Fatuous, dangerous, utterly irresponsible

We call for the immediate legalisation of all drugs, writes Eddie Ford

Few issues generate so much irrationality as the question of drugs. Rather we get tabloid-driven, moralistic sound and fury, where small things like facts and evidence are blindly ignored - indeed, themselves become objects of righteous condemnation. Naturally, the government - and, of course, the Tory government-in-waiting - is compelled to join the ‘anti-drugs’ mob, locked as it is into the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’, a prisoner of its own myths and desperate rhetoric.

Hence on becoming prime minister, Gordon Brown promptly - and stupidly - declared that cannabis was “lethal” and, following a media frenzy about the supposed dangers of ‘skunk’, insisted that cannabis be re-reclassified from its then current official governmental status as a class C drug back to the more ‘dangerous’ class B it had been prior to David Blunkett’s 2004 regrading (or downgrading). While the ‘anti-drugs’ Daily Mail was cock-a-hoop at this development, this Alice-in-Wonderland comment set the tone for the Brown administration’s thoroughly backward and reactionary approach to the whole issue - which, in just about every respect, has been more irrational than the one pursued by Blair or the previous Tory government (yes, including Margaret Thatcher).

So we get the sacking last week of the government’s chief drugs adviser, professor David Nutt, from his unpaid position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Not only that: home secretary Alan Johnson - rounding up the usual tabloid posse - has conducted a furious, high-profile media vendetta against Nutt, denouncing him for “interfering” in the policy-making process and “campaigning against government decisions”.

Indeed, some of Johnson’s allies have suggested that the professor - one of the UK’s leading NHS psychiatrists and pharmacologists, it should be noted - is a bit of a crank, so whatever he says should not be taken too seriously. Thus, right on rabid cue, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail launched, cutlass in hand, right into David Nutt, underneath the gloriously frothy headline: “Fatuous, dangerous, utterly irresponsible - the Nutty professor who’s distorting the truth about drugs”. According to Phillips (or ‘mad Mel’, as she is affectionately known), the “entire bien-pensant world appears to have decided that Nutt is a martyr to free speech” - when, in reality, he was “playing politics”, with the professor’s remarks helping to “create a culture of social acceptability for illegal drug-taking”, which can only lead to more young people getting “sucked onto the drug escalator”.

In fact, Phillips darkly argues, the ACMD itself is “part of a trillion-dollar global campaign to legalise drugs”, which has seen “virtually the whole of the drug-related voluntary sector succumbing to the siren song of the legalisers”: with their insidious “discourse” about “harm reduction”, being for Phillips a mere “camouflage for legalisation” - and for years the home office has “supinely gone along with” this permissive tide. But at last, Phillips concludes, the home office has “fought back” and for this “small chink of sanity” the home secretary “deserves praise” - though, she warns, with the ACMD and its supporters “piling on the pressure”, Alan Johnson and the government as a whole “must hold his nerve”.1

But what exactly was Nutt’s terrible crime, deserving of a public scalping by the government and new-found Johnson-groupies like Phillips? The professor committed the near unforgivable sin of telling the truth - that is, he pointed out the simple fact that cannabis and ecstasy cause far less harm than those perfectly legal and easily available drugs, tobacco and alcohol. To this effect, a few days before being fired as ACMD chairman, Nutt gave a lecture at King’s College, London, where he attacked the “artificial separation” of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs.

Therefore, for Nutt, the government’s entire approach to those substances that are presently illegal is disastrously mistaken - as perfectly evidenced by Brown’s imperial dismissal of the ACMD’s recommendations on cannabis, which, of course, was that it remain a class C drug (nor did it give any credence to the ‘skunk scare’). Tellingly, this was the first time since the ACMD was formed in 1971 that its propositions have been brushed aside or that a drug - cannabis - has had its status shifted from a less to more dangerous category.

In other words, as Nutt - quite correctly, of course - never misses an opportunity to highlight, the government’s attitude towards drugs policy is not “evidence-based” but rather irrationally “politicised”. Or, as communists would put it, the UK government has absolutely no regard whatsoever for any notion of scientific objectivity or genuine ‘harm reduction’ with regards to drugs but instead adopts a narrowly ideological stance - driven as it by naked short-term expediency and the mortal fear of alienating ‘popular opinion’ (ie, the fickle prejudices and bigotry of ‘middle England’).

No wonder then that professor Nutt has openly castigated government ministers for “devaluing and distorting evidence”, and described his sacking as a “serious challenge to the value of science in relation to the government”. Furthermore, Nutt refuses to “mislead” the public about the effects of drugs in order to merely convey a “moral message” - as opposed to a scientific or rational one - on behalf of the government, nor will he desist from outlining the mountain of evidence which amply shows that there is only a “relatively small risk” of developing a psychotic illness from smoking cannabis.

As Nutt writes in The Guardian, the current evidence “suggests a probable, but weak, causal link between psychotic illness and cannabis use”, so cannabis smokers “are about 2.6 times more likely to have a psychotic-like experience than non-smokers”. However, as Nutt goes on to say, you need to consider that statistic in perspective - it is essentially the same as saying that “you are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you smoke tobacco than if you don’t”. But then tobacco smoking is perfectly legal, isn’t it? (Interestingly enough, in the same article, Nutt also claims - maybe paradoxically to some - that schizophrenia “seems to be disappearing”, even though cannabis use has “increased markedly in the last 30 years”.)2

Of course, Nutt is a repeat offender as far as the government is concerned. Hence in January the professor - in a lengthy paper for a scientific journal - made his now famous comparison between ecstasy-taking and the practice of horse-riding. Entitled ‘Equasy, an overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms’, the article examined how society assesses - or not - various risks and perceived risks. Quite logically, Nutt explained that the harm from illegal drugs has to be compared, or ‘equalled’, to the harm that can be potentially inflicted when engaging in other legal or non-drug-related pursuits - hence his invented term “equasy”, or “equine addiction syndrome”.

