End the war on drugs

Once again, science and capitalism's irrationality collide. Eddie Ford examines the latest study

Communists believe that the truth is revolutionary. Therefore we strongly subscribe to Engels’s famous dictum: “The more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers.” Anything which advances a more scientific and rational understanding of the world - whether in the natural sciences or the field of political economy - we applaud, and anything which impedes such progress we rigorously oppose. Marxism and scientific socialism demands nothing less.

Which bring us to the ‘drugs question’, an issue which tends to generate anything but rationality - rather its complete opposite. So instead of informed debate we get the noisy, moralistic indignation of the mass media, embarked on a campaign to drown out inconvenient things like facts and evidence. Of course, the government - this one no less than the last one - is ideologically committed to the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’, come hell or high water. Hence we are stuck with the destructive policy of drugs prohibition, which, just like with the ‘noble experiment’ inflicted on the United States between 1919 and 1933 - prohibition - only acts to enrich gangsters and criminalise large sections of society. And, of course, it makes it far more likely that drugs misusers, or addicts, will not receive the treatment or help they need and should get. Indeed, it almost guarantees that they will be left to the tender mercies of crooks or the punishing arm of the law.

However, there are those who want to tell the truth - and not just in the workers’ movement. Hence The Lancet medical journal on November 1 published a study co-authored by professor David Nutt, one of the world’s leading neuropsychopharmacologists[1] and an expert on disorders relating to anxiety, depression and addiction. In the study, he and his fellow author  contend - or rather confirmed - that the entirely legal drug, alcohol, is markedly more harmful than heroin or crack.

The report involved ranking 20 drugs according to 16 measures of ‘harm’ - to users and also to society in general: crime, “family adversities” (ie, relationship breakdowns), environmental damage, economic costs, “international damage”, etc. After running these various models, the authors were compelled to conclude that, while heroin, crack and metamfetamine - otherwise known as crystal meth - were the most harmful drugs to individuals, alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were the most harmful to society as a whole. Critically, when the scores for both types of harm were factored together, alcohol clearly emerged as the most dangerous - followed by heroin and crack. The study also ventured that cocaine and tobacco - another totally legal drug - were equally harmful, whilst ecstasy and LSD were among the least damaging.

Or to put it a more statistical way. On a scale of 1-100 of harm/damage, alcohol was an easy winner: scoring 72 points. Heroin was in second place with 55 points and crack cocaine third on 54. The others were way behind - crystal meth was the next dangerous with 33 points, followed by ‘pure’ cocaine (27) and tobacco (26). As for cannabis, it ended up with a relatively lowly 20. Mephedrone, better know to some as ‘meowmeow’ - and which in April was stupidly ‘reclassified’ into a class B drug - scored a mere 13 point. The lowest scorers were butane (11), anabolic steroids (10), khat (9), ecstasy (9), LSD (7), buprenorphine (7) and finally magic mushrooms at the bottom (or top, depending on your viewpoint) with six points.[2]

So, for example, ecstasy is only one eighth as potentially harmful as alcohol. The inescapable and logical deduction from the Lancet study is that if all drugs were measured or classified according to the harm they actually do - as opposed to what we imagine or pretend they do - alcohol would immediately be categorised as a class A drug alongside heroin and crack cocaine, maybe even placed in its own special category of A+. Imagine the panic.

Thus in the words of professor Nutt: “But if you take overall harm, then alcohol, heroin and crack are clearly more harmful than all others, so perhaps drugs with a score of 40 or more could be class A; 39 to 20 class B; 19-10 class C and 10 or under class D”. This re-reclassification, using the Nutt criteria, would result in tobacco being labelled a class B drug alongside cocaine and cannabis - possibly - retaining its class B status (rather than reverting to the class C it had enjoyed between January 2004 and January 2009). Obviously, ecstasy and LSD would end up in the lowest drug category, D.

Talking about the UK’s drugs policy in general, the study argued that its “findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm” - and also that its methodology and recommendations were fully in “accord” with the conclusions of previous expert reports that “aggressively targeting alcohol harms is a valid and necessary public health strategy”.

Needless to say, the government’s response to professor Nutt’s authoritative study was fatuous and irresponsible. So a home office official sniffily remarked that “we have not read the report”, going on to say that “this government has just completed an alcohol consultation” and will be publishing a “drugs strategy in the coming months”. Hardly something to inspire confidence, seeing as the government’s “strategy” will, of course, be more of the same - unscientifically ‘rewarding’ certain favoured drugs with continued legal status whilst outlawing and ‘classifying’ others on an arbitrary and often grotesquely disproportional basis. Downing a swift pint or two is fine - indeed, the British way - but having a spliff now and again is just not on.

Confirming that the government will just ignore the study, and all others like it, a department of health spokesperson blithely asserted that in England “most people drink once a week or less” at the most. After all, he continued, “if you’re a women and stick to two to three units a day or a man and drink up to three or four units”, then “you are unlikely to damage your health” - before reassuring us that the government is “determined to prevent alcohol abuse without disadvantaging those who drink sensibly”. Which, quite naturally, only begs the question as to why those who smoke cannabis or take ecstasy “sensibly” - notching up a maximum of 20 harm points as opposed to 72 - should find themselves in the severely “disadvantaging” situation of facing a jail sentence or being lumbered with a criminal record.

