A few weeks ago David Nutt was chair of the technical department of the ACMD. Now he’s no longer the holder of that unpaid position, as home secretary Alan Johnson decided he’d gone too far in publicising his controversial views on drug legality.
Nutt is the head of the department for neuropharmacology at my very own University of Bristol. He is so clever, he has also been awarded a chair at Imperial college. In fact, they created a whole new department – of neuropsychopharmacology – to accomodate him.
Nutt’s views on the harm caused by drugs are definitely scientifically accurate and useful, but it’s clear that recently he crossed a delicate line – one he has been treading for some time – from astute advisor to frustrated critic.
Take for example his notorious article stating that you are statistically more likely to die from horse riding than from the effects of ecstasy. He has unreservedly slated government officials who argue that this comparison is not a reasonable one to make because ‘you can’t compare the harms of illegal and legal activities. Nutt was furious at what he saw as politicised ignorance. I agree with Nutt on this point; there is no reason why you can’t compare the harms caused by two things just because one is illegal and one isn’t. If we didn’t do that, the law would never change!
But he went too far in his recent pamphlet (the cited cause of his sacking) which even goes so far as to satirise MPs (see page 10). Nutt thought the law would never change and couldn’t believe the indignace of the MPs, who generally refused to reach the same obvious conclusions as him. Nutt has stated several times that you can’t die from an overdose of cannabis but you can from alcohol, despite the fact that alcohol is legal. This seemingly ridiculous fact didn’t seem to register with MPs and the scientist became understandably frustrated.
So I agree with Nutt’s point of view entirely. However, while there is an argument that the scientific press (Nutt was writing in an academic journal) should be free from any constraints whatsoever, I still believe the horse riding article was inappropriate and unbecoming of a government advisor. But not because of this bizarre ‘you can’t compare legal and illegal harms’ argument. When a person takes ecstasy they are deliberately setting out to lose control of their mental state and if they die, it is a direct result of that. That is of course distinctly not the case with horse riding. Any deaths resulting from this mundane sport arise from factors that are outside of one’s personal control. The horse bucks or trips on a stray tree root and you fall off. These accidents are a risk, but not a direct result of the decision to go horse riding.
Nutt is intelligent enough to realise this, and therefore we must conclude that his article was simply an attempt to illustrate that ecstasy is not as dangerous as some people think and gather support for his point of view (probably this is exactly what it was). Whilst he is right in point of fact, the sensationalist methods he used to illustrate his point are just silly. Put together, his various writings and lectures constitute a veritable campaign against government policy. Last week the government received another dose of abuse when Nutt released a pamphlet summarising his views on drug policy and criticising them once again for not taking him seriously enough. It seems they could take no more.
Whilst I whole heartedly agree with Nutt’s conclusions and think that drug laws need to be looked at very carefully, one cannot be both a trusted advisor for an institution and a campaigner against it. Nutt should have remembered his obligation to advise. He should not throw a sophisticated temper tantrum when the government chose a different path than his recommendation.