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 Alan Johnson is concerned, this is to 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 ACMD (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 ACMD’s advice regarding cannabis, Jacqui Smith also vetoed their recommendation that ecstasy be downgraded from a class A drug, a conclusion that involved the ACMD 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 the consequences of drug use 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 on harms, but by an unacknowledged moral and political agenda.
Stephen Ginn is a psychiatrist in training working in London. He writes the blog Frontier Psychiatrist.