A Skinny Take: Poison was the cure

Blog by R. J. Gallagher | 13 Nov 2009

When home secretary Alan Johnston sacked the government’s chief drugs advisor David Nutt two weeks ago for “crossing the line”, i.e. disseminating findings which contradicted the governments moral position on illegal drugs, you could have been forgiven for thinking you had somehow been catapulted into a parallel world that had bypassed the period of Enlightenment and with it the notion of democracy.  Forget those great foundations of the modern world: knowledge through reason and science – in this parallel world, it is politicians who make the rules, and if you choose to break them… expect to face exile.

Six members of Nutt’s Advisory Council on The Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have now resigned, and there is speculation that on Monday the entire council will disband in protest at Johnston’s decision.  Amazingly, the Home Secretary remains hard-nosed and resolute.  Appearing agitated on Sky News earlier this week he repeated the same mantra he has been regurgitating since the controversy began, like a broken record: “you cannot have a chief advisor stepping in to the political field and campaigning against government decisions”.

The irony and hypocrisy inherent in such a statement is apparently lost on Johnston, who repeats himself with either steadfast conviction or skillfully honed P.R skills; a scientific advisor cannot campaign against government decisions, but the government can campaign against a scientific advisor?

It would seem though that Johnson himself is deeply confused by his own position.  “On the vast majority of occasions their [the ACMD’s] advice is accepted,” he says, rattling off in the same breath, “[but] this is not about the acceptance or rejection of their advice.”  What is it about then?

In an earlier speech made to the House of Commons, Johnson made it quite clear:  “he [Nutt] has a view on relative harms which I don’t share, he has a view about ecstasy which I don’t share, [and] he has a view about cannabis which I don’t share.”

The problem here appears obvious.  For Johnson it remains an issue of ‘views’ and ‘opinion’, for Nutt it is about the science.  Johnson is allowing his own personal politics, his own subjective moral position on the use of illegal drugs to influence government drug policy whereas Nutt is attempting to use science to inject reason into the debate.  More people die each year from horse riding than they do from ecstasy use; alcohol and nicotine are more harmful than cannabis… but the government does not want to hear it.

“It’s a bad day for science that government advisors cannot share their genuine concerns about the misrepresentation of science in legislation… and if they do they get sacked” says Nutt, and unfortunately he’s being serious – this isn’t a parallel world, this is the real world; the brave new world… so forget the Enlightenment, because in a postmodern world there is no history – ignorance is strength!

See more of Ryan's work at http://www.rjgallagher.co.uk/