Monday, November 16, 2009

Let's avoid a moral panic about drug driving

Melbourne's Age newspaper published a letter of mine yesterday about the vexed question of drug driving. I was responding to a piece by Beth Wilson who puzzlingly wrote "The likelihood of impairment because of drugs may be three times that of alcohol."

This referred to statistical numbers, not actual danger, so (as my letter said) it only muddied the waters, effectively supporting the latest moral manic about drug driving being generated by state governments and the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC).

Why do I call it a moral panic? NCPIC's own evidence review into drug driving concluded in part that "a clear synthesis of results" was "unlikely". My own review of the evidence concludes that impairment from cannabis driving, for instance, is about the same as driving with .05% alcohol in your blood, which is legal. To throw the same enforcement resources and penalties at cannabis driving as are thrown at illegal drunk driving, then, is plainly wasteful and unjust.

While NCPIC positions itself as evidence-based, its own funding guidelines make it impossible for to provide any information that contradicts government policy. It contributes nothing to the body of scientific knowledge so effectively it is little more than a propaganda outlet. Instead of spending many millions each year to achieve this, the government could simply hire advertising agencies on an ad hoc basis and save themselves a packet.

The very public sacking of Professor Davis Nutt, the UK's chief drugs adviser, because he dared to say that the government's drugs policy was not supported by the evidence, created a media storm. Several of his colleagues have resigned in protest.

Interestingly, Professor Nutt's honorary position was not paid, and he spoke the truth. NCPIC on the other hand is well funded and cannot speak the whole truth. If you want to know what's going on, just follow the money.

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