Science and Drug Policy
David Hadorn, M.D.
From International Journal of Drug Policy, 1997; 8: 67-69.
Anyone who has reviewed even a few of the twenty-odd major English-language
studies on drug policy [1-21] realises that our present prohibition
policies are inconsistent with available evidence and scholarly
analysis. Without exception, all of these studies conclude
that the use of cannabis and other illegal drugs is not intrinsically
very harmful, and that punitive and law-enforcement approaches
to adult drug use should be abandoned.
Moreover, these studies, which represent many years of careful
analysis and research by distinguished scholarly bodies, have
refuted virtually all of the charges commonly made (still) by
those who advocate prohibition policies, including the myths that
cannabis is addictive, leads to harder drugs, causes schizophrenia,
and destroys brain cells.
Many citations from the works could be offered, but the clarity
of the evidence showing the relative safety of adult cannabis
use is perhaps best reflected by recent editorials in the British
Medical Journal  and the Lancet , both of which called
for the legalisation of cannabis. The lead sentence in the Lancet
was succinct: "The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is
not harmful to health."
Indeed, in twenty years as a physician, researcher, and policy
analyst I have not encountered any other health-related subject
concerning which the evidence is so overwhelming and so uniform.
Paradoxically, neither have I encountered another area where science
and policy have become so thoroughly decoupled.
Hostility to Science
The problem here is not simply that politicians have ignored reports
from commissions that they themselves have set up. That kind of
thing happens all the time.
What is noteworthy, rather, is the positive disdain and hostility
evinced toward scholarly work on drug policy. U.S. President Richard
Nixon set the tone in his response to the report prepared by his
own National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, which he
had carefully stacked with conservatives and prohibitionists.
After studying the evidence from all angles for two years, the
Commission concluded (almost inevitably, it would seem) that cannabis
is relatively harmless and ought to be legalised.
Nixon's dismissal of the Commission's report was brisk: "I
read it and reading it did not change my mind." As recounted
by former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum in his
new book Smoke and Mirrors, Nixon offered no reason for
his decision. None of the big newsweeklies reported on the commission's
findings. After years of emotional back and forth about the medical,
legal, and social implications of the boom in marijuana use, a
commission of Nixon's own choosing recommended legalization, and
the press let Nixon bury the story (p.72).
In a subsequent chapter, Baum describes how William Bennett, drug
czar under Ronald Reagan, carried anti-scientific fervor to new
heights. When Bennett was selected for this position in 1984 (fittingly),
Reagan's advisors had already decided that a key element of their
strategy would be to close off debate on the subject of drug legalisation.
All use of currently illegal drugs was to be considered abuse,
morally wrong, and discussion of these issues was not permitted.
In particular, questions of science were not going to get in the
To an administration determined to close debate, Bennett was a
godsendan anti-intellectual intellectual. Though both a Ph.D.
in philosophy and a Harvard-educated lawyer, Bennett like to rail
against "elites" and "intellectuals"; scholars
and scientists, in Bennett's view, were not to be trusted. Anybody
quoting "facts" or a "study" was suspect.
Scholars, Bennett wrote, "have hitched their intellect to
the service of ideology" (p.189)
Bennett might have been talking about himself.
Most drug policy commissions following the Nixon Commission have
met with similar fates. Indeed, because the scholarly work characteristic
of such commissions is by now predictably incompatible with prohibitionist
orthodoxy, such commissions have become an endangered species.
So much was starkly evident from a recent exchange in the British
Parliament, in which Leader of the House Tony Newton, who heads
a Cabinet subcommittee coordinating strategy against drugs, told
MPs "We have no intention whatever to legalise or decriminalise
any currently illegal drugs" (PA News 21 June 1996). In reply,
Labour home affairs spokesman George Howarth rushed to express
his desire to "firmly place on the record" his party's
support for the Government's opposition to decriminalisation.
As part of the price for accepting such support, Tory Lady Olga
Maitland challenged Mr Howarth to "condemn completely and
utterly" shadow transport secretary Clare Short's suggestion,
made last year, that a Royal Commission might be formed to study
the issue of drug policy. "It's an outrageous statement for
a public person to make when so many young lives are at risk,"
Like a penitent eager to confess another's sins, Mr Howarth replied
that Ms Short had "argued, and then retracted, that there
should be a Royal Commission established."
The Opposition position, which I have consistently maintained,
is that there is no point in establishing a Royal Commission.
