Law and science

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for abilities

Another intersection between science and policy is embodied in a recent report (PDF) from the Science Select Committee of the British Parliament on the relative harmfulness of different legal and illegal drugs. Notably, the survey ranks alcohol and tobacco as being more harmful than illegal drugs including cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy.

Setting aside methodological issues, the survey does reveal some ways in which our response to scientific information is conditioned by pre-existing understandings and practices. Why society feels that it should permit an adult to drink or smoke as much as they choose to (though not in public or before driving) but that it must actively forbid the use of some other substances has no clear logical basis. Any argument that can be used to justify legal tobacco (free individual choice, etc) could be just as easily applied to other substances on the select committee’s list. While scientific and ethical arguments can be made to bolster various positions, it seems that sheer momentum is the main determinant of policy.

I would be willing to guess that some prescription drugs – especially the anti-depressants given ever-more-readily to children and teenagers – would rank quite unfavourably, if subjected to the same type of analysis.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Law and science”

  1. It becomes all the more absurd when you go from the fiction ‘drugs are illegal because they are harmful’ to the more realistic ‘drugs are harmful because they are illegal.’ Criminalization makes drugs lucrative for organized crime groups, ensures that supplies will never be pure and regulated, and makes people hesitant to seek medical assistance.

  2. From the summary portion:

    “With respect to the ABC classification system, we have identified significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs and a regrettable lack of consistency in the rationale used to make classification decisions. In addition, we have expressed concern at the Government’s proclivity for using the classification system as a means of ‘sending out signals’ to potential users and society at large—it is at odds with the stated objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm and the Government has not made any attempt to develop an evidence base on which to draw in determining the ‘signal’ being sent out.

    We have found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government’s classification policy, and have criticised the Government for failing to meet its commitments to evidence based policy making in this area. More generally, the weakness of the evidence base on addiction and drug abuse is a severe hindrance to effective policy making and we have therefore urged the Government to increase significantly its investment in research.

    Finally, we have concluded that the current classification system is not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a more scientifically based scale of harm, decoupled from penalties for possession and trafficking. In light of the serious failings of the ABC classification system that we have identified, we urge the Home Secretary to honour his predecessor’s commitment to review the current system, and to do so without further delay. “

  3. Does this study refer to harm in general to society or the harm to the specific individual in question?

    For their specific methodology, see: Section 7: “A scientifically based scale of harm?” on p.44 of the PDF linked above.

    Short answer: they consider Physical harm, Dependence, and Social harms.

  4. Does this study refer to harm in general to society or the harm to the specific individual in question? If it is the first, it is not at all surprising that alcohol and tobacco are really bad. Way more people use them.

  5. Random Wadhamite,

    It is off St. Aldates Street, near Christ Church. I think it’s the Oxford Museum now.

  6. B.C. injection site risks offending world
    Peter O’Neil, CanWest News Service
    Published: Monday, March 26, 2007

    OTTAWA – The federal government concluded that the risk of offending the international community by keeping open Vancouver’s supervised injection site for drug addicts had more serious consequences than closing the facility over the objections of the B.C. government, according to internal documents obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

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