Something must be done, now?

Last year, Professor David Nutt, founder of the newly formed Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, wrote a blog entry in response to the previous Government’s decision to ban methedrone, a so-called ‘legal high’. He commented that ‘the niceties of legal process and proper procedure on drug classification are as nothing beside the media-driven political demand that something must be done, and done now’. Furthermore, he suggested that the relationship between science and politics was at stake as was the very cause of evidence-based policy making. The date was April 1st, but this was not a joke. Nutt had been on a collision course with certain New Labour ministers for some time culminating with his dismissal as the Chair of ACMD on the accusation of ‘trivialising’ the dangers of drugs by suggesting, amongst other things, that ecstasy use was less harmful than horse-riding. This was just one episode in the whirligig surrounding the issue of drug classification and evidence prominent in the media.

Later in 2010 in the aftermath of Nutt’s removal from ACMD and the change of Government came the sensationalist headline in the Guardian that the ‘Government proposes to scrap the need for scientific advice on drugs policy’. This was in response to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. Tucked away inside this, alongside proposals to reform the organisation of policing and to establish new regulations about policing protests, was the desire to amend the constitution of the ACMD so that it was no longer necessary to include members with ‘experience in specified activities’. These include medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, the pharmaceutical industry, and chemistry. In addition ‘persons with wide experience of social problems connected with the misuse of drugs’ may also be dispatched.

In the research paper accompanying the Bill it states that the ‘amendment effectively removes the requirement for the ACMD to have any particular kind of expertise’. Here the operative words are ‘particular kind’, but in the aftermath of the publication of the Bill, trench warfare resumed. Critics such as the Drug Equality Alliance suggested that the Bill is, in effect, sweeping away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria to fulfill the need to be seen to be doing something. In response, the minister responsible James Brokenshire commented that ‘scientific advice is absolutely critical to the government’s approach to drugs and any suggestion that we are moving away from it is absolutely untrue’. Such debates mirror those about the evidence-base for the drug classification system, in particular, and heavily politicised areas more generally. Here supporters proclaim policies to be evidence-based whilst simultaneously detractors cry foul that the evidence is neglected. Such debates generate headlines but neither is accurate and rarely can policy be reduced to such straightforward accounts. A different conclusion is that policy formulation is frequently a jumble of evidence-based policy and policy-based evidence. This more sober reading is, however, unlikely to grasp the media headlines.

Mark Monaghan, author of Evidence versus politics

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