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Dan McKee

The Science of Politics

In late October, 2009, Professor David Nutt was sacked from his position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), following two major clashes between official government drugs policy and his "outspoken" personal views.
The first clash came from an academic paper Nutt published in January, 2009, entitled Equasy, an over-looked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms. In this paper, the well-respected expert in neuropsychopharmacology argued a very simple premise: the harm caused by illegal drugs is equal to harm caused in other, more socially acceptable, legal pastimes; yet it is only drug-based harm which is penalized and legislated against.
Nutt focused, in the paper, on the love of horse-riding, or "equasy", as he jokingly called it (a made up term to describe a condition he dubbed as "equine addiction syndrome"), comparing the harm caused to self and others by "equasy", to the level of harm to self and others stemming from the use of the illegal drug ecstasy. The conclusion was as compelling as it was simple: when ten deaths a year and over a hundred traffic accidents are caused by the perfectly legal pursuit of "equasy", why is it that horse-riding is considered any less dangerous than taking ecstasy? And if one form of similarly harmful behavior is deemed to be legal and socially acceptable, why then isn’t the other?
Although this was an academic paper, written in Professor Nutt’s professional capacity (and not an official government document, released under the auspices of the ACMD), the paper sparked a knee-jerk furore from those appalled by Nutt’s bold suggestion that the drug might not actually be the unequivocal poison it is traditionally depicted as being in the media. Indeed, he was forced to apologize by then-Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and, when the ACMD later made the suggestion that the drug be downgraded from being a Class A substance to being a Class B, the advice was roundly ignored.
Recognizing that political prudence and real scientific fact were two very separate things (and that he was, first and foremost, a scientist, not a politician), Nutt did not ignore the science behind his position on drugs just because it was revealed to be politically unfavourable. Although a government minister, necessarily concerned with public opinion, might choose to ignore rational argument and empirical data if the conclusions they yield turn out to be a PR nightmare, a scientist dedicated to a factually supported and objectively researched understanding of truth does not have that luxury. Despite his official advice being ignored, Nutt remained committed to his well-supported position and, over the summer, gave a private academic lecture on the relative risks of a wide variety of drugs, in which he concluded that the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, were much more harmful than many illegal drugs currently criminalized in the UK, such as: cannabis, ecstasy, and even LSD. Further still, Nutt argued that Jacqui Smith’s proclaimed "precautionary principle" method of dealing with drug-laws was often counter-productive; targeting her move to reverse the decision to downgrade cannabis. By doing this, he argued, the drug not only gained a new notoriety and cachet on the streets, which made people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested more eager to seek it out, but it also served to confuse the public, who were now seeing a consistent clash between the supported scientific evidence about drugs, and the direction of government strategy.
"It starts to distort the value of evidence," said Nutt. And clearly he is right. If all the real and demonstrable scientific evidence points to, say, cannabis being an objectively less harmful drug than alcohol, yet the policies we have in place – in spite of all that evidence – continue to treat marijuana possession as a prisonable offence whilst keeping wine and beer flowing freely on the streets, it implicitly puts forward the message that verifiable scientific evidence is no better a tool for seeking truth than unsubstantiated, knee-jerk opinion. Yet it was for making these valid criticisms of current government drugs policy – a defence of hard science, logic and reason against inconsistent and baseless politics, with no justificatory intellectual foundation – that Smith’s successor, Alan Johnson, finally decided to fire Professor Nutt from his position on the ACMD. Nutt, according to Johnson, had over-stepped his remit, and undermined the government’s attempts to send out a clear message on drugs.
As a leading expert on neuropsychopharmacology, however, (the effects of pharmaceuticals on the brain) who was hired to be the government’s chief adviser on drug’s policy; to me, it seems plain that any inconsistencies between what Professor Nutt and his office were saying, and what the government was actually doing, must be placed squarely at the feet of the government, and not with Professor Nutt. By not following the guidance of the scientific evidence on this complicated issue, and pursuing instead a policy based solely around how legislation would play in the tabloids this close to a general election, the British government have undermined the credibility of their own message on drugs all by themselves. Chasing favorable headlines – instead of what might actually be best for its citizens – two consecutive Home Secretaries have now ignored the empirically based conclusions of its senior scientific advisor on this particular issue because their practical ramifications were unpalatable. When the dissonance between the policies they were pursuing and the truth of the actual evidence became too threatening, they chose to shoot the messenger rather than confront his sound but inconvenient truths.
