Death by Bar Chart

October 31, 2009 at 9:29 am | Posted in Drugs | Leave a comment

I don’t suppose there are many dignified ways of being sacked by your employer, but ‘Death By Bar Chart’ must be one of the least savoury ways to go. In his lecture to the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies, Professor David Nutt included this rather inconvenient illustration of the level of harm caused by a range of dangerous substances:

drug harm

As you can see, Nutt’s table had alcohol and tobacco ranked as more harmful than a whole host of intoxicants, including cannabis, LSD and ecstacy. From this little illustration, a sprawl of tabloid stories was spawned and the government’s chief adviser on drugs had unconsciously secured his own sacking.

Given his stormy relationship with the Home Office, the sacking itself had an eye-rolling inevitability to it, but when you read the careful, methodical and rather unremarkable content of Nutt’s lecture, you’re really left wondering what all the bloody fuss was about.

It really is tame stuff. At no point does he call for legalisation, or even decriminalisation; he reminds his audience of Britain’s international obligations, and the role he played in securing extra funding for prevention campaigns & rehabilitation centres. Sure, there’s criticism of this government’s wrong-headed decision to reject his advice on cannabis classification, but he did so in an inquisitive, systematic way; even going so far as to produce a chart showing how advice from science was competing with pressure from many other parts of the body politic:


It’s the lecture of a man who is realistic about the social stigma of illegal drugs, particularly in the mainstream media, and is just frustrated by our inability to compare the harms of consumption with the harms caused by other, completely legal activities. And whilst this might come across to some as an implicit argument for decriminalisation, I’ll let the good professor speak to that.

I think we have to accept young people like to experiment – with drugs and other potentially harmful activities – and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. A fully scientifically-based Misuse of Drugs Act where drug classification accurately reflects harms would be a powerful educational tool. Using the Act in a political way to give messages other than those relating to relative harms undermines the Act and does great damage to the educational message.

In other words, young people can spot the bullshit being fed to them by our Majesty’s expenses-gobbling ex-potheads, and if you really want to have a more effective, mature drugs policy, you need to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act so that it accurately reflects harm. That’s actually a little too moderate for my liking, but would still be a dramatic improvement on the current mess we have.

For me, this sacking reflects just how hysterical this country has become in the drugs debate. I could accept and support Professor Nutt’s removal if he was shown to be a bad scientist or was misleading the public. But a government which sacks a scientist because it simply don’t like the science is operating out of such irrationality and fear that it doesn’t even deserve science advisers in the first place. Sadly, I suspect that’s what has happened here.


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