Drugs policy and the government: the hazard of outrage

talk_to_frankOutrage and hazard are often disproportionate, and governments can be as lousy at calculating risk as any stats-challenged individual. Government advisor Professor Nutt recommended a policy of honestly evaluating the harm caused by  intoxicants –  a policy which would logically extend to decriminalising or reclassifying many illegal substances (including cannabis, ecstasy and LSD) which are less dangerous than socially-acceptable substances like alcohol and tobacco. And he got fired for it.

In his letter dismissing Nutt, home secretary Alan Johnson explained that:

I cannot have confusion between scientific evidence and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.

Government, in other words, refuses to bend its expression of outrage through the legal system to conform to the objective hazard. This misdirection is unjust and dangerous: resources are aimed at punishing people for selling and possessing substances which are basically inoffensive, while the black market in illegal drugs fosters violent crime.

Prof NuttBut maybe it’s a mistake to imagine that a government would be primarily concerned with a hazard to the people it represents. For the ruling party, the biggest hazard is outrage itself – and drugs policy really gets the outrage gushing.

With comment from The Sun (“NUTTY Professor David Nutt, the government’s chief drug advisor, must have been on the wacky baccy again!”), The Indy (with Richard Ingrams taking in a Moir-ish view of Steven Gately) and The Mail (“Our drug-corrupted political and media elite view Professor Nutt as a hero because he helps them excuse their own wrongdoing”) all lining up to say that Professor Nutt was a Danger to our Youth, it looks like Johnson made a pretty solid political decision.

Evidence based policy would be nice, but why would any minister want to sit in line for that sort of outrage? Johnson might not be interested in formulating a drugs policy based on risk – but he’s demonstrated great acumen in recognising a danger to himself. The press wanted Nutt, and if they hadn’t got Nutt, they’d have moved on to Johnson. That’s an objective risk, and firing Nutt was the consequence of rational self-interest.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Illustration © Beau Bo d’Or, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Drugs policy and the government: the hazard of outrage

  1. I read Peter Hitchens’ article where he said that Robin Murray tore apart Nutt’s statistics on cannabis use and schizophrenia. Then I read Nutt’s original lecture and Murray’s response.

    I’ll state first off that I think Murray is blinded by his approach – he’s a clinical psychiatrist and his association with cannabis comes from his experience with his schizophrenic patients. He doesn’t operate from the other side, where he sees cannabis users without the psychosis.

    The other problem with Murray is that he doesn’t appear to have read Nutt’s lecture or the ACMD 2008 report by Rawlins.

    This is the best part of Murray’s argument:

    In 2002, [the ACMD] boobed by advising David Blunkett, then home secretary, that there were no serious mental health consequences of cannabis use; the council had done a sloppy job of reviewing the evidence. Since that time, they have been trying to regain credibility, and now accept that heavy use of cannabis is a risk factor for psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia.

    That 2002 report clearly states: “In some cases acute cannabis intoxication can produce a psychotic state that may continue for some time and require treatment withantipsychotic drugs… such an episode
    may be the start of a long-lasting psychotic illness, usually schizophrenia.”

    They also stood by their recommendations through two subsequent reports, and still do.

    I mean, what the fuck. How can Murray produce that first paragraph without the realisation that it’s an outright lie? My question of Murray has always been how engaged he is with the work of others as opposed to steadfastly pushing forward his own viewpoint. I don’t think he’s engaged at all.

    Britain could be a leader in clearing this from the Paris Treaty list and subordinate conventions, and start making actual revenues from it. But fuck it, let’s get our science from policy instead of our policy from science, and our opinions from Hitchens and the Mail. I mean, it’s only dealers’ pockets we’re lining and our police time we’re wasting, eh?

  2. The rich pickings of drug jargon at their disposal and the best they can come up with is “Nutty Professor David Nutt”? The Sun’s pun machine must have been broken that day – that’s barely even a toking effort.

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