Sunday, 30 August 2009

Legal Highs – a misplaced fuss

Last night as I sat up late with a good after a night of mild revelry, a program about legal highs came on, presented by George Lamb. I must applaud him for tackling the topic in a much more comprehensive way than much of the media has recently over products such as Spice which simply denounces them as an evil legal loophole that must be closed. However, I must also berate him for presenting his work in such a biased fashion, which at times verged on condescension. Nonetheless, it was at least sufficient to hold my interest, did at least examine both sides of the argument (to some degree) and prompted a good discussion at the time. Mr Lamb even closed by trying one himself before the credits rolled so that he might add his own comment; mainly a shock at the legality of an effective product.

So, a quick bit of background: legal highs (are supposed to) do what they say on the tin. They mimic the effects of many illicit drugs but are legal. Often, they avoid scrutiny by labelling themselves as ‘not fit for human consumption’ and avoid more rigorous testing regimes that would otherwise be required. Dubious perhaps, but nonetheless effective. They fall roughly into two categories; natural and chemical. Fairly obviously, one is drawn from natural ingredients, whilst the other is lab manufactured. The latter in particular is ‘clever’; substances such as MDMA can be easily altered (as Mr Lamb pointed out) by changing only a small part of the chemical structure and is thus nearly identical in effect but no longer classed as MDMA. Herbal products either use already effective products (and perhaps distil their extracts) or combine a series of individually non-effective products to create one.

This last approach is the way with the current product of misplaced political focus – Spice. For you interest, a detailed chemical report can be found replicated in excruciating detail here (unable to re-find link, it will come!). I perused this with some interest; in essence each produce used is ineffective in isolation. What was interesting is that the ‘sample’ was found with synthetic cannabinoids sprayed onto the mix – in other words a synthetic product added that mimics the effects of THC. This sparked some controversy; the synthetic addition was not found at either the factories or in purchased product but was from a raid. Make of this what you will, I pass no comment here.

The upshot is that the produce has been found to replicate the illicit drug, cannabis by producing a similar high but whilst being readily available at high street vendors. It has not come to the attention of the media, politicians and public, and therefore the government have declared it is to be banned.

To my few cents:

Why is this product being made illegal? I must question the government in doing this. I present here just two arguments, and welcome discussion.

Criminalisation of an act implies an inherent moral wrong. I dispute that drugs are an inherent moral wrong as they fail to impact sufficiently on the rights of others to compose one. A drug can be purchased, consumed and does not impact upon the fundamental rights of others. If anyone wishes to discuss the moral stance from which I state this, feel free to contact me. I will not go into great detail here, except to say that is fails to impact upon the fundamental rights of others to pursue their own purposive action. As such, it cannot be said to be “morally wrong” by an objective standard. So why criminalise this particular drug? Why criminalise any? What is the moral harm of drug taking (and I stress moral)? Personal physical harm is often cited as a rebuttal; in that case I can name half a dozen legal substances not the subject of contention that should be outlawed. I talk here of inherent moral harm. Further, drug taking culture has become normalised (again for a further discussion, email me and I will provide you with plenty of sources to peruse at your leisure). Criminalisation therefore fails to be morally contentious or even socially unacceptable.

So the drugs (and in particular cannabinoids with relation to the final part) fail wholesale to fit the criteria for being criminalised.

So to my next point:

The reason that this substance is being criminalised is being cited as the fact that it is more potent than THC, and the long-term effects are unknown. It is a largely unregulated market. Well, let us consider why it is unregulated. Plain and simple; it intends to recreate illicit substances through loopholes, and as such exploits the path of least resistance to avoid scrutiny and tight control. The market is therefore full or a range of unpredictable products, over which individuals only gain experience by learning drug culture from others; drug taking culture is a learned sub-culture. The same is true of illicit drugs because they are subject to similar non-regulation, but at the hands of dealers rather than legitimate business enterprise. What this means is that legal drugs can be as problematic for users as illicit drugs; the strength, products, and effects can vary from purchase to purchase. This can pose a risk to users as they cannot accurately gauge intake. With legal highs this is compounded as once a product become the subject of media attention it may be banned, and is quickly replaced by a similar but not identical product. One could claim, with a reputable/frequently used dealer of illicit substances, they may at least sell you the same purity each time to maintain reputation. A shop vendor has no such interest.

So the effects of making it illicit? It will be replaced. Another new legal high will take its place, and cause more experimentation to find its effects. Check out any legal high forum to see that this has become an integral part of the process. I actually find it heartening that people are willing to post their own experiences of a product publically whether good or bad.

So let us finally consider the physical/mental harm of the drug, or rather the lack of proper studies into it. Drugs are not controlled. This is their ‘danger’, although frankly if people want to take them, then I feel that should be their right. Alcohol by comparison is very tightly controlled – I am probably not drinking a mixture of tyres and dogs. Surely the answer then is decriminalisation (note, not necessarily legalisation), as tried with great effect in Amsterdam with many substances. This allows for much tighter control of the product – you know what you get. We would then have a regulated market. You could purchase a packet of product Y and know what is in it, its effects, strength, and importantly that it would be of a minimum standard. The result; lesser harm. Surely this is more justifiable.

