Monday, November 02, 2009

The drugs debate: all a bit Nutt's

Like most people who have commented on this, the sacking of Professor David Nutt from the government's drugs advisory council has left me wondering what the point of soliciting independent scientific advice is, if you're just going to ignore it? Add to this the political ineptitude of the walnut with sledge hammer approach that Alan Johnson has taken here. Whenever drugs are discussed in the media, there's always some journo who recycles the line about how the biggest danger posed by drugs is that it makes the user a crashing bore. Hmmm, but not as boring as some hack striking a libertarian, yet world-weary, pose. The 'drugs debate' is boring - so most people are understandably uninterested in it. If Alan Johnson's goal was to shake people out of this relative indifference, he could have scarcely done a better job.

But there my agreement with those journalists and bloggers who seem to have adopted Professor Nutt as some kind of rationalist liberal hero/victim ends. Because while some appear to think the case represents the primacy of science and something called 'evidence-based policy-making', I was rather under the impression that Professor Nutt was making a case for the primacy of scientists:
"Professor Nutt said that the council was no longer tenable as a functioning advisory group. 'I can’t believe any self-respecting scientist would serve on it,' he declared. Writing in The Times today, he calls for the creation of a truly independent advisory council on drugs modelled on the way that interest rates are set by an expert committee."(Emphasis mine)
Hmph! The setting of short-term interest rates is something that has since 1997 been put beyond ministerial control. Is he seriously suggesting this should be the case with drugs policy too? And if so, why stop there? Why not have a government of experts in health, education, defence? Because as well as having grave implications for anything resembling democratic government, there's every reason to question the notion that just because someone may have expertise in one area - in this case, science - they'll be any good at something quite different - in this case, policy-making. I would have thought this was obviously the case with Professor Nutt. He takes as given the business whereby drug use is arranged into a hierarchy of harm, to which is then attached an appropriate level of disincentive and punishment. He says, for example, that, "The reason for making drugs illegal is to let society reduce harms by punishing their sale and use", without offering much in the way of any opinion as to whether this approach actually works or, even if it did, whether prohibition can be justified in these terms. In other words, there is no evidence as yet that Professor Nutt is particularly interested in politics - which tends to reinforce the impression that he has indeed strayed into areas that are beyond his competence.

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