I realise I’m now a little behind the curve on this story, this has been sitting in my drafts for a while.
The government recently sacked Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) after he spoke out on the scientific evidence on the relative harm of illegal drugs like cannabis and ecstasy compared with legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco.
He’s previously been criticised in the press for an examination of the public view of risk of two activities, taking ecstasy and horse-riding (which he calls, for hilarious effect, “equasy”). The public reaction made him sound like he was making an insane comparison, but his argument is well backed up by the evidence. Don’t take my word for it though, you can read his actual paper (don’t worry, it’s not very long!) here.
This time round, Nutt made the not-unreasonable point that looking at the actual harm done, alcohol and tobacco are worse than ectasy, LSD and cannabis, so our current policy at looks at best somewhat hypocritical.
This view, like his view on equasy, is based upon a synthesis of the available scientific evidence, not opinion or political whim. However according though to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, this isn’t a dry statement of the facts, but instead consitutues an attack on the Government’s policy on drugs, an act incompatible with his position as a Government advisor; this seems to me to be a statement of an implicit definition: a Government advisor is only someone who adds an air of authority to whatever it is the Government wants them to say.
This is a ridiculous attack on intellectual and academic freedom, evidence-based policy, and indeed upon science itself. The Government has decided that objective evidence has no place in public policy; they are concerned only with receiving a “scientific” rubber-stamp on what they think will play the best with voters and the tabloid press.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that a hypocritcal notion of moral certainty has long dominated public drug policy; we are lead to believe that it is somehow intrinsically morally wrong to consume illegal drugs. I would say that it is more plainly obvious that the social harm we are told is caused by drugs is in fact caused more by the prohibition of drugs than it is by the effects of the drugs themselves.
Prohibition forces supply and manufacture into the hands of organised criminals who make vast profits delivering sub-standard goods. Look at the example of American prohibition of alchohol, which did nothing but embolden and enrich the gangsters and the Mafia, not to mention compounding the problem of alcoholism by resistricting the availability of weaker drinks like beer and wine in favour of the more easily transportable and strong spirits.
Likewise the prohibition of drugs encourages more powerful drug variants like skunk cannabis and crack cocaine and encourages dealers to cut their products with additives to make the same product go further. The vastly inflated prices encourage crime and enrich criminals, and the underground nature of the whole business discourages addicts from seeking help.
Legalised drugs could be taxed and regulated, like we do with cigarettes and alcohol today, which would bring in a revenue stream that could be reinvested in tackling addiction and the health consequences of drugs. It would ensure that drugs are clean and free of dangerous impurities. It would prevent people being tempted to try stronger drugs like crack or heroin by corrupt dealers offering a free hit to get people hooked.
It would certainly be an infinitely saner and more evidence-based policy than the one dominated by hypocritical moralising we have today. Alas, no politician can ever been seen to be “soft on drugs” so our current failing policy will remain.