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Drug Policy-Government "Experts" vs. Ignorant Voters

by Jacob Sullum

Over at spiked, Reasoncontributor Brendan O'Neill decries the "revolt of the experts" prompted by last week's dismissal of British "drugs tsar" David Nutt. As I noted yesterday, Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt from his job as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after the University of Bristol psychopharmacologist questioned the scientific basis for reclassifying marijuana and thereby increasing the penalties for producing, possessing, or selling it. O'Neill, himself a critic of the war on drugs, sees the assumption that public policy should be based on expert guidance as "a menace to democracy," and he notes that drug laws embody moral judgments as well as scientific conclusions. He argues that "scientific expertise is just as much a barrier to freedom as is government morality."

While I agree that politically empowered technocrats are a threat to liberty, so is democracy unrestrained by constitutional limits and uninformed by science. In this case the distinctions drawn by democratically elected legislators supposedly are based on scientific evidence concerning the relative hazards of different drugs, and Nutt was correct to point out that in fact they are not. While that observation could encourage policies more favorable to individual freedom (e.g., decriminalization of marijuana), it might also have the opposite effect (e.g., by building support for alcohol prohibition). O'Neill is right that much depends on one's views concerning the state's proper role in regulating what people put into their bodies, which is not a scientific question. It really shouldn't be a democratic question either, but as long as it is, surely it is better that public opinon regarding the properties of psychoactive substances be driven by science instead of superstition.

Speaking of politicians' dislike for drug policy advice that casts doubt on the wisdom of the status quo, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition notes that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has introduced an amendment that would prohibit the National Criminal Justice Commission proposed by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) from considering changes to the drug laws. Webb, who has criticized some aspects of the war on drugs, says the commission should "look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom." He has explicitly said that marijuana legalization is one of the policies that should be considered. But Grassley's amendment (PDF), which the Senate may consider on Thursday, says "the Commission shall have no authority to make findings related to current Federal, State, and local criminal justice policies and practices or reform recommendations that involve, support, or otherwise discuss the decriminalization of any offense under the Controlled Substances Act or the legalization of any controlled substance."


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