A sensible drugs policy : Professor David Nutt

On Monday evening, British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt, former drugs advisor for the government and campaigner for a rational, scientific approach to legislation on drugs, gave an authoritative, engaging and informative lecture on campus commenting on the injustice and irrationality of the British government's policies on drugs. Most of the following reflections and comments come from Professor Nutt's lecture or his online blog.

Why are politicians ignoring drugs research? ©Tom Varco; Image credit: WikimediaCommons

Professor Nutt began by showing an image, which in a sense encapsulated much of what he deems to be one of the main problems in the drugs / alcohol debate, that is, the blatant hypocrisy of the alcohol companies. This image came in the form of a Budweiser advertisement depicting a bottle of beer against a background of an azure sky and distant snow-capped mountains with the caption: “Say no to drugs. That way you'll have more time to drink”.

This advertisement is a perfect example of the common fallacy disseminated by the media, amongst other sources, that alcohol is not a drug and that even when conceded that it is a drug, that those (other) drugs are somehow fundamentally different. The enduring impression that people are given, and often get taken in by, is that illegal drugs are more dangerous than alcohol, that they are only used by (bad) people (i.e., criminals or those lacking morals), and that they are a poison or of no benefit whatsoever.

Nutt had some startling statistics regarding, amongst others discussed below, the media coverage in a certain area of instances of deaths due to drugs – legal and illegal – taken from a phd study. The results indicated that the media still have an obsession with deaths related to ecstasy, every case of which was covered, as opposed to other drugs such as heroin and paracetamol which were not covered exhaustively.

This thoroughgoing media coverage stems from the death of 18 year old Leah Betts who died in 1995. Having drunk excessive amounts of water (7 litres within a 2 hour period), because medical authorities at the time recommended that ecstasy users should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. This caused her brain to swell and Leah then fell into a coma from which she would not awake. Officially, Leah died from “water intoxication” due to her high intake of water and ecstasy's inhibition of normal urination, not from an allergic reaction to the drug. The media frenzy which followed soon after made much of the fact that she had taken ecstasy and little of the fact that she had consumed so much water in such a short space of time. Leah's death prompted media blanket coverage, a short film with the title (Sorted) to be shown to school children, and an anti-drugs movement which billboarded posters with the caption: “Sorted: Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts.”

Unsettlingly, links have been found to exist between the agencies behind the £1m (Sorted) campaign and certain companies who were worried that the arrival of ecstasy and MDMA would lead their potentially highly profitable youth market away from alcohol and red bull (the new and legal beverage alternative to ecstasy).

This disproportionate and arbitrarily selective news coverage is indicative of the willingness of media outlets to demonise illegal drugs whilst retaining a willing disregard for the facts regarding the consumption of alcohol. In 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 8,748 alcohol-related deaths in the UK and according to Nutt: on average, 3 people per week die from alcohol poisoning, alcohol is still the number one date-rape drug – although it is sometimes present alongside other drugs – alcohol abuse is linked to spousal and child abuse, and according to research, approximately 50% of 15 year olds are drunk at least once a month.

The bias and legislation against certain drugs have put encouraging research on hold, claimed Nutt who spoke of recent findings that treatment with MDMA alongside psychotherapy may be of real benefit to patients dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Drugs such as cannabis have been used medicinally for centuries – Queen Victoria used marijuana to alleviate period pains and according to Nutt, eulogised about its benefits to friends – and is a real source of comfort and pain relief to sufferers of multiple sclerosis, spasticity, cancer and other conditions.

Other illegal drugs with practical uses include LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) which may be a fast, efficient and effective way for terminal patients to come to terms with their impending death and the psilocybin in magic mushrooms may be used to treat depression and anxiety. LSD was experimented with (when it was legal) by two Nobel Prize winners, Kary Mullis (who improved the polymerase chain reaction technique, allowing the PCR to amplify specific DNA sequences) and Francis Crick (who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) - arguably two of the most important discoveries in medical science. Crick revealed to a fellow scientist that he used LSD to boost his powers of thought and Albert Hofmann (the man who first synthesized the chemical LSD) has claimed that Kary Mullis told him that LSD helped him develop the PCR.

An article in Professor Nutt's blog states the following:

“The UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act [MDAct] was designed to remove decision-making about drugs from the party politics of parliament to minimise the risk that short term party interests might lead to bad laws. The MDAct classified drugs in three levels – A B C – based on their relative harms of drugs, which were decided upon by an expert group, the ACMD [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs]. This worked well for the first 30 years and even Margaret Thatcher accepted its recommendations on needle-exchange to limit HIV spread. Though this went against her political philosophy, she accepted that it was logical to be guided by experts and was rewarded by the UK leading the world in terms of slowing the rate of HIV spread from intravenous drug use”.

