Lib Dem Bloggers – Wrong On Nutt

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.

Johnson said that he didn’t want ‘confusion between scientific evidence and policy’, and the Lib Dem ‘blogosphere’ has been up in arms as a result.

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?

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62 Responses to Lib Dem Bloggers – Wrong On Nutt

  1. Jennie says:

    Bollocks. You are, of course, perfectly correct.

    *shamefaced *

    Does it help if I tell you that I was looking at this from an employment perspective – a man should not lose his job for doing it properly – rather than a formulating policy perspective, though?

    • Except he _wasn’t_ doing it properly. His job was to provide advice, not to dictate policy.

      I get asked for priorities by my boss all the time. I provide my estimates and then my boss makes decisions. I can have a private chat about his decisions with him, and I can be public about what the priorities I suggested were, but I do _not_ get into a public slanging match about what the decision should be. If I did I’d be jobless very quickly.

      • Lee Griffin says:

        Andrew, I think you misunderstand the differences between a normal job and that of a scientist. The idea that a scientist should keep his findings under lock and key between two private individuals is never going to work, it’s not the way the scientific community operates.

        David Nutt also has a right to express his opinion when asked about it or given the opportunity to express it.

        The worst Nutt has done is to put a personal question in to the mix which is how much classification of a drug can cause people to engage with it’s use on a “taboo” factor, and all in all that is not exactly a bad start for the next set of questions that ministers and scientific advisers should start to be asking given that drugs policy is such a farce (and has been).

        The Labour line is that he is trying to influence policy, yet not in one thing I’ve read or heard from the man has he stated it is wrong to classify Cannabis as class B, but that there are so many unknowns still in the environment that there is an argument that needs to be had about whether that in itself is detrimental.

        I don’t know about you but I think that’s a highly responsible thing for a scientific adviser on drug misuse to say. In the end if the adviser is not allowed to take current and potential future policy as elements in the wider picture of their advice, and how they go about looking at the effects of drugs, then it is no better than some big corporation going up to them, paying them for the right results and then expecting their company to come out top.

        If you take all policy away, and all reference to policy, you’re left with one thing…that drugs are harmful to varying degrees. Without also transposing what people are already doing because of policy you’re hamstringing the ability to find the truth, let alone have a debate.

        The ACMD is there to “The Advisory Council makes recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification and scheduling under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its regulations.”

        If his actions weren’t in this remit I don’t know what is, and perhaps I’ll just have to agree to disagree on the idea that censorship of public interaction of a scientist, or any individual, that is purely operating within the terms of their employment is something that liberals should accept.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Lee, Andrew didn’t suggest that the findings should be locked up – and having known Andrew for a few years I can be pretty confident that he didn’t intend to imply that either. In fact he said “I can be public about what the priorities I suggested were”.

          As far as he goes, I agree with Nutt in what he said. However, what he did do was give a speech in which he accused the government of ‘devaluing’ evidence.

          There are many ways in which I disagree with my employers. I talk about many of those matters here, as matters of general principle or specific fact. But were I to specifically criticise my employers themselves, rather than just positions they hold, I would expect to lose my job.

          (It is *wrong* that I should have to expect to lose my job for that, and I don’t think employers should be able to sack people for that kind of thing, but it does happen all the time).

          • Lee Griffin says:

            As I said, I’m sure I’ll just have to agree to disagree, but advisers should be encouraged to make these statements. Without constructive criticism where can there be progress on these matters? Given the government had already undermined his advice in several areas, and publicly called HIM out as being irresponsible, I think it’s not at all reasonable for his employer to sack him for making a comment critical of the government that is ENTIRELY within the frame of the debate, which is more than can be said for what Smith did to him earlier this year.

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Again, I agree that advisers *should* be encouraged to criticise the government, but I don;t think it’s at all surprising that they’re not…

  2. Neil Craig says:

    “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”

    That would be why the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in pubs?

    In fact it is one of a large number of policies from racial genocide to banning GM crops by which the party has proven that it is impossible for any honest member to describe it as “liberal”.

    The point about government science advisors is that their job is not to advise government about the science but to publicly assert that whatever the government says is science. It doesn’t matter how corrupt & dishonnestv what they say is so long as it is fascist propaganda – then they will get their K. Sir David King didn’t get his because his claim that Antractica will be the only habitable continent by 2100 because it was in any remote degree honest but because GW is the fascist lie that obscene British politicians want to scare us with. Obviously to be a LibDem one must be a supporter of fascist obscenity.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Neil, I’m sure that if we had a policy of committing racial genocide, someone other than yourself would have mentioned it to me by now.Most Lib Dems I know tend to think of racial genocide – or indeed any kind of genocide – as being rather a bad thing.

      Many of the party were in two minds about the smoking in pubs one, because of the dangers of second-hand smoke affecting employees – it being a workplace safety vs customer rights thing. I’m personally against the ban, but not very strongly. See Alex’s post on the subject.

