Talking About Drugs

There are many things that make me angry in British politics, but I don’t think any of them make me angrier than the way that most British politicians refuse to have an intelligent conversation about drugs.

Here’s a case in point.

The Commons home affairs select committee are holding an inquiry into drugs policy. Yesterday, Professor David Nutt spoke to them. You might remember Professor Nutt. Under the last government he chaired the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. That was until late 2009 when he wrote an article in the Guardian saying that there was no scientific evidence supporting plans to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug. The then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, objected to a government scientific advisor producing scientific evidence which was at odds with government policy and sacked Professor Nutt from his post. This was followed by the resignations of many other members of the committee in protest.

Given all of that it was good to see that the current government were, at least, asking Professor Nutt for his opinions. In yesterday’s meeting Nutt stood his claim from 2009 that horse-riding is statistically more dangerous than taking ecstasy and also presented evidence that the introduction of Dutch-style coffee shops where cannabis can be bought and consume could well lead to a fall of 25% in alcohol consumption in the UK.

Once again Professor Nutt backed his theories with hard scientific evidence and once again his theories make the government very uncomfortable. The Guardian says:

Nutt’s remarks were immediately criticised by Tory MPs on the committee who said the idea that horse-riding and taking ecstasy were “morally equivalent” was irresponsible. Mario Dunn, Alan Johnson’s special adviser who was involved in the decision to sack Nutt, also observed that his remarks proved that “no responsible government would have David Nutt as a drugs adviser”.

Of course, this is completely misquoting Professor Nutt. He has never made the claim that horse-hiding and taking ecstasy are “morally equivalent” (whatever that means). He was comparing their relative levels of harm (both to the individual and to society in general) and reaching conclusions that the government didn’t want to hear.

And that’s the problem. The government – any government – likes hard scientific evidence when it backs up their policies. They are far less keen on it when it doesn’t back up their policies. In those cases governments either ignore the evidence or try to undermine it in some way. As Alan Johnson said in 2009, no government wants a scientific advisor publishing evidence that goes against government policy.

But that’s not how science works. Science is science. Scientific evidence can’t be changed to suit the whim of the current government (oh, alright, of course it can – but it shouldn’t be).

And I’m not saying for a minute that government policy has to be driven by scientific policy. I’m saying that it has to be informed by scientific policy. I’m saying that if a government doesn’t like the scientific evidence then it should have the courage to admit that rather than attacking or ignoring it.

In this current case, an honest government would say “Yes, the scientific evidence clearly says that cannabis is no more harmful (and almost certainly less harmful) than alcohol. But we don’t think that society (by which we mean the voters) would like it if we legalised cannabis or banned alcohol so we’re not going to do that”. But instead we have politicians who say “you can’t possibly say that” or “la-la-la, I can’t hear you”. And that’s a real shame. Until politicians can admit that the scientific evidence on drugs exists and is trustworthy, we can’t have a reasonable conversation on drugs policy.

Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto covers this (amongst many other things) in some detail. I highly recommend it.

Update: Oh look. A later story in the Guardian has the current Home Secretary strongly disagreeing with the current chair of the ACMD.

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