If the government want to control these legal highs, the answer is simple. Regulate the market. Criminalisation is ineffective, counter-intuitive and draconian. There is no inherent moral harm. Physical effects can be mediated by better regulation, not criminalisation. Look for instance to Portugal.

There is too much fuss being made in the wrong quarter. And frankly, I am appalled.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Pupillage Portal; reflections of an applicant scorned

The Hellgate Season has drawn to a close. I am left without pupillage, along with many of the great and the good who deserve one more than myself. Given my own blundering steps through the event horizon to the World Beyond, I thought I would post my own musings on the subject, so that others may laugh, cry, or perhaps find something useful from my own foray into the labyrinthine process. I have posted here a few choice words on my experiences, and what I have learnt from the whole debacle. I shall split this post into several pieces, as I fear it will once again become longer than your patience.

Part 1: The Battle of Application Hill

1) Choosing the Chambers
of Dreams

Do not, as I did, underestimate the horrors of the Hellgate application. Unaware of the gargantuan effort involved, I decided to set aside a few days of my Easter vacation to tackle the beasts that came through the Gate.

How naïve I was.

The battle drained my entire vacation before I was even close to satisfied with my applications, leaving my university work out in the cold. 12 chambers need to be distilled from a gargantuan list. This alone took me some considerable time. I resorted to making myself a list of key things which I looked for so that I might more quickly sort the wheat from the chaff (in terms of personal choice). On top of that was to whittle the list down to reflect my own level of ability, compared to current tenants. In short, kind readers, this process took much longer than I had ever anticipated.

As an MA student with much on my plate, I am sure you will appreciate the consternation this caused. Therefore, if any budding 3rd years or pre-BVC students read these words before attempting their first foray into battle, be warned; it takes a bloody long time even to get this far. Research thoroughly. Extremely so. Check chambers and partners. Search for them in the news. Examine the whole website with excruciating detail. Do not, on any account, scrimp on this portion. Even having spent many hours on this, I still subsequently made a few choice mistakes that I only discovered later. One I must admit was in my favour, and did me no harm for I made it to interview. The others however were less forgiving. You must demonstrate you knowledge in your Hellgate applications; and not necessarily overtly. Tailor your application to the qualities that are looked for, when Chambers are kind enough to post them.

2) Scribing you applications

Do not, as I did, underestimate the herculean effort this requires. Whilst a few key questions will remain largely untouched from chambers to chambers, a great many will not. This means that you must create unique answers, tailored to each Chamber of Dreams.

To illustrate; a peer of mine, with good academic qualities and similar extra-curricular activities hurried her applications having underestimated the time involved. Knocking out the bulk in just a day, she sent of her applications. She did not receive any interview invites.

I often felt like Sisyphus, toiling away to no avail day after day. I was however rewarded for my efforts in at least getting to interview... even if unsuccessfully. Here to illustrate, is a cat.

There are plenty of places offering sage advice on this topic. Check out the wise words over at Simon Myerson’s excellent blog. Read the TargetLaw information. Pick up a copy of The Path to Pupillage. Speak to your careers advisors. Do not underestimate the help that can be gleaned from these sources; they probably are the reason I even got a foot in the interview door. You need not go it alone; many will be available to help you, and I urge you not to neglect them. My applications were saved from the instant trip to the shredder by just having them checked for errors after I had stopped being able to read them properly myself.

3) Fighting the Hydra of Submissions

I urge any readers who have yet to face their first battle to learn for the war worn; start early. Very early. Start now. Go on, stop reading this and go and do something useful for once! Hellgate WILL break. It will leave you wounded, stranded, and screaming with frustration. On occasion it would have been faster to etch my applications in my own blood and send it by carrier snail. So my advice, kind readers, is to begin as early as you can. Do not think you can be submitting up to the deadline, for you cannot. The goalposts will not only move, they will get up and run the fuck away, before entrenching themselves in a bunker and grabbing the M60. Suddenly your plastic sword of last minute preparation will look at lot less useful. I learnt the hard way. Do not make the same mistakes that I did.

Next time: The Massacre at Interview Ridge

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The shape of things to come...

Apologies for the somewhat whimsical post...the format of this foray into blawgging is still under some flux. I do intend to cover some more hard-edged legal topics once I begin the BVC, and already have some in mind.

I am beginning to feel some excitement at the thought of the upcoming start of the BVC. After 4 long years of purely academic work, it will be nice to do something that feels practical. This year has been the closet I have come to doing work that seems like it has a practical purpose, and has strayed away from purely theory. Undertaking a dissertation involving research with the public, and with the possibility of creating some actual change has felt extremely rewarding. Or it will, when the damn thing is finally finished.

The prospect of my new life is also exciting, if leaving me thinking of what I will leave behind. Strolling home last week as the sun came up (yes, I am a dirty stop-out) with the dulcet tones of Frightened Rabbit ringing in my ears, I was reminded why I am so enamoured with this city, and with my life here. Many of my peers will not be leaving here, and others left only to come back. I can see why. Had I not firmly decided that The Big City was my destination of choice, I doubt I would leave here either. I am convinced that had I stayed but one more year, I too would be here for good.

