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Good idea: Trust the experts

As contenders for the title "good idea" go, making a public speech denouncing government drug policy, when you are an adviser to the government on said policy, is not an obvious front-runner. Particularly if you like your job.

But whether or not David Nutt was within his professional remit when he made the speech that lost him the chairmanship of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), his comments - which can be downloaded as a pamphlet from the website of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies - about how the dangers of drugs are assessed, and how substances are regulated, are worth chewing on.

Nutt's basic argument is that hard scientific evidence doesn't get the hearing it should in forming policy, and he's at his most persuasive when talking about the media's role in distorting public perceptions of drugs. He cites a review of every drug-related death reported in Scottish newspapers between 1990 and 1999: of the 2,255 deaths in Scotland over the period, almost every single Ecstasy-related death (a total of 28) made the headlines, while only one in 265 deaths linked to paracetamol was mentioned. Cannabis, Nutt notes, was not mentioned at all, "because you cannot die of cannabis overdose". That alcohol killed roughly 2,000-3,000 Scots during that period was not included in the review.

This is Nutt's second concern: that alcohol is treated differently from other drugs because it's legal. He refers to a 2007 research paper of his, which offers a "rational scale" of the relative harms of various drugs, ranking alcohol above cannabis, Ecstasy and amphetamines. Maybe this is where the trouble starts: he accompanies it with a pithy illustration of what he calls “the illegality-logic loop", describing "a conversation I've had many times with many people, some of them politicians", as follows:

MP: You can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one.
Professor Nutt: Why not?
MP: Because one's illegal.
Prof Nutt: Why is it illegal?
MP: Because it's harmful.
Prof Nutt: Don't we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?
MP: You can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one. (Repeats)

But Nutt's most direct criticism of the government falls squarely on the shoulders of the former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who said that drugs policy should "err on the side of caution and protect the public". Nutt says regulating on the basis of possible unforeseen danger, rather than the known harms, sends confusing messages and undermines public confidence in the government.

All of which makes very good sense. But whether it was quite so wise for Nutt to voice his opinions as he did is another matter.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro