Lies About Marijuana Drive People to a Much More Harmful Drug -- Booze
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Professor David Nutt didn’t play the game. As the chief drug policy advisor in the British Government, an unspoken part of his job description was to help maintain a public fiction about marijuana – or cannabis, as it is known in the U.K. and other parts of the world. Specifically, he was expected to further the misperception of cannabis as a substance worthy of being classified and prohibited in a manner similar to more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.
He made a big mistake at the end of last month. In a lecture at King’s College in London, he spoke honestly – and truthfully – about the fact that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and urged the government to factor the relative harms of substances into their policy-making. Moreover, he accused the British government of ignoring the evidence about the true harms of cannabis in order to reclassify the drug and increase penalties for possession.
Reacting with the logic and reason of pub patron after last call, Home Secretary Alan Johnson immediately demanded that Prof. Nutt resign as the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He said Prof Nutt had "crossed the line between offering advice and … campaigning against the government on political decisions."
More accurately, Prof. Nutt crossed the line between deceiving citizens and being honest with them. The home secretary, a former member of Parliament, is no doubt comfortable with a little verbal jousting over public policy decisions. What he could not abide by was a top ranking official threatening the anti-cannabis mythology embraced at the very top level of government. Based on Nutt’s fateful bout of truthfulness, Johnson said he had “lost confidence” in Nutt as an advisor.
In a letter to Professor Nutt, Mr. Johnson explained how the system is supposed to work. He said: "As Home Secretary it is for me to make decisions, having received advice from the [Council] ... It is important that the Government's messages on drugs are clear and as an adviser you do nothing to undermine the public understanding of them ... I am afraid the manner in which you have acted runs contrary to your responsibilities."
The Home Secretary’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson put a similar spin on this hostile reaction to fact-based statements to the public. "These things are best sorted out behind the scenes,” he said, “so that the government and their advisers can go to the public with a united front."
In the real world, what this means is that advisors are free to provide research or reports based on an honest assessment of the scientific evidence, but when this research is completely ignored in setting policy, they are expected to keep their mouths shut and move on as if nothing ever happened.
This is all part of the game the government plays in order to maintain marijuana prohibition. In the United States, there are many examples of significant advisory opinions related to marijuana being completely ignored – even where the opinions were part of a decision-making process that should have led to action by the federal government.
In 1970, Congress established the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to study marijuana and make recommendations about how to control its use. The Commission’s final report suggested removal of criminal penalties, noting, “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior.” President Nixon ignored the Commission’s findings and launched and all-out war on marijuana users.