On this basis, Nutt’s paper argued, “equasy” is responsible for 10 deaths a year and over 100 traffic accidents - more or less equivalent to the amount of death and damage caused every year by ecstasy, in so far as these things can be quantified in such a manner. When asked by The Daily Telegraph to expound on his thesis, professor Nutt stated that there was “not much difference” between the harm caused by riding and that by ecstasy - thereby demonstrating that society did not always “adequately balance” all of the nearly endless risks posed just by being alive. After all, he told the newspaper, “making riding illegal would completely prevent all these harms” - so why does not society, or the government, go ahead and do so? The refusal to prohibit horse-riding, ventured Nutt, immediately “raises the critical question of why society tolerates - indeed encourages - certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others, such as drug use”.3 Needless to say, the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith, was outraged by Nutt’s eminently reasonable argumentation and demanded that he apologise. He did not.

Much to the government’s embarrassment, Nutt’s dismissal sparked off a rebellion by other members of the ACMD. So both Dr Les King - senior chemist and a previous head of the Drugs Intelligence Unit in the Forensic Science Service - and Marion Walker - clinical director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s substance misuse service and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s representative on ACMD - resigned in solidarity. Indeed, King told the BBC that the very existence of the ACDM itself was in grave danger - given that the government now treats the council purely as a “rubber stamp” organisation, coming as it does with a “predetermined agenda about drug classification”. Even more damaging for the government, its chief science adviser, professor John Beddington, has come out in explicit support of Nutt’s position - declaring that the “scientific evidence is absolutely clear-cut” as to the damage caused by cannabis/ecstasy vis-à-vis alcohol and tobacco misuse.

Yes, communists too share this disgust at the “devaluing” of scientific evidence, if not science in general - especially as we subscribe to Engels’s dictum: “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers.”4 Just for a minute ponder upon that fully legal and easily available drug - ie, alcohol. I expect many readers will have consumed some of the stuff over the last few days and in all likelihood will do so again over the next few. Now, if ever there was a candidate for a drug being “lethal” - or at least responsible for inflicting the greatest amount of harm and damage to society out of the current crop of drugs - than surely it is this one.

So peruse the NHS statistics for “drinking-related ill-health and mortality” - or drugs overdosing, to put it more bluntly. Hence in 2007 in England there were 112,267 prescription items for the treatment of alcohol dependency prescribed in primary care settings - an increase of 20% since 2003, when there was 93,241 prescription items. In 2006-07, there were 57,142 NHS hospital admissions with a “primary” diagnosis specifically related to alcohol - and this number has risen by 52% since 1995-96. Of these admissions, 4,888 (9%) involved patients under 18 years of age.5 By any yardstick, that legal drug, alcohol, has the potential to inflict great damage upon society - and would surely deserve to be categorised as a ‘class A’ drug if it were judged and evaluated in a similar manner to those such as cannabis/ecstasy. Self-evidently, any attempt at consistency when it comes to the application of drug laws has totally gone to pot.

Clearly then the government’s ‘anti-drugs’ strategy - if you can call it that - is in total disarray, lacking any moral or scientific legitimacy. After 40 years of waging war on drugs, all we have seen is abject failure - to the extent that in the late 1960s, when the ACMD was being set up, there were some 2,000 registered drug addicts, plus maybe a similar number of unregistered addicts. Now there are 360,000 ‘problem’ drug-users, who are vulnerable to dangerously adulterated substances selling at massively inflated prices - making global entrepreneurs out of the ruthless drugs cartels and barons, who every year make an absolute killing.

Here then we have the bitter fruits of the pointless ‘war on drugs’ - enriching gangsters and monstrously criminalising large swathes of society along the way. Just like with prohibition, the ‘noble experiment’ in the US between 1919 and 1933. Not to mention, of course, being a supreme exercise in hypocrisy - we all know that the majority of government ministers, as well as Tory shadow cabinet members, have in their callow youthful past indulged in the “lethal” habit of cannabis smoking (and more besides), yet all miraculously remain alive.

Therefore, do communists call for the ‘equalisation’ of legal and illegal drugs? Yes, but not by calling for a demented consistency - as once expressed by Arthur Scargill and not a few others on the puritanical left over the years - that looks forward to the outlawing of the currently legal drugs such as alcohol. Obviously, that way would lead to authoritarian madness - if not the breakdown of society, with virtually everyone becoming criminals overnight (even Daily Mail readers). No, rather, we in the CPGB unequivocally call for the immediate legalisation of all drugs - not just cannabis or ecstasy. Openness, legality and full, uninhibited, debate provide the best conditions for the assessment of the relative dangers of this or that drug, habit, practice or pastime - and, where necessary, what would constitute the most effective course of treatment and rehabilitation: not stigmatisation or punitive measures.

Drinking a pint of beer or smoking a joint poses no inherent dangers - either to yourself or society as a whole. Any more than horse-riding or kite-flying. Hence for communists the crucial struggle is for the socialisation of drug-taking - whether it be alcohol, cannabis or ecstasy. In that way, ‘drugs’ can help us to live a full, rounded, joyful life - as opposed to diminishing or even destroying us.