As widely predicted, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has advised that ecstasy be downgraded from a class-A to a class-B drug. This comes in the wake of the Council’s chair, David Nutt, suggesting that ecstasy ought to be considered no more dangerous than horse-riding. (The full article can be found here, but for non-institutional readers, a BBC item on it is here.) In making this suggestion, he has committed the first sin of drug policy, which is that he’s been looking disinterestedly at the evidence – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the government has already indicated that it won’t be following the advice of its advisers. As we all know, disinterested scrutiny of evidence is a big no-no. If you’re going to talk about drug policy, it ought to be in a manner endorsed by the Daily Mail – on which, more anon.
As an example of the standard of the debate on the issue, you can’t do much better than have a listen to Saturday’s PM on Radio 4. (The link’ll only work until the end of this week.) Because I’m tremendously boring, I’ve transcribed the important bits. CQ is the presenter, Carolyn Quinn; DN is David Nutt; and DR is a certain David Raynes, speaking on behalf of the National Drug Prevention Alliance. (What? All drugs? I can see where this is going…)
I’ve cleaned up some of the dialogue for context – deliberate alterations are minor, though. Oh, and there’s the odd comment from me thrown in as we go along. Hint: mine’re not italicised.
CQ [to DR]: Do you accept [Professor Nutt’s] point that drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life?
DR: I think this is almost an April Fool joke, and it falls really at the first common-sense hurdle.
[Brace yourselves – IB]
If we were to compare the harm of horse-riding with, for instance, tobacco and alcohol, where the harms of those two substances are well-known, and they’re absolutely massive in our society, and those substances are embedded in our society, you can see that the argument would be nonsense.
[Mmmm’kay… but in a discussion about ecstasy and its harm, don’t you think that you ought to concentrate on… um… ecstasy? Just a thought.]
Yes, of course, some people are injured by horse-riding, some people are injured while riding a bicycle. Most people are not addicted in the same way to horse-riding in the same way as people get addicted to drugs.
[Ahhh… I see. We aren’t talking about MDMA after all. We’re talking about Drugs. Drugs – all of ’em – are bad, and to get bogged down in specifics about a particular drug would be a terrible thing… I mean, we might end up talking about ekkies and their addictive power (or lack thereof). In a discussion about ecstasy, that would clearly be a Bad Thing.]
So I think the argument fails, but more importantly for me, is [that] I’m concerned about Professor Nutt espousing this cause. I mean, he is the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, so of course people are going to pay attention when he speaks.
[Listen to an acknowledged expert? That’d be silly!]
Now I don’t object to him having an individual strong view about these things, but I think that if his view contradicts his position on the ACMD, he shouldn’t be on the ACMD and I think it would be wise to retreat.
[ZOMG! Imagine living in a world in which an academic with an interest in drugs policy did research relevant to that policy, and let his findings lead his opinion! Madness! Whatever next?]
At this point, Quinn put the point to Nutt. Maybe he should consider his position?
DN: I think I’m there because I’m a scientist and I’ve got an expertise in understanding the harms and risks of drugs […] My job as chair is to make sure that when we look at evidence, we look at evidence in the round
CQ [to DR]: Isn’t professor Nutt entiled to make the point that he makes, then? You may disagree, but he says there is evidence.
DR: I think Professor Nutt is campaigning and I’ve watched him and been interested in his activities for a couple of years now, and I’ve been watching him all over the world when he speaks. I think he actually objects to the presence of control, and I’d be happier if he actually came out and said that and resigned from the ACMD.
[Hey! Here’s an idea! Maybe prohibition doesn’t work! Maybe all it does is force money into the hands of dealers, away from users who’re criminalised for what is essentially a social and health problem, and away from suppliers in impoverished parts of the world who’d welcome a legal trade and legal protection. Maybe it results in street drugs and the use thereof being unnecessarily dangerous, and prevents users from coming forward to access healthcare. Maybe legalisation and proper control would be good, instead of illegality and control that’s there only in name. Or is that the drugs talking?]
If he wants to write to ministers and object to the present method of control, then that’s fair, and he could to that in his private capacity or his official capacity, and he could do it behind closed doors. But when we say things in public, we know they’re going to affect young people.
[Ummm… no. Of all the people in the world who go out on a given night to get off their chops, the public musings of an intellectual concerning the safety of their actions will make a difference to precisely none.]
Tonight, there will be young people taking ecstasy for the first time, and it was obvious when he wrote this that it would get into the public arena. He said he wrote it when he wasn’t the chairman, but he was the chairman-designate last year.
CQ: Professor Nutt, this is an incredibly emotive issue, and there will be parents out there distressed to hear your message and accusing you almost of sending out the wrong message downplaying the dangers of ecstasy…
[What message? The message that research is better than knee-jerk reactions? If only. Don’t feed the trolls, Ms Quinn.]
DN: No. I’m up-playing the dangers of horse-riding. I think I’m trying to get the whole issue of dangers discussed in an appropriate, balanced, non-emotive level.
[Schoolboy error, Professor Nutt. Stop trying to use wit, facts and argument to make your point. Screaming’s the new black, don’tcha know?]
CQ: Well, David Raines, Professor Nutt’s making that point. Should society tolerate or encourage certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour like horse-riding, but not others, like drug use?
DR: I don’t want to engage in a debate about horse-riding, and horse-riding is very much a minority activity
[A bit like taking ecstasy, in fact. There’ll only be a couple of million pills popped tonight. Even at one pill per user, that’s still a tiny percentage of the population. By the way: isn’t “horse” slang for heroin? So couldn’t “horse-riding” stand for heroin use?]
and I live in the middle of Somerset in a country area…
[Thanks for sharing]
CQ: … All right, well, other dangerous activities, then?
DR: Tonight, tonight, thousands of people will take ecstasy, and, of course, Professor Nutt talks about the deaths, but actually, the long-term effects of ecstasy on the brain are not properly understood
[Ecstasy has been a regular feature of club life since I was at primary school, and it was used counterculturally long before that, too. There has been no public health catastrophe. So we have a situation in which potentially billions of doses of an unregulated drug have been taken, and often in vast quantities, and there’s still only 10 or so deaths associated with it per year (see this site, too) – associated with, note, not casused by. Doesn’t that give you an informal indication of its safety? (For sure, there are suggestions that ecstasy is bad for the liver, kidneys, and perhaps depression – but so’s booze, and the unregulated consumption of just about anything is likely to be unwise, so there’s nothing special there…) And, besides, how could you do a more formal trial into an illegal drug? Hmmm? So your “lack of evidence” claim is a canard, because the very policy of prohibition that you’re advocating implicitly is that which makes evidence hard to gather! Jeeez.]
and the expert in the Uk – Professor Parrott from Swansea, disagrees fundamentally with Professor Nutt.
[Scientists disagreeing? Welcome to academia!]
Oh, dear. I think I might have to go to watch some Brass Eye. In the meantime, having mentioned the Daily Heil, I can’t help but to draw your attention to one of the comments from readers that the story has attracted: Professor Nutt, says Mr J Smith from Birmingham, “is very aptly named. He should not worry about horse riding resulting in 100 deaths per year. Socialism is killing 10,000 people a year in hospitals with MRSA and C-Difficile. We had never heard of these when Margaret Thatcher was in charge.”
Gawd bless the Daily Heil.