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.