Now, before anyone reading this gets the misconception that I am some brainwashed and bitter stoner, angry that my precious drugs are being re-criminalized by my government, and frustrated that the holy grail of legalization has once more been taken away, let me lay my cards out on the table. Far from being a habitual user of recreational drugs, I am what people round these parts would call: "straightedge" (though it’s a title I personally eschewed for years because of the unpleasant cult-like mentality some of its advocates developed during the late-nineties). This straightedge lifestyle isn’t a recent development; I am not making up now for past abuses by going cold turkey on old habits and taking a crash-course in sobriety. In my near-three decades on this planet I have never once done a single non-prescription drug, never once smoked a cigarette, never once drank a beer, never even tasted spirits or hard liquor, and – apart from one glass of white wine at the age of twelve, and a couple of celebratory sips of champagne when I was even younger and didn’t know what I was doing – I have never willingly drunk alcohol in my life. I have never been "high", I have never been drunk, and, despite the usual moments of peer pressure in school toilets and ill-advised teenage gatherings, I have never felt the need to light up a burning stick of deadly carcinogen and inhale it into my lungs for pleasure.
I do not oppose the firing of Professor David Nutt because, like thousands of other pro-legalization supporters, I am sick of risking my freedom every time I want to smoke a joint. I oppose the firing of Professor David Nutt because my straightedge belief that all drugs are harmful, stupid and unnecessary distractions to a meaningful and fulfilling life, (used to keep populations docile and psychologically controlled via the quick-fix solution of ephemeral false-pleasures that make people too stoned and vacant to effectively fight the real causes of their anxiety and despair; thus sacrificing real and permanent change and happiness – possibly of the revolutionary variety – for hollow and artificial hallucinations that keep them compliant and enslaved) is, at its core, a belief in putting science, reason and fact before mindlessness, irrationality and false comfort. The cornerstone of my own personal rejection of drugs and alcohol is the idea that an authentic sense of happiness and wellbeing is a much better pursuit for each of us than its numbed and synthetic, narcotically-induced facsimile. By prioritizing that which is true and meaningful over a patchwork of easy, but empty, lies, the same commitment to truth and clarity over illusion and unthinking that makes me personally opposed to taking drugs, makes it impossible for me not to defend scientific evidence like that of Professor David Nutt’s over the unfounded and reactionary drug policies of a headline-pandering government. I may not personally like drugs, but I cannot deny the science and logic behind calls for their legalization.
As David Nutt made clear: alcohol and tobacco demonstrably kill thousands of people in the UK each year. According to the British government’s own Office of National Statistics, there were 8,724 deaths from alcohol in 2007 alone (with some sources claiming the real number to be even higher, once alcohol-related deaths are taken into account too). Tobacco, meanwhile, kills an estimated 100,000 people a year. As unnecessary and dangerous, non-essential items in our lives, there is no compelling reason for either of these drugs to be legalized, yet both of them are freely sold – and profitably taxed – by governments around the world. Once you have permitted these two confirmed killers to be sold without a problem though, you then have either one of two logically consistent options regarding the legal classification of any other drug that is demonstrably less dangerous: you must either legalize those other drugs too, on the same argument – whatever it is – that made you legalize alcohol and tobacco in the first place, or, you must concede that all drugs are dangerous and completely ban them all.
The history of prohibition has shown us what happens when governments try to ban things for which there is an insatiable market. Indeed, there is no better example of how prohibition doesn’t work, than the world’s thriving drugs market today: every banned substance on Earth can still be easily acquired by those with the money to pay for it. Even our prisons – right at the heart of our criminal justice system, right under our police officer’s noses – are swamped with an influx of easily accessible narcotics and home-brewed hooch: prohibition doesn’t solve the problem, it merely sweeps it underground.
This undeniable truism – that banning these substances doesn’t work – is the underlying argument used to validate the continued non-criminalization of alcohol and tobacco. It is an argument I agree with, and it is an argument which clearly applies to all other drugs too: whilst total prohibition simply doesn’t work, sufficient regulation of potentially harmful substances can demonstrably help temper some of their dangers and keep their usage under control.
Right now, there is a hugely lucrative black-market in illegal drugs – the people who want them are not denied their vice just because it is illegal; they just have to work harder to get it – and when the hard science continues to tell us that some of these currently banned substances are much less harmful to us than the two highly prized drugs we have arbitrarily decided to allow into our societies – alcohol and tobacco – there seems to be no good reason at all why we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and concede defeat at these ridiculous attempts to police people’s appetites: clearly, criminalization does not work.
Not only does it not work regarding the basic issue of keeping the drugs off our streets, it also doesn’t work because, by making drugs illegal, we create a whole host of brand new problems and dangers on top of any legitimate chemical concerns.
By forcing those who crave drugs to buy from criminal markets, we create those criminal markets. People become beholden to the exploitative extortionate prices of the mob, with no other choice of supplier; some even going on to commit other crimes, such as robbery or murder, to feed their growing addictions. This is not the fault of the drugs themselves, but the fault of legislation. With the drugs being illegal, most addiction remains untreated, and desperate users are led into taking drastic action once they can’t meet the asking price of their unregulated dealers. Fearing imprisonment should they "come out" and try to seek professional help for their dependency, users become victims, stuck in a cycle of uncontrollable cravings from which there is no easy escape.
