Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 1 February 2010

Professor David Nutt at Reading University - Event Review

It was my privilege last week in my role as a member of the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform to chair a talk given by Professor David Nutt, the former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (before he was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson last year).

The title of the event was "An Audience with Professor David Nutt" and after a brief introduction, Professor Nutt did a presentation for about 45 minutes after which he took questions.

His talk focused on the medical and pharmacological aspects of drugs and the work he did during his time at the ACMD but he also discussed at length the sociological and political aspects of the subject too.

Here are some of the points he raised during his talk that I thought were noteworthy:

  • One of the things he explained early on is that when he first joined the ACMD, he thought that the intellectual case for including alcohol and tobacco in the drug harm rankings was unanswerable and during his time there he pushed for it to happen.
  • He explained that putting drugs in Class B of the rankings systems (such as where cannabis now is again) gives the police enormous (and in his view disproportionate) powers such as the ability to hold someone for 24 hours and to be able to search their home.
  • He said that the usual justification for the criminality of drugs is harm reduction, however the results of this policy are difficult to reconcile with this aim.
  • The way that party politics has got so deeply involved with drugs and the way politicians twist the issue is in his view "the saddest thing of all". He also said that this had got worse since Gordon Brown took over with for example his completely evidence free claim that cannabis is lethal.
  • He had a chart which showed the "logic" of current drug policies which he said leads to a vicious circle where imprisoning people for use of drugs is much more harmful than the drugs themselves and also increases the likelihood of them using drugs again as they sink into the criminality trap.
  • He said that the government regularly misrepresents evidence in this field such as Jacqui Smith citing "public concern" as a way of moving cannabis from class C to class B against the evidence and Gordon Brown having invented what the Professor rather amusingly referred to as a "new science" of "lethal skunk" again completely against the evidence.
  • He quoted former Home Office minister Vernon Coaker as having once said in response to a question about evidence based policy: "We look for evidence to support our policy decisions"!
  • He explained how the government had already said in advance that they were not going to implement any recommendations from the ACMD ecstasy review before they had even started it! He thinks the government policy on ecstasy is "an embarrassment" and completely unjustifiable.
  • He discussed at length the "precautionary principle" which is often cited as justification for keeping drugs illegal but how that principle can be wrong and can devalue the evidence. He mentioned the MMR hoax in this context. He also explained how in some situations having for example cannabis illegal is worse than having it legal in terms of harm. There is a situation in the Shetland Islands where because they are so remote it is very difficult for cannabis to be smuggled onto the island because of its relative bulkiness and ease of being detected by e.g. sniffer dogs. So instead young people on the island cannot get cannabis and instead sometimes turn to harder drugs such as heroin which can be more easily smuggled there. Young people have died as a direct result of this.
  • He talked about the "illegality logic loop" where a drug is made illegal and then politicians will claim that because of its illegality, it can no longer be compared with other harmful activities (such as horse riding). But the decisions about drugs are supposed to be related to how harmful they are so how was it made illegal in the first place without its harms being able to be considered and compared?
I was also pleased at a couple of quotes from J. S. Mill about freedom that he dropped into the discussion.

He finally suggested that the way forward was via the following points:

1) Ask whether the current drug laws are working.
2) Accept that kids will experiment, whatever you do to try and stop them.
3) Follow a policy that maximises harm reduction.
4) Expose moral posturing masquerading as scientific evidence.

There was another very interesting point that he made when he brought up a slide that showed statistics on deaths in recent years from various different types of drugs and how the media reported them. He explained how 1 in 265 deaths from paracetamol were reported by the media, 1 in 48 deaths from diazepam, 1 in 8 from cocaine, 1 in 5 from heroin and for ecstasy the figure was 1 in 1. That's right, every single death from ecstasy in the period discussed was reported by the media. He then made the point that this is why there is such fear amongst the public about drugs like ecstasy because there is a disproportionate focus on them and their adverse effects by the media.

He then took many questions from the floor which covered a wide spectrum of the issues he had raised. I was very encouraged by how informed many of the contributions from the floor were and just how many of the well over a hundred people who attended seemed to agree that the current drug legal framework is not fit for purpose.

Afterwards I took the opportunity to interview Professor Nutt on camera for a few minutes to ask him to summarise his views on how drugs are treated in this country and also to talk a little bit about the new body he has recently set up, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.

It is clear to me from everything that Professor Nutt said during his talk and in response to my questions during the interview that he basically thinks that possession and use drugs should be decriminalised. He is a stated admirer of the Portuguese system where this has already happened.

For someone who was until very recently at the heart of advising the government about the scientific evidence on drugs to hold this view is, I think extremely significant. The government can keep sacking people who tell the truth but it cannot go on ignoring the reality of the pernicious effects of their drugs policies for ever.

PS: Darren Bridgman who also attended last week has posted an excellent review of the event also on Bracknell Blog here.

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