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November 30, 2009 -- Student Direct: Mancunion (UK Edu)

The Scandal Of Nuttgate

By Andi Sidwell

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Professor David Nutt's high-profile sacking has prompted two things not before seen: in almost every news source, there is now a debate about how facts and public policy interact, as well as a healthy amount of truth relating to the relative harms of drugs.

If you have escaped Nuttgate, then let me give you a quick rundown of what's happened. The Government is mandated by law to keep an advisory council to evaluate the relative dangers of drug use and to make recommendations on drug law. The former chair of this committee, Professor David Nutt, is a respected scientist and has a tendency to give talks and write papers related to his area of expertise, as academics like to.

It was the publishing of a paper version of his talk on the relation between public policy and the harms of drug-taking that sparked his forced resignation. It goes into some depth, explaining why the principle behind decision to move cannabis to class B from class C was faulty, as well as calling on the government for to gather more evidence on what drug laws actually achieve.

It mentions in passing, amongst other things, the low risk of psychotic mental illness that cannabis poses and the poor quality of research on drug harms.

Our government's response? "I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy," wrote our Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

Which raises the important question, seized upon by journalists and columnists the land over: why isn't the government policy in line with scientific advice?

Scientific evidence, of course, is just a fancy way of saying 'facts', so in effect our Home Secretary is saying: facts undermine the government's message on drugs. We don't like them; don't talk about them or you'll get fired.

Our Government seems to think that the facts of the case can be changed if they don't fit their preferred narrative, but they can't. However much Alan Johnson hates people saying that horse riding is more dangerous than Ecstasy, it does appear to be true. LSD may also be harmful to some users but it is massively less harmful, on average, than most other drugs.

The reason given for not making use of these facts when changing the law is because 'it sends out the wrong message'. This is because there is a belief that the class a drug makes a difference to its use on the streets. Now, that might be true and it might be good enough a reason to ignore other evidence.

Oddly, though, the government has never so much as tried to work out if it is true. I would hazard a guess that they're not particularly interested in that research, either, and it makes a mockery of any commitment to the use of science.

For the record, there are a bunch of ways you might try to test that theory. One is to change the class of a drug and poll users asking if their use has increased or decreased. Or simply look at drug use statistics and how they correlate with changes in class. Or look at police wholesale seizure levels of drugs nationwide and see if they change significantly. That the government has tried none of these cuts to the heart of the debate: why doesn't the government care about evidence?

The answer, of course, is pretty simple. Drug policy is currently based on a misguided sense of moralism; the idea that we can ignore facts because we need to be protecting ourselves from the moral decline of society. That should change.

And if you're interested in moving that change along and don't mind a shameless plug, look out for events run by Manchester's Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who are working hard to raise awareness of the failings of our current drug laws and campaigning for a fairer and evidence-based policy.

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