There’ve been two news items this week that have shown us one of the uglier aspects of the drug war – attempts to censor science and expert opinion in order to maintain the status quo.
In the UK, a chief drugs advisor named David Nutt was fired by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after Nutt publicly stated something that’s rather obvious: marijuana and ecstasy are safer drugs than alcohol. Nutt was a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), and two other members of the council quit after the firing.
Here in the US, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa is going even farther than that. In response to a bill introduced by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to establish a blue-ribbon commission to study how to fix our criminal justice system, Grassley tacked on an amendment that would prohibit the commission members from considering drug decriminalization as an option. This is like having a commission to study how to deal with global warming but not allowing the commission to suggest reducing carbon emissions.
Is there any other political subject where we so willingly accept the idea that science and reason are a threat that we have to legislate against? When Nutt made his proclamation, he was able to point to a recent study in The Lancet on the relative harms of various substances. As is mostly common knowledge now, you can’t overdose from marijuana and it’s less addictive than nearly all other recreational drugs. Ecstasy is also non-addictive and kills far, far fewer people than alcohol does every year, while also having potential medical uses. But simply pointing this out is apparently grounds for termination within the British Government.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has previously ignored the advice of the ACMD when his government stiffened penalties on marijuana, had this to say in defense of the move:
On climate change, or health, for example, we take the best scientific advise possible, but in an area like drugs we have to look at it in the round. We have got to look not just at what medics and scientists are saying to us – and we take that very seriously – but also what impact different decisions can have on young, vulnerable people.
For some reason, this passes as an acceptable excuse. Drug policy is somehow a grand exception to the general rule that if you employ science and make rational decisions, you’ll end up with better outcomes. Brown seems convinced that if adults don’t act like paranoid simpletons, their kids will all become drug addicts. This is moronic. Of course, any time a drug warrior is backed into a corner of their own irrationality, they always end up claiming that what they’re doing will be better off for children – and never with any evidence to back them up. The UK continues to have much higher drug use rates among teens than nearly every other country in Europe, despite having some of the strictest drug laws too.
Back here in the United States, a reporter asked Senator Grassley about his amendment. Here was his response:
Well, my intent on that amendment isn’t any different than any other amendments that are coming up. The Congress is setting up a commission to study certain things. And the commission is a — is an arm of Congress, because Congress doesn’t have time to review some of these laws.
And — and — and the point is, for them to do what we tell them to do. And one of the things that I was anticipating telling them not to do is to — to recommend or study the legalization of drugs.
So Grassley is proudly admitting – out loud, to a reporter – that he thinks it’s a good idea to set up a commission to study a complex issue, but then also tell the commission what they can and can’t recommend. That’s surreal. It’s not like he and the rest of the dinosaurs in the Senate can’t do what they do in the UK and just ignore the experts and then fire them when they speak louder. Grassley posted this amendment because he’s too scared to even hear people suggest it. God forbid drug policy experts suggest that Iowa shouldn’t continue to arrest startlingly high percentages of its relatively few black residents for drug crimes. In the end, the reluctance to confront the broken status quo of our criminal justice system is not so much about the worry of children grappling with an adult issue so much as it is the worry that adults will have to stop dealing with this issue like children.