Nada Smiljanic talks to Professor David Nutt about UK’s drug policy
Last Monday, the UCL Neuroscience Society welcomed Professor David Nutt to Logan Hall to speak about the state of the UK’s drug policy. The response was fantastic, as over a thousand UCL students and members of the public queued up to attend, bringing the venue to full capacity.
The event was a frank discussion about the paradoxes of British drug policy. While the tone of talk remained lighthearted and humorous, it certainly communicated a serious message: the common rhetoric on drugs is obscuring scientific truth, and so ought to be challenged.
During the talk, Nutt explored a number of key problems, such as the power of the drinks industry and media in promoting dangerous misconceptions concerning both legal and currently illegal drugs. He also outlined ongoing research into the possible therapeutic uses of psychedelics and other drugs such as MDMA in the treatment of conditions like PTSD and depression, and further brought attention to the generally unheard-of innovation of “alcosynth”, a synthetic substitute for alcohol with far fewer negative side-effects.
The audience certainly seemed convinced. The popularity of the event, I think, attests to the fact that a growing number of people are beginning to recognise the failings and arbitrariness of current policy, and I certainly found it refreshing to experience Nutt’s commitment to the cause of reform first-hand when I had the opportunity to speak to him prior to the event.
Pi: I’d like to start by asking why, in light of discussions surrounding the Home Office report published last October, the government is so unwilling to take into account scientific evidence in support of policy reform?
David Nutt: The government has been resisting evidence because they think there’s political advantage in pretending that the old policy will work. And they’re scared of being shown to have got it wrong. The Home Office is resisting it because it’s not independent; it’s actually working to the politicians rather than to the people and advisory experts. It’s a peculiar collusion between the civil service and politicians, to the detriment of everyone.
Pi: If we see a change in government after this year’s general elections, do you think we’re also likely to see changes in drug policy?
The government has been resisting evidence because they think there’s political advantage in pretending that the old policy will work.
DN: I do think some things will change. I think drugs could become quite an important issue in this next elections, because it is one of the few differentiators. We know that the Lib Dems are very rational about drugs, we know that the Greens are very rational. Both of them strongly support simple, completely safe developments like medicinal cannabis. I think a lot of politicians, both Labour and Conservative, would support those kinds of changes, so it may well be that drug policy will become quite an important issue.
Pi: In terms of the current legal framework, then, I also wondered what you thought about the instance of The Warehouse Project in Manchester, as a club that has piloted on-site drug testing. Why aren’t we seeing similar schemes elsewhere?
DN: That’s a really good question. I think the reason we are not doing testing is because it would mean changing the law. And governments don’t want to do that. All through this last parliament they’ve been trying to avoid a proper debate about drugs, for a number of reasons. One is that people like Cameron have got quite an interesting history of drug taking when they were students and they don’t want that raked over again. I think it’s also that the Conservatives think that, by not saying anything about drugs, they would appeal to their older voters. But I think, to be honest, a lot of it is that they just can’t be bothered. They don’t care enough about young people getting into harmful drugs, actually. That’s sad but true […]
Worst of all, you give this enormously lucrative market, the second biggest market in the world after oil, to criminal gangs.
Pi: Okay. Now if the government is unwilling to change its stance on drug policy, will we ever be able to push past the distinct lack of research into the effects of drugs, particularly ‘club’ drugs such as MDMA?
DN: That’s a very good point. I think we’re in a really cynical, negative circle. Doing research on these drugs is virtually impossible because of the law, and the government quite likes that because we’re not finding out anything to show that they were wrong, or to show that [some drugs] might be safer than previously thought. And I feel particularly angry about that, because we’re putting young people at much more harm. And we’re also stopping any rational research into the therapeutic potential of these drugs which is enormous. I mean, almost all the drugs that we have banned in the last 50 years were medicines. […] It’s another one of the many examples of the perverse consequences of prohibition. […] Worst of all, you give this enormously lucrative market, the second biggest market in the world after oil, to criminal gangs. […]
Pi: And what do you think about the rise in recreational use of prescription drugs?
DN: Well that’s predictable. For most people, a criminal record is more damaging to their lives than the effects of drugs. So rational people see that and want to avoid getting criminal records, so they switch to prescription drugs, which are in some cases legal […] or at least you don’t have to go to dealers to get them.
Pi: It’s something that has received very little serious mainstream coverage, until recently at least. Are prescription drugs more dangerous than drugs that have traditionally been used for recreational purposes?
DN: 200 people die of paracetamol poisoning every year, from overdose. Probably 200 or so die of prescription opiates. I think it’s not a massive problem, but it’s a potential problem. It’s a bigger problem in the US, where penalties for illegal opiate possession are so draconian that people clearly want to go down a route that is less risky. But one of the most interesting things, that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by, is that in US states where medical cannabis has been made more available, the deaths from prescription opiates have dropped. And that suggests to me that quite a few people are dying accidentally from prescription opiates because they’re dealing with pain syndromes and, by switching to cannabis for pain, they get the benefit of the fact that cannabis doesn’t kill you. So that’s actually another major argument for making medical cannabis available, because it would reduce the misuse of prescription opiates.
Drugs are not safe, no drugs will ever be safe, but on the other hand if we use them appropriately we can minimise the problems.
Pi: Do you think the UK is likely to follow suit?
DN: I think so. The House of Lords in 2001 produced a very thorough report on the value of medical cannabis. All we can say is that the evidence has since gone up. We have seen it widely used in American states without any major harm, and benefits like reduction in prescription opiate deaths and in road traffic accidents due to alcohol. […] So I think the case for medicinal cannabis is overwhelming. It’s weird that we haven’t done it actually. […]
Pi: And one more thing. I wanted to know whether the emerging movement to make psychedelics more mainstream, headed by the Psychedelic Society, is viable in this day and age?
DN: Yes, psychedelics have a very important role in science and in medicine, particularly in disorders like addiction, and obviously they’re critical to understanding the brain. You can’t understand the brain unless you can understand the psychedelic experience alongside other experiences. I think we should have a much more rational approach to them as well, like we did in the 50s and 60s.
Pi: But how would we convince people that, in mainstreaming psychedelics, we wouldn’t actually be sending out the wrong message to impressionable young people?
DN: Well, they’re less dangerous than alcohol. As long as we educate people properly and make [psychedelics] available safely, for instance through pharmacies and licenses, the harms are likely to be very minimal. [That’s] certainly [the case] for medicinal use, I think we can show that through controlled use and controlled safe setting. Drugs are not safe, no drugs will ever be safe, but on the other hand if we use them appropriately we can minimise the problems. Psychedelics will be less harmful than many other drugs.
All image credits: Nada Smiljanic