The recent dismissal of Professor Nutt from the ACMD (Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs) and the subsequent political fallout has been greeted with sad smiles of recognition by anti-prohibitionists and those opposed to the war on drugs in the United Kingdom.
The ACMD was set up as an independent group of experts with the aim of providing objective advice on drug policy to the government. Professor Nutt was dismissed on the grounds that his public criticism of the drug classification system undermined his role as the head of an apolitical organization. Nutt's frustration with the government for ignoring ACMD advice in relation to the classification of Cannabis and Ecstasy had been clear for some time, and for many his dismissal was a confirmation that drug policy in the UK has little relation to the social or individual impact of the drugs in question.
There is a long history of science being used or ignored based on political interests and we rarely find it surprising that politicians appear to take into account scientific evidence only if it upholds policy. Scientists, on the other hand, are some of our culture's most trusted figures. A good scientist is supposed to be objective, rational and above all apolitical.
However, are scientists any more trustworthy than politicians when it comes to the War on Drugs? This year alone in the United States the War on Drugs has cost over 45 billion dollars and a healthy portion of that money goes to research. With considerable amounts of government money available, it is not unheard of for scientists to adjust their data accordingly.
If this seems like a far-fetched idea, one only has to look at one of the most prevalent scientific myths still going strong; the link between autism and the MMR vaccination. This myth first originated in 1998 with a study that appeared in The Lancet. Most of the article's authors later retracted their conclusion, and the lead author was found to have been paid by lawyers representing families with autistic children. Despite the link between the vaccination and autism having no serious scientific backing, it continues to influence parents.
Almost as influential was a study published in Science in 2002 that apparently showed a link between Ecstasy (MDMA) use and Parkinson's disease. Many scientists raised concerns over the findings and it was eventually revealed that the study itself was seriously flawed and that the research team, led by Dr. George Ricaurte and Dr. Una McCann, had administered their primate subjects with methamphetamine rather than MDMA. They put this serious oversight down to a "labeling error" and retracted their study. However, much like the erroneous autism study, the damage had already been done.
The study coincided with a spew of government propaganda in the United States that saw schools all over the country filled with CT images of brains filled with holes and dire warnings against Ecstasy use. This literature remained in schools after the study was retracted, despite the fact that Ecstasy is considerably safer than alcohol and that most of the problems associated with the drug come from prohibition itself, as has been demonstrated through the very effective drug policies of countries like Portugal.
Ricaurte and McCann never should have published their research without first having checked their findings. Why two experienced scientists could have made such a basic error is easier to understand when one looks at the amount of government funding they received. According to official NIDA (National Institute for Drug Abuse) figures, the two John Hopkins researchers received over 16 million dollars in government money between 1989 and 2002.
With this amount of money in play and significant political pressure involved, scandals like this aren't surprising. After all, scientists are people. They are subject to the same pressures as others and occasionally research suffers. The most damaging aspect of this, however, is that even bad research is used for political gain if it supports a particular viewpoint.
In a bizarre piece of irony, a 2005 study by Caron et al in Duke University Medical Centre has shown that MDMA is in fact the most effective of 60 drugs tested in reversing the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. However, very few people read about these studies. What we hear instead are stern orders from governments about what we are allowed to put into our bodies, usually backed by government-funded studies.
Scientific scandals like Professor Nutt's dismissal raise a complicated question: who controls our information? Faced with so many contradictions, it is difficult to answer this. It is even more difficult to know who to trust on the issue of drugs. Perhaps the best approach is not to let scientists or governments dictate how we view them, but to educate ourselves independently, taking into account all the evidence available in order to reach a personal conclusion. After all, we own our bodies, not our governments.
Alexander Beiner has studied shamanism in South America and Africa and is the author of the novel 'Beyond the Basin', which explores shamanism and drug law. He has contributed several articles to major publications, including The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. More information on his work can be found on http://www.beyondthebasin.com