UK Drugs Policy: An Interview With Professor David Nutt.

December 18, 2013 12:15 pm

For over fifty years now the UK has been losing a war that should have never been declared in the first place. A war in which countless lives have been turned upside down and thousands of people across the world have had to suffer. A war that not only could never be won but also indirectly hands control of one of the biggest and most profitable markets on the planet to violent criminals.

The war on drugs costs around $100 billion a year to fight and yet sadly, that money only seems to add to the problem. Make no mistake about it this is a global issue and the only way to solve it would be to tackle it head on. Now, some may argue that this is a war that needs to be fought, that in order to keep our children safe we need to fight towards a drug free world where so-called “dope fiends” are incarcerated so as to learn the error of their ways. This is a ludicrous and cruel opinion. Obvious examples of such ideologies come from the likes of pseudo-journalist Peter “addiction doesn’t exist” Hitchens. This man is but one of a large group of anti-drug extremists that seem to crop up whenever the subject is brought up for debate.

Illegal Drugs

In a recent interview on BBC Newsnight hosted by Jeremy Paxman and featuring Friends star and former drug addict Matthew Perry and Chair of the Drug Policy Reform all party group Baroness Meacher, Hitchens brought forth his belief that drug addiction was a fantasy and that the real solution to the drug problem was a sterner and more effective criminal justice system. Anyone with the slightest bit of common sense will recognise the flaws in his argument here. The idea that addiction is a made up fantasy is simply laughable and it is this type of draconian thinking that has got us into the mess that we now find ourselves in. However, do not lose your faith in humanity just yet. There is still hope.

Evidence suggests that the Portuguese model of drug policy, treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue has in fact improved their situation and they also have vastly more people in treatment than over here in the UK. You could argue that this is not conclusive evidence that decriminalisation of controlled substances would prove to be a better way of dealing with the harmful effects of drugs, but I would ask “What is the alternative?”. We know prohibition does not work and that the legality of these substances does in no way affect the demand for them. Just look at alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920’s and early 30’s.

The vast sums of money generated by the illegal drugs trade would surely be more beneficial going towards civil services than it would be going straight into the pockets of criminal cartels wouldn’t it? I am certainly not an expert in either drug policy or drug science, but being someone who uses drugs (not an addict by the way) I find it hard to believe that the coalition government is not doing more in order to solve the drug problem. So, I decided I needed to speak to someone who was an expert. Enter Professor David Nutt.

Professor David NuttI recently managed to interrupt Professor Nutt’s busy schedule and ask a few questions in order to provide young people with information about drugs and drug policy that comes from a reliable and in the know source. Something that seems to be becoming increasingly rare in the war on drugs debate. After being controversially sacked from his position as chairman on the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for stating that horse riding is more dangerous than taking ecstasy (Don’t believe him? Check the facts), Professor Nutt has gone on to become part of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.

Professor Nutt is also the author of the extremely enlightening Drugs: Without The Hot Air, a book that I would urge anyone with an interest in the subject of both legal and illegal drugs and the harm they can do to read

The interview went as follows.

RJM: In your opinion, what would be the most effective method for reducing the harm done to young people by illegal drug use?

Effective, evidence-based education is crucial, teaching young people about relative risk and empowering them to make informed choices as well as information about individual drugs. Drug policy that reflects the evidence on harm would also help. We need to recognise that drug use doesn’t happen in a vacuum – there’s evidence that communities have more drug use and more drug harms.

RJM: Do you think tougher regulation of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco would help reduce the harm they cause and if so could such regulations be used to help reduce the harm done by the “less harmful” illegal drugs such as cannabis, LSD, psylocibin etc?

We need to look at the evidence on drug regulation. What is clear from our regulation of alcohol is that free market availability of a drug that is as addictive and potentially harmful has been a catastrophe – alcohol related harm will soon be the number one cause of death amongst men in the UK. What we can see from the increasingly strong regulation of tobacco is that it is possible to reduce use without banning or criminalising users. If that is the case, then why do we lock up users of other drugs? Regardless of how we handle dealers and smugglers, drug use should be dealt with as a public health issue, not a criminal one. …

RJM: Do you think that schools should provide more information on drugs so that young people are better equipped to make the right decision for themselves as to whether to take drugs or not?

Absolutely, as I outlined earlier, education on drug harms must include alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol is a major public health problem, and a growing one to young people, mostly from the increase in binge drinking. The drinks industry targets young people with advertising campaign approaches through email, text messaging and social media outlets, however direct scare tactics have been ineffective and possibly counterproductive. A successful teaching module was piloted in East Sussex enabling students to critically evaluate the way young people are targeted to buy alcohol. The myths surrounding alcohol are discussed and the students are asked to make up their own mind about the issues.

