm rather than popular opinion.

I’m optimistic, however; more and more people are taking cannabis and discovering for themselves how absurd the tales spun by the government are, and I believe the pro-science angle this story has been given reflects on a population mature enough to being seriously reconsidering the rationale for keeping it illegal. America is ahead of the game on this one – the town of Breckenridge in Colorado recently voted to decriminalise cannabis; although a largely token gesture due to its illegality at a state level, it’s a posture that is gaining traction across the US.

Tags: , , ,

Aug 20 2009

Five News breaks the law on air

Category: Bad News,The Law Author:

I just happened to stumble on a report being broadcast on Five News in which they discussed the leak of the latest pop ditty by Justin Timberlake and Leona Lewis (and the hilariously futile attempts by the IFPI to remove the file from the internet). Towards the end of the segment, the reporter remarked “Now, we’ve just downloaded a copy of the song”, put in some headphones, and continued, “Yes, that certainly sounds like them”.

Now pardon me for my naïveté, but I was not aware that broadcasting an illegal activity (and commenting on how trivial it is to commit) grants an immunity from the law. Of course, as he mentioned, they weren’t allowed to broadcast the song on-air, presumably as they’d be breaking the law, or encouraging others to do so. Er…

Tags: , ,