Of course, the British government and David Nutt have long been at loggerheads over drugs policy - much to the professor’s credit. Therefore in January 2009 the professor outraged governmental opinion, and the usual suspects, by penning a lengthy scientific article in which he pointed to the perils of “equasy” - ie, “equine addiction syndrome”. In his paper, Nutt calculated that people recklessly driven by an addiction to horse-riding are responsible for some 10 deaths a year and over 100 traffic accidents - which in effect meant that there was really “not much difference” between the harm caused by horse-riding and by ecstasy.[3] The professor’s point being that society did not always “adequately balance” all the potential risks out there - just being alive is inherently dangerous, when compared to the alternative, and therefore the stubborn refusal of the government to outlaw horse-riding immediately “raises the critical question of why society tolerates - indeed encourages - certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others, such as drug use”.

Then later in October of that year Nutt was summarily sacked by the then home secretary, that obnoxious ‘chirpy chappie’, Alan Johnson, from his unpaid position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for the terrible crime of … giving advice on drugs to the government. Hence Nutt earned the eternal enmity of the Daily Mail (more power to the professor then) when he simply pointed to the ample evidence that cannabis and ecstasy cause far less harm than those completely legal and easily available drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

He also attacked the “artificial separation” of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs, meaning the government’s entire “strategy” to these substances was grievously flawed - perfectly illustrated by Gordon Brown’s bone-headed rejection of the ACMD’s recommendations on cannabis: which, of course, was that it remain as a class C drug. Also to the government’s anger, Nutt and the ACMD did not join in the ‘skunk scare’, which was then being whipped up by the tabloids, and opposed the reclassifying of mephedrone to class B.

Naturally, for offering such advice - that is, doing his job - he was furiously denounced by Johnson for “interfering” in the policy-making process and “campaigning against government decisions”, even for helping young people get “sucked onto the drug escalator”.[4] In turn, Nutt robustly trashed the government’s drugs policy on the grounds that it was not “evidence-based”, but rather irrationally “politicised” or ideological - not motivated by a desire to see genuine ‘harm reduction’ with regards to drugs, but rather to opportunistically court manipulated ‘popular opinion’. Inevitably, under such circumstances - driven by the selfish concerns of narrow political expediency rather than public health - scientific objectivity goes out the window and instead the primary function of scientific advisers is essentially to conspire with the government in order to deceive the public about the effects of various drugs so as convey a merely moralistic message: ‘Just say no’ (or in the case of booze - ‘Yes, sometimes’).

Well, screw that for a game of soldiers - or so said Nutt, as did a seditious clutch of his fellow colleagues on the ACMD, who resigned in solidarity with the ‘martyred’ professor. Explaining their reasoning to the BBC, Dr Les King - senior chemist and a previous head of the drugs intelligence unit in the Forensic Science Service - declared that the government had a “predetermined agenda about drug classification” and treated the ACMD purely as a “rubber stamp” organisation. But enough was enough. So Nutt, King and the other drugs mutineers went on to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs - a rival organisation to the toothless ACMD, which would “take over” the role of providing disinterested scientific advice and aim to “investigate and review the scientific evidence relating to drugs, free from political concerns” or the “constraints of policy making and politics”.[5] Indeed, Nutt is confident that in time the ISDG will become Britain’s leading authority on drugs and harm reduction, leaving the ACMD superfluous at best.

Communists too share professor Nutt’s disgust at the government’s blatant attempt to devalue and corrupt science when it comes to the formulation of drugs policy - a clear example of how science and the selfish interests of capitalism collide. Plainly, the government - and the ruling class as a whole - have abandoned any attempt at consistency or logic when it comes to the implementation of Britain’s drug laws. In fact, the government’s ‘anti-drugs’ strategy - insofar as it has one at all - is a total sick joke and lacks moral and scientific legitimacy of any kind whatsoever. After waging war on drugs for 40 years or more, all we have seen is miserable failure.

No, the ‘war on drugs’ must come to end. The CPGB call for the immediate legalisation of all drugs - not to endless cycles of ‘classification’, ‘reclassification’ and so on. Not because we think that there is an inherent virtue in being bombed out of your mind or that some drugs are not more dangerous than others - far from it. But rather for the straightforward reason that openness, legality and uninhibited debate free from moral or legal censure provide the optimum conditions for a rational assessment of the relative dangers of this or that drug, habit, practice or pastime. Only such an open, honest, non-punitive culture will produce a genuinely scientific and humanistic ‘hierarchy of harm’ when it comes to drugs education - as opposed to the current situation of junk science, pseudo-education and strident moralism.

Legalisation would have the instant practical benefit of allowing for quality control - as we now have with alcohol, for instance - as it is the adulteration of drugs by so many profit-hungry ‘pushers’ which is one of the biggest causes of disastrous ill-health, damage and death. Would you be so keen to order that pint down your local if you did not know what the hell was in it? And the lifting of prohibition would ensure that the drug gangsters would see their lucrative businesses ruined - no wonder they are so keen, also like the government, to maintain the status quo. Talk about police and thieves.

Communists say this because we understand that drug misuse or abuse is a social problem, not some unfortunate individual aberration - therefore it requires social answers. As a species, we have been swallowing, eating, smoking, snorting, etc, psychoactive drugs from our Palaeolithic origins and there is no indication that this will somehow come to a halt in the foreseeable future - if ever.

Hence the crucial struggle is for the full socialisation of drug-taking, whatever the substance or concoction of your choice.


  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuropsychopharmacology
  2. www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2810%2961462-6/fulltext
  3. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8334948.stm
  4. Daily Mail November 2.
  5. www.drugscience.org.uk/homepage.html - also follow on Twitter (@ProfDavidNutt) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/professordavidnutt).