Alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis and Ecstasy -- this was the controversial view that cost the Government's chief drug adviser Professor David Nutt his job. Here Darren Devine asks whether Professor Nutt is a dangerous radical trivialising harmful substances or an expert who has paid a high price for highlighting the hypocrisy at the heart of Government drugs policy.
WHEN professor David Nutt said horse riding or "equasy" was as dangerous as taking the class-A drug Ecstasy it put him on an inevitable collision course with his political masters.
The scientist and then chair of the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said he was trying to question why society tolerates some potentially harmful behaviours but not others, such as drug use.
He argued "equasy" could be blamed for 10 deaths a year and more than 100 traffic accidents.
His article in a scientific journal produced a backlash from drugs hard-liners opposed to any reform, with then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ordering him to apologise.
And when he continued to campaign for the Government's drugs classification system to be replaced with an index of harm current Home Secretary Alan Johnson decided enough was enough.
Within his index of harm the professor, who has four children aged 18 to 26 -- more than one of whom has confessed to taking drugs -- wanted alcohol and tobacco ranked higher than cannabis and Ecstasy.
Amidst the threat of mass resignations from ACMD and the announcement of a review of its functions Mr Johnson decided the scientist could not continue being both a "government adviser and a campaigner against government policy".
But within Wales there is sympathy for the professor's position.
Chief executive of South Wales drugs charity Kaleidoscope Martin Blakebrough said Professor Nutt was right to suggest alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than cannabis and Ecstasy.
Despite concerns over the binge-drinking culture Mr Blakebrough said the Government has liberalised the country's alcohol laws with 24-hour licensing.
The 47-year-old believes this is because the industry is estimated to be worth ?28bn to the British economy and makes a hefty contribution to the Treasury's annual tax take.
Mr Blakebrough, who served on the ACMD with Professor Nutt for nine years between 1998 and 2007, said: "We need to have tougher laws in relation to alcohol because this Government has seen a reduction in the price of alcohol and has extended the licensing hours. It's done everything to facilitate the alcohol industry in every way it could.
"And they've always got away with pretending they're tough on drugs and the causes of crime while practically being in league with the alcohol industry.
"On a Friday night in Newport what's the biggest problem -- people shooting heroin up their arms, or getting drunk and urinating in the streets and shouting and attacking people?
"I think most people would say alcohol is our biggest problem."
But Mr Blakebrough said Professor Nutt has "wanted to be a martyr" through his protests against Government policy and should have resigned before he was sacked.
He believes as chair of ACMD he had a duty to look beyond his own professional perspective and take "collective responsibility" for the committee's position.
He added: "He has continued to make the point that it was a stupid decision by the Government (to reclassify cannabis as a class B instead of a class C drug) but remained as their chief adviser.
"And that is inconsistent. He can argue he's a scientist, but he was head of a committee that included people from the police and drugs services and he had a responsibility to look beyond his own professional discipline."
But Clive Wolfendale, chief executive of Welsh drug and alcohol agency CAIS, suggested if the Government was going to appoint scientific advisers it had a duty to listen to them.
The 51-year-old former deputy chief constable of North Wales said: "The whole issue is ripe for an independent Royal Commission to look at the science, look at the risks, examine the issues of legality and point a way forward for the next 30 years.
"It's about 40 years now since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and it's probably run its course in terms of setting a platform for setting a sensible way forward."
Mr Wolfendale, who during his 34 years as a policeman spent much of his time investigating drug-related gang warfare in Manchester, said there is little doubt that alcohol and tobacco are "very damaging drugs of misuse".
"If it wasn't for the fact they've been around for centuries then they'd be categorised in the way narcotics are now."
Mr Wolfendale said though he would be against a "free for all" by legalising all drugs, ways of taking the supply of narcotics out of the hands of "evil" dealers must be looked at.
"Because of the way the thing's set up there's a huge incentive for very evil people to make huge amounts of money out of peddling other people's misery.
"So what we end up with is a small number of very evil, very rich drug dealers and thousands and thousands of victims.
"While I'm not in favour of a free-for-all on drugs policy we need to look at other ways of controlling the supply rather than handing the entire business over to evil criminals."
One Ecstasy and cannabis user from Newport, who did not wish to be named, believes Professor Nutt lost his job for daring to tell the truth about drugs.
The 25-year-old man, who has been a user for seven years, said: "I've had friends who have had major accidents through the use of alcohol, and tobacco-related illness is a well documented fact.
"The only death you can have from cannabis is if it falls on you from a great height, but I understand there's an inherent health risk for people who smoke tobacco with cannabis."
November 4, 2009 -- Edmonton Sun (CN AB)
Column: Reality A Bitter Pill In Drug Politics
By Mindelle Jacobs
Politicians hate it when experts shine the light of truth on supposedly unimpeachable government ideology.
The British government had a hissy fit when its top drug policy advisor suggested the U.K.'s drug classification system doesn't make sense.
David Nutt had the temerity to question the government's decision to bump marijuana into a more dangerous drug category. And he had the nerve to state publicly that tobacco and booze are more dangerous than pot.
So it was off with Nutt's head ... figuratively speaking, of course. While Britain doesn't chop off people's heads anymore because that's .well, backwards ...it's having trouble refashioning drug policy for the 21st century.
Nutt was the chair of Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Two of his colleagues on the panel have reportedly resigned, complaining that the government is pressuring the council to politicize drug policy issues.
One wonders why the U.K. has a drug advisory board if it doesn't really want any advice.
"We cannot send out a message to young people that it's OK to experiment with drugs and to move on to hard drugs," declared Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "We have to send out a message to young people that it's simply not acceptable."
What has Brown been smoking? Drug policy experts don't go around promoting drug use. The braver ones, however, do point out the absurdity of the world's drug laws. The ones that do the most damage -- booze and tobacco -- are legal and often the drugs that do minimal harm, like marijuana, are characterized as substances that will lead you down the inevitable path to hard drugs and eventual death.
Nutt, who is not at all nutty, despite what the British government believes, has proposed that all drugs -- legal and illegal -- be classified according to their harm.
That would mean, presumably, that tobacco and alcohol would be at the top, heroin and cocaine would be in the middle somewhere and the least dangerous drugs, like pot, would be at the bottom.
But science and politics have never mixed well, which is why neither Britain, Canada nor the U.S. are in a hurry to place controls on drugs that are proportional to their harm.
"Our laws have nothing to do with health considerations or pharmacology," says Benedikt Fischer, a drug policy expert at Simon Fraser University. "It reflects politics from 100 years ago."
Earlier this year, actually, Fischer sat on a panel with Nutt on this very issue at a drug conference in Vienna.
"He's a very credible, internationally known scientist," says Fischer. "I was quite surprised to read that (he'd been fired). I always thought that the British at least still had that much respect for science."
Canada doesn't have a drug advisory council but it could sure use one to push the envelope a bit on drug policy reform. On the other hand, if we did have such a panel and someone on it as outspoken as Nutt, "he'd be gone pretty soon," quips Fischer.
Meanwhile, science and reality continue to make our drug policy look foolish. Several years ago, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse released a study on the costs of substance abuse.
In 2002, more than 37,000 Canadians died from tobacco use and another 4,000 died from booze-related causes. In contrast, less than 1,700 Canadians (.8% of all deaths) succumbed from illegal drug use.
Politicians would rather shuffle an inconvenient scientist out of the way than confront the truth.
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