in Drugs and drugs policy, In the news, Opinion pieces

“A muddled moral and political agenda”


Having been sacked from his position as the chief UK government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt may today be reflecting on the precarious position of anyone who seeks to advise politicians on controversial matters.

For it seems that whilst such an advisory position would appear to call for candour as a job requirement, in reality an expert who expresses an opinion out of step with the thinking of his or her political masters will find this leads to chastisement and the possibility of dismissal.  Nutt irked Home Secretary Alan Johnson by penning an article which criticized the UK’s drug classification system and in particular the way in which the previous Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ignored learned advice against reclassifying cannabis from class C to B.  He also suggested that if the argument against the use of drugs by UK subjects is driven by the drug’s perceived harms, then it would be appropriate to compare these harms to the risks run by users of currently legal drugs as well as other harmful activities.

As far as the Alan Johnson is concerned, this is so say the unsayable.  In his letter requesting Professor Nutt’s resignation Johnson wrote “It is important that I can be confident that advice I receive from the AMCD (Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs) will be about matters of evidence.  Your recent comments have gone beyond such evidence and have been lobbying for a change in government policy”.

When it comes to drugs, Mr Johnson is not the only person who has admired scientific advice only insofar as it agrees with current policy.  As well as ignoring the AMCD’s advice regarding cannabis, Jacqui Smith also vetoed their recommendation that ecstasy be downgraded from a class A drug, a conclusion that involved the AMCD  reviewing four thousand scientific papers over a twelve months period.  Internationally the situation is hardly better.  In 1995 the World Health Organisation conducted a thorough survey on global cocaine use.  Although eventually leaked, the full report was never officially published as the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw funding unless the organisation dissociated itself from the conclusions of the study and cancelled its publication.  The report had suggested that use of cocaine did not necessarily lead inexorably toward either individual or societal collapse.

The debate on drug legalization appears, as Professor Nutt has found, to be almost uniquely charged.  The reasons for this are complex but perhaps are rooted in drug use’s consequences being, at worst, easy fodder for any right wing commentator: people enjoying themselves, youth running amok and slothful hippies; successive governments have run scared from sections of the popular press that purport to represent the attitudes of the public.  It is reasonable to be very wary of drugs as some, but not all, of them have the potential to do great harm but our current debate is distorted and muddled and the focus on illegal drugs in isolation blinds to the damage currently visited by the excess use of alcohol.

Despite the positioning of politicians, Dr Nutt’s resignation shows us that UK drug policy is clearly driven not by sober reflection of evidence and what this tells us about harm, but rather lip service is shown to scientific opinion which then partially conceals an unacknowledged moral and political agenda.


Latest news:

Ministers face rebellion over drug Tsar’s sacking Guardian 1 November 2009

Drugs: Prejudice and political weakness have rejected scientific facts Observer 1 November 2009

Today programme interview with David Nutt 31 October 2009


This post is also published on Forth :: forward thinking from Ireland (alas no more)

Nutt decision shows the immaturity of the marijuana debate


Updated December 2018

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  1. Sharon asks why the ruckus about scstitines. I think part of the explanation is that it is scstitines making a lot of the ruckus, and a British press that is traditionally more adversarial to the government that the U.S. press is running with it. The complainants appear to believe that either Nutt is right on the ‘scientific’ claim that the policy framework is flawed and therefore should not have been sanctioned, or that Nutt was not speaking in any capacity with respect to his Advisory Council position and therefore could not have been undercutting the value of the advice presented by that Council.I tried to make the point in the post I linked to above that current U.K. guidance to advisory councils does not do enough to separate what a scientist (or citizen) does as a private individual from what they do as part (or chair) of an advisory body. Add to this lack of separation the common (erroneous) habit of assuming that all declarations from scstitines have the authority of science behind them, and the challenge of separating opinion from factual conclusion becomes harder. I think the difficulty of doing this separation contributes to the perception problem regarding Nutt and supports a stronger policy on separation of personal and official utterances.There is a separate issue about whether Nutt’s risk modeling and harm comparisons accurately reflect societal considerations of harm and risk, which aren’t necessarily scientific. Not all consequences of harms are equivalent, or considered equivalent, and while falling off a horse may have more significant harm to an individual than addiction to particular drugs, society may choose to protect against one set of harms and consequences more than another for reasons that may not be considered ‘rational’ (arguably a word used to borrow the power of science that really reflects utilitarian logic).