      And while I’m all in favour of a bit of obscenity between friends, I’m not especially fond of fascism, as these posts should show…

      Having seen your posts on various other people’s sites, I appreciate the effort you must be making, as you have remained *relatively* civil here compared to the outright abuse you have heaped on other people like Millennium Elephant. Without wishing to be rude, I strongly suspect that your comments are the result of some form of mental illness, and I would urge you to get treatment for it, but I appreciate your attempts at relative restraint here.

      That said, I do not appreciate being characterised as a supporter of fascism, and therefore any further comments you make along those lines will be deleted, and if you do make any more comments of that nature you will be banned from commenting here. This is not an infringement of your right to free speech – say what you like on your own blog – but an assertion of my right to free association.

      Please feel free to remain here and make whatever comments you like on other issues, but please refrain from accusing me of supporting things that I have spent a significant amount of my time and effort trying to fight.

  3. Except he _wasn’t_ doing it properly. His job was to provide advice, not to dictate policy.

    I get asked for priorities by my boss all the time. I provide my estimates and then my boss makes decisions. I can have a private chat about his decisions with him, and I can be public about what the priorities I suggested were, but I do _not_ get into a public slanging match about what the decision should be. If I did I’d be jobless very quickly.

  4. Jock says:

    Actually, since I gave this five stars and can’t retract it I had better say why I want to! Initially I thought you were right. But in actual fact the evidence based policy does indeed matter. Because what it tells us is that the harm done from drugs itself is exacerbated by policy.

    People out there think “drugs harm society” and so those poeple would regard it as not being a breach of Mill to try to stop it. However if it is shown that “government harms society by prosecuting relatively harmelss activity” then it allows us to use Mill to argue against it.

    • Lee Griffin says:

      It’s ok, I’ve evened it it out with a 1 star for you.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      But ‘harming society’ is a very different thing from harming another person. ANYTHING can be claimed to harm ‘society’, just by defining ‘harm’ and ‘society’ however you want. People make exactly the same arguments about gay marriage, freedom of speech, whatever ‘harming society’.
      I don’t agree with the Thatcherite notion that ‘there is no such thing as society’, but consider the rights of the individual more important than the ‘rights’ of society.

      I certainly think that showing that current policies don’t have the desired effect can be useful, but a lot of people have fallen into the trap of thinking that is the argument we should be making. My argument is that *even were some things to have the stated, desirable effect, it would still be wrong to impose them*. If ID cards did cut terrorism, or if torture *did* produce useful evidence, or if capital punishment *did* stop murders, it would still be wrong to do those things, and arguments based around practical problems with the current laws just lead to changes which avoid those practical problems while still leaving the problem of principle…

      • Jock says:

        Not saying it is the same thing. I’m saying that it provides evidence with which to counter a non-Mill view of the world.

  5. Neil Craig says:

    [deleted due to continued drivel about Lib Dems being genocidal]

  6. Mark Pack says:

    Nice point Andrew :-)

    I don’t fully agree with you though – partly because, as Jennie says, you can think about this from an employment perspective – but also because I don’t think drugs laws are an issue that can simply be reduced to the argument “it’s a matter of principle”.

    Take one aspect of the drugs debate: *if* it were the case that people take a drug, get addicted to it and then regret the addiction and find the addiction extremely hard to break, then there could be a good case for considering action to make it harder for people to make a mistake they then wished they hadn’t made.

    But that judgement depends on factors such as what proportion of people regret the decision (the nearer it is to 100%, the stronger the case for action; the nearer it is to 0% the weaker) and the difficulty of breaking addiction (the harder it is, again the stronger the case for helping people avoid that situation). Then there’s also the issue about how one person’s drug addition may affect others – e.g. a parent of a young child.

    Those decisions can’t be wholly determined by evidence – there are some value and philosophical judgements (and I’d agree with you that the default should be not to interfere) – but evidence certainly helps clear the ground to making those judgements.

  7. Somebody not necessarily sane said:
    The point about government science advisors is that their job is not to advise government about the science but to publicly assert that whatever the government says is science.

    I will grant you this chap does go on to make comments that might be considered… um… eccentric. But ironically this point does seem to strike the nail on the head. To my mind the nearest comparison would be the invasion of Iraq. As we now know, the intelligence services (both here in the US) were told that their conclusion was going to be that Iraq had WMDs and was an immediate threat to its neighbours, now go away and do the working out.

    Andrew Ducker said:
    I get asked for priorities by my boss all the time. I provide my estimates and then my boss makes decisions. I can have a private chat about his decisions with him, and I can be public about what the priorities I suggested were, but I do _not_ get into a public slanging match about what the decision should be. If I did I’d be jobless very quickly.

