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Bitter pill for the government

At the beginning of the speech that was to get him sacked, Professor David Nutt defined a drug as "an exogenous substance, something that comes from outside a person, goes into them and produces physiological changes". By the time his well-balanced observations on the pressures that affect drug policy in the UK had been ingested, digested and disseminated by the mainstream media, they too had undergone various changes, emerging as a highly politicised attack. One can't help wondering whether the Home Secretary reread the speech before issuing Nutt with his marching orders.

Ministers tend to justify downplaying the scientific evidence on drug harm with the argument that drug policy must "send a signal" to young people.
So it's worth asking: are they getting their message across? The mainstream media play ball, being over 200 times more likely - according to evidence cited by Nutt - to report a death from taking Ecstasy than a death from taking paracetamol. But unlike most politicians, scientists and young people tend to be more at home online, the former being early adopters, and the latter digital natives. So how did the government's actions play out on the web? What signals did the sacking of Nutt send?

The week the story broke, it provided two of the three most popular world politics news threads on the US community news portal Reddit. Support for Nutt or condemnation of the government featured heavily in the 1,000-plus comments each thread attracted. The story also hit the front page of Fark, a satirical news site that gets roughly four million visitors a month. On Facebook, a group set up by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy calling for Nutt's reinstatement and for evidence-based drug laws attracted more than 6,000 members in one weekend.

Today, with right of reply and with the internet, which allows readers easily to verify facts using primary sources, "signals" don't work online, even if they do work offline. If the government really wants to send signals to the young, it will need a better plan than sacking expert dissenters. To give Nutt the last word: "The internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell [kids] the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source."

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro