The scientist sacked by the government – in conversation with Professor David Nutt
Run by the university’s pioneering policy engagement arm [email protected], 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.