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 theĀ 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.


MPs and Facts

When an MP is in a discussion and mentions a fact to back up their argument, it would be nice if you knew that you could trust that fact. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. To pick an example at random, here’s Nadine Dorries from last week’s Any Questions (the link will work for a few more days and Dorries starts this speech at about 41 mins):

The National Drugs Prevention Alliance once startled me when they told me that the cut of cannabis which teenagers are smoking now and using across the UK is actually fifty times more potent than it was even a year ago.

That sounded astonishing to me. In fact, it sounded extremely unlikely. So I decided to investigate a little further.

I found the NDPA’s web site and emailed them to ask for references to back up this claim. Very quickly, I got a reply from their Political Affairs Director, David Raynes. He advised me to listen to the edition of Any Answers which discussed the issues from that edition of Any Questions (again the link will only work for a few more days). At about 27 minutes in, David Raynes phones in to say this:

I asked to come on the programme, basically, to correct the figures that came from Nadine Dorries about cannabis. She was absolutely correct that it’s stronger than years ago, but we don’t agree exactly with her figures and it’s a long time since we gave her a briefing. Typically, modern cannabis is about three to four times stronger than the strongest cannabis of the sixties.

The NDPA is an organisation who campaign strongly for the continued criminalisation of drugs. They are a group who totally support Dorries’ stance on drugs. But even they couldn’t stomach the distortion of their message which she put forward and felt they had to speak up and distance themselves from her.

Of course people make mistakes in the heat of a discussion – and that becomes more likely if the discussion is live in a radio studio. But any reasonable person who realises that they have made a mistake like that would surely post a clarification and an apology on their blog. In Dorries’ case, I very much doubt that will happen.

Don’t you wish you could trust MPs?


Good Drugs vs Bad Drugs

There’s been a lot of talk about drugs over the last few days. Most of the commentary has been of the usual desultory level. It’s almost as though people don’t want to have a serious and focussed debate on the dangers of drugs.

There are two facts in particular that almost never get mentioned. And I don’t think that you can have a full and honest discussion on the subject without addressing these points.

Firstly, a drug is just a drug. The Daily Mail commentariat would like you to believe that there are three types of drugs. There are the medical drugs which do good things and make you better when you’re ill. There are the socially acceptable recreational drugs like nicotine and alcohol which everyone knows are bad for you but, hey, everyone has to relax once in a while, right? Then there are the evil drugs which are rightly illegal and are largely responsible for the downfall of society. This distinction is, of course, completely artificial. There is no real difference between the drugs in the three groups. In fact there’s often a large cross-over between the groups – particularly between medical drugs and the evil drugs. The difference is often in the dosage.

The fact that alcohol and nicotine are legal whilst cannabis and cocaine aren’t is simply a historical accident. The laws concerning the legality of these drugs have been passed in a piecemeal manner over the last hundred years or so. There is no logic behind it. If nicotine or alcohol (or even caffeine) were to be discovered today, do you really think there’s any chance that they would be certified as safe for mass consumption? It works the other way too. New drugs often take some time to make it onto the list of proscribed substances and are therefore completely legal whilst the legislation is being worked out. LSD wasn’t illegal in the UK until 1971.

So there’s no way that you can argue that any illegal drug is a “bad drug” and that any legal drug is a “good drug”. The British drug laws simply don’t have that level of cohesion.

Secondly, there’s the argument that a huge proportion of crime is related to drugs use. I’m not going to argue against that (although I think that these figures are often inflated conveniently) but I’m going to point out that a lot of the crime around illegal drugs use is down to the fact that illegal drugs are… well… illegal.

And I don’t mean that if you legalise drugs then you’ll instantly do away with a large amount of illegal activity. That’s true, but it’s a rather obvious argument. I wanted to dig a little deeper in a few areas.

Firstly there’s this idea that drugs like cannabis are “gateway drugs”. That is that once you’re smoking cannabis, you will inexorably be drawn into harder drugs. People expounding this view seem to imply that there’s some kind of magical chemical link that draws people from cannabis to heroin but they can never explain what that is or why the same thing isn’t true of alcohol. To my mind, it’s obvious. People move from cannabis to heroin[1] because the person selling them cannabis really wants to sell them heroin. In general harder drugs are more addictive and more profitable for the dealer so it’s not surprising that some of them will try to up-sell. If you broke that link between the users and the dealers (by, for example, selling cannabis in the same places as tobacco) then cannabis would no longer be a “gateway drug”.

Secondly, a lot of the medical dangers from using illegal drugs come from the methods that dealers use to dilute the drugs. All sorts of nasty things are added to a supply in order to make it go further. A legal and controlled source of drugs would remove a lot of this danger.

And finally there’s the idea that a lot of theft is carried out in order to fund drugs habits; I don’t think legalising drugs would completely solve this problem, but I believe that a legalised and well-controlled drugs industry would lead to lower prices of drugs which could potentially lead to a drop in drugs-related theft.

Nothing I’ve written above should be taken as an argument for legalising drugs. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is that these are points that need to be brought into any reasonable discussion of drugs policy. They are the kind of points that a reasonable government would expect to hear from a reasonable drugs advisor. They are the kinds of points that a reasonable newspaper columnist would raise in an article on the subject.

