Nutts to these anti-alcohol experts

Last night’s David Nutt debate confirmed that cannabis is now promoted as a means of pacifying young, drunk ruffians.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

It was advertised as an academic get-together with Professor David Nutt, the drug adviser to the Home Office who was sacked for contradicting the government’s line on cannabis, but it felt more like a meeting of the temperance movement. In Lecture Hall B5 of King’s College London, Professor Nutt and an audience of around 400 scientists, journalists, students and dope lobbyists partook in a booze-bashing fest that will have had John Stuart Mill – that great critic of killjoy Prohibitionists – spinning in his grave. The event confirmed that Nutt and his supporters are calling for relaxed laws on (though not decriminalisation of) cannabis, not because they believe in free choice, but because they really, really hate alcohol.

Professor Nutt started by criticising the government for twisting science to justify moral positions. Good call. Only he then went on to do so absolutely and exactly the same thing himself that I almost felt embarrassed for him. He cited research that shows alcohol can have a detrimental impact on some people’s health (science) and then argued that there must be a severe hike in alcohol prices and Prohibition for under-21s because ‘alcohol is the drug young people are suffering from most’ (morality). If anything, Nutt’s science-moralising is worse than the government’s. At least the government employs an equal-opportunities ban on drugs, legally denying everybody access to them, whereas Nutt’s scientific/moralistic opposition to alcohol would disproportionately impact on poor people (who would be priced out of booze consumption) and the young (who would be banned from drinking). He wants to use ‘science’ not only to moralise but to discriminate.

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Mill dealt with the poisonous, authoritarian, Prohibition-in-disguise argument for increasing the price of alcohol in order to ‘save the public’. He described price rises on the basis of moralism as a kind of ‘sin tax’, an effort to punish the ‘sin’ of drinking by making it prohibitively expensive. ‘Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price’, he wrote. ‘To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.’ Absolutely. Yet here, in King’s College in 2009, under the cover of ‘science’ and ‘research’, the same tired old price-rising arguments were being trotted out against evil alcohol.

The event provided an insight into what is driving the pro-dope movement today, that strange mix of scientists and politicians (who are at least sympathetic to cannabis) and social workers and students (who are champions of it): it is not freedom, or even hedonism, but Booze Prohibitionism. They promote cannabis as a way of denigrating alcohol. Professor Nutt explicitly said that the government’s attacks on cannabis are a ‘distraction from getting alcohol misuse under control’. Alcohol should also be part of the Misuse of Drugs Act, he said, since it is the ‘most damaging drug’ for young people in particular. He even discussed his and other people’s experiments in creating ‘safe alcohol’ and said the government needed to find and legalise a new ‘social intoxicant’ to replace booze. (‘Social intoxicant’? Has he read Brave New World?)

No wonder he has attracted temperance groupies. Alcohol Concern was there, one of its representatives standing up to denounce, in a shaky, priest-like voice, the way in which booze ‘kills 10,000 people a year’ (more simplistic ‘science’). A man from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – a group of police officers that thinks certain drugs should be legalised – also railed against the destructiveness of alcohol in comparison to cannabis. ‘Students for a sensible drugs policy’ talked up the safety of cannabis in comparison to drinking (Yeah baby! Rock and roll!).

There was pure conspiracy theorising, too. A social worker asked, to murmurs of agreement from the audience, if perhaps Professor Nutt was silenced by the government because the government is under the thumb of ‘the drinks industry’, which wants to stamp down on any suggestion that smoking weed is a safer alternative to swigging cider. Nutt said that might indeed have been the case, and spoke darkly of ‘the huge influence of the drinks industry’, its ‘overt and covert influences… which permeate society so deeply’. He talked about other scientists and commentators who had been ‘stamped on’ for proposing the ‘appropriate pricing’ of alcohol (the new PC term for Mill’s ‘sin tax’). When I stood up and said I felt like I had wandered into a meeting of the temperance movement, and that Nutt and his supporters were explicitly also bastardising ‘science’ for perniciously moralistic purposes, he didn’t really know what to say… except, after a lot of hot air about ‘evidence’: ‘Well, you have a point.’