    Here you’re losing me. You’re saying such a practise is common, therefore it must be considered OK? Or that it’s so prevalent it’s pointless to complain about it? Either way it is surely irrelevant. Hostility to asylum seekers is common too, should we give up opposing that?

    To argue “the goverment must do the governing” is to spectacularly miss the point. Johnson is employing the standard Nu Labour stance of thinking ‘what will look good to the Daily Mail?’ Downgrading the classification of certain drugs will obviously amount to ‘legalisation’ in their distorting mirror, which they’ll fulminate about so it mustn’t happen. What you’re really arguing here is that the Daily Mail should run the country.

    But the real point is the harm that these restrictive policies have unleashed, and will continue to unleash. Having discovered the Government to have essentially lied to him about cannabis, why should a youth then believe they’re telling the truth over crack or heroin?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I don’t think Andrew is saying that it is OK – and if he is, I disagree strongly – more that, unfortunately, such things are to be expected. It seems perfectly OK to most people that not showing due deference to the alpha male (or ‘insubordination’ as they call it) should be punished…

      And, of course, you’re absolutely right that the government lying hardly helps achieve their aims…

      • Oh this is hardly unexpected! I didn’t particularly expect Nick Griffin to apologise for the Holocaust on Question Time, either.

        To me, Nutt’s comments were very close to whistleblowing. Admittedly you use that term for where evidence is hidden, which isn’t quite right in this case. The Advisory Body’s report was published, and people commented at the time how at variance the Daily… sorry the government were from the very experts they had appointed to advise them. But that was hardly front-page news, and you can bet it won’t be very long before Johnson starts waxing about “medical poinion’ again…

      • I’m not sure if “OK” is the right word, but I do know that I’ve worked in teams where people could disagree and then move on, and in ones where a decision would be made but some people would keep harping on about it – and that the first kind if infinitely more productive and better to work in.

        We’ve definitely “lost” people before because they couldn’t grasp that it wasn’t acceptable to constantly complain about a decision that had been made – you give advice, you argue your case, and then you move on. Taking a public adversarial position makes an advisory position untenable, in my opinion.

        • ”We’ve definitely “lost” people before because they couldn’t grasp that it wasn’t acceptable to constantly complain about a decision that had been made.

          I’m not sure if this reference to “move on” is more hilarious than reprehensible, or vice versa, but it’s abundantly clear that it is this ‘just obeying orders’ excuse which is not ‘acceptable’. Nu Labourites argued once the war had started all criticism should now cease, that we should just shut up and watch the bombing on the telly. Of course this was something they said to the public, but it stretches credulity if they weren’t saying this to their own ‘advisors’ at the same time.

          The bottom line: a careerist politician chose to ignore the advice of an expert his own party appointed, merely to look good in front of the right-wing press. This decision is causing harm to thousands of people, and will continue to do so. I note you have not attempted to argue with this in any way. You’re simply saying “oh, we had a problem once with someone with some balls. We just chopped them off.”

          • I can’t actually work out what you’re accusing me of, but it’s not bearing any resemblance, so far as I can tell, to what I’m saying…

            • It’s not that difficult. English is my first language, you know.

              If what is clearly the wrong decision is made for the wrong reasons. ignoring accurate evidence from informed sources for political careerist motions, the ‘acceptable’ thing to do is challenge it – not acquiesce. Anybody who takes the second course of action is part-responsible for the harm done.

              You first confuse ‘advisor’ with ‘employee’, then ‘employee’ with ‘serf’.

              • He is an employee. Or rather, he was. He was employed to carry out a particular job, and then he developed a conflict of interest, when he wanted to both provide advice and make policy. This meant that he lost his job.

                Scientists don’t make policy – politicians do. And they make that policy based on advice _and_ what they believe. I don’t agree with the decision that was made, but if Nutt was going to make a principled stand then he should have quit first. Same is true of cabinet members, for instance – you’ll notice that when they make a stand against cabinet policy they quit at the same time.

                • “He is an employee.”

                  It’s interesting that you say this so stridently at the start, then casually use terms like “provide advice.” An advisor is not like a McEmployee, told what to do and when to do it. Their job is to undertake research based on their expertise. If it is already determined what that advice should be, then the whole thing is not just a waste of time and money but also an appalling whitewash.

                  You could refer to all of the above as ‘obvious’.

                  … if Nutt was going to make a principled stand then he should have quit first.

                  So all this is an argument about some arcane type of protocol??? I care about this about as much as I do about whether you pick up the fork from the left or the right during high dinner. Nutt said the right thing for the right reasons, Johnson the reverse. Everything else is irrelevant.

                  Same is true of cabinet members, for instance – you’ll notice that when they make a stand against cabinet policy they quit at the same time.

                  Claire Short has been forgotten already?

                  • Of course employees provide advice!

                    And of course it’s about protocol. What else would it be about?

