This is your government on drugs

Jacqui And Alan Go Nutts

Well, there I was thinking about chucking up some waffle about the use of things like science and cost benefit analysis and suchlike as the basis for decision making in my ongoing sketch of a utopian future democracy, and suddenly the Stalinist dog fuckers that we managed to elect twice hand me a fantastic example in the form of the sacking of Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s letter to Prof. Nutt leaves us in little doubt about the reasons behind his removal from post. It also demonstrates a level of ignorance that would be frankly stunning if it wasn’t simply what we have come to expect. In it, Johnson says

I have concerns regarding your recent comments that have received such media attention. It is important that I can be confident that advice from the ACMD will be about matters of evidence. Your recent comments have gone beyond such evidence.

Those ‘comments’ presumably being that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, and that the government – in the form of former Home Sec. Jacqui ‘the smug fascist’ Smith – simply ignored scientific evidence when they re-reclassified cannabis in January 2009.

Johnson’s characterisation of these as mere comments is, to put it extremely charitably, disingenuous.

On Tuesday 14 July 2009, Nutt delivered the The Eve Saville memorial lecture for the The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, held in Great Hall, Kings College, London.

The subject of his lecture was a briefing paper titled ‘Estimating drug harms : a risky business ?’, the text of which can be downloaded from here. It’s a fascinating read, and I thoroughly recommend it.

It is indeed sharply critical of the government, and of policy makers in general. As well it might be given the revolving cluster fuck that passes for drug policy. Nutt relates the difficulty he has trying to get people to engage with the idea of measuring risks and harm associated with prohibited recreational substances relative to other activities and substances.

This is an example of a conversation that I’ve had many times with many people, some of them politicians:

MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one.’

Professor Nutt: ‘Why not?’

MP: ‘Because one’s illegal.’

Professor Nutt: ‘Why is it illegal?’

MP: ‘Because it’s harmful.’

Professor Nutt: ‘Don’t we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?’

MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one.’

repeats …

This of course exposes the hypocrisy at the core of drugs policy, debate about which Nutt characterises – not without justification – as

isolated and arbitrary, more akin to a ‘religious’ discussion

Quite. But the comments that really boil the government’s piss are of course the statements regarding the relative harm caused by consumption of various substances, and in particular, since it directly contradicts the government’s ‘message’, the harm and risks associated with cannabis use.

Johnson expressed his concern that advice from the ACMD be “about matters of evidence” and clearly he feels this oversteps the mark. Nutt’s remarks about cannabis, however, are based on a a 2008 ACMD report “Cannabis: Classification and Public Health”, which itself drew on earlier work by Nutt and his academic colleagues ‘Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse’ which was published in the Lancet in March 2007. (PDF available from here if you don’t wish to register).

So it’s difficult, almost impossible, in fact, to imagine how Johnson could be concerned that these remarks aren’t “matters of evidence”. Clearly then, the Home Sec is defenestrating the poor prof because his rational, scientific approach conflicts with the approach the government wishes to take. Johnson is eager to leave us in no doubt that this is the case

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

Comfortably Decoupled From Reality

This is bad. This is in fact very, very bad indeed. Because it means that the government of the United Kingdom is happy to operate as though it were living in some fucked up fantasy land of imaginings (not unlike someone who is ripped off their tits on drugs, in fact) rather than actually dealing with reality as it is. Did I mention that this is bad ?

In this particular case, it is actually recursively bad. On receipt of the ACMD’s 2008 report on cannabis classification, Commissar Smith quoth

In reaching my decision, I have also taken into account the views of others, particularly those responsible for enforcing the law, and the public … I have given the council’s report careful consideration. Of its 21 recommendations, I accept all bar those relating to classification.

This is not true. Nutt quotes the results of a poll conducted by the government during the consultation carried out prior to the latest reclassification, which show a solid majority of respondents thought cannabis should have been left in classification C. Many of us would have left it at that, but Nutt and his colleagues didn’t like the poll question, so they conducted their own Mori poll for their report. Only 26% of respondents thought that cannabis should be class ‘B’. 18% thought it should be class C, 11% thought it should be legal. 11% were undecided. 32%, surprisingly, thought it should be class ‘A’. Bastards.

Reclassification to ‘A’, of course, wasn’t on the cards. Neither of those sets of numbers supports Smith’s statement about taking into account the views of the public. Nutt and co asked a second question about criminal penalties which is even more interesting and reveals public misunderstanding of the classification system in general. Again I encourage the reader to consume the paper in it’s entirety. It’s clear that no one at the home office did, because it turned out that the penalties a solid majority of respondents thought would be appropriate are in fact those associated with a classification of ‘C’, with ‘No Punishment’ coming in second.

So in overriding the views of the ACMD experts in favour of the views of the public, she had, in fact, not taken any notice of what those views actually were. Ouchies.

Whoa! Deja Vu!

Nutt points out that this is the first time in the history of the ACMD that the government has ignored it’s recommendations, heaping well deserved scorn on Gordon Brown for his risible “lethal skunk” outbursts. This may well be true, but it is by no means the first time that a government has received a report on cannabis use, disliked it, and binned it. In 1968 while James Callaghan was Home Sec, the Wootton report was submitted by the Advisory Committee On Drug Dependence.

