Evidence versus expedience

Last Friday Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired the government’s chief drugs advisor, Professor David Nutt, for speaking out against government policy: for saying the unsayable, that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis. This inconvenient truth has been, for a long time, the elephant in the room – metaphorically rather than hallucinogenically. Indeed a rare non-rubbish Horizon covered the same ground some time ago.

But governments don’t govern by evidence: they govern by expedience.

One death from tobacco-related lung cancer or alcohol-related liver failure is a statistic. One death from ecstasy is a front-page story, a week of leader articles and why-oh-why fodder for an officeful of lazy, smoking, drinking hacks. The Daily Mail has more influence on government drugs policy than any scientist, or any fact.

(Similarly, deaths on the road are considered “acceptable”. Crushed between two 12m, 44 tonne, six axle articulated lorries carrying fizzy weak Eurobeer to satiate the Friday night binges lubricating the traditional British weekend? Statistic. Span off when driving too fast on an icy road to die in a ditch polluted by a local factory? Statistic. Unless of course you were daft enough to get in a car driven by a drunk bodyguard and didn’t wear your seatbelt: then you’re the People’s Statistic.)

Political expediency ensures that tobacco and alcohol are legal and (not particularly well) regulated, despite the costs in lives, in time and in money. That same expediency rejects the evidence-based analysis that would logically lead to legalisation and regulation of (according to Nutt) lower-harm drugs like cannabis. The belief is that the votes of Middle Britain would go elsewhere, at least in the present generation, mostly thanks to sky-falling-in tabloid articles written by journalists who, of course, have never taken any illegal drugs themselves.

Politically, David Nutt had to go. He had proclaimed the emperor’s nudity from the rooftops and most significantly he had criticised the government: the emperor was not only starkers, but a big old Fatty McFat Fat.

I have no problem with the notion that “advisers advise, politicians decide”. I do think that scientists should keep out of politics, mainly for their own sanity. But this goes both ways: politicians should keep out of science. By all means ignore some or all of the advice you’re given, as long as you don’t pretend in public that the advice is something else. Instead, tell us why you’ve rejected it. Plain and simple. We might or might not agree, and we might argue vehemently that you’re wrong, but we’d respect the honesty.

And we desperately need an honest debate about drugs: about the science and about the politics. Sadly that doesn’t seem possible. Scandalously Channel 4 News hasn’t even been able to persuade a single representative of the Home Office to appear on its programme to answer questions about David Nutt’s dismissal.

I guess it’s not seen as politically expedient.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Evidence versus expedience

  1. Tom

    “By all means ignore some or all of the advice you’re given, as long as you don’t pretend in public that the advice is something else. Instead, tell us why you’ve rejected it. Plain and simple. We might or might not agree, and we might argue vehemently that you’re wrong, but we’d respect the honesty.”

    So, exactly as the Home Secretary did in the House of Commons in May 2008, then, when she announced that she was rejecting the ACMD’s recommendation (contained in a report that’s freely available on the Home Office website) that cannabis remain class C (while accepting the other 20 of the report’s 21 conclusions).

    At no point did the politicians claim the advice was anything other than it was.

  2. Roger

    I wouldn’t worry about this too much. It is very obvious where things are heading – there was a wonderful Newsweek article about this last week.

    Quite simply all over the world people are becoming more tolerant (or liberal, or evidence based, or reasonable). Due to the Internet the “message” can no longer be controlled as in the olden days when you had to rely on the press. Imagine what would have happened in similar circumstances in the 1960’s.

    All over the world capital punishment is ceasing, gay marriage is becoming ok, drugs are looked at more sensibly, women are equal etc. There will obviously be ups and downs along the way.

    You see the same repeating cycle in governments. One party is in power, and grows older with its voter base while younger voters increasingly detest them. The other party finally gets enough votes and takes their turn getting older with their voters. Rinse and repeat.

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