Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tripping over Nutt

The Nutt episode has revealed the limits of the Home Office's criminal justice approach to drugs policy

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) in 1971 on a premise that was thought radical at the time - an independent panel of heavy-weight experts from a range of fields would offer policy advice on drugs not just as a criminal justice issue, but as a social phenomenon too.

Sadly, for most of its existence the ACMD has been used by the government, as one member Dr Les King put it: ‘ a rubber stamp, a poodle'. That changed with the appointment of Professor David Nutt. He is outspoken, principled, and not easily cowed by authority figures, as well as being a leading specialist with impeccable scientific credentials. That combination proved too much for the home secretary, Alan Johnson, who sacked him for telling an inconvenient truth - government policy is not evidence based.

In fact it is an evidence-free zone. Both internationally and domestically, we see drug supply and availability increasing; use of drugs that cause the most harm increasing; health harms increasing; and massive levels of crime leading to a crisis in our criminal justice systems. Illicit drug profits are enriching criminals, fuelling conflict and undermining security and development in producer and transit countries from Mexico and Guinea Bissau, to Afghanistan and Colombia, with the gravest impacts falling upon the poor and marginalised. Yet particularly at a time of economic stricture, it is crucial that drugs expenditure is cost-effective and humane, which it often manifestly is not.

That is why we have been urging the ACMD to call for a comprehensive review of policy, in the form of an independent and comprehensive impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act. An impact assessment comparing the costs and benefits of current policy with all the alternatives, from stepping up prohibition, through Portuguese-style decriminalisation, to legal regulation would be a process behind which all stakeholders genuinely interested in evidence-based policy could unite, helping break the emotive, polarised deadlock in the debate around drug policy reform. In the longer term, it would ensure greater transparency and trust in the decision-making process, and most importantly help to determine which mix of policies is most likely to deliver the best outcomes.

In the UK, it is now a requirement for all new legislation to have an impact assessment done before it comes before parliament, but this was not the case in 1971 when the MDA was enacted. As we stated during a recent meeting with the prime minister, we believe it is time to correct that anomaly. The UN should also carry out a similar exercise at international level to incorporate impacts on producer and transit countries.

Given this is such an eminently sensible call, why hasn't it happened already? For the same reason Professor Nutt was sacked - the government doesn't want the evidence made public because it knows what it would show. As Bob Ainsworth said when we put a similar request to him when he was drugs minister: ‘Why would we do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?'

Accepting the evidence will demand a much more fundamental reform of how drugs policy is handled by the government than tweaking the MDA. Just as with terrorism where security concerns are paramount and there is huge resistance to considering the root causes of radicalisation, the Home Office perceives everything in a criminal justice light. In American psychologist Abraham Maslow's analogy, when the only tool it has is a hammer, it sees all challenges as nails. Ultimately, we need to de-securitise drugs policy, get the lead on it out of the Home Office, and into the normal kind of cross-departmental framework within which other elements of government social policy operate.

This article originally appeared on the Progress website here.


Anonymous said...

The MDA is fine, it just needs administering fairly. No need to get new legislation.

Anonymous said...

The big problem is that too many people rely on drug prohibition for a comfy living.

This is true all the way from big shots at the home office down to prison officers and the people who staff the various semi-charities based around prohibition.

Take away prohibition and many of them will never get another comparable job.

Add to that the votes to be gained from stirring up a 'Daily Mail' moral panic on drugs and there you have it, prohibition works!

However, the fact that Nutt had to be silenced shows just how fragile it really is.

Johnson and others of his ilk know that it would never withstand any serious examination.

That's why sites like this are so important.

Pebble-dasher. said...

Prohibition, as mentioned above, certainly provides employment for millions across the globe.
Not unlike the medieval Spanish witch-hunts for non-catholics, followed in Britain by campaigns against the catholics, then the persecution and imprisonment of homosexuals....
The anti-drug campaigners are so like the priests of the Spanish inquisition, paid by the establishment to spread fear and to instill obedience.....simply because they cannot command respect without force.

Ian S said...

Unless "anonymous" works on a north sea trawler or empties the bins, accusing others of making a "comfy living" from drug prohibition sounds like a hypocritical libertarian rant and the last and least persuasive reason for supporting evidence based drug policy. There are good reasons for finding ways to effectively control drugs (as we can see with alcohol). What David Nutt is trying to do and I assume so is Transform is establishing ways of doing this that actually work, are understood and bought into by most of society and that this probably involves making a lot less use of the criminal justice system and less of a role for organised crime.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in the substance misuse field for nearly 30 years I have first hand experience of working with this client group and the harm arising from misusing substances. The most harm arises from public vilification and media hype and misinformation -the Daily Mail syndrome - professing morality but actually preaching inhumanity and misplaced judgement, so hypocritical. I think sacking Prof. Nutt was absolutely appalling since his opinion is based on scientific evidence. All governments, whatever colour need to review treatment of substance misuse and listen to evidence. Legalisation and proper control should be considered and a range of flexible services made available. Less moral judgements made and social inclusion encouraged - correct information given, less attention given to Daily Mail readers and the courage to offer radicle ideas when dealing with substance misuse. Listen to the scientists!