                  • Andrew Hickey says:

                    Just want to say I agree with “Nutt said the right thing for the right reasons, Johnson the reverse.” and think it disgusting that it is considered acceptable to sack people because of protocol – I was merely saying before that unfortunately it *is* considered acceptable.

                    That said, I don’t think the position should have existed in the first place for him to be sacked from…

  8. The fact that I cannot seem to spell ‘opinion’ today should not be taken to suggest that I am on drugs right now…

  9. marty says:

    actually, if you read nutts papers it is clear that they are supposed to use the science to classify them in way of harm. this means penalty will fit the crime.
    its the reason they have the classification sytem.
    if policy does not reflect the science and facts then people are being incorrectly punished, its unjust.
    and some may decide to use a drug when maybe they would not given the correct education.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Did you actually read what I wrote? I’m perfectly aware of what Nutt was doing. However, as there is no harm *to others* there should *be* no crime and hence no penalty…

  10. marty says:

    the other thing is that nutts papers do themselves speak tonnes about his gripes with drug policy not running off the science. this is not the first time.

    for example this “skunk weed” was the cause of pot being sent to class B, in spite of lots of evidence saying that cannabis should be class C.
    reality is there was always stronger versions around and nutt mentions reduced mental illness rates anyway.
    we need to keep in mind that treatment is often taken over jail.
    they moved it to class C at one time BUT they increased the penalty to be the same as class B so they could still discourage. 14 years for selling a class B or class C.
    this made nutt wonder why??? whats the worth of a classification system if the system does not reflect what it is designed to show.
    it belongs in class C.

    turns out they asked around and while people liked pot to be classed as A or B they did not want the big penalties for people that did use it.
    so where is the drive for this coming from if not the public and not the science. MONEY and VOTES gained by misleading the public for so long.
    tough on crime wins votes BUT one could say pot penalties are criminal going by the science.
    if your a scientists and your asked for advice to form policy and time and time again your left wondering why they dont follow advice but run by politics and public opinion i think it is a very grand thing to speak out.
    otherwise public opinion is led by politics and their slant in the media.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      *sigh*

      I and everyone reading this knows all this. You’re not actually engaging at all with the substance of my post, which I am ever more convinced you have not actually read. Please stop spamming my blog with off-topic ramblings. I had enough of that on this post with Neil Craig already

  11. Jock says:

    I can’t read the replies now in the far right hand column but I just wanted to question the status of “employee”. I don’t think they are. They are not remunerated. Whilst the Home Secretary appoints them and can presumably “unappoint” them the ACMD as a whole (and one might assume their chair as representative) is in fact commissioned to monitor and provide advice, not merely on things ministers send them to look into, like the recent cases of “legal highs”, but on their own initiative.

    I suspect this is always likely to produce reports and comment that will not always be in tune with government policy – precisely because they are charged with doing stuff that might result in a change in government policy.

  12. Neil Craig says:

    As he wasn’t paid he wasn’t an employee though that is not the point. I’m sure he won’t be getting the K & lurative quango appointments which would be the reward for obedience.

    However if he were an employee he would not be the minister’s but ours & we are entitled to have him tell us the facts rather than to have government using our money to propagandise lies. There is no dispute that what he said was factual. The only resignation justified would be that of the minister who has tried to censor the truth.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Again, absolutely agreed, and if I’ve given any other impression that was not my intention.

  13. To Andrew Ducker:
    ”Of course employees provide advice!”

    Should not being attentive to the other person be considered a ‘protocol’ of debate? I specifically said ‘McEmployee’ (like, y’know, ‘McJob’?’) to distinguish one end of the hiring spectrum from the other.

    And I assume you didn’t read my comments after that point at all, because you don’t come back about Clare Short.

    To Andrew Hickey:
    I was merely saying before that unfortunately it *is* considered acceptable.

    I find it a little ironic that elsewhere you became aggrieved at Marty because ”I and everyone reading this knows all this”. Of course exactly the same is true here. No-one here has suggested Johnson went beyond his powers in sacking Nutt, or anything like that. But on the back of that (rather obvious) fact you’re suggesting that in some way should be the story here, and for the life of me I can’t think why that should be.

    “He might have gained more publicity by quitting” would be an argument. “He might have changed more by staying inside the system,” that would be an argument too. “This was the process” is not an argument, it’s just a description of something which we all knew anyway. You might as well tell us the sun came up this morning. The sanest comment on this debate so far was written by a nutter,

    Andrew D’s stance on this is particularly egregious with his snooty insinuation that Nutt “didn’t get” something, and his astonishingly mis-minded comment “of course it’s about protocol. What else would it be about?” Um… principle, maybe? Effectiveness? Harm reduction? You know, something that actually matters?

    Back in the day, like many others I didn’t pay my Poll Tax. It’s not that I failed to grasp that they had a formal right to demand it off me, I figured that if enough of us refused to pay it then they’d be buggered. Fortunately, we didn’t obsess over protocol like Andrew D or we would probably still have the Poll Tax now.