But they seem to be the kinds of points that seem to be completely frozen out of the discussion whenever I see public debate of drugs policy.

I wonder why that is?

[1] Of course only a tiny proportion of cannabis users actually make this journey.


He Blinded Me With Science

The story so far:

In January 2004, in an astonishing display of common sense the government downgraded cannabis to a class C drug. This didn’t play well in the shires and in January 2009 it was reclassified as Class B. Last week, Professor David Nutt, head of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said what every rational person knows – that the reclassification was a political decision which completely ignored the scientific evidence. He was sacked by the Home Secretary. Over the weekend two other members of the council resigned in protest.

This has lead to a lot of discussion of the relationship between scientific evidence and government policy. Today the Daily Mail (who else?) published one of the most ill-informed articles on the subject that it would be possible to write. It’s written by that most highly respected of science writers, A N Wilson. In the future, this article will no doubt be used as the basis of introductory level courses on the philosophy of science where students will compete to find the largest number of logical fallacies in the piece.

Let’s pick off some of the easier targets.

But [Professor Nutt] was not content simply to give advice, of course. What he appeared to want to do was to dictate to the Government, and when it refused to acknowledge his infallibility, Professor Nutt started to break ranks and to denounce the country’s law on drugs.

That’s putting a more than slightly biased slant on events, of course. Professor Nutt was employed for his expertise on drugs. He can’t be expected to change his opinions to fit in with government policy. Science doesn’t work like that.

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

Oh no! Those troublesome scientists with their “unimaginative” empirical facts. If only they had a bit more imagination so that they could make up facts that better fitted the policies that the government want to implement.

Try saying that ecstasy is safe in the sink estates of our big cities, where police, social workers and teachers work to improve the lives of young people at the bottom of the heap.

Ah, yes. But nowhere has Professor Nutt suggested that ecstasy is safe. He is saying that it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. That doesn’t mean it’s safe. This is a blatant misrepresentation of his views.

If you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who’ve died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill – and you could conclude from this that smoking and drinking are more dangerous than ecstasy.

Well, yes. No-one is likely to disagree with this. But saying this in the middle of the article strongly implies that this is how Professor Nutt and his colleagues reached their conclusions. And that, of course, won’t be the case at all. This shows, at least, a terrible lack of knowledge of the scientific method or, perhaps, a shameful attempt to misrepresent the amount of work that will have gone into Professor Nutt’s research.

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Ok, now we’re really on dodgy ground. This is getting dangerously close to saying that all scientists are one experiment away from becoming Dr. Mengele. It’s like Wilson has never heard of Godwin’s Law. Originally, the online version of this article had a picture of Hitler next to these paragraphs. This has been removed in the last hour or so.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Mail is sending out mixed messages here. Surely a comparison to the Nazis is showing some kind of grudging respect to the scientists.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Isn’t it astonishing that the Mail is still banging on about this? Wakefield was wrong. And his deeply flawed study would had been given no publicity at all if it wasn’t for papers like the Mail jumping on the bandwagon without doing the smallest amount of research on the story.

And to every one who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

See? That’s Wilson’s idea of a scientific experiment. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He needs (in fact most journalists who write about science in the popular press need) a course in the scientific method and basic statistics. It should be law that you can’t write about science until you’ve read and understood Bad Science.

I’m glad to see that Wilson is getting pulled apart in the comments. But people reading the paper won’t see the comments. The Mail needs to publish a retraction. And Wilson needs to be stopped from writing about things he knows nothing about.


Decriminalising Cannabis

Last week the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced that cannabis we be downgraded to a class C drug in the UK’s legal classification of drugs. The effect of this change will be that possession of small amounts of cannabis will be effectively decriminalised. This follows an experiment along these lines in Lambeth over recent months.

The Daily Mail dislikes this decision a lot and every front page since the announcement has had a story saying how terrible this is and campaigning against this policy.

The problem is that, much as I hate to admit it, on this occasion the Mail may well be right. Let’s look at the evidence…

I go to Brixton occasionally and to other areas of Lambeth more frequently. Recently walking out of Brixton tube station has become a nightmare. You have to push thru crowds of people trying to sell you all kinds of drugs. On Saturday night, just outside Clapham North tube station I was offered drugs by a group of teenagers who got a bit unfriendly when I didn’t buy anything. This kind of behaviour has become much worse since the drugs laws were loosened in the area.

Unfortunately it seems as tho’ decriminalisation will lead to more of this unpleasantness. If the drugs were completely illegal (as there were until recently) then this kind of activity does go on, but it’s far more low key. You don’t come across it as you’re just walking down a main street. You have to know exactly where to go to be offered drugs on the street. On the other hand, if the drugs were made completely legal, then you would buy packets of joints from the newsagents and there would be no reason for pushy drugs sales-people on the street corner.

It’s only this current “halfway house” that seems to give us the worst of all possible results. I wonder if it’s a deliberate ploy by the government to seem as tho’ they’re being liberal, whilst all the time knowing that the experiment will fail and they’ll be forced to withdraw it.