Professor Nutt, the Home Secretary and drug control

The recent furore over the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary started because Professor Nutt said certain legal drugs, alcohol particularly, were more harmful than certain illegal ones. It ended as a debate about the role of scientific advisors, where the Home Secretary thought it no business of Government scientific advisors to promote policy. In contrast Professor Nutt thought it his duty to draw attention to certain scientific anomalies.

In their way both were right. Professor Nutt wants to classify drugs according to harms, placing them on a scale and claiming this is a scientific question. Not surprisingly he concluded that a drug such as ecstasy was less harmful than alcohol, and equally surprisingly the Home Secretary thought this undermined Government policy. Professor Nutt was right, or rather he was only partly right. For harm is also a moral term; to ask what is a harm is to ask what makes that action harmful. And the Home Secretary is also partly right when he says this is more than a scientific question, it is also a moral/political one.

Yet both avoid the more basic question. What criteria should be used to decide which drugs should be controlled in the first place? Placing drugs on a continuum, from say, `unharmful` to `very harmful` does not solve the problem. Decisions have to be made about a cut off point; i.e. at which point to control a substance, and which not? No-one seems to have considered this, yet here lays one of a small number of central question any rational drug policy must answer. To say, as Professor Nutt does, that ecstasy is less harmful than alcohol, is to imply current policy is irrational, but it still walks round that tricky question about whether the harm these drugs produce is sufficient to ban one of them, or both, or neither. And when that is answered there are other minefields ahead, such as who should be allowed to take those banned drugs, and what to do about those users who act illegally?

Sadly, squabbling over the role of scientific advisors gets us no nearer to the nub of the debate or helps answer these important questions. Yet someone, someday, scientific advisor or not, will have to tackle them, like it or not.

Philip Bean
Author of Legalising Drugs: Debates and Dilemmas to be published in January.

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2 Responses to “Professor Nutt, the Home Secretary and drug control”

  1. 1 Richard Lyle November 22, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I am in a quandary over what has become rather amusingly known as The Nuttsack Affair. On the one hand, government ministers should be able to rely on expert advisors not undermining stated policy in any given area. On the other hand, scientists should be able to speak freely on any matter in their field of knowledge without fear of censorship.

    I’m not convinced that the scale of harm which Prof Nutt espouses so strongly is any more legitimate as a measure against which to decide the degree to which a substance should be controlled than the scale of moral outrage which currently seems to the preferred choice in policy circles. It’s certainly more defensible politically and that is probably the reason why it stands today. It’s politically more acceptable to permit and tax the sale of alcohol and tobacco and deal with the health problems both allow than to attempt to ban them or licence the sale of ecstasy in their place. After all, nobody likes to think of their local as the venue for self-harm.

  2. 2 big boss December 5, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    i think you should read more of the prof’s work before you make asumptions ,because johnson made that same mistake

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