Tue, Dec 07, 2010 - Page 16 News List

The road to ruin

David Nutt, the former UK government’s adviser on drugs, explains why his latest research named alcohol as the most dangerous drug

By Decca Aitkenhead  /  The Guardian, London

After being fired from his position as chair of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt formed the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs.

Photo: Reuters

If someone were to invent a perfectly safe ecstasy pill, what would be done about it? It’s the sort of scenario clubbers like to speculate about, usually at around 6am, a little the worse for wear after a big night out. It’s less common to hear it from a neuropsychopharmacologist and former government scientist — but it is, David Nutt says earnestly, “the key question.” So what does he think the British government would do?

“They would ban it. They would find some pretext to ban it. I think they would, because beneath all their posturing about health lies a moral position where they don’t think young people should have fun, other than being drunk,” Nutt says.

This is just the sort of opinion that got Nutt sacked. It is a little over a year since he was fired from his post as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for publicly stating that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis. “He cannot,” declared Alan Johnson, then home affairs minister, “be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” Nutt in turn wondered why the government wanted a scientific adviser, if it wasn’t interested in hearing scientific facts.

Five other members of the advisory council resigned in protest in the days following Nutt’s dismissal. A philanthropic hedge fund manager then unexpectedly “came to our rescue,” offering to fund an alternative foundation, which duly launched in January as the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. Its mission statement is to “investigate and review the scientific evidence relating to drugs, free from political concerns,” and Nutt has called repeatedly for an evidence-based approach to policy, rather than one based on prejudice or, worse still, political self-interest masquerading as public morality.

You do not need to hold a particular position on drug use to think that this would be a good idea. Like many people, I’d always thought Nutt sounded like an unusually objective voice of reason in a notoriously emotive and muddle-headed debate, and had imagined him to be rather in the mould of Richard Dawkins — rational to the point of austere, with a scientist’s faintly otherworldly detachment.

But he’s a big jolly man, relaxed and appealingly quick to laugh, and much more fun than I’d expected. He is also very good at exposing the confusion of much political thinking on drugs, as well as the baseless alarmism of media commentators “who don’t want facts to get in the way of prejudice.” But I have to say that I didn’t find him quite as clear-sighted or rigorously dispassionate as I’d thought he would be.

Last month, Nutt’s new foundation published its first major report in The Lancet, which ranked 20 different drugs according to 16 different harms they do, both to users and to wider society. Alcohol came top, higher than heroin, crack and crystal meth, while ecstasy and LSD were ranked among the least damaging. It was, undeniably, the most comprehensive study of their respective risks ever conducted. But its shortcomings seemed pretty glaringly obvious, even to someone as unscientifically minded as me.

The rankings did not allow for the drugs’ current legal status — and therefore availability — and so as Nutt himself has acknowledged: “Overall, alcohol is the most harmful drug because it’s so widely used.” But by that token, I suggest, one could say that drinking tea is more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest. Just because lots of people have been scalded by a popular drink, this tells us little about the risks of a minority sport such as mountaineering. If we’re trying to establish the objective danger of a specific substance, in order to formulate policy, surely we can only calculate its harm in the context of its prevalence? Nutt looks a bit miffed.

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