    To Jock:
    I can’t read the replies now in the far right hand column
    Yeah, they’re a bit
    of
    a
    design
    classic
    aren’t
    they?
    Think I’ll ignore the ‘reply’ function this time.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m not suggesting that should be the story here. My position:
      1) Nutt’s job shouldn’t have existed in the first place
      2) Given that it did exist, it was morally wrong – but probably legally right – for him to be sacked.

      My point was that every Lib Dem blogger I’d been reading had been so (rightly) annoyed by point two, that they’d fallen into a trap of arguing against point one, and actually arguing that it was right for people to ban things as long as there was enough evidence that they caused harm.

      I didn’t mention point two in the original post, because I thought that everyone would take it as read – and also because when we have a government that’s done as many outright evil things as this one, a bit of minor abuse of power and stupidity doesn’t even register on my list of things to get annoyed about.

      I’m not – *NOT* – defending Johnson’s actions *in any way* in this. I was, before, trying to clarify slightly what I thought Andrew D’s position was, but it turns out I was wrong on that, and he does think Johnson was justified. I don’t. I *thought* his position was along the lines of “Well of course he sacked someone for expressing disagreement, that’s what ministers *do*” rather than “Well, of course he was sacked for speaking out, the fool” – a difference of nuance.

      For the record, I *do* think the ‘story’ in this case is ‘minister sacls advisor for giving correct advice”. I agree with all those who said that this was a wrong, unjust thing to do, and I’m not arguing against anyone who said that.

      What I *am* arguing against is those who go on to say “We should base our drugs policy on how harmful the drugs are rather than anything else” while claiming to follow principles which say the opposite. It’s a rather nitpicky ‘angels-on-a-pinhead’ point about the arguments of a handful of people, and is not meant to suggest at all that ‘the story’ should be anything other than what it is – a Labour minister sacking a scientific adviser for giving scientific advice. I’m sorry if I gave any other impression.

      (And yes, the threading does tend to get a bit nasty if people carry on a thread too long – I’ll have to see if I can fix that)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Again, just to make absolutely sure (because I’ve clearly explained myself rather badly at some points here):
      Johnson is in the wrong. His behaviour is what I would expect from a New Labour minister, but none the less reprehensible for all that. I’m just complaining about those in my own party who are saying that policy should have been based on Nutt’s advice and thus ignoring the wider point that the purpose of government shouldn’t be to protect us from our own pleasures…

  14. marty says:

    i get it now, you belong to a party that says you can do what you like as long as you do not harm anyone else. honestly i like the idea a lot. sounds a bit like ron paul.
    we would be more free and we would be safer and save lots of money. you could use nutts appropriate warnings on drug labels. it would work well. it is a pity that the population is so used to thinking criminal penalty for something you put in your body is the norm. the only harm should be if the risk eventuates. twenty years from now gen y might change this.
    i recall a statement, from the netherlands drug csar i believe.
    he said something to the effect of, we do not want to harm the user any more than the drug itself.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks for finally reading the post – yes, that”s my point in a nutshell. Sorry if I was a little rude earlier, but this post has generated a lot more heat than light…

  15. What I *am* arguing against is those who go on to say “We should base our drugs policy on how harmful the drugs are rather than anything else” while claiming to follow principles which say the opposite. It’s a rather nitpicky ‘angels-on-a-pinhead’ point about the arguments of a handful of people…

    Thanks for this clarification! It seems like I blundered into this debate without reading the original “handful of people”, then (perhaps understandably in the circumstances) tried to patch your argument together with Andrew D’s (frankly strange) obsession with official procedure.

    So you’re saying we shouldn’t support Nutt’s more liberal interpretation of prohibition, because there’s no reason to believe in prohibition in the first place?

    Ironically, we may be swapping over places here! I think of myself as more ‘libertarian’ than ‘liberal’, but I’m not sure. I believe for example registered heroin addicts should be able to get their drug on license. (As you probably already know, this was in fact the case up until the Fifties. They then reversed this over fears of increasing numbers, and of course since then numbers of addicts have mushroomed.) But should heroin be generally available, like alcohol?

    I’m also not sure that it’s so easy to divide ‘the individual’ from society as that. High numbers of drug addicts in areas have social consequences, increases in crime, stuff like that…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I’m absolutely sure the fault was mine for not being clear enough in the original post – it seems to have caused more misunderstanding than most of my posts.

      On the issue of heroin, I think the comparison with alcohol is a valid one – I think its sale should be licensed and regulated, but not banned. As a matter of fact, if taking regular doses of *known purity*, heroin is rather safer than alcohol, but as I said, I don’t think that should matter in itself.

      I *also* though think that addicts should, as in the old British system you describe (when there were 100 heroin addicts, total, in Britain), get free supplies from the NHS. That would, of course, remove any incentive for people to sell heroin in the first place, so I would suspect that over time the combination of both policies would lead to addiction effectively ending.

