Professor David Nutt, 58, was forced to resign as the government’s chief drugs adviser after he said tobacco and alcohol were more dangerous than ecstasy, LSD and cannabis. His new Independent Council on Drug Harms meets for the first time today
You have equated drug taking with the risks of alcohol and even horse riding. Do politicians treat the public like fools?
The Home Office had data on what the public thought, especially on cannabis, and two-thirds wanted the penalty for possession for personal use to be two years or less; a quarter didn’t want any prison sentence. That was a Mori poll, so was representative of the population. There’s no doubt the government has misled the public about drugs.
Why do you think you were sacked as the government’s drug adviser?
Because I continued to emphasise that by making a lot of noise about less problematic drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis they had taken their eye off alcohol. Alcohol is a drug that is most worrying to most parents and it is the drug that is most likely to damage young teenagers. One a day dies of alcohol poisoning and one or two a day die in a road traffic or other accident relating to alcohol – that’s why it is the most dangerous drug. We should be focusing our efforts on that, not pretending that other drugs are worse.
Alan Johnson said you were sacked because you campaigned against government policy while being a government adviser. Did you?
It depends if you believe that repeating scientific evidence is campaigning. I am continuing to make a case that drug laws, to be fair and just, should properly reflect the harm to the person using and to society, and if they don’t do that then injustice will occur. More innocent non-drug-using people die from road traffic accidents and other damage from alcohol than any other drug.
How are you carrying out that campaigning?
By giving lectures and setting up an independent council on drug harms to provide an unbiased scientific perspective on drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, for the general public, the media and even – if they want to use it – politicians. The new council meets for the first time this month and will be stronger on the science of drugs harms than the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) as it has more scientists with broader expertise.
Do you think government policy on drugs causes more problems, not less?
Yes. The government has ‘a head in the sand’ attitude.
Should drugs that are illegal now be legalised?
We need to have a complete rethink. I’m not in favour of legalisation if that means active marketing of drugs but a form of regulated use for some drugs such as cannabis, as happens in Holland, should be considered.
Are you still in contact with others from the ACMD?
All but one of those who have resigned are going to sit on the new council and a third of those on the existing council have expressed an interest in working with the new council.
What about legal highs such as meow meow (mephedrone)?
The ACMD suggested the government could create a new Class D for over-18s to act as a kind of holding category; this has been successful in New Zealand. There will always be new drugs being made so having a holding category until you know more about these would be sensible. For instance, meow meow is sold as plant food so we have no idea of its content. We also proposed a testing system, like in the Netherlands, where people can check what’s in their drugs without fear of prosecution.
Should MPs confess to youthful drug taking?
A lot of MPs have experience of drugs. They are lucky they did not get punished when they had their experiences as they probably wouldn’t be where they are today. The lottery of whether you get caught and the effect that has on you for the rest of your life is deeply unfair and unjust.
Author: John Higginson
Date: 14th January, 2010