When will we start listening to the evidence, asks Prof David Nutt ‘What are the prospects for an evidence-based drugs policy?’
Prof David Nutt was asked by the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group, at their latest meeting. Prof Nutt recalled his nine years’ experience as chair of the ACMD. ‘We developed a rational scale against which drugs could be assessed,’ he said. ‘It had been done in an arbitrary fashion and we tried to make it more scientific.’ But the problem with that approach was that it showed no relationship between the harms of drugs and the Misuse of Drugs Act.
‘It showed what we suspected, that the act is arbitrary,’ he said. ‘It created a lot of consternation – and an irreconcilable difference between me and the home secretary, which led to me being sacked.’ So where next? Over the past three years he had been working with Norwegian scientists on a new analysis.
‘It turns out there are 27 social variables that are relevant,’ he said, and had applied these to three drugs – alcohol, cannabis and heroin – in different scenarios, from complete prohibition to a free market, including a very regulated market as Sweden had done with alcohol. His conclusion was ‘very clear for all – that state regulation is the least harmful and provides the most benefits for society’. The research would be published during the next few months, following peer review, and would ‘hopefully provide much more debate going forward’.
Answering questions from the group, Nutt commented that the Psychoactive Substances Act was ‘the worse piece of moral legislation since 1559. It constrains moral behaviour; I’m amazed there hasn’t been an outcry from scientists and parliamentarians.’ The act had been driven by pressure groups and was utterly wrong in principle, he said, adding ‘no other country in the world has banned drugs that are harmless.’ Furthermore, we had ‘opened up a Pandora’s Box by being terrified of cannabis’, creating synthetic cannabinoids – an example of how prohibition had made things so much worse. ‘I’m a scientist and a pharmacologist – we have to understand the value of drugs,’ he said. ‘I object to the Psychoactive Substances Act’s stance that all drugs are bad, whatever they do for you. The law in itself is never a solution.’
Asked how we should use this intelligence to inform future ways of working, Nutt replied that we should target areas of greatest vulnerability, adding, ‘Should anyone be in prison for possession? There’s no proper debate between the prison system and government and we’re destroying the lives of prisoners and staff. It’s a moralistic approach to policy.’
His key message to the meeting, he concluded, was that we should have evidence-based drug policy.
‘The ACMD is becoming less influential,’ he said. ‘We have a lot of evidence and we should listen to it.’