On Saturday evening, two days after he was sacked from his position as drugs tsar for saying that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol, Professor David Nutt went to a brass band concert in his local church in Keynsham, outside Bristol. "I came in late and sneaked in the back," he says, "but in the interval, the Master of Ceremonies announced I was there. The news was greeted by an amazing round of applause."
So his neighbours are fond of him: no surprise, since this Nutt's tough outer shell seems to hide a friendly father-of-four humanity. But I'm missing the point. "The youngest person there was 50. Many were 85." To Nutt, this says it all. Not only is he – as he puts it – "on the side of the angels" in the clash between science and politics, he also believes that he is more in touch than the politicians with even the most conservative of rural electorates.
The past week has not been short of similarly morale-boosting moments. Emails have flooded his in-box – 98 per cent supportive. Ten thousand people have pledged their support on Facebook. Two fellow scientists on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have resigned in sympathy. Teenagers, who normally don't even notice what's in the news, are rallying to the cause – to judge from the unusually high level of debate in my own home. My own teenagers, however, abruptly changed their views when they heard some of his suggestions for stopping them wrecking their livers.
Most encouraging of all to him, scientists are leading a march on Downing Street this Sunday, calling on the Government to "back evidence-based drug policy by respecting and upholding the independence of the ACMD" in advance of the Council's meeting next Tuesday. If he had taken a hallucinogen, Nutt couldn't have asked for more.
Far from repenting the remarks that caused Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, to think Nutt had "crossed the line" between advice and policy – which he surely did – the beaming professor of neuropsychopharmacology is loving every moment of his disgrace. Academics don't usually become folk heroes. Nor do they generally manage to attract more than 30-second news clips. But these days his phone is ringing non-stop with requests for his wisdom from around the globe. "Sorry, it's Radio Bogota,"he says, as his mobile trills yet again.
Nutt enjoys speaking out: earlier this year he pointed out that "Equasy" as he called it – horse riding – was more dangerous than Ecstasy. Having devised a "matrix of harm" – a graph to calculate the damage done by various substances, on the basis of dependence, and physical and social harm – he's delighted to have been handed a platform from which to preach.
The big problem, as he sees it, is that while politicians love to be "tough" on classified drugs, their response to the far greater danger posed by the most dangerous drug of all, alcohol, has been "puny".
"We are not taking the tidal wave of damage seriously enough. If we want to reduce deaths, alcohol and heroin are the issues. I have four children, now aged 18 to 26, and at almost every party they went to in their teenage years, a child was taken to hospital with alcohol poisoning.
"Liver disease will become a worse killer than heart disease within twenty years. Scotland already has the highest proportion of people with sclerosis of the liver in the world. There are hundreds of kids lying in hospital beds waiting for transplants that will never come. But when Sir Liam Donaldson [the Government's chief medical adviser] put forward a radical approach to reduce alcohol consumption by increasing the price, within seconds the government rejected his proposal."
Nutt is not a puritan. He confesses to "liking" alcohol, to having binged occasionally when he was young, and to having tried some drugs as a student – but not cannabis, because he has never smoked. The worst problem with alcohol, he says, is that it is "insidious": people develop a strong head and aren't aware of its toxicity. But the main issue is that moderation doesn't seem to be possible for many people, especially the young.
He has asked his own children why their friends set out to get wasted and break the windows of the Keynsham church. "They say it is the excitement of not knowing what will happen."
His matrix isn't going to stop them experimenting, so what would positive action should politicians take, short of sacking their advisers? "We cannot make alcohol illegal. We need a structural approach. The real price of alcohol has dropped by half since Labour came to power and the use has doubled. To bring consumption down, prices should be doubled, maybe tripled, and the drink-driving limit should be reduced. We could even change the age at which it is legal to start drinking. In the US, since most states switched back from 18 to 21 (in the late 1980s), 170,000 lives have been saved in road traffic accidents. A shifting of the starting age would also reduce the damage to brain and body and the likelihood of young people becoming dependent."
Nutt pauses for effect before offering his most "radical" solution of all: an alternative to alcohol that's safer. Yuck, I don't want to take a soma pill when I get back from work; I want a delicious glass of white wine.
"Aaah, but if we invested some work in it we might find something as delicious. As it stands, though, with the Misuse of Drugs Act, if I came up with it tomorrow, I couldn't sell it. I'd like there to be a prize for inventing a safe alternative, as there was for inventing the chronometer in the 18th century, and the prize would be being allowed to sell it. You could also design an antagonist that would reverse the effects. Science could get there in five to 10 years. Let's move on from 2,000 years of poisoning ourselves."
That's what people thought they had found in cannabis, which makes you light-headed but not likely to get into fights or drive too fast. Forty years on from the Summer of Love, however, everyone knows someone whose brain has turned to mush or, worse, has become psychotic. Yet he opposes plans to reclassify cannabis from B to C, even though "skunk" – one of several cannabis derivatives – is now so much more powerful than standard "weed".
"Stoned people aren't a danger to others," he says. "Classifying it as B will be a disaster, because anyone caught in possession three times can be sent to prison for five years. The prison population will increase, those people will find it hard to get jobs. That way you just add to the underclass and the tax burden."
Sunday's march on Downing Street is emphatically not calling for legalisation. Although legislation might be a logical next step, Nutt is supportive. "It [legislation] would increase use. And I could never countenance the marketing of drugs, as with alcohol and tobacco. But I would like some level of toleration, as in the Netherlands, where cannabis can be smoked in certain cafés and a small amount bought for use off the premises: that has reduced social harm because it makes the drug less appealing. It is no longer a statement of dissent. Many other European countries have moved away from criminalisation for personal possession. In Portugal, people found with cannabis are now sent to social workers; use has gone down."
Nutt cites a MORI poll conducted by the ACMD that suggests most British people don't want stoned youths imprisoned. But, he adds, it's wrong to see him as soft on all drugs because, during his ten years as the Council's chair, he has been the "biggest criminaliser of drugs".
In that time, a host of new ones have been classified, including ketamine and GBL, the party drug that killed medical student Hester Stewart this May. He has also moved Crystal Meth from Class B to Class A, thereby allowing the police to shut down houses where it is produced. Another source of pride is the containment of Aids due to moving heroin addicts onto Methadone.
It all comes back to his matrix of harm. No one much knew of it before; now we do. Outside the ACMD, Nutt may turn out to have more clout than he ever did as an insider. Next Tuesday's meeting may or may result in a mass resignation, but the sacking of Nutt could be a turning point for so-called independent advisory bodies that are allowed to say what they like, providing it fits with Government policy.
Among the many messages of support have been several from people who want scientists to advise on the damage done by the various drugs in circulation, and are willing to fund it.
"I'm hoping," says Nutt, "that we can create a separate, independent scientific body that can take this out of party politics. Then we can monitor drugs and the Government can decide policy." Alan Johnson might agree with him there.
By Cassandra Jardine
November 5, 2009