I have a secret vice. I know it is unhealthy and is probably causing immeasurable harm to my sanity, but I cannot help it. I am addicted to reading comment pieces that are likely to enrage me. I can’t get enough of the rush of bien-pensant outrage.
So sometimes I find myself in some fairly unsavoury places looking for my fix, which is how I encountered Stephen Glover’s article in Tuesday’s Daily Mail about the recent report by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in The Lancet (registration required).
The committee was chaired by David Nutt, the advisor on drugs sacked by the last government. Glover believes that Nutt has an ulterior motive: the legalization of all drugs and that he hides his agenda beneath a facade of academic impartiality. Glover has no intention letting Nutt get away with this and he is here to take him down.
Picture the scene: in the blue corner is Stephen “Iron Glove” Glover, heavyweight columnist; in the red corner is “Dangerous” Dave Nutt, slippery academic. The bell rings. Watch as Glover corners the Prof and prepares to strike. His fist flies out and hits……air.
You are watching a Capoeira Columnist.
Ker-pow. “Iron Glove” launches an uppercut.
The point about drinking is that it can be, and usually is, done in moderation and need not involve a powerful and irresistible addiction.
Show me a moderate heroin addict.
How does Nutt dodge that?
The most harmful drugs to users were heroin (part score 34), crack cocaine (37), and metamfetamine (32)
Whoosh – the blow flies harmlessly short.
But Glover isn’t finished yet. He follows up with a swift left jab.
An illogical conclusion — that alcohol is more dangerous, though even their research does not prove that it is — is drawn from what I suspect is selective methodology.
The crowd gasps as….
Nothing. Which is not really surprising, as this is a published paper in a peer-reviewed journal. The design, the criteria, the weighting, all the information you could possibly want is available, assuming you can complete a two minute registration process. Glover can suspect all he likes, but it’s no substitute for reading the damn thing.
There’s still the killer right hook.
But the really interesting thing is that, having in their view established that alcohol is the most dangerous drug of all, they do not say it should be banned.
The hush descends. Surely this is the knockout blow.
Many of the harms of drugs are affected by their availability and legal status, which varies across countries, so our results are not necessarily applicable to countries with very different legal and cultural attitudes to drugs. Ideally, a model needs to distinguish between the harms resulting directly from drug use and those resulting from the control system for that drug.
Plunk… Glover swings wildly, spins around, loses his footing and falls gracelessly to the floor. That dastardly Nutt has ducked the blow by explicitly excluding it from the study.
So there Glover remains, swiping at shadows. And this is a pity, because drugs policy is a serious matter: literally one of life and death, a multi-billion pound question. Maybe Nutt is wrong, but the wonder of the scientific method is that it provides all the means to challenge him.
Unexamined prejudices, however, are not so amenable.