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The scientist sacked by the government – in conversation with Professor David Nutt

Known for being sacked for comparing the harms of horse riding with taking ecstasy or cannabis, neuropsychopharmacologist Professor Nutt is the controversial scientist everyone is talking about

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Run by the university’s pioneering policy engagement arm Policy@Manchester, Policy Week 2015 played focus on Science, Technology and Public Policy. The event, held from November 2nd – 6th, encompassed five days of lectures and panel discussions from big names in public policy and academia.

The event programme was held as part of Manchester’s role as European City of Science 2016, which recognises Manchester’s contribution to scientific discovery, innovation and industry.  Over 30 discussions, lectures, workshops, and films were held throughout the week at the Manchester Museum and other venues across campus and the city.

Having sold out days prior to the event, Professor David Nutt’s ‘Notes on a Drugs Scandal’ talk, held at the Portico Library on Wednesday the 4th of November, was most definitely a highlight.

In October 2009, Professor Nutt was invited to interview with BBC Radio 4 to discuss his recent ‘Estimating Drug Harms: a Risky Business?’ lecture. When asked whether he thought alcohol was more harmful than cannabis, he replied yes.

As controversial as the statement was, it was based on true findings from his scientific work and backed up by similar studies also expressing alcohol as one of the most harmful drugs.

Despite the evidence backing Professor Nutt’s claim, such findings were not welcomed by government officials. Professor Nutt was consequentially removed from his post as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

Prof Nutt has since set up his own science-led drugs charity named ‘DrugScience: Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’, which carries out groundbreaking original research into the harms and effects of drugs, completely free from political interference.  The charity also provides information on the actual harm caused of various drugs and challenges myths surrounding drug classification and legislation in the UK.

Additional to his post as Chair of DrugScience, he is also the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropharmacology at Imperial College London.

Professor Nutt openly emphasises his frustration with drugs policy in the UK, and stresses how legislation is continually coloured by political and moral concerns, often ignoring or exaggerating raw evidence. By expressing the extent to which many substances are vilified in by current UK drug policy, Professor Nutt continually campaigns for a more rational approach drugs.

His book, ‘Drugs—without the hot air: Minimising the harms of legal and illegal substances’, was the British Medical Association’s highly commended Popular Medicine Book 2013, and won the 2014 Transmission Prize for Communicating Science. His two Drugs Live television programs in association Channel 4, Cannabis on Trial and The Ecstasy Trial, were equally as successful, with the latter being Channel 4’s most watched programmes to date.

Speaking in conversation with BBC News science reporter Victoria Gill last Wednesday, the pair discussed the unique challenges in advising governments on such politically sensitive issues.

Within the historical and stunning setting of the Portico Library, the intimate crowd listened intently to a candid and inspiring Professor Nutt. Speaking of his time advising the government, Nutt expressed how policymakers always moderated what he did, “policy leaders tried to control the outputs of science, for example press releases had to be authorized. But decision should always be made on science.

“I essentially got sacked for saying something Alan Johnson didn’t like” he joked. Despite losing both his place in the ACMD, and a CBE, Professor Nutt contends that he lost his job for “standing up for science.”

Nutt conveyed his pleasure to be where he is today. His 2009 sacking has opened up discussion of science policy in the UK, and has equally “gained [him] a fan club.” He also recalls conversations with other scientists who have previously worked for the government, disclosing that their advice was also ignored.

Discussing current UK drug policy, he stated: “It’s got to a point where everything is illegal, even if it’s safe. Irrational drug policy doesn’t have an impact on drug taking, but it has an enormous impact on drug harm. Policymaking is currently at such a low intellectual level—they [politicians] know what the scientists say is right, but they just want to get re-elected. The government has no interest in science; it’s an insult to democracy.”

Nutt expressed how a rational approach to drug policy, as exhibited by the legalisation of cannabis in The Netherlands and medicinal legalisation in some US states, would reduce crime and road traffic accidents. He joked, “if you’ve ever been to Amsterdam on a Friday night you’ll notice how it’s much friendlier than Manchester, London, or Bristol. Everyone is chilled, stoned, and happy, instead of angry, drunk, and vomiting all over you!”

After the entertaining talk I managed to grab a few words with Professor Nutt. Professor Nutt was pleased to be talking to me, seeming especially joyous when discovering I was a final year neuroscience student. When asked what drew him to speaking at Policy Week 2015, he stated he’d never heard of the event, but when discovering what it was, he thought it was an interesting concept. “I always try to oblige if people ask me to give talks, and doing this kind of conversation thing is always interesting.”

I asked for his opinions on the new Psychoactive Substances Bill, which sets the ban all psychoactive substances, known and unknown. Seeming displeased, he said “I think it’s the worst piece of moral legislation since the 1559 Act of Supremacy that banned the belief in the Catholic faith. I think it is outrageous and atrocious. I am amazed that so few scientists are protesting it. It is an insult to science and human experience. I’m embarrassed to live in a country that’s doing it actually—I might leave.”

