UK drugs policy is in chaos and it’s all the fault of politicians playing to the media instead of making policy based on fact.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams of “The hitch hikers guide to the galaxy” fame: The skills needed to get elected mean that anyone who has the ability to do so is precisely the sort of person who should never be allowed to. That would seem to describe politicians only too well as recent events have demonstrated.

Alan Johnson is probably a nice bloke, but his qualification for holding high office was through experience of life being a postman, it’s hard indeed to see how he is better qualified to pontificate on the issue of drug use than someone who is a professor of psychopharmacology at Bristol University and head of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.

Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nut, the former chief drugs adviser and head of the ACMD because his comments

…damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs.

and

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy

Read the full letter from Alan Johnson here (BBC website)

In other words giving the public information might make them question the way government applies the criminal law. Now that argument is, in itself, very dangerous and is totally unacceptable in  a democracy. It doesn’t matter what the subject at hand is, the idea that information should be kept from the public domain in order to allow governments to do what they want flies in the face of the democratic process. In sacking David Nutt, Alan Johnson has stepped over a very important line and has shown himself to be totally unsuited to high office. Any government policy should be able to withstand a vigorous and well informed public debate and such debate should always be encouraged.

Thing is, the misuse of drugs act, flawed and despised in  some quarters as it is, actually accepts that knowledge of drugs will change and that from time to time it may be desirable, because of this change in knowledge, to move drugs around the classification system and the ACMD is there to give governments such advice.

Politicians claim the right to make decisions, but those decisions should be evidence based, not based on what they think might play well with the media.  Jacqui Smith, the previous Home Secretary  defended her decision to reclassify cannabis in large part on the grounds of “public perception”. This would seem to be an misuse of the MoD act, which is simply not concerned with such matters.

As all this is happening there is an interesting legal case unfolding on behalf of Edward Stratton which is claiming that the misuse of drugs act is being misapplied. You can read the full explanation on the Drug Equality website. The DEA mission statement reads:

The Drug Equality Alliance (DEA) is a UK based not for profit organisation whose purpose is to transform the “War on some people who use some Drugs” from its subjective historical and cultural roots into a rational and objective legal regulatory framework that secures equal rights and equal protection to all those who are concerned with dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs.

Our mission is to use domestic and international legal jurisdictions to interrogate the law and its application to those who exercise property rights with respect to such drugs. We believe governments have failed to administer drug law in an evidence-based manner. This failure contributes to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and imprisonments each year. The Drug Equality Alliance seeks to remedy this.

It would seem pretty clear that Alan Johnson’s statements and actions have provided clear an undeniable proof that the present drugs policy is indeed subjective and that this government has failed to administer drug law in an evidence-based manner. The criminal law is being used  to “send out messages” that some drugs are unacceptable based on “public perception”. That is not the intention of the act and it would seem that Edward Stratton now has a much stronger case thanks to Alan Johnson.

Not only that, but David Nutt’s comments about alcohol and tobacco  needing to be brought within the act are also in line with the DEA argument. The fact that booze and fags were not included in the MoD act is purely cultural, because the act was drawn up by alcohol drinking tobacco smoking politicians. Alan Jonson’s crass stupidity can only help Edward’s case on so many levels and we await developments with interest.

The truly  impressive aspect of all this so far though has been the public reaction, which has been almost entirely hostile to the government’s position. It’s hard to think of any other example where public opposition has been so universal other than perhaps the reaction to the Iraq war.  But a reading of the comments on web reports, forums and blogs shows an amazing near unanimity of opinion, the only real support coming from morons who post comments such as

Not called Nutt for nowt, is he?

That was posted by someone called “Annon” and rated as a bad post by 345 people on the Daily Mail website. So despite being so keen to play to public opinion, it would seem that the government has seriously misjudged it with this sacking.

But all that pales into insignificance if they can’t put the lid on this quickly because scientists don’t like being ignored and told to shut up. Mark Easton of the BBC wrote

I understand that senior figures within the scientific and academic community are already looking to rally behind Professor Nutt, whose response to the home secretary suggests that he is happy to become a “poster-boy” for science as a contributor to policy-making.

We are witnessing a collision between science and politics (see my earlier post, Science v Politics?). There may be significant fall-out.

Resignations have started so the question is how far will it go? If a sizeable number quit, or if senior people quit – that would count as a vote of no confidence in at least Alan Johnson, he could surely not survive and if that were to happen and how could Gordon Brown cling on? Would such a rebellion be limited to the ACMD or could it spread to other areas? We will see over the next few days.

But perhaps the biggest casualty of all this is the policy on cannabis and the perception people have of the various warnings which have been promoted about cannabis use over the past few years.

Prof Nutt said (as reported in the Daily Mail)

‘When Gordon Brown says that cannabis is a “lethal drug”, when it clearly isn’t, young people are not going to pay him any notice. You don’t reduce drug harm by lying.’

Cannabis users now know that the policy of prohibition isn’t based on fact, they now know that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis and they all know the government is imposing this law on them for simply political ends. It doesn’t take much to imagine what is likely to happen to the rates of cannabis use amongst children as a result. UKCIA has long warned that this was likely to happen if or when the exaggerated claims were shown to have been based on lies, it’s the baby and the bathwater all over again.

Absolutely the worse thing to have happen if you’re concerned about  young people’s drug use is to have the whole effort shown to be no more than the lies of politicians, especially when the politicians are held in such low regard as this present lot are. If we know they are lying, why should we believe anything they tell us is, in all fairness, a perfectly logical conclusion.

There is already a Facebook group calling for Prof Nutt to be re-instated, next week will be very interesting indeed.