Advisers are there to advise

I have to say I find myself broadly on the side of the government in the recent row over the sacking of the government’s drug adviser. Scientific advisers are there to advise, but ultimately it’s the politicians whom we have elected to take the decisions. If we don’t like the decisions they take, we can vote them out.

The re-upgrading of cannabis to Class B is said to be the first time since the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was established in 1971 that the government have gone against the council’s advice. I can only say that those advisers have been extremely fortunate, then. Most scientific advisers to governments can certainly expect the government to go against a sizable proportion of their recommendations. Just imagine if governments around the world took all of the steps experts on climate change suggested: the world would certainly be in a much better state than it’s in now. It seems the drugs advisers were so used to getting their way that are now having a bit of a tantrum because the government has said no.

So why can’t the government simply follow the advice of its scientific advisers? It’s because the decisions have implications that go beyond science. In the case of drugs, there may be a particular substance that is causing problems because of its widespread use, even if that particular substance happens to be less harmful than other drugs. In the case of climate change, it’s because of the effect on the economy of shutting down industry and all transport for a start.

If the amount of harm is to be the only measure used in classification, as Professor Nutt (his real name) would have it, there are surely plenty of household chemicals that cause much more harm than any other drugs – if they were to be ingested. So shouldn’t those chemicals be Class A drugs? Of course they are not, because there is no problem of people abusing them. Equally, it may be a good idea to target a drug that is more widespread as it’s more important to discourage people from using it.

Professor Nutt then goes on to criticise the “artificial separation” of alcohol and tobacco from other drugs. I would agree with him that in a system that classifies drugs according to the amount of harm they can cause, those two drugs should be at least Class B. However, it is not currently possible to make use of those drugs illegal for various social and political reasons, even if some of us would be quite happy if it were to happen.

Clearly a system of classification that only considers the harm that each drug can make in a cold, clinical sense, is not the best way to determine penalties for the use of drugs. Many other factors need to be taken into account, and the final decision on policy has to be made by elected representatives. Professor Nutt overstepped the mark – even former chief scientific adviser Sir David King says so – and so had to go. If he disagreed with government policy so much, he should have done the honourable thing and resigned, rather than attacking the government while continuing to work for it. With such a high success rate of having his recommendations acted upon, perhaps he could consider a new role advising the government on climate change – assuming he can avoid producing too much hot air.

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