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The drug legislation dilemma

Updated Friday 21st February 2014

UK drug policy is “disastrous” says Open University Visiting Professor and former government advisor David Nutt. In a lecture at the OU the professor called for scientists to have greater input to the control of illegal substances.

Random bottles of alcohol Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Benis Arapovic | Dreamstime.com A menace to society? Our current policies to control drugs and alcohol are having ‘disastrous results’, because they are made by politicians rather than scientists.

This is the hard-hitting view put forward by The Open University’s recently appointed Visiting Research Professor of Social Policy and Criminology, David Nutt.

In his first lecture at the OU’s Walton Hall campus in January, the former head of the Government’s Advisory council for the Misuse of Drugs said: “There is no correlation between harms of drugs and control.”

He added: “We currently have a decision-making process about drugs based on political expediency. I am sure we could do much better if scientists took over.”

Professor Nutt and colleagues have developed a Cause of Harm Index compiled by scientific experts (see below), which compares the harms done to individuals and to society by individual drugs, including tobacco and alcohol.

By this measure alcohol is more harmful than most of the drugs which are now currently illegal and responsible for the deaths of 8,000 people in the UK each year.

By contrast drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and mephedrone, which the scientific evidence suggests are all much less dangerous, are much more strictly controlled. Mephedrone was recently made illegal despite evidence that it may have encouraged a drop in consumption of a much more harmful drug, cocaine.

But current drugs legislation also discourages medical research which holds out hope for relieving suffering, Professor Nutt said.

He heads a team investigating a promising new drug treatment for cluster headaches, an intractable condition which causes its victims so much agony that some commit suicide.

But because the drug in question is psilocybin, classed as a Schedule 1 drug (the most restricted) it has taken his team eighteen months to clear the regulatory hurdles before they can start work.

Other Schedule 1 drugs may offer hope to sufferers from alcohol addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious conditions. But with regulatory hurdles including a licence that costs £6000 a year “almost no-one researches these drugs”, Professor Nutt said.

Ironically, Schedule 1 drugs are not necessarily the most dangerous – heroin at Schedule 2 is less restricted than cannabis which is Schedule 1. They classed as such because they are currently seen to have no medical use.

Current regulation has a massively negative effect on new treatments

You can watch Professor Nutt’s thought-provoking lecture ‘Beyond politics: putting science at the heart of drug policy?’ in full further down the page.

He also makes his case in his book Drugs Without The Hot Air.

The cause of harm index Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission The cause of harm index - click the image for a closer view

The Cause of Harm Index was created by a process called multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA). Members of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, including two invited specialists, met in a one-day interactive workshop to score 20 drugs on 16 criteria. Nine related to the harms that a drug produces in the user (the blue areas of the chart) and seven to the harms to others (the red areas). Drugs were scored out of 100 points, and the criteria were weighted to indicate their relative importance.

The findings are supported by a further ISCD European study incorporating data from 20 European countries. They also accord with previous work carried out in the UK and Netherlands.

Note: A low score does not mean the drug is entirely safe, since all drugs can be harmful under specific circumstances.

You can read the full report at The Lancet website.

About David Nutt

The cover of David Nutt's Drugs Without The Hot Air Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: UIT Cambridge David Nutt is one of the world’s foremost experts on the use of medical imaging to understand the effects of drugs on the human brain. He was formerly Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) until he was sacked in 2009 for publicly disagreeing with the Government of the day’s plans to upgrade the legal classification of cannabis, arguing it was not supported by scientific evidence. His removal triggered the sympathetic resignation of several other Advisory Council scientists.

Professor Nutt and a number of other scientists then set up the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs whose mission is ‘to ensure that the public can access clear, evidence based information on drugs without interference from political or commercial interest’. In 2013 he was awarded the John Maddox Prize from Nature/Sense about Science for standing up for science.

Professor Nutt and his team are also planning to start work on a project to develop an alcohol substitute which will target the same areas of the brain and produce the same effects as regular booze, but without the harmful side-effects.

Watch David Nutt's lecture

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