We don’t even have to go beyond the covering letter before we find this

We think that the adverse effects which the consumption of cannabis in even small amounts may produce in some people should not be dismissed as in-significant. We have no doubt that the wider use of cannabis should not be encouraged. On the other hand, we think that the dangers of its use as commonly accepted in the past and the risk of progression to opiates have been overstated, and that the existing criminal sanctions intended to curb its use are unjustifiably severe.

Drugs policy is a particularly good (and topical) example of common sense and rational investigation being swatted aside in the pursuit of some ideological tenet or to win a few votes, but it is by no means the only one.

Earlier this month, “The most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education for 40 years” in the form of the Cambridge Primary Review was completed and submitted to the Department For Children, Schools and Families. Quoth the Graun

The Cambridge review, the biggest inquiry into primary education in 40 years, was published last week after a three-year process which produced 31 interim reports, 28 surveys and thousands of submissions.

The Cambridge review received support from every teaching union, agency and school support group

Quoth schools minister, Vernon Coaker (pdf), in response to the review’s findings that it would be beneficial to the nations children if formal education and testing started at age 6

The world has moved on since this review was started. If every child making progress and reaching their potential is what matters then Professor Alexander’s proposals are a backward step.

Heavy Heavy Deja Vu!

A May 2008 schools select committee report concluded

In addition, the data derived from the testing system do not necessarily provide an accurate or complete picture of the performance of schools and teachers, yet they are relied upon by the Government, the QCA and Ofsted to make important decisions affecting the education system in general and individual schools, teachers and pupils in particular.

Okay, that’s bad, so we should change it right ? Don’t hold your breath because

The Government has repeatedly refused to face up to accusations that an excessive testing regime has denied children a rounded education, according to one of the nation’s leading experts.

And indeed, if you have a quick peek around, you can find another select committee report from this year that draw similar conclusions.

Google Is Your Friend

Even the briefest, laziest research possible, googling a bit using “government ignored” as a search term reveals a depressing number of occasions where government ministers or officials have simply stuck their fingers in their ears when being advised by experts.

On Swine Flu

Advisers urged the Government to offer paracetamol to the public instead of Tamiflu, to stop the virus gaining resistance to the drug.

But the Department of Health advisers said ministers ignored their advice, even when it became clear the outbreak was mild.

They say the Government forged ahead with mass prescription, fearing the public would be angry if they were told that millions of Tamiflu doses were being held in storage.

On Clostridium difficile outbreaks

The Department of Health knew of a damning report into an outbreak of Clostridium difficile at a hospital trust in Kent more than five months ago and failed to act, it was claimed last night.

On medical training reforms

The government sidelined two top medical advisers to rush through the doomed online recruitment system for junior doctors, MPs were told last week.

It goes on and on and on. I can’t ever remember a government spokesdroid on the TV or radio saying “Well, we didn’t like the conclusions of the report, and we really don’t agree with recommendations, but hey, we’ll just have to suck it up and accept that we’re doing this wrong.”

Not once. Did I mention that this is bad ?

Recursively, Recursively Dense

It has been suggested that as far as the current shower are concerned much of the reason that the Home Sec. always is, or morphs into what Charlotte Gore delightfully labels “Authoritarian Super Cocks” is due to New Labour’s reliance on manipulative shitweasels like Phillip Gould, the so called ‘guru’ of the focus group.

An unsurprising irony then that they don’t listen to him when they don’t like what he tells them either. Witness this excerpt from a “sensational memo” from Gould to Gordon Brown from August 2008

We have to have a strategy of audacious advance. The best way of achieving this is to hold an early election after a short period of intense and compelling activity. A kind of “shock and awe strategy” blasting through the opposition and blasting us to the mid-40 per-cents.

Remind me, how did that go ?

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4 Responses

  1. Johnson was essentially trying to pander to the ‘general electorate’ but it all went pear shaped.
    Thank goodness much of the public aren’t simplistic ‘drugs=bad’ zombies.

    Nutt wasn’t trying to compare like-for-like chemistry. One cannabis joint vs. a cigarette or a glass of alcohol vs. an E tablet are probably equal, but because they’re legal, people buy stacks of cigarettes or alcohol, which is why we have high profile NHS campaigns for quitting smoking or giving up/moderating alcohol. Nothing’s a real problem if it’s legal it seems!

    While there are LSD/ecstasy deaths – there’s not enough to warrant campaigns of the scale above. You see Leah Betts pictures plastered on TV (later found out to be primarily water intoxication as well), but they could post hundreds of liver cases, road accidents, lung cancer patients for every one of her.

    Truth is, everything should be legalised so you not only eradicate scrupulous dealers and supplies, but you a put framework around it. Make someone get cocaine from a GP or pharmacist and that taboo thrill is half killed right there.
    Don’t however setup drug taking centres or sell them in retail…But they’re happy to create 24/7 pubs and sell death sticks with joke warnings and moan about the NHS strain.

  2. Admirable work demonstrating how logic, science and intelligence have nothing to with government policy. So, how can we influence and change policy?

    http://peterreynolds.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/drug-crazed-politicians-promote-crime-and-misery/#comments

    • I guess that’s the six million dollar question.

      The Home Office, for example, is clearly unwilling to listen even to those people with whom it entrusts the work of classification under the MoDA,

      Even, as discussed, when it appears that public opinion agrees with the ACMD’s recommendation.

      Judging by the performance of the Conservatives in parliament yesterday, they aren’t much prepared to listen either, or to make an issue of it. Johnson swatted aside all suggestions of a wider debate.

      Leaves us with something of a quandary.

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