Another corollary of criminalization is that it actually increases the levels of harm that taking these drugs exposes us to. Many of the deaths and medical complications that come from taking illegal drugs these days, stem from a mixture of nefarious criminal dealers cutting an expensive "pure" product with dangerous and unknown additives (bulking up their stash in order to double its potential profits), and the fact that, being illegal, there are no clear instructions or health warnings concerning what to do with your drugs once you’ve got them. Whilst we are constantly told each day about the acceptable number of "units" of alcohol that we should consume in any twenty-four hour period, how smoking will kill us, and even guided on the levels of nutrients, fats and sugars that we should be eating when buying our food, the average teenager buying an ecstasy pill at a nightclub remains completely unaware about what exactly the drug will be doing to their body, and how they should therefore respond to it. Should they drink lots of water, to stop their body from overheating? Or does too much water actually kill you on ecstasy, because the kidneys can shut down? With no instruction booklet to guide you when buying junk out on the streets – with no health and safety regulation, government oversight or industry standards with which to comply – the supposedly "protected" citizen does not know what the fuck they are buying, or how to take it without causing themselves harm.
This is why, despite being straightedge, I think that all drugs should be legalized. Not just the ones safer than cigarettes and alcohol, but everything.
That is not, of course, to say that I necessarily endorse a world where we sell cocaine and heroin in every neighbourhood chemist; but it is to suggest that even drugs such as these ones would be much better off supplied to addicts by professionally trained doctors who know what they’re doing, on prescription – with additional help and support offered to gradually wean them out of the habit, without sending them directly to jail – than by thugs on the street, simply looking to make some blood money off a terminally addicted clientele.
I still won’t buy them once they’re legal, but with all drugs on some level inherently deadly, dangerous, and detrimental (yet impossible to stamp out so long as the world we’ve created for ourselves remains ridiculously predisposed to inducing tedium, anxiety, trepidation and fear; the relief from which makes such drugs often seem like a necessity – hey, even a straightedge goody-two-shoes like me needs his coffee three times a day!) picking just two of them out, seemingly at random, as being somehow "better" for us than any of the other substances on offer (especially when the research tells us completely the opposite) simply makes no sense. What’s more, it makes our streets more dangerous, puts our drug-curious citizens more at risk, and it means that millions of extra pounds that could be generated in lucrative taxation and drug manufacturing jobs instead get pumped into the criminal underground, funding murderers, gangsters, and, yes, terrorism too.
If we legalized and taxed even a small selection of the drugs currently prohibited by law, there would be no economic crisis. Social security would be secure; hospitals and schools would no longer have to compete with "defence" budgets for money…hell, we might even be able to give public sector workers a pay-rise or two and, dare I say it, even raise people’s benefits?
So yeah, I’m the straightedge guy who thinks all drugs should be legal because I believe in free-will and self-discipline over externally enforced baseless government-dictated moralities. But the sacking of Professor Nutt speaks to a much deeper problem in contemporary British politics than just the relatively innocuous question of what particular brand of mind-numbing narcotic we should be freely allowed to piss away our lives with. The real scandal here is not that David Nutt told us ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding, or that he dared tell his peers that alcohol and tobacco were bigger killers than LSD; it is that our government has once again let the compelling data of scientific fact fall on deaf ears, proceeding to take a position on drugs which flies in the face of all expert opinion; a legislative practice which has much bigger implications that the mere classification of cannabis or LSD.
How many times, for example, have we recently heard that same government talk about Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme?
In September this year, after what is now known as the "Fordo" reactor site was discovered by the CIA, MI6 and the French DGSE Intelligence Agency, Iran admitted in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that they were building a secret uranium enrichment plant, causing huge stirs around the Western world. Considered "proof" of a wider nuclear weapons project, the admission of the development of a fledgling enrichment site saw the country roundly condemned by world leaders, and the Fordo reactor became cited as "evidence" that years’ worth of rumour and accusation about Iranian nuclear weaponry was now indisputably true.
Following the duplicitous way in which we were dragged into war with Iraq, the need for calm and rationale, objective, scientific fact here, in place of prejudice, propaganda and misinformation, is clear. Is the Fordo site proof that the Iranians can’t be trusted? Is it really the first menacing step towards our nuclear Armageddon, or is it what the Iranians say it is: an innocent uranium enrichment facility designed for a peaceful domestic programme of nuclear power? (That same "clean and safe" nuclear power that our own Western governments are so keen to constantly tell us is the environmentally friendly solution to our current carbon-dependency, and for which, here in Britain, there are plans already unveiled to build a whole new generation of reactors by as soon as 2018?)
