Government-Appointed Experts vs. Ignorant Voters on Drug Policy: Must We Choose?

Over at spiked, Reason contributor 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."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Xeones||

    Yo, fuck Chuck Grassley.

  • ||

    Next up Senator Grassley proposes an amendment to the Quadrenial Defense Review that prohibits any consideration of US nuclear deterence. How the hell can you evaluate the criminal justice system and not evaluate the drug laws? What a fucking dumb ass.

    If the drug laws are so good and needed, wouldn't any fair evaluation re-enforce their need?

  • ||

    I do seem to remember somthing about Nutt's sacking. Maybe they thought that job wasn't his bag. Did he drop the ball once too often?

  • ||

    Perhaps they thought some Tom, Dick or Harry had longer qualifications. Or maybe they just didn't like Nutt's package.

  • ||

    "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."

    Perhaps. But it is a fundamental question of strategy--are we a few rigorous studies away from seeing decriminalization or legalization? I don't think so.

    Decriminalization is a values question, and I really don't care whether it comes from superstition religion or somewhere else, but it really needs to appeal to people's sense of compassion. ...which statistical studies just don't do.

    Too bad so many libertarians are hostile to religion. I think we've pretty much maxed out the utility crowd.

  • ||

    It is a values question. But it is a hard debate to win if people believe wrong and crazy things about drugs. If you act on the assumption that drugs are poison that take away a person's will, it is very hard to conclude that legalizing them is the right thing to do.

  • Spartacus||

    The most basic value is this: an adult human being has the right to control his/her own body. This includes ingesting or otherwise inserting substances that other people may find icky or objectionable.

    If you (generic you, not John you) truly believe that drugs take away a person's will, then you have to also believe they render a person incapable of forming criminal intent. Either way, criminalization is morally repugnant.

  • ||

    Criminalization of use maybe. But if you buy that, then selling and manufacturing the stuff should clearly be illegal.

    I think to end the drug war, we are going to have to win the scientific argument that drugs are bad for people and that addiction is something beyond people's control.

  • ||

    I think we're talking past most people.

    If people want marijuana to stay criminalized because they're afraid decriminalization will mean a) it'll be more available to their children and b) it'll mean more stoned drivers on the road...I just don't think any study or chain of logic assuages those fears in the average working mom.

    Peer reviewed research just doesn't speak to that.

    Jesus cries when he sees how we treat drug addicts? ...on the other hand? Bullseye.

  • ||

    I think you don't understand religion or how religous people think. "Jesus cries" is insulting and consedecending as to be beneath response. From a religous prospective, people would say that these people can't help themselves so we need to help them by putting them in jail so they can't hurt themselves or others. You are at best making an argument for more humane prisons. And you don't help the cause by making insulting remarks about religion.

  • ||

    Just for the record, Jesus would never send a young kid to be brutalized in prison for selling weed. ...but don't miss the forest for the trees, John.

    There's the science side, and then there's people's values.

    The average person's values aren't moved much by statistical analysis. ...even if we wish they were. So what do we do? Pound the table until your average working mom sees the light?

    Or do we start trying to appeal to people's compassion? It's like in business, I say. You can't dictate prices to the market, you have to take what the market gives you.

    There are great examples in photography--the abu ghraib photos, photos taken of people having firehoses turned on them during the civil rights movement, photos at Kent State and the little girl running naked from the napalm strike...

    All of these images were persuasive in ways that statistical analysis never can be. I'd take one of those photos for the drug war over every statistical analysis that's been done on the drug war to date...

    'cause the fact is, we're not decriminalizing until people's values change. And, typically, that only happens when we appeal to people's compassion.

  • ||

    So what do we do? Pound the table until your average working mom sees the light?

    I'm willing to try pounding the average working mom until she sees the light.

  • ||

    Beautiful and profound post !!! I won't forget it

  • ||

    Jesus does cry. If you had a relative who was weak and made mistakes harming only herself, and then had to deal with zealots like you and other reliious types who love to brutalize and destroy the lives of people for daring to make a mistake, you might just change your tune.