      And I’m fairly sure that the vast majority of social problems caused by drug use are actually caused by prohibition (e.g. artificially inflated prices causing addicts to commit burglaries). Of course, that’s not to say there would be *no* social problems caused by drug use if they were legal – any more than alcohol causes no social problems – but prohibition seems far too much of a blunt instrument compared to the equivalent of drunk & disorderly laws or whatever…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (As to thinking of oneself as ‘libertarian’ rather than ‘liberal’, I use the latter rather than the former because ‘libertarian’ these days has connotations of a particular kind of right-libertarian (along the lines of Charlotte Gore or someone – see my sidebar for her blog). I consider myself a left-libertarian democratic socialist (but NOT state-socialism a la Trotskyism, think more mutualism, co-operatives etc – social-ist rather than ‘socialist’) along the lines of someone like Chomsky (or a less extreme version of Jock, above, who’s a Georgist-mutualist anarchist Lib Dem) although I don’t have a coherent worldview as much as a set of mutually-contradictory ideas. ‘Liberal’ seems to be the best simple label to stick on my views, as I am more likely to find myself in agreement on any individual issue with self-described liberals than with any other group…

    • Jock says:

      But should heroin be generally available, like alcohol?

      Yes.

  16. I’m fairly sure that the vast majority of social problems caused by drug use are actually caused by prohibition (e.g. artificially inflated prices causing addicts to commit burglaries). Of course, that’s not to say there would be *no* social problems caused by drug use if they were legal

    As said, personally I consider commercial sale of heroin to be something of a step too far. It’s true that might be the best thing for addicts, who are often at more risk from the shit that street heroin is cut with than with the drug itself. But heroin is physically addictive, while alcohol isn’t.

    I also suspect a lot of social problems have social causes which happen through the medium of drug abuse. Crack and heroin abuse is higher in deprived areas, after all. However ludicrous prohibition has become, removing it alone will not be a panacea. (Not suggesting you think that, just saying!)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Heroin is significantly less physically addictive than tobacco, though. And caffeine is physically addictive, for that matter (and I discovered for myself last year that it can have some VERY negative effects indeed).

      And I’m *absolutely* not suggesting that prohibition would be a panacea – VERY far from it. Having spent two years working on a psychiatric ward where around 70% of the patients at any time were immigrants, around 80% had problems either caused or exacerbated by drug use, and something very close to 100% had no qualifications and were on benefits (I believe two or three at most of the couple of hundred patients I worked with had degrees and had worked at anything other than jobbing manual labour), I’m well aware of the complex interrelations between drug dependency, health, poverty, education and privilege in general. I think the benefits of legalisation outweigh the risks, but I don’t think by itself it would make things better overnight, and I’m well aware that in the short term it might even make some things worse…

      • ”Heroin is significantly less physically addictive than tobacco, though.”

        Hadn’t heard this before, but am willing to take your word for it. But I’d argue the problem with heroin is the combination of addiction with debilitating effects. These are of course lessened if someone gets access to pure heroin, but are still much more present and immediate than with tobacco.

        As to thinking of oneself as ‘libertarian’ rather than ‘liberal’, I use the latter rather than the former because ‘libertarian’ these days has connotations of a particular kind of right-libertarian

        Ah, the joys of political nomenclature! I don’t relate to ‘liberal’, even with a small ‘l’, because it suggests to me a general acceptance of capitalism, political parties etc. that I don’t go along with. If asked to give a label I’d say either ‘autonomist’ or ‘libertarian communist.’ The qualifier there separates you from both the so-called libertarian right and from Trots and Stalinists and all sorts of authoritarian scumbags. But some people I know don’t like it as it suggests that you’re one kind of communist while Trots are another. (Which clearly they’re not, they’re just a slightly different type of capitalist.)

        I wouldn’t worry about ‘libertarian’ as an epithet for ‘Randian’. That’s a relatively recent use of the term (Fifties onwards), those people don’t exist in anything near to numbers outside of the US and talk a load of self-contradictory bollocks anyway.

        I don’t have a coherent worldview

        If I ever find one, I shall let you borrow it sometimes.

        Pendantic PS, Chomsky is an anarchist. He’s a member of the IWW.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Chomsky is an anarchist *and* a libertarian socialist, and he regards libertarian socialism as “the proper and natural extension of classical liberalism into the era of advanced industrial society.”

          Possibly instead of ‘libertarian communist’ you might try ‘mutualist’ ?

          And within the Lib Dems (who are a FAR broader chuch than the media image would suggest) ‘libertarian’ does tend to be used to mean those of the Randian variety (such as Liberal Vision, who are closer to the Tories than to my own views on most issues) and people get confused when someone like my friend MatGB (a self-described anarcho-syndicalist ) or Jock (who seems to veer ever closer towards pure anarchist) describe themselves as libertarian. Or as socialists, come to that…

          • Possibly instead of ‘libertarian communist’ you might try ‘mutualist’ ?