However, Nutt believes that the MDAct was bypassed illegally by Blair when, in 2004, he began his own war on drugs with a “kitchen cabinet” of police, military and customs personnel, ignoring the experts of the ACMD and changing national policy arbitrarily. Magic mushrooms were reclassified from legal to a class A substance, which Nutt urges is a dishonest judgement because “by no metric are mushrooms as harmful as the real Class A drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin”. Following Blair and newly arrived in office as PM, Gordon Brown attacked cannabis – all variants of which were class C at the time – claiming dishonestly that “skunk was lethal” and using the notion of this new variant as being more powerful and dangerous as justification for his attack. However, Nutt rebuts in response to such claims, “in reality cannabis, in contrast to alcohol and controlled drugs, has never killed anyone by direct toxicity/poisoning”. Over the course of the past several years, links have been claimed to exist by the media between marijuana and schizophrenia but, according to Nutt, there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim and that such misinformation causes confusion for all concerned. As Nutt pointed out in the lecture, “the first casualty of war is the truth”, which seems to be true of both military war and the war on drugs.

The war on drugs has gotten truly out of hand, illustrated by the fact that

wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis sufferers have been having their doors smashed in by police
wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis sufferers have been having their doors smashed in by police simply because they are taking marijuana medicinally. The legitimate medicinal use of marijuana was undermined when the government decided to disallow the “Defence of Necessity” for cannabis whereby users were, as Nutt puts it, once able to “plead that their use of a drug was simply and solely to ameliorate a medical condition for which other treatments had not worked”. Nutt considers it “a truly cruel and inhumane piece of legislation that brings shame on those who enacted it and great distress to those prosecuted because of it” but that it was “predictable as the corruption of the law is a recognized element of war”.

When Nutt was, arguably unfairly, sacked from his position as drugs advisor to the government because of his disagreement with their procedure of policy making, he had recently battled with the government over their refusal to reclassify MDMA as a class B substance when it came to light that its harms had been overestimated. Nutt believes that the decisions taken regarding ecstasy and cannabis “undermined the scientific integrity of the MDAct and, by allowing longer than appropriate prison sentences, were bound to lead to injustice. Moreover, [he believes] that these decisions could increase the harms from legal drugs particularly alcohol; by scaring people from ecstasy and cannabis they might be increasing use of alcohol, a more harmful drug”.

Over one million UK citizens have a criminal record from cannabis convictions, which, although only a minor offence, entails life limiting restrictions – e.g., it is difficult to study medicine or settle in certain countries with such a conviction. The case of the 17 year old, Edward Thornber, the former head boy of a Catholic High School, who in September of 2012 committed suicide after being caught by police, for the second time, in possession of marijuana – with a quantity worth only 50p – shows how devastating an impact a hard-line policy on drugs can have on citizens, and especially on the young.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine and instead of jail terms now offers users rehabilitation. Researchers have claimed the decriminalisation “a resounding success” having witnessed a reduction in teen drug use, a reduction on dirty-needle HIV infection, a reduction in the number of heroin related deaths, and an increase of people seeking treatment for drug addiction over the 5 year period 2001-2006. Money and law enforcers have been freed up for use in other more productive areas and significantly, drug use did not increase – which is one of the main arguments employed by those in other countries who are against the legalisation of illicit drugs. Decriminalisation would also deprive the organised crime gangs who currently monopolise the trafficking of drugs throughout the world of a significant amount of income.

Nutt is concerned by the non-scientific way that policy makers draw conclusions about drugs and claims that drug legislation guided by the libertarian John Stuart Mill's harm principle, “that the only purpose for which power can rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”, is according to Professor Nutt, “still an aspiration” in the UK. Nutt also revealed during Monday evening's talk that the highly practical synthetic alternative to alcohol that he had been working on has been stone-walled by the government.

It is immoral and, probably, illegal for politicians influenced by the media to make expedient, non-realistic drug laws to fulfil the demands created by their own agendas, be they votes or personal biases. It seems ridiculous that experts should be employed by the government to research the harms of drugs and then for their results to be ignored – top of the list of a study done on the harms of various legal and illegal drugs is alcohol.

I am convinced that it is high time the government took more notice of the facts and acted responsibly in light of those facts whilst rising above the cultural prejudice and dogma that has been created during the past century regarding drugs. If Professor Nutt is correct, as I suspect he is, then we, the taxpayers, are paying a lot of money for research which is largely ignored and a war on drugs which is ineffective, prejudiced and which retards the progression of modern society.

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