UK Home Office Restores Drug Science to the Back of the Bus

November 2, 2009

nutt.jpgWhen I last took up the quixotic campaign of David Nutt, Ph.D., Professor of Psychopharmacology, Univ. of Bristol and former Chair of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, it was to point out his belief that MDMA should be downgraded to a lesser harm category. He had issued opinion pieces comparing MDMA’s propensity for causing harm favorably with alcohol and waxed enthusiastic about the current clinical trials. The trigger for my post was his absurdist essay on the unfortunate harms to public health that are associated with addiction to “equasy”.

Last week I was beset by emails and Twitt halloos about Nutt’s latest antics, once again continuing his crusade to get the government to reconsider the harm classification of cannabis, MDMA and the classic hallucinogens.
Apparently the UK Home Office thought enough was enough, as detailed in an interview with Nutt published in Nature:

[DN:] I was sent a letter in an e-mail as an attachment. I was rung by someone at the Home Office who said “read your e-mail” and I read my e-mail and there it was. What it said, basically, was that I’d strayed too far from science into the policy arena … and because I’d strayed into policy I was confusing the public about the harms of drugs. My reply to him points out there is a grey area and that it’s perfectly reasonable for scientists to talk about policy issues in which science can inform.

I agree. What on earth is the point of having science advisors if their advice is supposed to be pre-determined to fit the political agenda? Which in the case of the UK was apparently a recent phenomenon.

[DN:] Things have changed over the past few years. Until two years ago the government had never gone against the advice of the ACMD. Two years ago, the new prime minister decided that cannabis was a class B drug. Clearly he was determined that he was going to decide what the classification was, independent of the evidence.
After that, it was ecstasy. When we said it should be class B, the home secretary Jacqui Smith said “we need to give out the message it is a dangerous drug”.
We’re having a kind of Luddite phase now in politicians. I don’t think it’s going to get any better if the Tories [Conservative Party] get in frankly.

Yep. We have the same problems here but we’ve had them for some time. No doubt. Science being viewed as just another political position or, worse, as a mere tool to be deployed when convenient and discarded when not. Particularly when it comes to drugs of abuse.
Many of my readers will be overjoyed to read Professor Nutt’s parting shot:

How do you respond to the suggestion that it was naive to say these things again?
[DN:] Look, I tell the truth. That’s what scientists do. Why shouldn’t I tell the truth? I think it’s very important that people tell the truth about the criminal-justice system in relation to drugs. Is it reasonable to hang a five-year prison sentence over you for a joint? Is that proportionate in any sense when cannabis doesn’t kill anyone? Yet on the streets there are going to be people getting into serious injury tonight, there are going to be people dying from alcohol poisoning.
The whole drugs war is ridiculous and someone needs to stand up and say it is wrong and we need to seriously look at where the real harms are.
That’s a scientific question. It’s about the harms of drugs.

Sure. But make no mistake. I disagree with the good Professor that our only consideration is the comparison of harms because that leads just as surely to abuse of the science as does the prohibitionist position. Ultimately, I think we come to the same political solution which is one of independence. Of scientific advice being construed as independent of political influence, of being respected as outside of the political winds.
(I can dream, right?)

No Responses Yet to “UK Home Office Restores Drug Science to the Back of the Bus”

  1. Mike Argiro Says:

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  2. maxh Says:

    Thanks for getting a chance to post on this DrugMonkey, I was waiting to see if you would! this thing is so embarrassing for the UK. If an independent scientific advisor cannot state his opinions based on the evidence, then what’s the point?! I can’t believe the UK has fallen so low. I was watching the coverage on the BBC last night and one Tory MP stood up in the commons and actually said (word for word), “Scientists should be on tap, not on top!”
    There were cheers. It was depressing….


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    Do recall, maxh, that the US has similar problems across a number of scientific domains. Political activities have a pronounced tendency to prioritize the pre-existing agenda over all else, including evidence about the state of objective reality…
    All we can do is, much like any other lobby, try to djinn up public opinion to make politicos see misuse of science as a risky proposition.


  4. E. Brown Says:

    FYI: This BBC reporter’s blog is tracking the story well, and he’s got hold of a letter from the advisory committee that is raising the stakes w/ the Minister:


  5. maxh Says:

    Thanks for the tip E.Brown – I really want to follow this story.


  6. Klem Says:

    Note, the recommendation to downgrade MDMA to Class B in the UK was not just the personal opinion of Dr Nutt, but an official recommendation of the ACMD, after a long period of review.
    The full-text of the ACMD report on MDMA is online:
    ACMD: MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) Review (February 2009).
    The ACMD recommendation followed similar recommendations to downgrade MDMA by the UK Police Foundation (2000) and the Home Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons (2002).


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    not just the personal opinion of Dr Nutt
    Fair critique. I obscured this. Although since he has been the public face and his “Equasy” article was a solo-authored effort I stand by my assertion that Nutt is particularly exercised on this.
    I will be interested to see if the other resignations that have been bruited about are primarily because they agree with his substance and, er, verve, or because they are offended by the general scientific-advice issue…


  8. chris Says:

    Professor Nutt has recently given an interview to the BBC in which he claims to be developing a substitute for alcohol that does not cause the same harms which is supposedly the cure for the alcohol problem in Britain he is so concerned about (not reduction in use and abuse). He will not name his financial backer. He also calls for decriminalization of marijuana Dutch or Portuguese style so young people can take a substance and not be harmed. But he allows it could cause schizophrenia (Robin Murray’s research) and isn’t sure if it is more harmful to adolescents. Marijuana is a dangerous drug but does not cause serious harm. This interview shows Nutt to have an inconsistent position and a commercial interest which contradicts the idea of the noble scientist presenting an objective opinion.


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