After expressing his animosity with current UK drug policies during his talk, I was keen to ask Professor Nutt where he thinks UK drugs policy is heading in the future.

“We’re going backwards. We’re the only country in the world that’s gone backwards, and we’re going backwards faster than any other country. It’s appalling. The rest of the world is getting more rational, apart from a few exceptions, but most of the world is moving in the direction in which I support, which is decriminalization: Reducing imprisonment, treating addiction as an illness, and treating drug use as a health problem.

“Future drug policy should be evidence-based. Drugs are a health issue, not a crime issue. As soon as you get policing involved it makes things worse.”

I was intrigued as to why the government was so unwilling to take scientific evidence on board in drug policy reform, and so inquired as to why he thought this was. “Because they get more votes by doing what they think is going to get more votes! But they don’t know what they’re doing. But drugs policy is easy politics.”

Earlier in the talk, Nutt wittily informed how the government has “criminalised a million young people for possessing cannabis that isn’t as bad for them as the alcohol the police officers that arrest them drink!” I was intrigued by his thoughts on young people being criminalised for experimenting with illegal substances: “It’s completely pointless. A criminal record will do much more harm to their life than almost any drug they take.”

Taking a more scientific stance, I asked his opinions on the use of illegal substances in medicine: “A lot of the recreational drugs that are illegal are going to be good therapies. Most of them were therapies! We’ve got this stupid situation where we’ve got a drug people use, then doctors use it, then kids start using recreationally and all of a sudden it gets banned! Kids don’t stop using it, but the patients can’t get access to it any more. It is perverse.”

He continued by disclosing that, out of all the illegal substances, he believes cannabis has the most potential in medicine. “There’s so many different ways in which cannabis can be used; from cancer right through to pain relief. There are at least a hundred different active chemicals in a cannabis plant, and many of them can be used for therapeutics.”

Finishing up our conversation, I requested any tips he has for those wishing to get involved with science policy: “They must have a very hard skin. Learn to write well and write interesting articles, learn to tweet, interview scientists in a critical way, and challenge politicians. Maybe use things like Freedom of Information [requests], and actively engage in policies.”

And the one final message from Professor David Nutt? “Vote! Register to vote, vote in the next election, and vote for parties that tell the truth about drugs. If you don’t vote, you’re disempowered.”

If you would like to find out more about Professor David Nutt or UK Drug Policy, visit drugscience.org.uk/, or read his book, ‘Drugs—without the hot air: Minimising the harms of legal and illegal substances’, which is available in all good book shops and to loan from The University of Manchester Library.

  • davidraynes

    What Proffessor Nutt fails to tell people is that in the debate about cannabis classification in 2008, at The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the change back to “B” was driven in large part by Professor Appleby, the National Director of Mental Health.

    The Advisory Council, of which Professor Nutt WAS A MEMBER, did not recommend legalisation of cannabis and said it was harmful, as indeed it is.

    Further, Professor Robin Murray, a real expert on cannabis psychosis, with the research to back that claim up, said of Nutt, “He is playing fast and loose with the statistics”.

    Far from the government not listening to science, it was listening to different science than that provided by Professor Nutt,

    Professor Nutt is an admitted illegal drugs user himself (See the Daily Telegraph article-more than one illegal drug too).

    He goes on the stump, promoting his bizarre views as he is perfectly entitled to do. He must not expect to be always taken seriously.

    • rusty

      No it wasn’t! It was browns pm that changed the classification! The real crime is blocking science from studying this plant! If you are on a moral crusade stop drinking beer!

      • davidraynes

        You are wrong. Gordon Brown made one silly statement about cannabis but he was not responsible. Events were exactly as I have said above. I was at the ACMD Hearing.
        The Advisory Council report is on line and available.

        And scientific research on cannabis has been licensed and approved in the UK for many years.

        Do your research

        • rusty

          You mean after professor nutt was sacked! Because ACMD recommended cannabis remained class C, Gordon Brown was the one that pushed for it to be reclassified B, the yes men now at the ACMD do as they are told! Yes I did do my research mate! You should stop pulling the wool over everyone eyes! Just like all prohibitionist! You can’t be honest with facts! Cherry picking info that supports your view ignore everything else.

          • davidraynes

            Sorry, You are still wrong. Your research is faulty. cannabis enthusiasts do very often get matters wrong I find.

            The Cabinet were divided on the earlier cannabis downgrading by Blunkett,

            Prime Minister Blair was persuaded to go with it, against his better judgement I am told, because of promises made around heroin treatment.

            Many in the Cabinet subsequently became concerned about the mental health of young people. (“Blair’s feral youth”). The Advisory Council did its final consideration on cannabis in 2008 (I was there for the public session and spoke).

            The ACMD was itself not unanimous about classification and we do not have the exact figures.

