As those of you who don’t pay attention to these things won’t know, the Home Secretary, Alan “I used to have a chance of being the next Labour leader, you know” Johnson, recently sacked David Nutt, the government’s scientific advisor on drugs policy, because he was saying things like “Ecstasy isn’t the most dangerous thing in the whole history of ever” and so on.
And they’ve all been saying the same thing – ‘we need to base our drugs policy on the best scientific evidence, so of course Nutt shouldn’t have been sacked’.
And they’re wrong.
Of course, Nutt’s assessment was largely correct, but by complaining about his sacking people are falling into a classic trap of letting your opponents define the terms of debate. People are all arguing that “if the scientific advice says something’s harmless, we should use that as the basis of our policy”.
Piffle. Whatever happened to the harm principle? Lib Dems practically worship Mill (and Taylor, who should really be credited as a co-author), yet people don’t seem to have really internalised “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”
How dangerous drugs are, what any scientific advisor says, should have no bearing on the matter. It should have a bearing on peripheral policy matters – for example taxing drugs for the increased burden they cause to the NHS, or whether drugs should be allowed to be sold in doses large enough to be used as a poison (in much the same way we limit the amount of paracetamol that can be sold), or whether warning labels need to be placed on the packaging to ensure people using them have full information. But on the main question involved – that of whether they should be criminalised – science doesn’t come into it. It’s a matter of principle.
And Johnson’s here actually being more principled than we are. He belongs to a party that believes that it’s OK to ban things just because they’re nasty and unpleasant and they smell and only the wrong sort of people do them. So if he says he doesn’t want scientific advice to confuse matters that’s absolutely fine. By his own lights, he’s actually in the right.
But we’re supposed to belong to a party that believes you should let people do what they want to themselves so long as they don’t hurt other people. Not ‘what they want so long as it has been deemed safe by a scientific adviser’ or ‘what they want so long as a full risk assessment has been carried out’. The scientific evidence clearly shows that having enough vitamins and taking half an hour’s brisk exercise every day is good for you – should we perhaps enforce that as policy as well?