. . [Establishing a commission would imply] that you would be
willing to accept that if a Royal Commission came up with an argument
in favour of decriminalisation or legalisation, that you would
be willing to accept it. I cannot see the circumstances in which
the Labour Party would accept that. So I don't see there is an
argument for a Royal Commission.
Rarely has a public official so explicitly evinced such hostility
toward science. Clearly science and scholarship should play no
role in formulating drug policies! Moreover, we see here again
how drug prohibitions seek to keep the debate closed. The very
idea that a commission might be set up is considered blasphemousthe
same reaction, of course, experienced by then-Surgeon General
Jocelyn Elders when she had the temerity to make a similar suggestion.
As noted by Dan Baum in Smoke and Mirrors, to even suggest a re-think
on drug policy has effectively become forbidden speech.
A Common Theme
Coincidentally (?), three similar, unrelated displays of hostility
toward science and free debate occurred around the world within
a three day period spanning Mr Howarth's remarks:
Item: Melbourne, Australia 20 June 1996 (AAP). Victorian Liberal
backbencher Geoff Leigh told state parliament that teachers who
didn't adhere to the government's line on cannabis should be punished.
Mr Leigh related how a teacher in his electorate had told students
that cannabis was no worse than tobacco. The teacher had circulated
articles on the topic to his students, including work by Dr. David
Pennington, former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne
and now chairman of the Premier's Drug Advisory Council, which,
among other things, has recommended legalising cannabis. Mr Leigh
said it was "highly inappropriate" to recommend such
articles as background reading, and teachers should stick to the
official government line on marijuana. "I believe the education
profession should adhere to that, and if they don't they should
be punished," he said.
Item: Chicago 23 June 1996 (New York Times). The conservative
American Medical Association was embarrassed when a scientific
report it commissioned called for the legalisation of cannabis.
The report was "shelved after some medical experts who reviewed
a draft copy expressed outrage at its recommendation that marijuana
be legalized and criminal penalties removed from other illegal
drugs. As a result, the volatile issue will be absent from the
association's agenda when its annual meeting begins Sunday in
Item: Bangkok 21 June 1996 (IPS) Japanese police officials participating
in an Interpol Asian Regional Conference complained that Japanese
people were bringing liberal ideas from their holidays in Europe.
Pointing his finger in particular at the Netherlands and its policy
of de facto legalisation of cannabis, Osamu Murashita of Japan's
National Police Agency noted that many Japanese who travel to
Europe and encounter the "Dutch experience" return to
Japan, where they spread the word that cannabis use is all right
and that authorities should be more flexible in their anti-drug
campaign. "Many young people think cannabis is okay and not
so harmful compared with heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine,"
Murashita said. "This is the sort of thinking in Europedecriminalization
for possession of small amounts of cannabis. So Japanese people,
young people, are influenced by such ideas."
. . . This hostility to science and to the open exchange of ideas
is not surprising, coming as it does from a rigid orthodoxy that
depends for its survival on misinformation and unquestioned acceptance
of prevailing dogma.
What Are the Scientists Doing?
What is surprising is the extent to which the scientific
community has failed to speak out against the anti-scientific
statements propounded by prohibitionists. The fact that prohibition
policies are diametrically opposed to what good science and sound
policy analysis would dictate should be trumpeted from the rooftops,
one would think, by those who actually know the science and the
policy analysis. Unfortunately, scientists who depend on government
grants often find it difficult to speak out against even monstrously
misguided governmental policies. So much is, perhaps, understandable.
On the other hand, what is clearly unacceptable is for a scientist
to make false or misleading statements, in the name of science,
in order to support prohibition policies. Such an event occurred
recentlyindeed, concurrently with the news items cited above.
Speaking at the Collegium Internationale Neuro-Psychopharmacologicum
meeting in Melbourne, psychiatrist Graham Burrows opined that
he would not want any of his family to use marijuana, which in
his view was not a soft drug but is actually a hard drug. It deposits
in the brain and causes damage and people who take it don't realise
what adverse effects it's having on them. . . .We know that it
makes psychiatric illness worse, worsens depression and schizophrenia
and probably precipitates psychiatric illness but we can not prove
it causes schizophrenia (AAP 25 June 1996).
One must admire Dr. Burrow's restraint in withholding a concluding
"yet" from the latter clause.
Similarly, Professor Fred Goodwin of the George Washington University,
and former director of the US National Institute of Mental Health,
was reported as saying that THC, the main psychoactive component
of cannabis, in the reporter's words, "stuck to cells in
the brain and stayed there for five days, giving a staircase effect
over years." Dr. Goodwin was also quoted as saying "Even
regular light use can be harmful as occasional use does lead to
more frequent use. In the long term it can cause possibly irreversible
brain damagea study of regular heavy users showed loss of brain
tissue over time."