However, I am always one for an adventure. Shrugging off the shackles of my ties to this place, and moving down south holds great excitement for me. With somewhere to live now secured, and with all that the next year will hold looming tantalisingly in front of me, I am certainly looking forward to moving on.Even if it is with a slight backwards glance as I go.

If it all goes wrong? I will still have had a bloody good time getting there.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Death by....Prezi?

I have a pet hate for death by powerpoint. I have sat through many an agonising lecture, wishing only to fine a new and original way to combine the lecturer with the intricate and highly electrical components. Lecturing is a difficult thing to master, and I have seen those whose presentations have ranged from excellent to appalling. My pet hate is to be read to, from overwordy slides. I had one truly awful experience. An hour and a half of a very technical presentation on Data Protection Act 1998. The projected image was tiny, and the lecturer had decided that the best colours were black background and purple writing. Small writing.

I did not learn a great deal, and my teeth are noticeably less efficient.

Faced then with the unenviable task of creating a detailed presentation on the content of my dissertation research, I racked my brains as to how to create something that did not befall many of the traps. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, I have always had some skill at creating presentations that are not too onerous, and the laid back conversational style in which present has been commented on positively by several lecturers. However, the complex nature and depth of my dissertation topic is far beyond anything I have had to create before.

I am a fan of Pecha Kucha as an idea. I think the skill in which these presentations are delivered is admirable, and teaches some of the best qualities when designing presentations. Having been forced to create a plethora of presentations, I have tried to adhere to this format as closely as I can. I would actually relish if this kind of skill were taught as part of undergraduate basic skills, as an ability to present is important in all walks of life. It teaches the ability to condense information orally, which is often sorely lacking from undergraduate seminars - but more on that another time. Unfortunately, the presentation I must give is for a much greater period of time and need be in much more depth than would allow me to use this format.

How then am I to present a complex piece of research?

As a fan of all things techy, I accidentally stumbled across Prezi some while ago.This website is a free zooming presentation creator and viewer, and even allows the option of downloading the website as a flash file. Rather than the one-slide-at-a-time principle with which many will be familiar, Prezi allows much greater freedom. Imagine if you will, a format more akin to a mind map which you can zoom in and out at will, create a non-linear path of focal points and embed video, images and various other files. Having played for just a few minutes it became clear that this was the answer to my problem. The presentation I have created is by far the best I have ever buckled together. It does take more time than sticking a few bullets on a powerpoint, and is sometimes fiddly to get right. There are many tools frustratingly lacking that would enhance the creator more, and some presentations are perhaps not so suited to the format.

However, for something free it is fantastic. Even the wordy series of interrelated topics I have to cover can be given some sense of overall structure in this format. The non-linear zoomable structure is brilliant. So simple, yet so appealing. Of course, if one were to think of Prezi as just powerpoint in flash, then Death by Prezi would certainly be possible. It requires that people do that most difficult of things; think outside the box and years of using powerpoint.

Prezi has another convert. If anyone has checked out the excellent post over on Law Actually titled The Open Source Lawyer and is looking for more weapons in the open source armoury, then I would recommend this one highly.

Death by powerpoint may have met it's end.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Planning for the void

Well, I did not get the Blessed Pupillage. My foray through HellGate has left me bloodied, battered and bruised; or at least, my ego.

I am at least chuffed that I got through to a second round interview, given that I had been roundly prepared for a flat rejection. Whilst I had thought the interview had gone swimmingly, it apparently did not. I actually left with a smile on my face, thinking that I had made only one blunder, but that I had recovered with an impressive piece of information that had the Daemon Masters smiling and looking genuinely interested . Ihave again cme to the conclusion that:

Post Interview Confidence = Fail

I have asked for feedback, and can only hope that I receive something that gives me a better shot next year. As stoic as I tried to be, I was still rather crushed by the ultimate rejection.

So, I have two realities to face.

Firstly - my plate is looking rather full. With my battle against HellGate so time consuming (what with the dawn raids, midnight guerilla expeditions, and pillaging) my Dissertation has fallen somewhat behind. Not only that, but I am faced with remarkably little time to move into my new accommodation before I commence being a Lifer at BPP. With a new deadline dropped firmly into my briefly snoozing lap this afternoon, my time is a little pressured.

Secondly - The Void. Given then almost all sets recruit a year ahead, I will have an entire year (or more) to fill after the end of the BVC. In an attempt to be positive, I have made a list of the things this will give me the opportunity to accomplish. Of course, the list is long, unrealistic and will probably be completely untouched in two years time. However, hope can be no bad thing.

With that in mind, I feel I should return to battling my Dissertation, before my Supervisor grabs the whip from his closet and comes knocking.

Onward and upward


P.S. I am now thoroughly bloody annoyed. The chambers to which I was invited to final interview have refused to give feedback. Of course, this I would understand in the large first round. However, at second round I think it is a farce to refuse. How are individuals supposed to improve? I think this may be the topic of a forthcoming post.