David Nutt and the drugs debate

How can we grow intelligent government, allowing the open input of unelected specialists, and what wuld an effective drugs policy be?
Marta Cooper
2 November 2009

On Friday morning the UK woke up to news of yet another resignation from the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) over the sacking of its former chairman, Professor David Nutt. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson potentially faces ‘collective action’ from these protestors for his treatment of Nutt, a stance he is defending in a letter to today’s Guardian. This episode reveals that Johnson, who was only recently projected as a sane, down-to-earth, and distinctive alternative Prime Minister to Brown, to be someone who has now fully absorbed New Labour’s lack of respect for rational and informed debate and its pandering to Murdoch - which disqualify it from tackling the roots of the illegal drugs problem.

There are two big issues here. One relates to how we can grow intelligent government, which must include the open input of unelected specialists, the other to what an effective drugs policy ought to be.

Johnson’s reason for sacking Nutt was a paper in which the Imperial professor claimed alcohol and tobacco were far more dangerous than the use of LSD, ecstasy and cannabis. Nutt said the evidence shows the risk of psychotic illness from the drug was relatively small. He also goes on to argue against Jacqui Smith’s position of upgrading it from its current class C classification to class B, claiming the former home secretary was playing into the ‘precautionary principle’ and ignoring scientific evidence. For Johnson, however, the bottom line was that Nutt “cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.”

But Nutt was swamped with letters and phone calls of support over the weekend. Council members were disgusted at Johnson’s behaviour, and the resignations of Les King and Marion Walker triggered the possibility of a mass revolt against the Home Secretary. Speaking on Sunday, King claimed Johnson had attacked Nutt’s freedom of expression (the same line of argument was also put forward in this piece from yesterday’s Observer).

Independent experts, as Jackie Ashley aptly reminded us, are just that: independent. Unsurprisingly, they expect that the advice they are hired to give will be taken. But, to quote Ashley, “they find they are entering a minefield criss-crossed by machine gun fire. It's called politics.”

Johnson’s haste in sacking Nutt undermines not only the need for valuable and trusted scientific advice in dealing with the heated drugs policy, but also a fundamental element of debate that holds democracy steady. The rational debate of scientific facts has single-handedly been downgraded to a childish bickering of values and opinions. As we have learnt in recent weeks, with Jan Moir’s prejudice-filled column inches in response to Stephen Gately’s death and the uproar over Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, free speech often has a disgusting exterior, but that is the price we pay for it.

But, political warfare and democratic values aside, the knee-jerk reaction to Nutt’s statement (which in itself is hardly earth shattering) is also yet another move by our government to avoid tackling the root of a far more complex issue. Both Johnson and Smith accused Nutt of downplaying the severity of cannabis use and consequently sending out a harmful message to the curious. This underestimates the public from which they are so disconnected: the words of one Professor will not turn pseudo-interested voters into raving potheads.

There are two distinctions to be made here, vital for a modern democracy. Johnson is surely right to insist that the final decision on public policy is a political one, that the Minister (hopefully after a Cabinet debate) has to take it and be responsible for it. He is right to reject the idea that, if you have an expert view, that should automatically become policy. But, at the same time, the whole point of independent experts is that they must be free to express their view. If the Minister differs, this is a cause for us to understand why, not for him to sack the advisor. Otherwise any form of trust in the political process will be undermined completely. In a complex age, it is clear we need scientific information. If it seems that the Government purges any expert who does not endorse the policies the Ministers have already arrived at, then the public will conclude that the State is fixing the evidence to secure its own interests.


All of which shows how the policy of reinforcing the blanket criminalisation of drugs corrupts our entire political process as well as our policing and legal system (many of its practitioners being high quality consumers themselves). Even Bruce Anderson today put forward some considerations for reducing drug-related crime, including the setting up of licensed and regulated outlets, the banning of advertising, higher taxation of narcotics, announcing an amnesty for all drug crimes and increasing the penalties for illicit drug trafficking. Enforcing more educational campaigns, reducing the public stigma of recovering substance abusers and reinforcing restorative justice strategies are also key avenues the government must travel down, since it is clear that prohibition and prejudices are counter-productive (drugs are readily available, the illicit trade is worth hundreds of millions, and the brunt felt by South and Central American countries is all-too-severe).

Suppressing anyone’s views, expert or otherwise, draws even more attention to Labour’s mismanagement of a complex problem. Will an incoming Cameron government, its leaders more than familiar with the human pleasures of occasional intoxication, take the UK out of the spiral? 

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