The principal problem with these statements is that they run counter
to the vast majority of scientific and scholarly work. Indeed,
all of the statements attributed to these physicians have been
effectively refuted by the major reports cited above. Moreover,
no new data has been reported and accepted by the scientific community
in support of these claims. (An excellent summary of the current
clinical evidence can be found on the internet at: http://www.norml.org/research/aa/aaMSPP_cont.html)
A Conspiracy of Silence?
I became concerned upon reading these news reports. As it happens,
I subscribe to an internet-based discussion group sponsored by
the American Psychological Association, to which are subscribed
over 400 psychopharmacologists and scientists in related disciplines.
On occasion, this group has been drawn into discussions of drug
policy, but on the whole they are reluctant to go on record as
opposing government policy. However, when Drs. Burrows and Goodwin's
comments appeared in the newspapers, I felt these scientists had
a duty either to speak up for the truth or to advise me in what
ways I was mistaken that the statements in question were false
or misleading. I posted the following message to the group:
I refer your attention to two recent newspaper articles reporting
on statements made by Prof. Fred Goodwin and colleagues in a recent
meeting in Australia. I am concerned that many of these statements
do not have a good factual basis and as such are misleading and
inflammatory. I am referring to statements implying a causal effect
in triggering or worsening mental illness, THC "sticking
to brain cells" and producing a "staircasing" effect,
and others. I thought the discovery of the cannabinoid receptor
had laid most of these hoary chestnuts to rest once and for all.
In addition, isn't it flatly irresponsible to claim a (net) causal
effect of cannabis on mental illness without a single prospective
I appended the text of two newspaper articles concerning the reported
comments. Aside from earning a rebuke from the list owner about
"histrionic" and "ad hominem" posts (a rebuke
for which he later apologised, sort of), I received no reply to
This failure of scientists to speak out even when destructive,
anti-scientific policies are supported by unscientific statements
emanating from their own kind, is unfortunate at best. Among other
things, such a failure encourages demogogues to peddle their moralist
and politically expedient policies under the guise of science,
and to referglibly and superficiallyto isolated (and often
badly flawed) studies which happen to support their position,
while ignoring the vast bulk of scholarly research.
As a recent example, consider the following justification put
forth by a hard-core prohibitionist U.S. senator, Republican John
Ashcroft, in defense of his proposed law to increase the already
draconian penalties applied to cannabis use and possession:
With less prevalent drug use, fewer crimes would be committed.
Studies have shown that a direct link exists between illegal drug
usage and crime. For example, one study demonstrated that 80%
of crack cocaine users reported involvement in a major felony
at least once in the previous twelve months. Still other studies
have revealed that many of today's most powerful narcotics make
the user extremely violent. Illegal drug usage and the destructive
violence that results are intolerable and must be ended. These
statement are tantamount to lying. Virtually all of the voluminous
literature on drug use and crime, much of which is present in
the reports cited above, stands in direct contradiction to these
claims. For example, the crime that is committed by drug users
is almost always directly attributable to the high prices for
drugs produced by prohibition policies, a fact conveniently ignored
by Mr Ashcroft et al.. Cannabis, in particular, appears to make
people more docile; the only drug truly linked to violence is
But who cares? What's the risk to the senator in making such outrageous
claims? Who is going to stand up and challenge such anti-scientific
ravings? No one, apparently.
As a final illustration of the depth of anti-scientific feeling
views currently found within the prohibition camp, consider this
excerpt from a recent letter by the president of Drug Watch to
the editor of American Spectator magazine (July 1996), in support
of an editorial which had opposed drug legalisation:
You are right when you refer to the drug legalization debate being
dominated by intellectual sophisticates. While the topic of legalization
may make for an interesting debate among the so-called elite,
if it were implemented, it would spell disaster for the rest of
society, causing increased drug use and addiction, more crime,
and higher health care costs.
Both the writer's disdain for science and her ignorance of scientific
findings are equally evident.
What will it take to put science back into drug policy? Nothing
less than courageous leadership, both from the scientific community
and from politicians. At present such leadership is conspicuously
lacking. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the public must pay
the price of anti-scientific policies, in terms of dollars, destruction
of civil liberties, and ruined lives, while the scientific community
looks onpassive, vanquished, impotent.
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