    If my relatives can cry for the treament one receives at the hands of the Church and the Government, then you can be sure Jesus is crying too at your utter twisting of his Word to be used as a weapon against people instead of helping them.

  • ||

    I'm not sure what the hell you're talkin' about...but if you're saying that being a Christian means you can't use Jesus' words and logic to appeal to people's sense of compassion... That doesn't make much sense to me.

    And I can't help but notice what seems to be a clear lack of compassion in sentencing for drug offenses in this country. Unfortunately, I come across a lot of people who have a lot to say about literal interpretations of the Bible, right up until it gets to Jesus telling his followers how to live their lives. Then all of a sudden, everything's open to interpretation.

    I think more libertarians should know about Tolstoy. "The Kingdom of God is Within You" maybe even "A Letter to a Hindu". But, yeah, Christianity as taught by Jesus seems to have been about a lot more than condemnation of immorality. Some of the Sermon on the Mount was almost the antithesis of that, wasn't it?

    A little compassion for the wretched, for Christians, how could that be controversial? But my fellow libertarians, it is!

    Some of the bible-thumpers you meet might not even have a leg to stand on. ...if you'd bother to take a look.

  • monolith||

    John
    Jesus wept is in the bible. and its a common saying.

  • Grandpa Whithers||

    Shortest verse in the Bible:

    John 11:35 (King James Version)

    35 Jesus wept.

    He was mourning the death of his dear friend Lazarus.

    Whole story here:

    http://www.biblegateway.com/pa.....ersion=KJV

  • ||

    John:

    I am with Ken on this one. I recall our debate a few months ago about pictures of war being published. Ken is right, we are not going to convince the electorate, an electorate stupid enough to vote for George W. Bush twice, with scientific evidence. Hell, even with DNA evidence, there are still people who cant allow themselves to believe that black people are ..like, ...you know... human beings.

    So what is will take to convince this idiotocracy is a nice picture of what going to jail for weed does to you.

    And I think it is pictures...well moving pictures, that is doing most of the convincing. You can have a movie like "Half Baked" are funny because smoking pot is relatively benign. You can't have a "half baked" that humorizes say the holocaust. Though if it could be done, Mel Brooks could probably do it.

    And if Jesus were alive today, I think he'd be horrified about all kinds of shit.

  • oaktownadam||

    BREAKING NEWS: POLITICIAN WANTS TO CRIMINALIZE TRUTH-TELLING

    or something....didn't they already do this with the law that created the ONDCP?

  • Anomalous||

    "If you are not free to choose wrongly and irresponsibly, you are not free at all."
    – Jacob Hornberger

  • ||

    Stolen from RC Dean.

  • ||

    [blushes]

  • ||

    As he put his hand to the door-knob Winston saw that he had left the diary open on the table. DOWN WITH PROHIBITION was written all over it, in letters almost big enough to be legible across the room.

  • ||

    **VIDEO** Terrified Voter says NJ Dems Using Gangbangers for GOTV
    November 3, 2009 by EJ

    How would you like to be a New Jersey police officer and look out your window and see several known criminals, including a man you arrested several weeks ago and another who had just been released from prison for shooting a cop? And then find out that the men were sent into the neighborhood by the Democratic Party for GOTV operations - complete with lists of voters names, addresses and phones numbers!

    That is what happened Sunday on a quiet street in Morris Township. The officer, who’s name we are with holding, specifically heard the men discussing that he was a police officer and that they now know where he lives. The officer confronted the men and they took off. He contacted the local police who responded and caught up with them and about a dozen other men a few blocks away. According to the police report, the men were known criminals and when asked why they were in the neighborhood they stated they were

    “campaigning for the Democratic Party.”

    Below is an interview with another Morris Township resident who also witnessed the gangbangers going door to door. She contacted a local Democratic Party Official who sent her an email stating

    “Thanks for writing. Yes, I heard about this and am very sorry for the incident.”

    Shockingly, this isn’t the first time New Jersey Democrats have used gang bangers for GOTV. According to this story on PolitickerNJ, the Bloods Street gang stole $6000 from the NJ Democratic State Committee through a check fraud scheme. NJ Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan said “that checks were copied from payments sent out for the party’s 2006 field operation.”