            Not very keen on mutualism, which seems to me to suggest free association between separated individuals rather than society (if you follow). You probably describe Chomsky correctly, but that’s not the side on anarchism that I’m particularly sympathetic too.

            If I had to choose one quote to describe my political philosophy it would be from the first page of the Communist Manifesto, “history is the history of class struggle.” To go back to the example of the Poll Tax, that was reversed not by election of a new government but by the existing government backtracking after such a strong demonstration of collective strength. I don’t vote, not because I can’t be bothered, but because I consider the difference between the parties to be little more than cosmetic. Once in power their job will become to perpetuate the existing system. And before you ask, yes I would include the BNP there!

            This political labelling may sound a bit esoteric to some, but at least it got us off talking about protocol!

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Which I can agree with as far as it goes, but while systemic changes are unlikely to come from party politics (though I really do think that at least some of the Lib Dems are genuinely keen on bringing about real changes), there have been a handful of occasions where a government has made a real difference to the lives of millions – I can think of three governments last century where there was a *clear* choice between the opposing parties (the Liberal government of the early part of the century with the People’s Budget, the Atlee government’s huge expansion of the Welfare State, and Thatcher). In those cases, voting *did* make a substantial difference, for generations afterwards. I’d accept though that choices on the level of Wilson/Heath or Major/Blair or Brown/Cameron are not really much of a choice at all.

              Parliamentary democracy is an ineffective tool, especially in its current form, but it *is* a tool, and it can be used to make the world at least a tiny bit better…

  17. Think I’ll avoid the Reply function this time!

    I would agree that the changes made by the Attlee government, such as the Welfare State, were important and not tokenistic. Why else would the boss class have put so much effort into reversing them these last twenty years? However, I think those changes were a result of the general level of class struggle, and to argue otherwise is to make the tail wag the dog. After the Second World War there was a huge upswing in working class militancy, such as a wave of squatting that saw even luxury hotels on Park Lane become occupied. There was also the fear that it might get as extreme as it did after the First World War. (The most revolutionary period in history so far.) Concessions were clearly necessary.

    And of course when they did start to reverse those concessions, it was the very same party which carried them out! I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read that this started with the first Thatcher government, like the Callaghan years were a dream, a hoax or an imaginary story.

    Yeah I know you’re not a Labour supporter. But my point is that whichever party is in power, they will do what the boss class wants them to do…

    • pillock says:

      Ah, the Reply function. Come to my arms.

      I think I’ll just senselessly quibble with one or two incredibly minor points, if I may: I haven’t actually heard that tobacco’s more addictive than heroin, but only that smoking’s harder to quit than using heroin, and this has always made me sort of suspicious, that it’s always (in my experience) presented that way. I haven’t heard that addiction is stronger; I haven’t heard even that it is harder to kick. Just harder to quit. And I think that’s a big area to gloss over. Physically, the costs of quitting smoking are trivial, at their worst about as bad as a case of the flu, so I’m not sure the high rate of recidivism is best explained as a result of the addiction being stronger, instead of weaker, if you see what I mean. “I quit before, and it was easy — I’ll just smoke tonight, and then quit again tomorrow just as easily.”

      I merely throw it out there; I don’t know much about what the claim is supposed to represent, and I definitely haven’t ever worked in any treatment centres, hospitals, or really anyplace else that’s healthcare related. I do know quite a few alcoholics, though, and I’m surprised to hear Andrew say that alcohol’s not physically addictive — because to these layman’s eyes, it sure seems like it is.

      (If anybody wants to clarify all that for me, and has anything like the time, please feel free.)

      And on what’s liberal and what’s libertarian…fascinating back-and-forth in the last few comments! But to my mind there’s no question that the legalization of various sorts of drugs would be far more “liberal” rather than “libertarian”, if only because legalization implies a regulated control of such substances rather than a simple forgetting about them. If growing and smoking pot was basically equivalent to growing and smoking tomatoes, as far as the law and the government was concerned, then okay: I could see the libertarian thing, because that would make the production of pot less regulated than the production of milk. And maybe I think the production of milk could be a little less regulated than it is, but I don’t think it ought to have no regulation at all anymore than I think pot should — even if the law says “grow it, smoke it, go nuts with it”, I still think that is something that the law should say…because I think both pot and milk differ from tomatoes in the same manner: And of course, God help us if we ever reach a state where they don’t differ from tomatoes in that way.

      So I’m a liberal on it, not a libertarian. I do think everyone ought to be allowed to grow a few pot plants for themselves and their friends and neighbours if they’d like to — think they should be allowed to grow tobacco as well, for that matter — but I think it ought to be a specific permission: a right, not a freedom, if you follow my thinking.