Unless we start listening to scientists – people who actually know how these nuclear reactors work; the nuances of capability determined by centrifuge capacity; the qualitative differences between warhead enrichment and energy creation – then we are left only with the words of our governments to guide us. Those same deceitful politicians who we entrusted with the "evidence" of supposed Iraqi nuclear weapons programmes back in 2003.
As with David Nutt and our current foolhardy drugs policy, when it came to what was really happening in Iraq, the expert advice – though widely available – was ignored. At the time of this writing, according to the conservative estimates of Iraq Body Count, between 94,144 and 102,728 Iraq civilians have thus far been killed by that treacherous decision. 4,681 coalition soldiers have also been killed. That is, by even the lowest estimates, over thirty-three nine-elevens’ worth of death and destruction doled out, for those who are counting, and all because our war-hungry governments decided to ignore all the available factual evidence and go to war with unfounded and unsupported policies that played well in the tabloids and got the brain-dead patriots rallying blindly round the flag.
In terms of Iran, I am not saying that their Fordo reactor is not a viable concern – perhaps Tehran is, as our governments have been asserting for years, trying to build a nuclear bomb so that they can wipe Israel off the face of the planet and kick-start World War III? What I am saying though, is that I want the basis of any conclusions we ultimately make about what Iran is doing, and how we might respond to it, to come from experts, scientists, specialists – people who deal in solid, empirically-based facts – not agenda-blinded governments who shrug away the difficult truths that don’t fit in with their already predetermined worldview, and then sell lies to the public as reality, in order to turn fiction into a basis for policy.
We live in tumultuous times, and the verifiable and well-documented answers provided by science, and those hundreds of thousands of diligent researchers in all kinds of specialist fields not constricted by twenty-four hour news-cycles, fashionable search-trends and 140 characters or less – they should be the cornerstone of any relevant policy decisions our government makes, not the paranoid ranting and raving of unhinged tabloid readers.
This is a world that is quite literally in peril because of our collective scientific ignorance since the industrial revolution. A world where listening to what climate scientists are telling us might be our only key to survival after a century and change of our own fossil-fuelled self-destruction. Yet, like David Nutt, what these climate scientists are telling us is not always politically sensitive: an 80% reduction of our carbon emissions needed by 2050, or else the damage is irrevocable; an urgent need to radically change our everyday lifestyles and most basic cultural assumptions; an imminent peak-oil crisis; the end of air-travel as we know it; a rejection of the push for nuclear power that well-lobbied politicians are so currently keen on, and the proper funding and commitment for clean, renewable energies like wind and solar power, that don’t leave us with mountains of toxic waste, continued nuclear proliferation, and the ever-present threat of a catastrophic meltdown…
If our government can’t even bear to be told that perhaps smoking cannabis might be just as bad (if not better) than smoking a cigarette, then how the hell do we expect them to process the truly life-changing scientific data concerning what we must do about something as drastic as climate change?
The survival of the planet, our health, the lives of our soldiers and innocent civilians worldwide – these are just a few of the vital areas in which a need for fact over fantasy is crucial, yet time and time again our governments have eschewed logic, reason and awkward empirical data to push through an agenda of their own – usually one politically or financially motivated. An agenda drawn up by lobbyists and ideological think-tanks to boost opinion polls and private coffers, no matter what the damage and danger to the general population.
The firing of one scientific advisor on a tiny island nation might seem like quite an insignificant event in the global scheme of things, but with the sacking of David Nutt comes an important lesson for us all: as our elected leaders continue to ignore the weight of science and reason in favour of substanceless, crowd-pleasing untruths, they do so at our peril. We can only bury our heads in the sand for so long, before we find we are soon choking to death on the dirt.

DaN McKee, 19th November 2009

If you enjoyed this – long! – article, and want to be kept up to date with some much shorter, as-it-happens, political stuff, then check out my ongoing politics blog: 
http://thetoneofouroppression.blogspot.com.  If you’re strangely interested in me as a person, and randomly want to know about my life, check out my online journal at: http://profitganda.blogspot.com.  If you remember me from way-back-when, and like the bands I was in (ACADEMY MORTICIANS and BULLET OF DIPLOMACY) back in the day, then check out http://www.myspace.com/danmckee to hear what I’m up to now.  If you like pop-punk, check out: http://www.myspace.com/thewhiningmaggots.  It’s great to be back writing for SCANNER again, and I hope this will become a bi-monthly regular feature of the site.  If you wanna get in touch: whokilledculture@yahoo.co.uk is the place where all my junk mail goes.


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Column Two - Green Day, Birmingham LG Arena, 28 October 2009
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