More politics, less evidence!

A familiar trope in drug policy debates is the idea that policy-makers should pay closer attention to research and that there is a choice to be made between, on one side, ‘science’ and ‘evidence’, and on the other, ‘dogma’ and ‘politics’. And we are usually left in little doubt about which side the angels lie on!

Drug policy researchers and campaigners often appear to believe that if only they can make the evidence a bit more compelling or authoritative then they’ll eventually win the policy argument. But I’ve observed over many years that that just isn’t the case. There are many ‘controversial’ drug policy questions where the evidence is reasonably settled and clear – e.g. heroin prescription, needle exchanges – but which remain hotly contested. In fact, I would say it’s actually quite rarely the problem that the evidence base is lacking. So why is evidence not enough? One answer is that policy-makers simply find the lure of ‘playing politics’ too powerful to resist. Perhaps that’s partly true. But I’ve come to think that it’s actually misguided to believe that drug policy questions are always capable of being resolved by appeal to ‘science’. There are (at least) two reasons why this is the case.

The first involves thinking about what ‘playing politics’ really means in this context. Usually, we say this when we believe policy has departed from rationality because populist politicians are ‘playing to the gallery’. But this, it seems to me, is a caricature. Politics, at least in part, is about attempting to engage with the social and cultural anxieties and preoccupations of the time. It can be messy, even ugly sometimes, but it requires excessively narrow vision to see it solely as vote-grubbing behaviour by politicians. And this helps to explain why often we can’t rely on science to adjudicate for us between contested policy options. Drug policy isn’t a purely technical exercise – there are other matters in play and it’s a mistake to treat them as somehow inferior or illegitimate concerns.

The second reason is more fundamental. Drug policy and drug laws are, at root, about the relationship between the state and the individual. And this, in my view, makes them deeply political. Rather than shying away from this, we need to address the politics head on, with every bit the same rigour as we do other aspects of policy. And here we might ask where are the serious and penetrating analyses of the profound questions of power, authority and rights that underpin and run through drug policy? It’s a lamentable feature of much of the research literature that it focuses so much on investigating relatively minor issues, whilst, at the same time, pretending that it’s the big political questions that are trivial. In fact, I would go further and say that attempts to depoliticize drug policy are positively dangerous because they obscure what’s really at stake.                  

The title of this post is, of course, meant to be provocative and I’m not necessarily calling for less research to be done – this turkey is not quite ready to vote for Christmas just yet! – but I am arguing that we need to take the politics of drug control much more seriously, rather than seeing it as an unwelcome distraction. We need to understand that drug policy is politics.

[For further discussion of the politics of drug policy, see chapters 2 and 3 in Tough Choices]

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About Toby Seddon

Professor and Head of School of Law at the University of Manchester. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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3 Responses to More politics, less evidence!

  1. James Morris says:

    This reminds me of the politics surrounding Scotland and now England’s decision to implement minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Given a clear link established between price and consumption, some of the ‘debates’ around whether it would ‘work’ seemed largely mis-placed. Really its the political position of whether you feel its a government’s role to intervene in the market in such a way. Curiously, Cameron appears to think so, and on that I agree with him!

    • Toby Seddon says:

      An excellent example of what I’m talking about! The debate goes on as if it’s about evidence when actually it isn’t at all. And, as you say, the ‘politics’ of it is actually about a quite serious question of the appropriate limits of state regulation of markets.

  2. Pingback: Drinking guidelines | Toby Seddon

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