David Nutt and the ‘truth’ about drugs

Master coiner of the controversial soundbite Professor David Nutt came to Imperial last night, to talk about science policy advice, how we view drugs in our society and vilification at the hands of Horse and Hound.

He was interviewed by our Science Communication Group’s own Stephen Webster, in a packed lecture theatre gathered by the University’s Political Philosophy Society. As you’d expect from the media image he’s portrayed he was remarkably robust about his sacking from the government’s drugs advisory board.

In fact he’s so unfazed and even energised he’s setting up a new body, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs with some money from a hedge-fund donor. This he says will “focus on the science” and tell “the truth about drugs”, ideals he clearly feels are missing from the government at the moment. Speaking about his experience with ministers he quoted one as commenting that they only wanted “evidence which backs up our policies”.

This ‘truth’ will be an assessment of the harms of each substance. As well as comparing them against each other, he plans to judge them against other risks in society, following on from his famous assertion that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding, or ‘equasy’ as he calls it. He’s got a very good point in this comparison. Notions of illegal drugs as ‘bad’ or ‘very dangerous’ are so embedded in our culture it’s difficult to see their harms clearly, and comparing them to socially-acceptable activities such as mountain climbing and riding is a great way of portraying, and allowing people to grasp, the risks.

But useful as his relations of legal drugs, illegal drugs and sporting activities are for understanding risk, do they mean that we should be banning horse riding and legalising ecstasy? I don’t think so. Stephen pointed out in his questioning that this comparison’s great for simplifying the science. But that’s the thing, it simplifies only the science. Even this was only the science the committee examined – the personal harms to health, dependency, and social harms such as those caused by intoxication and health-care costs; as we have evidence for now. Not the social, physical or mental benefits of these activities or substances, or criminal implications of downgrading, upgrading or legalising a drug, but the science of harm.

And this is supposedly why we have politicians and where they step in, to take this hotpot of factors, weigh them up and turn them into policy.

David Nutt has stirred some very important questions to do with the relationship between science advice and policy, especially regarding the transparency of decision making. His experience of the government has left him highly critical of how this relationship works, and he claims drug classification not entirely based on the evidence of harms “distorts” this evidence. Ministers have a right to reject scientific advice if they want to, and if they do I think it’s important the public get to hear why. However ruling over scientific advice in favour of other factors isn’t distorting it, and this advice isn’t the ‘truth’ or be-all and end-all for how we deal with drugs in society.

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