The sacking by Home Secretary Alan Johnson of Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, raises many issues. Not the least of them is whether, as Johnson asserts, Nutt was "shown the door" "because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy," or whether he was "sacked for his views" despite Johnson's claim that he "respect[s] but disagree[s] with."
However, I would argue that the debate over how ministers handle policy advice and (in this instance) public dissent can wait. What is more important, at present, is that the issue of drug legislation and the moral hysteria over drugs from the conservative right has finally entered public discourse. And in a considerably positive way.
We have now reached a point where conservative commentators, such as the Independent's Bruce Anderson, can ask "what theory of the state now permits governments to prohibit adults from taking drugs?" and argue that "none" is the only "intellectually respectable answer."
Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips' typically verbose and morally outraged response to "the Nutty professor" in the Daily Mail received an overwhelmingly negative response. Considering the consistently right-wing and ultra-conservative leanings of those who dominate the comments section, where all variations from that consensus receive extremely negative ratings, the response was surprising. However, the surprise was a pleasant one. Thus, for the two highest rated comments, which prior to the high-profile sacking may have been the lowest rated, we have the following;
Though hardly a definitive sample of public opinion, this shift hints that Johnson's show of authority could have unwittingly broken the monopoly of the anti-drug polemicists over the tabloid media. At the very least, we are beginning to see a more honest and more public debate on the subject of drug prohibition.
And it is a debate that needs to be had. To repeat what I wrote when the reclassification was first announced in October last year;
This is why the argument over Johnson's motives can wait. That politicians seek to censor or dampen dissent in any way possible, and that they act in the interests of established power rather than society or basic logic is no recent revelation. For many of the public, that the legalisation of drugs will have a greater positive effect on drug use, drug-related deaths, and drug-related crime is.The downgrading of cannabis from Class B to Class C has resulted in a fall in usage of the drug amongst all age groups, a drop in strength of most strains of the drug, and a decline in the number of arrests for using the drug, freeing police to concentrate on more serious matters. This is strong evidence that the downgrading policy, initiated in 2004, is working.
Despite this, however, and in the wake of a string of scare stories by the Daily Mail linking cannabis use to mental illness, murder, and even Satanism, the government has rejected its succesful policy and reclassified the drug as a Class B.
Aside from defying the basic libertarian principle that people should be free to do as they will, whether smart or foolish, as long as they are not causing harm to others (an argument that the right-wing press can, rightly, apply in relation to the far more harmful pastime of smoking tobacco) there is also the fact that "Drug War" policies only exacerbate the problems. This has been noted numerous times in reports and studies showing that such policies are a faliure, do nothing to stem the supply for narcotics, and serve only to hand the trade over to organised crime.
And, whether cannabis or cocaine, these same results will always ensue as long as nations put aside all the evidence pointing to the need for legalisation, or at least decriminalisation and regulation, for fear of upsetting the reactionaries in the media.
And that, not which corrupting influence motivated the Home Secretary most, is the debate that needs to be had.