Johnson should listen to advice on drugs

The Government's advisor on drugs has criticised politicians for "distorting" his research. He says alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than many illegal drugs

Professor David Nutt, the chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has reportedly criticised politicians for “distorting” and “devaluing” the research evidence in the debate over illicit drugs. He has also highlighted how alcohol and tobacco are actually more harmful than many currently illegal drugs including cannabis and ecstacy.

A ranking methodology is used to determine which drugs are most harmful and he wants this to be taken into account more when policy is being decided. Professor Nutt states:

“Alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco is ranked ninth. Cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively”

Professor Nutt got into trouble back in February as I blogged about at the time with then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith when he stated that taking ecstacy is no more dangerous than riding a horse. She demanded that he apologise despite what he said having been statistically correct and backed up by evidence.

The Sun today has chosen to reference the ecstacy and horses comment from months ago in its headline today and includes the following:

Professor Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said smoking cannabis created only a “small risk” of psychotic illness.

Professor Nutt also claimed experts who want to downgrade ecstasy from class A to B had “won the intellectual argument”.

He made his claims in a lecture and briefing paper for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College, London.

He said: “No one is suggesting that drugs are not harmful. The critical question is scale.” He attacked the “artificial” separation of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs.

The Sun then go on to quote a Conservative spokesperson and the Home Office:

Shadow Home Office Minister James Brokenshire said: “Rather than adding clarity to the debate on drug classification, his comments will add confusion.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “Professor Nutt’s views are his own.”

The problem is that this is one of the policies where the government and the opposition historically agree. They both want to be seen as “tough on drugs” and therefore appear to be rejecting Professor Nutt’s evidence based approach. The fact that they have neglected to approach any other politicians or bodies who may agree with Professor Nutt gives the impression that he is a lone and extreme voice on this issue when the truth is there are lots of people including Paul Flynn, Lord Bingham and Peter Lilley who agree with his approach.

It can only be hoped that Jacqui Smith’s replacement as Home Secretary Alan Johnson has a more measured approach to Professor Nutt’s latest comments and that he takes them on board. After all, what is the point of an advisory council if the government doesn’t listen to its advice?

8 Responses to “Johnson should listen to advice on drugs”

  1. Rory

    I’m pretty outraged but will try and keep this as measured as possible.

    What do you think we will gain as a civilisation if we continue to tolerate drug use and happily watch their use rise and rise? Do you really think it’s a good thing that children grow up in an environment where taking drugs is something that people do – and are in many cases stigmatised as ‘nerds’ if they don’t?

    It’s easy for the middle-classes to say that taking drugs is a personal choice but people who live in deprived areas don’t have any choice about their communities being infested with drug use. Please don’t give me the usual nonsense about the problems arising from drugs being due to their being illegal. A child born addicted to drugs does not have any choice and we would see more of this if drugs were made legal.

    It seems to be completely illogical that we crack down on ‘evil drug dealers’ but tolerate drug use.

  2. Alan W

    Drugs policy has been an evidence free zone for years. This is hardly surprising given that the evidence overwhelmingly shows the prohibition policies of the past 30 to 40 years to have been an unmitigated disaster, both on public health grounds and especially in terms of law and order. Full legalisation is the only policy that has a hope of rectifying the immense damage that prohibition has inflicted both here and abroad in impoverished supplier countries.

    Honestly, though, I can scarcely even be bothered to type this, since there is not the slightest chance of significant policy change happening. The debate is entirely framed by dishonest and hysterical coverage in the bulk of the popular press, where one bereaved mother trumps endless volumes of serious research. To challenge this would require politicians with real gumption. Fat chance.

  3. Mark Thompson

    Rory,

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate this is an area that people often have strong feelings about and I am grateful for your measured words. I will try and address your comments:

    “What do you think we will gain as a civilisation if we continue to tolerate drug use and happily watch their use rise and rise? Do you really think it’s a good thing that children grow up in an environment where taking drugs is something that people do – and are in many cases stigmatised as ‘nerds’ if they don’t?”

    Drug use has been rising and rising for 40 years. In 1971 when then Misuse of Drugs Act was instituted there were a few hundred heroin addicts in the UK, now there are a few hundred thousand, a thousand-fold increase. Children already grow up in an environment with taking drugs is something people do. The current laws have not stopped that. In some areas it is actually easier for children to get hold of illegal drugs than it is to get hold of alcohol. That is because as a society through our laws we have gifted control of the market to criminals who don’t care who their customers are.

    “It’s easy for the middle-classes to say that taking drugs is a personal choice but people who live in deprived areas don’t have any choice about their communities being infested with drug use. Please don’t give me the usual nonsense about the problems arising from drugs being due to their being illegal. A child born addicted to drugs does not have any choice and we would see more of this if drugs were made legal.”

    It is debatable whether we would see more of the sort of desperate and tragic scenario you outline if drugs were legalised (and regulated). Portugal decrimininalised all drugs 8 years ago and drugs use has actually gone down (See http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2009/07/24/what-can-portugals-decriminalisation-experience-teach-us/).

    You also say that the idea of many of the problems arising from drugs being caused by their illegality is nonsense but I am afraid I beg to differ. I don’t have time to go into all the detail of why I think this now but can I suggest a good and useful resource for reading about this issue is the “Transform Drugs Policy Foundation” website? I broadly agree with their analysis and aims. Their FAQ is a good place to start and covers this particular point: http://www.tdpf.org.uk/AboutUs_FAQ.htm

    “It seems to be completely illogical that we crack down on ‘evil drug dealers’ but tolerate drug use.”

    Taking drugs out of the control of criminal gangs is vital. All the “crack downs” result in is either temporarily driving the price up in the locale where the arrests are made and hence increasing crime and/or plenty more criminals are ready to step in and exploit the gap in the market. If drugs were under state control this would no longer be necessary.

  4. Tony Woolf

    What is very obvious is that the current system is not reducing drug use. So, those who want to continue down the criminalisation route need to think about what it would take to make it work to really stop or sharply reduce drug use. How about random blood tests on the whole population, with enough tests being done to give a significant risk of getting caught? Since virtually all young people take illegal drugs at least occasionally, nothing less is going to have much practical impact. I can see the Mail liking the idea: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear!
    If you don’t like extreme legal measures, just carry on the same as now. But in that case don’t pretend there is any chance of reducing drug use, let alone “winning” the drug war. Best forget about that – enjoy the highly publicised police and customs “successes” and avoid thinking about the fact that these are tiny blips in the whole supply picture.

  5. Drugs policy: more sensible analysis for politicians to ignore « Liberal Stranger

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  8. Will Straw

    Chris Huhne: Grayling is Home Secretary's "mini-me". Bad joke, even worse delivery, but he's on the right track. http://bit.ly/4hbokx

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