RJM: Given that prohibition does not seem to have much of an effect on whether people take drugs or not, would you say legalisation could in fact be a more beneficial method in terms of regulating an industry so far controlled by criminals?

The Dutch initiation of the coffee shop model regulated the access of cannabis for users, which reduced the need to go to dealers. It minimised the exposure to dealers whose main goal is to get their clients onto more addictive substances.

RJM: In your opinion, has the war on drugs worked?

Approaches that focus on incarceration and criminalisation continue to fail, at huge financial and human cost. The war on drugs has also meant it is very difficult for scientists and doctors to access different controlled drugs to allow legitimate use for research and medicine. People are being harmed because they are losing out on the possible medicinal benefits of drug research. There could be harms that we’ll never be aware of because drugs are not able to be researched in terms of possible medical use.

RJM: Why is it that when you measure the harm done by various illegal drugs, there seems to be no relationship between that and their classification under the misuse of drugs act?

For the first 30 years the government generally worked with the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act, with even Margaret Thatcher accepting logical recommendations guided by experts for the requirement of needle-exchange programmes, but for unknown reasons in 2004, Tony Blair and his government decided to ignore the Misuse of Drugs Act and make decisions on drugs without consulting the experts on ACMD. The first casualty was legal magic mushrooms, classifying them as a Class A drug without consultation, in an assault at head-shops. This easy battle and rewarding win fuelled the next campaign against cannabis, with which absurd claims Gordon Brown continued and oversaw the Home Office policy of increasing convictions of cannabis. This unfortunately extended to those using cannabis for medicinal purposes. The government’s decisions undermine the scientific integrity of the MDAct. We should be able to trust legislation but unfortunately some of our politicians seem less concerned and would rather symbolise their tough vales of its engineering.

RJM: In a speech you gave to the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, you stated that in the wake of the mephedrone epidemic, the government should have created a new Class D. If this were to happen, what drugs would you like to see reclassified into this new class?

Back during my time with the ACMD, we urged the Government to overhaul the classification system, specifically to take control of the new breed of synthetic recreational substances. We suggested this in response to the growing use of ‘spice’ and BZP, but the Home Office rejected this idea and both were made class C, a possible consequence for young people turning to mephedrone.

The ‘waiting room’ category D, where sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, in limited doses and with health education messages. Society can limit sales and collect data on use, manufactures and shops that disobey these regulations are punished, and the young are protected, but not criminalised.

New Zealand operates such a system very effectively, judging how widely any substance was used and how dangerous it was and ultimately whether it should be banned.

The EU’s proposed regulations will allow for a graduated approach where substances posing a moderate risk will be subject to consumer market restrictions and those posing a high risk to full market restrictions. Only the most harmful substances, posing severe risk to consumers’ health, will be submitted to criminal law provisions, as in the case of illegal drugs. This also argues that many new psychoactive substances may, or may have, various uses in industry which are hindered by market restrictions.

Here, the class D category has emerged however, in the form of the Home Office’s Temporary Class Drug Order (TCDO), whereas the sales (not possession) of a drug is controlled for up to 12 months whilst the ACMD research the risks associated and decides whether it should be permanently controlled.

Unfortunately these TCDOs are failing; the ACMD does not have the time, money or resources to independently research each and every new synthetic drug which appears on the market. Along with as soon as something is ‘banned’, manufacturers ‘tweak’ the product, steering themselves clear of the ban and continue to sell to the public.

We need a proportionate response.

RJM: One of the chapters in your book asks the question “Should scientists try LSD?”. Due to prohibition this and other psychedelics must be difficult to obtain in order to study, do you think that psychedelics in particular have a medical potential that is being hampered by prohibition?

The lesser known Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 details how different drugs are controlled to allow legitimate use for research and medical advances; unfortunately these regulations on using controlled drugs are not evidence based. Schedule 1 contains the most tightly controlled drugs, not deemed to have any medical value at the time of writing the laws, and with political movement trumping evidence, in went LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis and ecstasy, each of which have considerable therapeutic potential. The outcomes of the controls make research into their mechanisms of action and potential therapeutic uses – for example, in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – difficult and in many cases impossible.

There is evidence to suggest that psilocybin gives relief to people suffering from chronic cluster headaches – one of the most painful conditions that exists. Additionally the use of psilocybin alongside psychotherapy is increasingly investigated for the treatment of some psychiatric problems, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.

Evidence of how a drug works and what therapeutic use it might have would be of real value to society and so as drug scientists, we must aim to find it. To not do so would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.

RJM: In 1977, former US president Jimmy Carter said “Penalties against the possession of a drug should be no more damaging than the use of the drug itself.” Is this something you would agree with?

That sounds like a rare outbreak of political rationality in relation to drugs. It’s a shame it’s not as contagious amongst current world leaders.

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