Scientific Advice

Various drugs

Various Drugs


The recent sacking of David Nutt and the subsequent resignation of some his colleagues raises a number of issues. In this case my sympathies lie entirely with the advisors and I think they are right to resign and right to humiliate the government. Let me explain why I think that.

My general reasons

The¬†Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) ¬†was set up to advise government and (amongst other things) to decide on the categorisation of a drug as Class A, B or C. However teh rationale for the categorisation of a drug as Class A, B or C is currently not based on any stated criteria that I could find! My efforts included downloading the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and searching for every instance of the phrase ‘Class A’. However the only rationale which makes any sense is to base the categorisation on the ‘harmthat the drugs cause. This is a complex matter including assessments of harm in many different spheres – but if we can specify what we mean by ‘harm’ then it is a matter which can be scientifically and methodically assessed. The assessment may be imperfect, but it can be can still be done, involving medical reports, surveys and such like. This categorisation should be decided by technically competent people and not by politicians.

If politicians then want to make laws which treat drugs in a particular way despite their categorisation, then that is fine. That is we can approve or disapprove and respond democratically to their actions. But for the government to seek to deceive us about the true level of harm a drug causes – exaggerating or understating – is profoundly anti-democratic and politicians should not be allowed to get away with that.

Cannabis versus Alcohol & Tobacco

Professor Nutt and colleagues have developed a method of categorisation of drugs which is multidimensional and based as objectively as possible on the harm caused. They consider three categories of harm

  1. Physical harm to the user,
  2. Tendency to induce dependence in the user, and
  3. The effect of its use on families, communities and society in general.

After detailed examination they arrived at a list of substances ranked in the amount of harm they caused. The list is:

  1. Heroin (most harmful).
  2. Cocaine.
  3. Barbiturates.
  4. Street Methodone.
  5. Alcohol.
  6. Ketamine.
  7. Benzodiazepines.
  8. Amphetamine.
  9. Tobacco.
  10. Buprenorphine.
  11. Cannabis.
  12. Solvents.
  13. 4-MTA (para-methylthioamphetamine).
  14. LSD.
  15. Methylphenidate (ritalin).
  16. Anabolic steroids.
  17. GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid).
  18. Ecstasy.
  19. Alkyl nitrites.
  20. Khat (least harmful).

I don’t know if this list is right or wrong but if it is the best assessment we have then we should look at the list and make decisions appropriately. We should not change the list because one particular drug’s effects have been highlighted by the Daily Mail. And what is striking about this list is that two completely legal substances, alcohol and tobacco come out higher up the list than Ecstasy (Class A), Cannabis (Class B) and LSD (Class A). Mere possession of a class A drug can result in up to seven years in prison. According to the BBC “Prof Nutt was sacked after calling cannabis less harmful than alcohol and nicotine, and saying it was upgraded to Class B for political reasons”. Basically he was sacked for telling the truth.

And the truth here is that our drugs policy is bonkers and not based on science. When we acknowledge the facts and make our decisions openly in the light of these facts, we will develop a rational policy on drugs.

N.B. This post was written after having taken several units of a drug much more dangerous than LSD – I will leave you guess which one…

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