IF THERE is one thing that politicians can and should do to limit the damage caused by illegal drugs, it is to take careful note of the evidence and develop a rational drug policy. Some politicians find it easier to ignore the evidence, and pander to public prejudice instead.
I can trace the beginning of the end of my role as chairman of the UK's official advisory body on drugs to the moment I quoted a New Scientist editorial (14 February, p 5). Entitled, fittingly enough, "Drugs drive politicians out of their minds", the editorial asked the reader to imagine being seated at a table with two bowls, one containing peanuts, the other the illegal drug MDMA (ecstasy). Which is safer to give to a stranger? Why, the ecstasy of course.
I quoted these words in the Eve Saville lecture at King's College London in July. This example plus other comments I have made – such as horse riding is more harmful than ecstasy – prompted Alan Johnson, the home secretary, to say that I had crossed the line from science to policy. This, he said, is why I had to go.
But simple, accurate and understandable statements of scientific fact are precisely what the advisory council is supposed to provide. Why would any scientist take up some future offer of a government advisory post when their advice can be treated with such disdain?
As well as ignoring its own advisers, the UK is falling out of step with international trends. When Portugal softened its drugs laws in 2001, drug use remained roughly constant, but ill health and deaths from drug taking fell. Decriminalisation quietly crept up the agenda in Vienna this year at a meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, where governments heard new, independent evidence on how the harms of criminalisation were outweighing the benefits. In August, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico approved a law decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs. And just last month, Eric Holder, the US attorney general, instructed federal prosecutors to stop hounding medical users of marijuana in the 14 states where such use is legal.
No one doubts that heavy users of marijuana are risking trouble with their mental health. What I have simply pointed out is that we need a consistent policy, recognising that heavy users of alcohol and tobacco are more numerous and are causing themselves – and others – even more trouble through their indulgence.
Policies that ignore the realities of the world we live in are doomed to fail. This is true for just about all the biggest issues that we confront, from energy and climate to criminal justice, health and immigration. I'm not arguing that science dictate policy; considerations such as cost, practicality and morality also have a role. But scientific evidence should never be brushed aside from the political debate.
The current British government has said repeatedly that it wants its policies to be evidence-based, but actions speak louder than words. On ecstasy, for example, it made policy first, sought advice second – and cynically rejected the advice it was given. The result is shambolic policy-making which gives great cause for concern if that is how governments operate more generally.
The results of a government inventing its own reality and acting on it can be seen in the appalling consequences the George W. Bush presidency had for world peace, the environment and human rights. The message for the British government is a simple one: don't exclude rational argument in order to exploit a visceral public response. Politicians have to win the hearts and minds of their electorate. If your policy is informed by an underlying moral imperative, be open about what that is, and don't try to disguise it with a veneer of pseudo-science. We ignore scientific evidence at our peril.
November 4, 2009
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David Nutt: Governments should get real on drugs