Professor David Nutt, who was sacked as a Government drugs policy advisor in 2009 gave a very frank interview about his experiences to Victoria Gill, as part of Policy Week 2015. Here Sam Wood reports on the conversation.
Prof Nutt says he went into his Government role optimistic that he would be able to change things and make drug policy more evidence based. “I wanted to set up a proper procedure for rating drugs based on facts and how much harm they do.” Unfortunately some of the facts didn’t fit with Government policy and that is where the problems began. In Nutt’s eyes politics is about trying to control the outputs of research so that they fit decisions that have already been made for political reasons. Any evidence that goes against that policy is quietly, or less quietly, ignored.
So the relationship worked well when he advised the Government on tougher controls on certain substances but when it came to ecstasy and cannabis and his advice was to lessen controls, the reaction was less warm. “Governments love making things illegal”, in Nutts words.
On their approach to drugs he says: “It seemed to be impossible for the Government to think rationally about something that was illegal, that is both laughable and chilling.”
Nutt describes his actual sacking as surreal. The day before he had published a paper on the relative harm of different drugs, which found that alcohol was the most harmful. The next day he was asked not to appear on a scheduled BBC interview, with the BBC apparently being told his position was ‘under review’. He was then called by a member of Government and was asked to resign, he refused and was sacked. Nutt says he has no regrets over the way he handled the situation.
The conversation then turned to horse riding, which Nutt famously said was more dangerous than taking ecstasy. “Horse riding is incredibly dangerous, my paper just pointed that out. I had recently treated a patient who had her life ruined by falling off a horse. I realised that this was very common and there is so much evidence for the harm it causes.” Should Nutt have known there was a line that he was crossing? He says decisions should always be made based solely on the science.
Prof Nutt says the media, particularly the right wing media, plays a big part in Government decisions on drugs. Editors of papers like the Sun and Daily Mail feel one of the few genuine influences they can have is to get a drug banned. This leads to a “medieval” attitude to drugs.
Nutt believes that drug policy in this country is actually causing harm. The example he gives is that in 1971 there were one thousand heroin addicts in the UK, who were all getting prescribed drugs from the Government. That stopped and these addicts then had to raise their own money to pay for drugs. Many became dealers themselves and had a vested interest in getting other addicted. The result? By 1990 there were over 200,000 addicts.
Would heroin be more harmful than alcohol if it was legal? We don’t know but Nutt is currently carrying out research that may give us the answer, but he is not confident the Government will listen. He says only the Lib Dems and Greens have anything approaching a realistic policy on drugs.
“We have gone backwards in the last ten years in our drugs policy in this country. We have criminalised more than 1m young people, mainly young black people, in this country for possession of cannabis, which is less dangerous than the alcohol that the police who arrested the kids are likely to have used. That has a massive impact on their lives, they can’t become teachers for example, and means they have less respect for authority.”
Other nations are loosening policy on cannabis. Nutt cites the Netherlands, saying less of their young people use cannabis than kids in the UK.
Finally Nutt was asked what scientists can do to try to have more influence? They need to be more outspoken when they read something they disagree with. And they should dedicate 15% of their time to activity that is aimed at influencing how things are done.