      If only because it’s already been legislated on! So unless we can ever in a practical sense ignore the existence of precedent, I think it’s got to be that way.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Oh, I agree with all that as far as it goes – I’m all in favour of regulating that kind of thing… I believe that anything sold for human consumption should at the very least be tested for purity etc so it is what it claims to be, and that addictive/harmful substances shouldn’t be sold to those too young to make an informed decision.
        It wasn’t me who said alcohol’s non-physically-addictive – I think it was Gavin. I just didn’t challenge it because I don’t know that much about the physiological effects of alcohol.

      • Jock says:

        Of course there is nothing to say that a “libertarian” position does not have “regulation”. Just not “state” regulation. As a market-anarchist, I would say that in time the market will regulate that quite well via all sorts of polycentric mechanisms.

        After all, in a free market for this stuff who would want to take whatever sh*t the bloke on the corner of Balsall Heath Road managed to get from his dealer last night? Markets drive quality up and price down. Perhaps insurance companies would not insure retailers for liabiility insurance if they refused to agree they would make sure they didn’t sell to children.

        In the absence of a state molly-coddling us with regulation (which we can scarce believe anyway even now when regulation is so very onerous!) we should be more alert ourselves as to whether we were dealing with someone reputable and whose credentials could be affirmed by other agencies such as insurance companies protecting them from business risks, customer recommendation and so on.

        • pillock says:

          Markets certainly don’t always drive quality up, nor prices down.

          Also, “quality” is subjective.

          • Jock says:

            In an unfettered market, in which there are no barriers to competition, yes, it does, either drive up quality, down price or a combination of both. And it’s not really subjective, as to either value/price or quality. It is indicated by that same market.

            Also also…not to start a fight, but I just can’t believe that “markets regulating themselves” business, it sounds like question-begging to me. After all, how would we possibly be able to tell when they were doing it, you know?

            It doesn’t matter that “we” know or not. Unless, like in the political system, you think you know better than the millions of other participants in the market and are control freaked enough to want that level of interference.

            What matters in the market is that in any transaction both parties to it gain. If that is not the case then coercion is going on somewhere, and coercion/exploitation is an opportunity for someone else to make some money by not coercing people (eg undercutting the up till then sole supplier and so on).

            And the state is the biggest cause of coercive interference in the free market.

        • pillock says:

          Also also…not to start a fight, but I just can’t believe that “markets regulating themselves” business, it sounds like question-begging to me. After all, how would we possibly be able to tell when they were doing it, you know?

  18. Pingback: Quaequam Blog! » Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

  19. pillock says:

    I’m aware that all makes it look like I didn’t read the post…but I did!

  20. I’m surprised to hear Andrew say that alcohol’s not physically addictive — because to these layman’s eyes, it sure seems like it is.

    While some people have a propensity towards alcoholism, alcohol isn’t inherently addictive. If you take enough heroin you become addicted, end of story. Not necessarily so for alcohol.

    Having said that, most of the time I’ve known people who’ve screwed themselves up over drink or drugs, I’ve only ever felt that the drink or drug was the means – the drivers of their behaviour were something else. It’s like you might put guard rails up around a high bridge, but high bridges in themselves don’t cause suicidal impulses. That’s mainly why I think drug problems are really social problems in disguise.

    As a market-anarchist, I would say that in time the market will regulate that quite well via all sorts of polycentric mechanisms.

    After all, in a free market for this stuff who would want to take whatever sh*t the bloke on the corner of Balsall Heath Road managed to get from his dealer last night? Markets drive quality up and price down.

    Oh come off it! If you want to see an absolutely free market in operation, the drugs trade is the ideal one. Because it’s inherently illegal it gains no advantage by following any guidelines over product purity etc, so people can cut products with whatever they want and pretty much get away with it. Providers will quite literally fight each other over territory.

    And prices in no way reflect cost to produce. Skunk grown in a back-room lab over here is much cheaper to produce than going to all the effort of smuggling in some blocks of resin from the Middle East, but is of course much more expensive for those who want to buy it. This is one of the main, if not the main argument for ending prohibition on drugs. Try reversing your equation!

    In the absence of a state molly-coddling us with regulation (which we can scarce believe anyway even now when regulation is so very onerous!) we should be more alert ourselves as to whether we were dealing with someone reputable and whose credentials could be affirmed

    People who do fall into drug addiction are normally from the most vulnerable social groups, the people least likely to be equipped to do this, Are they just supposed to not count or something?

  21. What matters in the market is that in any transaction both parties to it gain. If that is not the case then coercion is going on somewhere,

    This is simply a feedback loop of self-justification. When markets ‘fail’, which of course they do all the time, you will say that they weren’t really “proper” markets.

    If I want to think of a good argument against the workings of so-called “free” markets, I think a particularly good one is absolutely everything that has happened in the last twenty-five years.

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