The former ACMD chair remains strongly critical of government policy
Drug prohibition is responsible for creating an epidemic of addiction, for the deaths of drug users and for holding back scientific research into the benefits of drugs.
That was the view of the former Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs chair Prof. David Nutt at a talk held at the University of London Union and hosted by Students for a Sensible Drugs Policy last month.
In his talk on 13 March, Prof. Nutt said that the near-total removal of prescribed diamorphine for heroin dependency created a greater addiction problem, as addicts recruited other users to help fund their own habits. He blamed prohibition for the lack of quality control that results in fatalities such as those at Alexandra Palace in late 2011, and added that not being able to use certain drugs to facilitate psychiatric treatment has led to further unnecessary deaths.
In the week preceding the talk, there had been media reports of the potential benefits of LSD for alcohol addiction, which the result of a metaanalysis of old work. “This was not a study – this is one example of how science has stopped since the 1960s,” he said. “What’s sad about it is it’s taken 42 years since the last trial to come to a conclusion about its value.” He suggested that thousands of people who’ve died as a result of alcohol addiction might have been saved.
Prof. Nutt conducted the first psilocybin trial in the UK, and only the second in the world, which showed that the changes it causes in the brain are similar to those desired to alleviate depression. He’s now trying to develop an MDMA (ecstasy) trial for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a problem in society but especially in the military. “Trauma produces dramatic changes in brain function,”. he said. “More US soldiers have died from suicide since coming back from war than died at the hands of the Taliban.”
He also claimed that Francis Crick and James Watson, the discoverers of the structure of DNA, had used LSD to help them think more creatively. “LSD was seen as a powerful tool for improving humankind – then the Vietnam War came along,” he said. He said that during wartime, the US government hadn’t wanted there to be an outbreak of freethinking, adding that in the UK, too, the Misuse of Drugs Act bans drugs not if they are harmful but if they pose a threat to “social order”.
Prof. Nutt was scathing about leaving the production of drugs to amateurs, suggesting that a high proportion of deaths from drugs were because people don’t know what they’re taking. “And I think that’s criminal,” he said. “The government is killing people. If people knew what they were doing there’s a good chance they will do it better and do it safer.”
He speculated that the deaths of clubbers at Alexandra Palace was because what they believed was ecstasy was most likely actually PMMA. He said that here were “two deaths that were completely avoidable if people knew what they were taking.”
Prof. Nutt praised the Swiss model of heroin-assisted treatment for addiction. “The issue of how you deal with heroin is an important one – now because the Tory government wants to redefine addiction as a lifestyle choice and remove treatment,” he said.
He claimed that in the 1960s, when the UK prescribed diamorphine for heroin addiction, there were only around 500 dependent users, most of whom had prescriptions. There had been a medical consensus that this was the best way to deal with addiction, but a political hostility to simply giving addicts drugs.
He added that this simply created a black market, which then expanded as new addicts were “recruited”. “We created the heroin market by getting rid of the policy of prescribing,” he said. Although there is still some prescribing it is less widespread and more difficult to access.
Prof. Nutt also spoke highly of the Netherlands’ drug policy as “rational”, adding that during his time on the ACMD, then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith forbade the group from talking to the Dutch. “You can see how it became difficult to pursue a proper scientific policy,” he said.
He told of his development of two comparisons of the relative harms of different drugs, first with the ACMD and then, after bening sacked, with the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The second scale ranked alcohol as the most harmful due to its social impact, and was slammed by Peter Hitchens.
Attacks in the press were nothing new to him, having seen accusations that one of his children had been smoking cannabis, based on a photo taken from his son’s Facebook, and being routinely smeared as “Professor Poison”. “That’s actually demeaning not just of me but also of the people who take drugs,” he said.
Prof. Nutt seemed sceptical of the possibility of prohibition reducing drug use, stating that: “The simplistic solution of saying to people about ‘don’t use cannabis’ isn’t going to work, and locking people up isn’t going to work.”
He also claimed that the editorial stance of prohibitionist newspapers had softened recently, suggesting that “even Daily Mail readers” can recognise that the UK’s drug laws have been disastrous.