    It’s 9:00 AM and things are just heating up in Jersey.

  • ||

    New Jersey = Armpit

  • Fluffy||

    If this police officer doesn't like the fact that "criminals" are engaging in political activism, he should do us a favor and eat his fucking gun.

  • ||

  • Rich||

    "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"

    IANAL, but:
    1) can't this restriction be parsed to have a less noxious (to us) meaning;
    2) if not, can't Grassley be impeached for violating the First Amendment?

    Dream on ...

  • ||

    1) can't this restriction be parsed to have a less noxious (to us) meaning;

    No, it can't.

  • ||

    They don't want experts or advice, they want the kind of expert your laywer wants, someone with a science degree who will take money to say what you want him to say. That's not sciencem but who cares? We're not talking about science, we're talking about protecting children from predators hiding behind trees near the school who want to give little kids

  • Fluffy||

    O'Neill should get a kick in the fucking nutts for not understanding the issue.

    The issue with Nutt's dismissal has absolutely nothing to do with the philosophical question about whether voters in a democracy are entitled to make moral value judgments. It's about whether those value judgments justify forcing people to make or endorse false statements about biological facts.

    The government in Nutt's case is trying to force him to make factually false statements in order to keep up the party line about the relative biological and pharmacological dangerousness of cannibis. No moral judgment is involved.

    O'Neill is on my douchebag list now.

    Next he will no doubt open his douchebag mouth to tell us that mathematicians threaten freedom if they refuse to rubber stamp the desire of some legislature somewhere to make two plus two five. Those damn tyrannical mathematicians!

    What a cunt.

  • ||

    Anybody who still thinks drug prohibition is a good idea is either profiting from it or is simply mentally deficient.

    If you support prohibition then you’ve helped trigger the worst crime wave in this nation’s history.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped create a black market with massive incentives to hook both adults and children alike.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped to make these dangerous substances available in schools and prisons.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped raise gang warfare to a level not seen in this country since the days of alcohol bootlegging.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped remove many important civil liberties from those citizens you falsely claim to represent.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped put previously unknown and contaminated drugs on the streets.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped to escalate Theft, Muggings and Burglaries.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped to divert scarce law-enforcement resources away from protecting your fellow citizens from the ever escalating violence against their person or property.

    If you support prohibition then you have abandoned American children to the morals and ethics of gangsters and terrorists.

    If you support prohibition you’ve helped overcrowd the courts and prisons, thus making it increasingly impossible to curtail the people who are hurting and terrorizing others.

    If you support prohibition, then you also support the black market economy that funds most of the terrorist groups in the world today. Including the Taliban and alQaida.

    A regulated and licensed distribution network would put responsible adult supervision in between children and premature access to drug distribution outlets. Regulated and licensed distribution would reflect and respect society's values, thus preventing children obtaining easy access to theses dangerous substances. What we need is legalized regulation. What we have is a non-regulated black market to which everybody has access and where all the profits go to organized crime and terrorists..

  • ||

    Is Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley on the payroll of the drug cartels? Probably.

    The notorious gangster Al Capone made most of his
    illegal money from alcohol prohibition. Capone had hundreds of
    politicians on his payroll. Is it unreasonable to suspect that the drug
    lords are following Capone's business model?

    What type of politicians would the drug lords have on their payroll?
    Politicians who urge the status quo of drug prohibition, or politicians
    who suggest that we re-legalize drugs to put the drug lords out of business?

  • ||

    If/when the "Drug War" debate overwhelms to the point of distraction, try history for a refreshing perspective.

    It is in some ways comforting to examine the historic persecution of witchcraft as it reveals a dance very similar to the current persecution of the imbibers of certain herbs.

  • Tyson||

    Chuck Grassley should be hung! He's against person freedom!!!

  • wTF||

    Everyone needs to figure out wtf their talking about on here... stick to the topic... Grassley and Nutt.... Grassley and Nutt... drug policy... freedom of speech... where does jesus come into this?

  • M. Simon||

  • M. Simon||

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement