Home > drugs, science, things could be so much better > Why can’t drug policy be evidence-based?

Why can’t drug policy be evidence-based?


Two recent articles on the vexed topic of illegal drugs caught my eye this week. The first was an interview in the Metro with Prof David Nutt, until recently the UK Government’s chief drugs adviser, who was fired after making ‘outspoken’ comments on how the country’s current drugs policy is not fit for purpose.

Being a scientist by training, and working in the pharmaceutical industry where everything my clients and I do must be evidence-based and referenced, the glaring inconsistencies in the UK’s drug laws have always perplexed me (writing as someone whose dabbling in mind-altering substances is strictly restricted to ethanol and the occasional bowl of Tira Misu) – smoking and alcohol are somehow okay (or at least legal) while drugs like cannabis and ecstacy are not. Even within the classification system there appears to be little evidence-based decision-making going on, with drugs being moved between bands on a seemingly regular basis with no clear justification.

Prof Nutt makes some pretty good points – to me at least – in his interview, for example:

“Alcohol is a drug that is most worrying to most parents and it is the drug that is most likely to damage young teenagers. One a day dies of alcohol poisoning and one or two a day die in a road traffic or other accident relating to alcohol – that’s why it is the most dangerous drug. We should be focusing our efforts on that, not pretending that other drugs are worse … I am continuing to make a case that drug laws, to be fair and just, should properly reflect the harm to the person using and to society, and if they don’t do that then injustice will occur. More innocent non-drug-using people die from road traffic accidents and other damage from alcohol than any other drug.”

Personally, I believe that adults should be free to do what they like with their own bodies, as long as they are fully aware of the potential consequences beforehand (for example, possible mental illness) and are willing to take responsibility for whatever may happen, and also as long as no-one else is harmed directly or indirectly as a result.

This leads to the second article, posted by Melanie Phillips on her blog at the Spectator. Phillips takes a very hard line on Prof Nutt’s views and on those who consider that liberalization of the drug laws may be an avenue worth going down. Clearly, drugs policy is not my area, but one specific section sprang out:

“Nutt’s offence in crossing the line into opposition to government policy was merely the overt political expression of a position on drug law so irresponsible and potentially harmful, through its downplaying of the risks of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, that it should have barred him from public office long previously.”

I freely admit that I have not performed a full literature review and analysis of the safety and toxicity of drugs like cannabis or ecstacy; however, what I have seen to date suggests to me that – while obviously not being risk-free – the potential dangers of either of these drugs are probably comparable in severity to drinking way too much on a night out or smoking 20 a day long-term.

As always, politics and people who are either simply ignorant or have vested interests always rear their ugly heads in any discussion on this topic. As a scientist by training, is it really too much to ask for some evidence-based decision-making??

Perhaps, as always, there is a conspiracy at work? 😉

UPDATE: Have just found the Support Professor David Nutt: We want an evidence based drugs policy group on Facebook.

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