Monday, November 2, 2009

Nutt Sacked

As in David Nutt, (former) chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in the UK, has been fired for doing his job. Isn't it great to know that we haven't made any progress since Galileo was forced to renounce his work and writings concerning the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, who had suggested that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe almost 400 years ago? Somehow this case seems even more totalitarian. A scientist, whose job is to give advice on drug law, has lost his job for giving the advice he was hired to give because it doesn't fit in with the government's get tough on drugs sales pitch to the deluded public. Yes, it's not only America where you have to blow the populist trumpet hoping that the semi-literate masses will vote for you come election day, the UK it seems is every bit as bad.

It's even worse knowing that things weren't always so bad for the Labour Party and the UK. In fact it was only 2004 when the government actually listened to the advice given to them by their drug experts and downgraded cannabis from a Class B to C (the UK uses a system where A is the most harmful illegal drug and C the least). Since the reclassification didn't result in an upswing of smokers and in fact saved an estimated 199,000 police hours, this action had its predictable reaction - the tabloid press hard sell along the lines of "drugs are bad, how can you be doing this to our children? Will someone please think of the children!" - this time mostly revolving around a scare story involving new and improved skunk weed which was so potent it caused psychosis. Enter a new British PM losing popularity by the day who is easily influenced by the polling numbers and suddenly you had the leader of a nation saying things like, "I think people know my view about cannabis and particularly about this lethal version of it, skunk." Before you know it, the UK found itself back where it started, busting 72-year-old milkmen for delivering weed to old ladies as the government re-upgraded cannabis to Class B in January earlier this year. Of course this move came despite a report at the time from the ACMD recommending that cannabis remain a Class C drug.

So, what do you do when you are a scientist whose job it is to help formulate drug policy by providing unbiased scientific evidence only to see your work ignored? You try to draw attention to your cause, attempting to influence public opinion with facts and evidence; much to the dismay of the British government, David Nutt has been quite good at this. He was head of the team who devised a radical new system for classifying drugs - one based on harm to individuals and society instead of old-wives tales. Ultimately, it was this stance that forced Nutt's resignation as he once again tried to remind people that drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than LSD, ecstasy or cannabis. Additionally, he released a paper pointing out that ecstasy, a Class A drug, is in fact more benign activity than equestrianism. This latter report earned him a rebuke from his boss in the government, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary at the time.

The influence of the tabloid press in Britain is something I don't claim to understand very well. I picture it as having a British version of the Fox News effect in the US, an important tool in ensuring that the semi-literate view the world through a haze of confusion. In the correspondence between Nutt and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, the man responsible for demanding Nutt's resignation, Johnson practically admitted that misinforming the public is part of the plan. Johnson's letter to Nutt stated, "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." Huh? Really? If ministers care so little for independent scientific advice, maybe they should save public money by sacking the entire group of experts and instead appoint a committee of tabloid editors. After all, rags like the Daily Mail are onside with the firing, publishing an article comparing Agassi smoking crystal meth to the 'nutty' Professor Nutt. Why do they love that term drug tsar so much?

The pandering of the current Home Secretary to the tabloid press is another sad example of the disconnect between public policy and facts. Alan Johnson and his government now face a mass revolt from the official drug advisory board. As resignations begin to come in, one has to wonder if this is actually what the government wants. Nasty facts get in the way, especially when your nation is facing an epidemic of addiction to legal prescription drugs - there are over 1.5 million over-the-counter addicts in the UK today. Who knows, maybe it's a Scientology plot? Far be it for me to suggest that simply legalizing cannabis would be some kind of panacea but it would be nice if government policy, in all areas, were determined by facts instead of fear. Reefer Madness, here we go again.