            The lack of unanimity Professor Nutt now tends to gloss over and I have exposed that on BBC TV when he became stumped for an answer. He often is when I challenge him. He just burbles uselessly.

            Of the recommendations made, government accepted all but the Classification remaining at “C”.

            The prime pressure for returning to the historic classification of “B’, came from the National Director of Mental Health Professor Appleby, supported by the work of Professor Robin Murray, not from any politician’s view. Government was in a cleft stick and had to be cautious. The real experts were advising Cannabisi as being very harmful. The scientific community was not united.

            Classification B or C is probably slightly academic, The ACMD had emphatically not recommended legalisation and said Cannabis was harmful. Professor Nutt was on the ACMD when it said that.

            Cannabis was reclassified on 26th Jan 2009.

            Professor Nutt was forced out the ACMD on 30 Oct 2009.

            As to the research. The UK was far sighted in allowing it

            Personally I have always thought CBD (not so much THC) had likely therapeutic value.

            You bleating about the cost of entry is silly. All proper pharmaceutical research to 1st world standards IS expensive. Even then serious mistakes are made e.g Thalidomide.

            • rusty

              My bleating! The world is changing you are a dinosaur mate! It’s time to stop telling lies , how about you stop drinking alcohol which does real damage to health including mental health! I take it you didn’t bother to look at pubmed.com as you are still lying!

            • davidraynes

              Interesting that you hide behind a pen name while accusing me, of deliberate inaccuracy.

              Other readers will judge your bona fides and who is likely to be making the best attempt at historical accuracy..

            • rusty

              It ain’t you mate! Pubmed.com that’s the official peer review site for all medical studies! Let the public decide how’s lying! Rusty is my pet name my with gave me but you can call me steve Dave ;)

            • rusty

              Prohibitionist like you and professor parrott and that man behind the WHO 20 study (if you can call it that!) Do not look at every study, only what suits your views! I know that some people will become problematic drug users but I also know that addiction has nothing to do with the drugs them selves! You need to be honest and look at the problem with an open mind! You believe you are right but until you take a step back and look at the whole issue about drugs you will never be right! Prohibition should only be for children not adults! I believe you have a right to drink beer even so it’s the drug behind 100% of date rapes 90% of demestic violence and 40% of fatal car accidents! Why well you know the history of alcohol prohibition!

        • rusty

          Schedule 1 unless you have hundreds of thousands in cash then jump through hoops or work for g w pharmaceutical then it’s almost impossible! Most studies are done abroad! Instead of reading the headlines from the news papers go to the peer reviewed site PUBMED.COM to see how wrong you are.

  • marybrett1

    The ACMD, under the
    chairmanship of Professor David Nutt, had not been asked to look at ecstasy by the government but they had commissioned a multi-analysis paper from PenTAG, May 19th 2008 that I found to be most unsatisfactory,
    playing down the true harmful effects of MDMA. It bore no relation to any of the studies of ecstasy I had ever read in terms of its damaging effects. Professor Nutt has not done any research himself on ecstasy or cannabis.

    I searched the internet and found that Professor Andy Parrot of Swansea University is the most prominent
    ecstasy researcher in the UK. He has written literally hundreds of papers.

    Until I alerted him he had no idea this review was taking place! He asked me to send some of his papers to
    the ACMD as he was off to an ecstasy conference in Australia that he had organised. When he came back, I suggested he give a presentation to the ACMD. He had to send 3 e-mails before they answered. He proceeded to demolish Professor Nutt’s evidence and Professor Nutt made no attempt to defend himself.
    If I had been initiating an investigation into ecstasy the first thing I would have done would have been to contact the top ecstasy researcher in the country.

    Among other points, Professor Nutt had said that ecstasy is non-addictive (actually 85% of regular users are
    addicted), does not impair car driving, causes no aggression, did not damage the liver (there have been liver transplants in Scotland), brain or heart and there were no papers involving ecstasy and humans, only animals. None of this was true and Andy found 1,400 papers (ecstasy and humans), including his own on
    Pub-Med. Professor Nutt claims that ecstasy is less pleasurable than cigarettes or even cocaine.

    Professor Nutt placed ecstasy 18th out of 20 drugs in his proposed classification system in The Lancet. Andy revised the scoring when all empirical evidence is taken into consideration and placed it 5th.

    A friend sent me Nutt’s ‘Equasy’ paper that I promptly sent to a journalist – and as they say, the rest is history!

    I conveyed all this information to The Centre for Crime and Justice Meeting, September 14th 2015
    ‘The David Nutt Affair’. As before Professor Nutt made no attempt to defend himself but looked distinctly uncomfortable. The video of this meeting contains no input from the floor.

    • rusty

      Professor parrott is a scam artists! I’ve read his paper and he doesn’t take into acount the subject diets or other drugs including alcohol! Please don’t give out BS!