Mavericks - Professor David Nutt

Professor David Nutt is as expert as it is possible to be on the various toxicities of recreational drugs; his job (or profession) is rather oddly titled: he is a neuropsychopharmacologist (he uses drugs to help people who have problems with their brain), a Cambridge graduate in medicine and, for a relatively brief period, was Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) before being sacked by the Home Secretary for a representation of scientific truth.

His story, though sad and revealing, is also delightfully whimsical. In the (somewhat obscure to the mainstream) British Journal of Psychopharmacology, Professor Nutt wrote a serious though light-hearted piece under the satirical title, 'Equasy – An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms'. In it, he compared the dangers of taking ecstasy with the dangers of riding a horse and made the rationalized estimate that there were in the region of nearly 6,000 serious riding accidents a year (10 of which will cause death, many hundreds of others will cause serious brain injuries – and this is completely ignoring any damage to the horses) and that this was quantifiably similar to the number of incidents of harm cause by use of ecstasy. His conclusion was that, in terms of the medical cost to the NHS, they were similar, but ecstasy use caused harm once every 10,000 times a pill was used whereas horse riding caused harm (again, to the rider) once every 350 times a horse was mounted.

The current maximum prison sentences laid down by the Misuse of Drugs Act classify ecstasy as class ‘A’ meaning that one, as the table below outlines, might receive a seven-year long custodial sentence for the possession of a tablet whereas one can ride a horse, publicly, with impunity.

Class Includes Possession Dealing
A Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, magic mushrooms, amphetamines (injected) 7 years Life
B Amphetamines, cannabis, Ritalin 5 years 14 years
C Tranquilisers, some painkillers, GHB, ketamine 2 years 14 years

He further concluded that taking ecstasy was about as dangerous as riding a bike for 20 miles. Voiceless indeed is the pressure group that argues for the banning of bicycles.

To Nutt, Drugs policy in Britain, “is a laughing stock. It’s like a religious cult in the Middle Ages. We spend half a billion pounds a year criminalising cannabis users. All that does is serve to alienate a large section of young black males who then go and riot. We create an underclass who can’t get employment because they’ve got a criminal record.”

The concern was that, given that cannabis had previously been downgraded from a Class B drug to a Class C (and had been the only drug ever to be so), the newer high THC forms of the drug were suspected to cause mental illness. Investigating such an issue and making appropriate science-based recommendations was precisely the reason that the government’s advisory board had been set up to make recommendations on. That investigation found some causal link, but an insufficiently strong one for the reclassification of the drug upwards, and that, compared to alcohol it caused markedly less public harm. Profesor Nutt was sacked from his post for such an assertion, cannabis – like the classification of ecstasy (which the AMCD recommended as class B, but the government put in the top category) and magic mushrooms (which the government sought no scientific advice on) – was upgraded to Class B directly against the recommendations of the scientist formerly employed to give such recommendations.

Initially, it appears that the quality press was rather more forgiving of Nutt’s maverick stance than they were of Varoufakis’s. There is a sense here that as he is a scientist and not an economist, he works in a more exact field and expresses views that come with the backup of indisputable fact: he is therefore not quite so easy to discredit. But there is also the fact that the territory that he inhabits is not quite so threatening to the way in which money is distributed than the territory Varoufakis operates in. (The Times does ask whether he will get rich from having created synthesised alcohol, as an interest in one’s own bank balance is perceived to make anything you say of a political nature automatically invalid by an organ of the already wealthy. Ultimately, his stance is a threat to the drinks industry and, therefore, a threat to profits piled up from other people’s fun/misery.

Enter Camilla Long, one of the orthodoxy’s currently most favoured waspish dessicators of reasoned argument: she interviews Professor Nutt for the Sunday Times and the resultant array of words is released under a headline (which, admittedly Ms Long didn’t write) that almost redefines purility ‘David Nutt: Give me ’shrooms and I’ll be good’. The diminutive here, which is very much the language of the student drug user, is surreptitiously set up through use of the first person working in combination with a sneaky colon to set up the false appearance of a quotation. Conventions of writing mean that if it is not in inverted commas that we do and should not read it as a quote, but the colon makes it appear as if these words carry, at least, the very kernel of meaning enveloped in Professor Nutt’s responses to Long’s probing questions. The subheading further leads the reader towards the conclusion that this witty, intelligent and highly qualified man is unhinged to the point of being a dangerous maniac: ‘The former drug tsar claims the law is preventing him from curing depression — with magic mushrooms’. The verb “claims” is chosen here to suggest to the readers, against all logic, that his assertion that he is not allowed to run a controlled scientific investigation into whether magic mushrooms might have some clinical use in curing depression is just that: an assertion: one of wild opinion. The subtext that the sub-editor who created the sub-intelligent sub-heading is implying here is correct: it is an assertion, but it is one of fact: law prevents such studies as magic mushrooms, regardless of the fact that they are scientifically proven to be the least harmful of any recreational drug, are categorized as Class ‘A’ and are therefore, by law, not to be used in clinical trials. (Even Long admits, “Under the current law he would need an expensive licence just to hold the drug, which has the same classification as crack cocaine)” . The dash employed further leads us to the conclusion that the Professor is not only Nutt by name as it implies a similar pause to that of the ellipsis … wait for it … here we go … he says it can be cured by … and I’m not kiddin’ ya here … magic mushrooms. The exclamation mark is implied.

And then we read the article ... It starts with, “Oh my God, he’s bonkers — in the way only West Country people really can be . He jiggles and giggles and gives little whoops — by the end of the interview I feel quite seasick.”

Subjecting to this to any analysis would not only be treating a turd to a little spit and elbow grease, it would be rolling it in entirely unwarranted glitter. From this low start, Long proceeds with a barrage of shots so bludgeoningly cheap that they insult her own profession “The British Neuroscience Association is having its annual group toke — sorry, conference.” How flimsy is this? Flimsy indeed. When covering the illegality of ecstasy in couples therapy and remarking on its beneficial aspects, that the drug “has long been shown to help get rid of all that aggression and hate and antipathy that builds up, so you can see the person as they were when you were first in love.” Long reposts the awful question, “But isn’t that the best part of a relationship?” She, as the representative of an organ that exists to control voting intention, to keep hierarchies as they are, argues in favour of unhappiness, repression and resentment. Her views and her role in expressing them are respected by the past, current and future governors of British society, many of whom are former colleagues of hers. The Times here is revealed to be little more than the Daily Mail for people with ‘O’ levels: the achievement of which has left them deluded as to their standard of literacy.

She concludes her piece, as is the convention of the extended insult with, “He seems such a nice man” but follows this up with the final slamdunk, “But I don’t know if I’d leave him in charge of a pub quiz.”

The orthodoxy has stated its position on taking an evidence-based approach to drugs harm.

Added Sun, 7 Feb 2016 21:20

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