Yesterday saw the UK government dismiss their chief adviser on drug policy, for having the temerity to offer his considered advice that a welter of evidence suggests that ecstacy and cannabis are less harmful than alcohol. It seems like nothing more than a case of shooting the messenger. Professor David Nutt and his committee have been undertaking independent academic research for years. Why? Because this government have always argued the case for ‘evidence-based’ policy formulation.
The ensuing row, currently taking place, is full of opinions about which drug causes the more harm, and therefore which should be re-classified. This misses the point.You don’t hire your own experts and then fire them for giving you advice you don’t like. Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith states ‘experts advise and governments make decisions’. Quite so. But at least, be honest enough to say that, on this occasion, you’re going to put other prio
rities ahead of evidence-based policy making (like not scaring off the tabloids). Gordon Brown comes out of this particularly badly. Prof Nutt is quoted as saying, “until Gordon Brown took office there has never been a recommendation about drug classification from the council that has been rejected by government. Gordon Brown comes into office and soon after that he starts saying absurd things like cannabis is lethal… it has to be a Class B drug. He has made his mind up.” We’ve seen much the same happening in recent years in education. The Rose Primary review was free to investigate any aspect of the elementary school provision – with the exception of standardised tests (which, as Jim Rose, pointed out, was the ever-present elephant in the room). There is much talk about other academics, currently advising government departments, resigning in protest at the decision, and you can hardly blame them – most of them do this work for no remuneration. When New Labour first came to power, Tony Blair said the had no time for ideology – he was only interested in what worked. That desire, to let evidence drive policy, has long since been crowded out by an increasingly desperate desire to cling on to power.