A former government advisor on drug policy says current laws are not based on science, and are causing greater harm because of it.
Earlier this week, David Nutt, a British psychiatrist and research professor, was awarded this year’s John Maddox Prize for his outspoken criticism of drug policy.
Once the chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Prof. Nutt was fired in 2009 for arguing that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than most illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and marijuana.
But he continues to defend his view that drug policy – in the UK and abroad – is not guided by science. In an essay for The Conversation, Prof. Nutt describes why he made such a strong stand against drug laws, which ultimately cost him his job.
“Any sensible person or scientist knows that the drug laws are not based on the science of drugs. And it’s a collusion among scientists, politicians, and to some extent the public, to ignore that. It is anti-establishment, but also not, in that it’s such an obvious thing. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes – someone needed to speak up.”
But how can governments continue to ignore science so blatantly? As Prof. Nutt explains, governments tend to pick and choose their research rather than taking a balanced approach.
“Governments are often very explicit about the fact that they’re interested in evidence to support their policy. It’s going back to the old Churchillian adage that science should be on tap not on top. And that’s just the wrong way round. Policy should follow evidence. They also seek out evidence, or fund research, that will produce the kind of evidence that will only support what they want to do.”
The consequences: Less harmful, and often medically beneficial, drugs are kept illegal while little effort is put towards reducing the far greater harm of legal drugs such as alcohol.
And while the legalization of cannabis now seems inevitable, many forget that there are also benefits to legalizing other prohibited substances.
Prof. Nutt has spent years researching the medical benefits of drugs like MDMA, which he believes could be useful in Parkinson’s disease. However, its status as an illegal drug makes conducting studies significantly more difficult.
But while his own country remains resistant to change, Prof. Nutt sees a glimmer of hope in other parts of the world.
“I assumed that once there was a scientific body of evidence saying the laws were wrong then things would change. What’s interesting is that they have changed; they’ve changed in the US with cannabis, they’ve changed in Uruguay with cannabis, they’ve changed in New Zealand with legal highs.”
Prof. Nutt says we need to forget the stigma about illegal drugs in order to finally determine whether the “net benefits of the drug could be greater than the harms.”