Mephedrone: what about freedom of choice?

With authoritarian politicians on one side and elitist experts on the other, the public is shunted from the drugs debate.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

How many UK government-appointed experts does it take to approve the prohibition of a recreational drug being marketed as a ‘plant food’? It doesn’t matter exactly, as long as one of them is a vet.

This used to be a little known fact about the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That was until the resignation of veterinary scientist Dr Polly Taylor on the eve of an ACMD meeting to approve the banning of the latest much-hyped drug, mephedrone. According to its constitution, without the presence of a vet, the ACMD is not permitted to issue official advice. And according to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs act, without the ACMD’s official, constitutionally legitimate advice, the government will have trouble banning mephedrone.

The situation in which the Home Office and the ACMD find themselves may sound absurd, but it also reveals something about the relationship between expert advice and government policy. This becomes clear from reading this morning’s Home Office response to the resignation: ‘Whatever happens does not change the home secretary [Alan Johnson’s] commitment on mephedrone’, the spokesperson pointed out.

What this means is that Johnson wants to ban mephedrone ‘whatever happens’. Which is just as well because there is currently no evidence that mephedrone has directly caused the death of anyone. Admittedly, two teenagers did die a couple weeks ago ‘after’ ingesting the drug. But given the key word here is ‘after’, not ‘because of’, it could also be said that their deaths occurred after drinking alcohol and taking the heroin substitute methadone, which they also did. Still, such is Johnson’s steely will in this war against dodgy daffodil feed that the absence of a direct causal relation between taking mephedrone and death is largely irrelevant. He wants to ban it ‘whatever’.

Johnson’s problem here – and, by association, the ACMD’s problem, too – is not a lack of evidence, it’s the lack of a vet. Install a vet on the ACMD, and the problem disappears. This piece of trickery captures something of the ACMD’s true role. Its role is not, as is often asserted, simply and benignly to provide policy with evidence – this is just how it is presented. Rather, the ACMD exists to provide government policy on drugs with the veneer of legitimacy. It justifies with expertise what the government is incapable of doing with argument. Unable and unprepared to have a grown-up debate about drugs, since that would involve debating the issue with the public, the government needs bodies of experts like the ACMD in place of politics.

Not that those at the ACMD are unaware of politicians’ exploitation of the authority with which scientific expertise is still largely imbued. Dr Taylor says as much herself in her resignation letter: ‘I feel that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day’s press.’ Yet her implied solution, echoing that of Professor David Nutt, the former chair of the ACMD who resigned last November, is no better. If the use of expertise by politicians in place of political authority – that is, authority that is forged in the crucible of political debate – was not bad enough, Taylor and Nutt’s demand that the ACMD needs to be treated more seriously, and its advice given a greater role in policymaking, is even worse.

This is because her grievances, not to mention those who have resigned since the Nutt furore last year, draw their force from the same source as Johnson’s cynical opportunism – that is, from the devaluation of the political realm. Just as Johnson seeks to bypass the public using the voice of expertise, so those experts disillusioned by this process seek to bypass the politicians. They’re not interested in keeping their expertise to its appropriate domain, whether it’s the anatomy of farmyard animals or the hard evidence of dangerous side-effects from illicit and not-so-illicit drugs; they’re interested in extending their influence yet further.

Whether it’s the kneejerk measures of a contemporary home secretary or the evidence-based arrogance of experts, the result is a form of authoritarianism all the same. Neglected by both sides in this squabble are those in whose name they are apparently legislating: the public. Nowhere is there even the faintest recognition of the freedom of people to decide how best to live their lives, whether that involves snorting the latest ‘legal high’ or choosing teetotalism. This is hardly surprising given the low esteem in which the public is held by both politicians and those attention-seeking experts that politicians themselves brought to the fore. What needs to be reasserted is that the question of how we want to and ought to live our lives is not a question for chemists, biologists, physicians or even vets. It is a question for us.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill thought the ‘revolt of the experts’ was revolting and Tim Black said we should all be more sceptical of the new expert class. Rob Lyons said drugs should be decriminalised, but not celebrated. Rob Johnston criticised Labour’s schizo drug policy. Jamie Douglass looked at drug use in schools. Nathalie Rothschild asked who’s afraid of XTC. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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