Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In the War on Drugs, Reason is Treason.

Last night, Professor David Nutt (the previous Chair of the drug advisory council to the government who was sacked for a paper he wrote) held a lecture at the University of Manchester on the science (or rather lack of it) in current drug policy. Much of this post is based on that talk.

I've wrote posts on this subject before, but now that I've heard the arguments come from an infinitely more knowledgeable person on the subject I thought I'd reiterate with a few new points. The basic message is that our current views and laws on drugs are completely out of touch with the scientific reality. The Misuse of Drugs Act is being abused and its original purpose to take the politics out of drug policy is being swept aside in order to score cheap points.

First of all, I'll start with what made him famous in the first place, his being sacked as the Chair of the Advisory Council On the Misuse of Drugs by Alan Johnson, the then Home Secretary. It may have come to the attention of readers that I'm something of a Labour man, I don't hide it all that well, but this is one of those occasions when I was appalled by what we did in government. Our drugs policy, and that of the opposition, was completely out of kilter. In trying to cosy up to the tabloid rags (i.e. Daily Mail, Sun etc.) Johnson decided to put his boot in where it was not wanted or indeed appropriate.

Nutt's crime? To publish a scientific paper, stating the facts about the relative harms of drugs. Because what he said embarrassed the government he was shown the door, hardly the kind of treatment you would expect to give to someone who is supposed to work independently of the government in order to give sound unbiased advise.

I have a feeling the government weren't too happy even before this paper was released, what with his previous findings on the relative harms of Ecstacy and horse riding (for which he coined the term Equasy). It didn't suit the tough rhetoric of the government that in fact Ecstacy was less harmful than horse riding and so they distanced themselves. Nutt had evidence, but the politicians had an image to protect.

So, here's some of the facts the government would rather Nutt wouldn't let the public know about, because they'd rather keep us all in this hysterical Daily Mail style bubble which keeps us all frothing at the mouths about the dangers of drugs over a pint in the pub. (And failing to see the irony) These are all findings from previous studies and Nutt's new independent body, which did a much more detailed analysis of both the harm to users and to society of a range of drugs.

  • The most harmful drug overall was Alcohol, mainly due to its exaggerated damaging effects on society. Because so many of us drink, we fail to see the massive damage that this drug does.
  • Tobacco comes in 6th place, ahead of Cannabis, Amphetamines and Ketamine.
  • The most dangerous drugs to the individual user are Heroin, Crack and Crystal Meth, the most dangerous to others are Alcohol, Heroin and Crack, in that order.
  • Horse riding is more dangerous than taking Ecstacy, with acute harm occurring once every 10,000 times a person takes Ecstacy, but once in only 350 times someone goes horse riding.

For these scientific facts, backed up by evidence and peer reviewed studies, he has been hung out to dry. Politicians seem to think they know better than the people whose job it is to study and research these things every day of their lives. What one person 'believes' to be true is not equivalent to the opinion of a man with over 30 years research experience. People may say that they 'know' better, and that these claims can't be true, but you only have to walk through an insane asylum to see that faith proves nothing.

It really was an excellent talk he gave, and it really does beg the question why we continue with such a clearly broken system for classifying drug use. We are criminalising people for their sickness and for their attempts to reduce their perceived suffering, what kind of system is that?

The Misuse of Drugs Act was set up to take the political point scoring out of drug policy, and make sure it was evidence based. What we have now makes a mockery of that original purpose. It's high time we got more evidence at the heart of policy making and had a grown up debate about drug use without people screaming their invalid opinions and distorting the debate.

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