Professor David Nutt was, until the end of this week, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and therefore the senior government advisor on drugs policy. Yesterday, however, he was sacked by Alan Johnson for the mortal crime of telling the truth and doing his job.
Professor Nutt said, amongst other things, that cannabis carried a very low risk of psychotic illness and shouldn’t be a class B drug, and that taking ecstasy was less dangerous than riding a horse. This led to Johnson saying he had “lost confidence” in his drug advisor, seemingly for no other reason than his advice wouldn’t play well with the press.
The important point here is that Professor Nutt’s statements weren’t personal opinions but were based on scientific evidence. Given it was his job to offer scientific advice to the government it seems odd that he would be dismissed both for offering advice and subsequently voicing his concern when that advice was ignored (most prominently when cannabis was reclassified as a class B). It also casts aspersions on the role of scientists in informing public policy if evidence-based approaches are jettisoned in favour of spurious morality judgements.
As someone on the interface of academic science and politics (I am both a PPC and a research scientist who studies the interactions of molecules in the body) I find this last point particularly difficult to stomach. Who will dare to give unorthodox evidence to ministers given the precedent set of job security depending on giving the ‘right’ advice?
Hyperbole aside, the latest collision between science and politics has caused the edifice of the current drugs dogma to crumble yet further, revealing even more of the inherent contradictions contained within.
Take, for example, the fact that before the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 there were 5,000 heroin users compared to the current 300,000 (so much for the success of prohibition). Or the fact that despite treating drug addiction as a health issue, we still imprison people for possession.
Or maybe the fact that the existence of a highly lucrative black market in illicit substances supports organised crime across the globe; that the attendant production of coca and opium destabilises some of the poorest countries on the planet; or that those most likely to suffer from addiction and drugs related crime are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities.
All these points seem to be lost in the current debate; anyone who so much as suggests that we need a rethink on drugs policy is characterised as an advocate for handing out crack-pipes to school children and forcibly injecting heroin into the eyes of pensioners.
As Transform, the drugs think-tank, points out, the debate is both polarised and paralysed. Successive governments have felt the need to fight the war on drugs in spite of a reality which shows the war is unwinnable. Yet today, the tide may be turning: in recent months, Mexico and Argentina have both decriminalizsed possession: more dominos may yet tumble across the globe as government’s face up to the unenforceability of the current regime.
Back in the UK, the Labour Party was set up to defend the poor and the vulnerable yet our current drugs policy is disproportionately affecting these people both at home and abroad.
In light of the evidence I say this; as a scientist, I am not prepared to accept the denigration of my profession in the name of political expediency or the denial of basic scientific data because it is unpalatable. Furthermore, as a politician, I am not prepared to carry on being party to the needless destruction of lives and communities that the current situation is complicit in.
No, it’s time for a rethink. At the very least we need an independent Impact Assessment into the costs of prohibition against the aims of a drugs policy that purportedly seeks to maximise environmental, physical, psychological and social wellbeing here and abroad. But for such an Impact Assessment to have credibility there has to be an assurance that, whatever the message, the messenger won’t be shot. The sacking of Professor Nutt is not a step in the right direction.