Don't ban meow meow - give it out in nightclubs
When two teenage boys and a 24-year-old woman die and a new - and, at present, legal - drug called mephedrone is the prime suspect in their deaths, parents inevitably panic.
So the last thing they want to hear is that, in fact, alcohol is probably more dangerous than meow meow, as mephedrone is nicknamed, and is certainly more harmful than a host of other recreational drugs, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis and ecstasy.
But this is the grim warning from fellow parent Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser.
"For me, as a father with four children, aged 18 to 26, the drug that I know could kill my kids is alcohol. It is the drug that has caused the most damage to my kids' generation and I think we have got to be honest about that," says Nutt, sitting in a modest meeting room at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) - the independent charity, he jokes, "which is responsible for all this".
By "all this" he means his controversial sacking as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by Alan Johnson last October after the CCJS published his paper entitled Estimating Drug Harms: A Risky Business?
In it Nutt set out the findings from 10 years of scientific research showing clearly that alcohol is the fifth most dangerous drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone (the opiate substitute) and that drugs such as ecstasy and LSD (both currently Class A substances) are less harmful than tobacco.
In addition - and perhaps most controversially - Nutt criticised the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's decision to reclassify cannabis (ranked by him as less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco) from a Class C back to a Class B substance, based on what he calls "the precautionary principle" rather than scientific evidence presented by the ACMD. Smith had also rejected an ACMD recommendation in January 2009 that ecstasy should be downgraded from Class A to Class B, prompting Nutt to write a paper, Equasy, in which he demonstrated that more people died in equestrian events than from taking ecstasy. In the CCJS lecture he stated that the ACMD had "won the intellectual argument" over ecstasy.
"I have watched experts on television be asked the question, 'Which is more dangerous: alcohol or ecstasy?' or 'alcohol or cannabis?' and they always try to avoid the issue," he says. "Eventually somebody has to tell the truth, so I told the truth and this is what happened."
Perhaps not surprisingly, his "truths" garnered plenty of media attention and the day after the paper's publication Nutt got a call from the BBC. "They said: 'We've just heard from the Home Office that you've dropped out of the Monday lunchtime interview [with Radio 1 about ketamine] because they're considering your position.' That was the first I'd heard."
In fact, he had been told by the Home Office chief scientist to withdraw from the interview to "take the heat out of the situation", and it was only by calling his secretary at the Home Office and asking for an explanation that he subsequently received an email from Alan Johnson asking him to resign.
"I replied: 'No. I was just having a discussion about relative [drug] harm. Why should I resign?' At which point a Home Office official contacted me and said, in effect, 'I'll just translate the letter for you, David: You're sacked'."
But Nutt denies he should have seen it coming, pointing out that the Home Office knew in advance what he was going to say. "Nothing in the paper was any different to a lecture I had given three months previously on the subject and nothing I said then was scientifically different from the Lancet paper that I had launched in 2007," he says. "All that had changed was that we [the ACMD] had had the arguments with the Government over cannabis and ecstasy."
Officially, Nutt was accused by the Home Secretary of giving "mixed messages" on drugs. "What I said is that alcohol is more dangerous than the Government is prepared to admit. At present, alcohol and tobacco don't come under the Misuse of Drugs Act because no government has ever said that they should. Nevertheless, I believe the relative harms of alcohol and tobacco should be compared on the same scale as other drugs. Another critical question in relation to mephedrone is how harmful has a drug got to be before it's made illegal?"
The ACMD and the Government first clashed horns in 2005 when magic mushrooms were made Class A without consultation with the council. Nutt did not have time to include magic mushrooms on his chart of relative drug harm but he says he probably wouldn't have classified them and "certainly not as a class A". National statistics show there were 5,737 deaths from fellow Class A drug heroin from 1993 to 2000, compared with only one from magic mushrooms over the same period.
The magic mushroom debate might have been the first but it certainly wasn't the last conflict Nutt encountered as ACMD chair. "Gordon [Brown] came into power and started pontificating about cannabis being lethal. Then came ecstasy," he says. "Drugs have only really become so political under this current administration. Maybe it's because Gordon sees that he's coming to the end and it's a desperate attempt to head off the inevitable."
Which brings us, of course, to mephedrone. A slew of resignations in disgust at Nutt's sacking left the ACMD in-quorate. The Home Office has been making rushed appointments so that new members can advise by the end of next week.
Professor Les Iversen (Nutt's temporary replacement) suggested to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday that the council would recommend a ban, making mephedrone a Class B drug. He said: "These drugs are amphetamines by another name ... I think you can deduce my conclusions from that." But Nutt is critical of snap decisions.
"The ACMD could say that one confirmed death [of a 46-year-old man last week] is enough evidence to make mephedrone a controlled drug, or they could say they believe in the precautionary principle, but neither of those is scientific and if they do go down that route then they will have lost scientific credibility. It is an open question whether mephedrone is more or less harmful than MDMA [the main component of ecstasy]. We really don't know, but I would say that they are probably similar."
While the Government responds to the mounting media pressure with a plan for "immediate action" on mephedrone, Nutt's views are gaining support from the Facebook generation who see him as a champion for the drugs they may have taken (and argued are relatively safe) for some time. One Nutt support group on the social networking site now has more than 30,500 members.
"If the younger generation sees me as someone who is actually propounding a scientific view of drug use, that's great. But one of the messages we really have to get through to young people is 'don't mix drugs' and one of the phrases we've coined is 'don't drink and drug' because I think a lot of harm comes from people who get drunk and then take things but don't know what or how much they're taking," says Nutt.
"What I wouldn't want is for people to use drugs such as alcohol because they are legal and suffer greater consequences than if they were using [illegal] drugs that may be less harmful. They don't use them because they're worried that the criminalisation will ruin their lives."
One member of Facebook's "Support Professor David Nutt" group, Sergio Montes, speaks for many contributors when he says of the proposed criminalisation of mephedrone: "I guess criminals gangs are right now rubbing their hands thinking about the profits of yet another non-taxable product. Damn it! I guess these criminals are about the only real fans politicians have."
These kinds of arguments prompt Nutt to suggest that "some sort of regulated use for MDMA or mephedrone where people, maybe in clubs, could have access to small amounts, safe amounts under guidance" would be better than the current system of banning drugs and forcing them onto the black market.
Presumably, if that is how Nutt feels, then he wouldn't object to his own children trying mephedrone in controlled doses. "If I found my children were taking mephedrone I would do as I always do and tell them the truth," he says.
He has the same attitude with all drugs. "I would say: 'If you get on to heroin, you are at real risk of dying. Heroin, crack and crystal meth are the drugs you really want to avoid and it would be very distressing for me to know you were taking those'. With alcohol I'd say: 'I know you drink but whatever you drink, try to do it in a way where you don't put yourself at harm'. And with other drugs: 'If you are going to use them, just be aware that the harm of criminalisation may actually be more dangerous than the drugs themselves'."
Does this candidness about drugs extend to his own experiences? "I've never tried it [mephedrone] and I've never tried MDMA. I've hardly used any drugs, I'm a bit weedy really. I'm an old man from a different generation. I hardly even smoked cannabis because I get wheezy, but I'm not against people smoking [cannabis]. And I do drink."
As the Government and Professor Nutt have found, the truth sometimes hurts. But there's far more to lose if people shy away from it.