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Policy by Tabloid?

by In Wales Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 10:27:46 AM EST

Articles like this one always worry me...

Ministers will not be required to seek the advice of scientists when  making drug classification policy in future, under new government  proposals.

The police reform and social responsibility bill,  published last week, contains an amendment to the constitution of the  Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that would remove the requirement on the home secretary to appoint at least six scientists to the committee.

A  further amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 would allow the home  secretary to place temporary controls on substances for a year by  statutory instrument.

See more in today's Guardian.  The article itself is fairly straightforward, highlighting how the proposals effectively do away with the ACMD, rather than looking to reform it to iron out the current problems.  I'm feeling a sense of deja vu here, it isn't the first committee/body to be scrapped rather than have it's remit reviewed or redefined and action taken to sort out the issues.  Far be it for me to accuse the Government of throwing the baby out with the bathwater though.

Classification of drugs invariably turns into a highly emotive issue with right wing tabloids shrieking about moral decline,stirring up a moral panic of people demanding that it's time the Government took a stand... we end up with ideologically driven policies, that don't have evidence to back them up.  The requirement is being removed to allow 'greater flexibility' to consult more widely to draw in other expertise, to me that speaks of picking the evidence that supports the ideology or choosing scientists that are willing to put a particular spin on their findings (they do exist, read Bad Science). 

It also sets a dangerous precendent.  If it is ok to cherry pick scientific advice on drugs classification, it becomes ok to cherry pick in other policy areas.  That is a real cause for concern when we are looking at areas that many MPs and lobbying groups will lack a detailed understanding of.  We need more MPs with scientific backgrounds to start with, but we also need robustly independent scientific advisors who will work and advise with integrity to inform evidence based policy making. 

Science isn't black and white, methodology can be tweaked to bias findings, results can be spun to fit a preferred hypothesis, and picking evidence to support potentially dangerous prejudices to fit ideology is something we need to guard against, not legislate for.

I would suggest that drug policy has never been evidence led. Rather than driving policy, the science has been used more as a fig-leaf to justify the moral posturing of politicians.

It has always been this way. Cocaine, like the drink absinthe, was originally banned at the beginning of the 20th century because of outrage at the "dissolute behaviour" of bohemian people rather than any dispassionate measure of the harm it did.

Marijuana was banned in the 30s largely as a result of one particularly racist FBI agent who saw that it was mainly used by coloured people and so making it illegal had little impact on white people while enabling a moral stance to be taken against the laxity of black people.

All of the Reefer Madness scare tactics of the 50s and 60s was a complete fabrication, as indeed most drug "education" remains today.

Heroin ceased to be a legally available prescription drug in the UK at the beginning of the 70s against the protest of all medical and addiction professionals who were consulted. At the time there were 500 registered addicts in the UK and apparently little illegal trade in the drug. A decade ago there were 500,000 known heroin addicts and that was considered to be a similar number who were using the drug regularly.

So, when exactly has science been involved in the process ? Politicians are accountants, lawyers and public relations people; not only do they know nothing of science, they don't care to know anything of science. Science people are below stairs people, they  do what they're told and are neither seen nor heard. Indeed they are not expected to know of wider events nor are they expected to be able to understand them

As per Stevens views in Remains of the Day;-
Let us establish this quite clearly: a butler's duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation. The fact is, such great affairs will always be beyond the understanding of those such as you and I, and those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by devoting our attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 11:29:11 AM EST
I don't disagree, and the whole thing with the ACMD kicked off last year when Alan Johnson sacked Prof Nutt for his insistence that alcohol was the most harmful of drugs. It has been like this for a long time, but scientific evidence is becoming increasingly important in decision making.  It's a topical issue so I'm commenting on it.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 11:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah no, scientific evidence is NOT becoming more important indecision making. It should be, but it isn't. And, as the closing down of the drug advisory council shows, any science unit which offers advice that consistently conflicts with the prejudices of the Daily Mail will be summarily closed down.


keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 12:00:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I should have said the need for scientific evidence is increasing...
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 12:09:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nothing much will happen until we get rid of so-called Representative Democracy. Sadly our representatives often represent only themselves.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 12:27:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They only rarely represent democracy!

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Dec 8th, 2010 at 12:30:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What's the point of importing heroin from Afghanistan without a domestic market?

I don't doubt that some pols are merely ignorant and stupid. But drug running remains immensely profitable, and a reality-based policy might ruffle feathers that should ideally remain unruffled.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Dec 7th, 2010 at 04:43:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One more shameful, reactionary Tory policy abetted by so-called Liberal Democrats.

Of all the ways of organizing banking, the worst is the one we have today — Mervyn King, 25 October 2010
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 03:35:50 PM EST
It goes back way longer than that!

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 7th, 2010 at 04:32:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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