Freedom of expression about drugs in the UK. Interview to former government's chief drug adviser
(Professor David Nutt, former Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), was sacked a day after claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. Matteo Angioli interviewed him for Luca Coscioni Association)
First of all you were the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and you weren’t paid right? Yes. You were sacked on the basis of different views with the Home Secretary, and together with your colleagues you said that there was a problem of freedom of expression. What did you mean? I’m not entirely sure why I was sacked. The Health Secretary said many things which were wrong in his account of why he sacked me. The only thing he said which are not obviously wrong are that he lost confidence in me, which of course I can’t comment on because he hasn’t told me why he lost confidence in me. He also said, he thought I was campaigning against government policy. That’s not true, I wasn’t campaigning, I was simply pointing out that drug laws in this country are not based on science. In fact you noted that now that the Council is « untenable » the government will have to rule on a new kind of cannabis called « Spice » without any expertise. So what will you do about this now? Let’s be clear about this. The guidance to the government about Spice was made by the committee before it became untenable. That is the guidance we gave just before I was sacked. Another member of the Council, Les King, advocates an independent ACMD. Do you share his view? Very much so. I’m setting up my own independent group as we speak. This will be an independent group of scientists with expertise in drugs and related science. Hopefully this new council will be ratified by the government, but if not we will continue to be independent and promote the truth about drugs. Wouldn’t that body be in competition with the ACMD? It won’t be much of a competition because I’m setting up a scientific group to look at the science of drug harms and there are virtually no scientists left on the ACMD. There won’t be competition because my group will be much stronger. It will be definitely be a science-based group. The ACMD, if it reforms, will be more about policy I think. So the government runs the risk to create a body which actually may end up working as a mouthpiece of the government itself? Well, I think it is likely. If they don’t change the rules about ministerial interference in science, then no one would have confidence that any new council would be independent because the Chair could still be dismissed by the Home Secretary if he doesn’t like what he says citing “loss of confidence�?. So I think, unless there’s an independent Council, it can’t really function. When did the government start to ignore or to downplay your advice? About 4 years ago. And even though you didn’t always have unanimity, you were a pretty compact group right? Very much so, very little in the way of disagreements. A big committee, 28 people and the vast majority always shared the same view. Maybe the next elections could bring something new. Do you thing that things would be different if a Tory government was in place? It might indeed. We now have a Tory leader with certainly more exposure to drugs in his youth than members of the current government. So they may take a different attitude, but I cannot say. At present they’ve not been forthcoming about their plans except that they have said on occasions the are not sure whether we need the Council at all! Maybe they feel it will just be the minister who decides on drug classification and not experts, which would be very worrying. Mr. Cameron stated that he backs the current reclassification of cannabis from C to B. Yes, strange really for when he was a teenager he was nearly expelled from school for possessing cannabis and if he had been given a criminal sentence for this act he almost certainly now couldn’t ne leading his party. But it’s hard to know whether it will get worse under the Tories. The local Council of Juarez, a city on the American-Mexican border, proposed the de-penalization of possession of cannabis, what do you think? Well I think we should have an open mind on how to go about the drug problem. Certainly in the UK we should be considering approaches such as decriminalization because it the current attempted control regime is producing harm in the UK and elsewhere in the world. We are clearly not winning the war on drugs and it is costing many lives, so maybe we should approach drugs in a different way. I don’t think there is any completely safe approach dealing with drugs. As a scientist do you reckon it is possible to make it legal and to be treated as other drugs which are legal? Legality would remove crime but it might lead to greater drug use and more harms particularly were drugs to be marketed extensively like alcohol and tobacco are, so I don’t think there is an obvious way out, but I think it is worth considering all other options. I would favour a hybrid position where you decriminalize drugs for personal use and the sale of some drugs such as cannabis as they do in the Netherlands. That kind of approach might be quite useful and that wouldn’t be too outrageous or too challenging for Western governments. What do you think of the promise made by Minister Johnson to write to each and every member of the ACMD in order to explain all decisions that go against their advice? This is not new, the Home Sec has done this previously so he made no real concession at all. He has not accepted that what he did in sacking me was wrong. Until he accepts that he was wrong, no self- respecting scientists are going to work for him because they cannot trust his judgement. Does the ACMD regularly updates the government or is it summoned only when needed? No, we are a statutory body. By law the government cannot change the drug laws without consulting the ACMD. This has been so since 1971. It has a very busy work plan, it does a huge amount of work but many of the people working with it have resigned. Most functions of the council are now impaired. So the government has to have your approval to change the law? It has to seek our advice. Until four years ago it always took that advice. Gordon Brown government is the first one not to take our advice.