The meeting should have confirmed, for those still possessed of the delusion, that Nutt is no ‘pure expert’ dealing merely in ‘scientific truth’. It will hopefully also have confirmed that the pro-cannabis argument today has next to nothing to do with liberation and joy but is deeply authoritarian, killjoy, and even discriminatory. Indeed, the pro-dope lobby, or the sympathetic-to-cannabis lobby, is now well and truly The Man: it argues, more vociferously and consistently than almost any other section of society, that young people’s drinking habits are a disgrace, that booze should be put beyond the reach of certain classes, and even that cannabis should be promoted as a way of dulling the nefarious instincts of the drunken, ruffian, rioting hordes. This is not a Sixties-style call for experimentation but a Soviet-style desire to use drugs to calm rebels and dope the masses.

Similar to Nutt’s pro-cannabis/anti-alcohol stance, the edgier wing of the pro-dope movement also demonises booze and the people who consume it. The Legalise Cannabis Alliance says alcohol is the real ‘hard addictive drug’. It talks about ‘drink-frenzied Britain’ where the poor police (!) and NHS have to struggle every Saturday night to cope with the ‘alcoholic aftermath’ (1). The shortlived, semi-legal dope cafés that sprung up in Britain a few years ago had signs on the door saying: ‘No alcohol or drunk and disorderly persons on the premises.’ Well, we don’t want those young drunkards ruining respectable middle-class kids’ adventures in dope-smoking. One dope café posted a sign saying: ‘Will you please bear in mind, alcohol kills 28/33,000 people every year.’ (Dope, on the other hand, won’t kill your body, only your soul.)

Some dopeheads believe cannabis should be legalised to relax the rougher sections of society. One pro-cannabis campaign group says it can ‘help with sufferers from aggressive disorders’. The authorities in Europe agree. In 2004, the Portuguese police conducted cannabis-calming experiments on English football fans. Under the ‘Here We Blow’ policy, the English fans visiting Portugal were allowed to smoke dope while the authorities simultaneously clamped down on drunken behaviour, on the basis that dope would ‘reduce chances of punch-ups between rival fans’ (2). Similar experiments have been conducted in Amsterdam. The Legalise Cannabis Alliance celebrated these sinister social experiments, arguing: ‘If people are drinking they lose control; if they smoke cannabis they don’t.’

This is why, in the wake of the Nutt affair, both the temperance movement and the pro-dope lobby have had a new lease of life and have won implicit backing from respectable scientists, politicians and the serious media – because the authoritarian message of both campaign groups, and of the Nutt bandwagon itself, is the same: Booze Is Bad. These people instinctively hate alcohol and love dope because alcohol tends to be consumed in a social group and it makes us cocky, happy, arrogant, sexually charged, up for all sorts of larks, including, it is true, the odd row or punch-up; cannabis, by contrast, tends to be smoked alone (it’s certainly an alienating experience), is generally consumed at home, and leads to little more than the consumption of Wotsits and rubbish films from the 1960s. They hate the way alcohol helps to loosen us up and reveal our inner swagger; they love the way dope makes us fall asleep. They hate the fact that working men and women enjoy booze; they love the fact that cannabis is a largely middle-class pursuit. Anyone interested in real freedom today should stand up to The Man, that joint-smoking, anti-working class, drink-demonising, like, total loser of modern debate.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill met the curious Cult of Nutt and called the ‘revolt of the experts’ revolting and Tim Black reflected on why New Labour is so dopey on cannabis. Frank Furedi deplored today’s tyranny of expertise, and reviewed a book which showed that governments are bypassing the democratic processby outsourcing their authority. Elsewhere, he explained why politicising science is a bad idea. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) See the Legalise Cannabis Alliance website.

(2) Police to let England fans smoke dope, Sun, 11 June 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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