David Nutt: We’ve got a government run by idiots who don’t understand the value of science
David Nutt was the UK Government’s drug tsar when he suggested that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, an opinion which would ultimately cost him his job. The year was 2009, Gordon Brown was prime minister, Britain was still part of the EU, and high-profile drug tragedies of the 1990s such as the death of Leah Betts remained fixed in the public consciousness. Earlier that year, Nutt had incurred the wrath of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith after suggesting ecstasy was safer than horse riding, coining the term “equasy” (equine addiction syndrome) in the process.
Nearly 15 years on, Nutt is at the forefront of research into psychedelics and their potential for treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But with Scotland in the grips of a drug-death crisis and a need for radical new ideas, there’s little to suggest that those with the power to re-shape reserved legislation – to turn the issue from one of criminal justice to one of public health – have become any more enlightened.
“When you ask the government why it isn’t doing anything, they say drugs are dangerous, drugs destroy families blah, blah, blah,” Nutt says in his Bristolian burr. “They have a metronomic response which completely misses the point, I think deliberately misses the point.”
Nutt’s controversial 2009 article, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, was deliberately provocative and sought to begin a debate about the harms associated with illegal drugs when compared with other recreational pastimes. Nutt contrasted the use of ecstasy – then as now a Class A drug – with equestrianism, a hobby he said was responsible for approximately 11,500 cases of traumatic head injury in the United States each year and a proportionate number in the UK.
“Making [horse] riding illegal would completely prevent all these harms and would be, in practice, very easy to do – it is hard to use a horse in a clandestine manner or in the privacy of one’s own home,” he wrote.
The point Nutt was seeking to make was that the absence of a reasoned, grown-up political debate about drugs failed users and undermined public trust in government messaging. That said, does he now regret the analogy?
“No, because it was one of the greatest comparisons in the history of science,” he says. “It’s my most cited paper. For the first time, it made people think, ‘hang on, ecstasy is less harmful than horse riding – maybe I’ll stop my kids horse riding’.”
A professor of neuropsychopharmacology, the study of drugs on mental health, Nutt moved from Bristol University to Imperial College London in 2008 and currently leads a unit with a particular focus on brain sciences. After being sacked as a government adviser, he set up the charity Drug Science which offers what it calls impartial advice free of political interference. The group recently criticised the UK Government’s ban on nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’, describing it as “disproportionate” to the potential harms and saying it would put further pressure on an already stretched criminal justice system.
If Westminster drug policy was unenlightened in the late 2000s there’s little to suggest things have improved markedly since. After years of being stymied by the Home Office and the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), Scotland’s lord advocate, Dorothy Bain, finally took the matter into her own hands recently, saying it would not be in the public interest to prosecute those who attend a proposed drug consumption room in Glasgow.
The idea first began to gain traction after a rise in HIV cases among injecting drug users in the city in 2015 and has since become the centre of a constitutional row between the Scottish and UK governments amid a public health emergency which has seen more than 1,000 Scots die drug-related deaths in each of the last five years.
Nutt is someone who says what he thinks, and he doesn’t think very much of the current government when it comes to formulating drug policy, arguing the situation has “definitely got worse” in the years since he left his post as an adviser. He cites the case of Norman Baker, a former Lib Dem minister during the 2010-15 coalition government, who quit in frustration with then Home Secretary Theresa May over her refusal to countenance a “rational evidence-based policy” on illegal substances. Baker quit in 2014, likening the experience of working with the future prime minister to “walking through mud”.
“Basically, the government now just ignores anything from Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs,” says Nutt. “In essence, what’s happened in the last 14 years is that the home secretary has made all the decisions about drugs. Developing policy approaches to drugs are all about banning in an attempt to get re-elected.
“We have a very irrational approach to the risk and benefits of drugs. We’re one of the few countries in the world where drug policy is effectively controlled by the home affairs department, the Home Office. In most countries drug policy is controlled by Health.”
Nutt’s most recent book, Psychedelics: The revolutionary drugs that could change your life, was published earlier this year. In it he argues we are on the cusp of a revolution in psychiatric medicine and neuroscience. Once associated with 1960s counterculture and warnings of bad trips and acid flashbacks, Nutt and others like him believe that when delivered in a controlled manner, psychedelics could provide powerful treatments for a range of mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD and for eating disorders and addictions. In June, Australia became the first country to legalise psychedelics for medical use, allowing doctors to prescribe MDMA (ecstasy) for PTSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) for depression.
But Nutt, who recently travelled to Edinburgh to discuss his research with MSPs, says that despite being at the forefront of the medical research, the UK is well behind the curve when it comes to putting the findings into practice.
“In comparison with other Western countries, we are definitely off the pace. What’s worse is that we were leaders – that’s the sad thing. We’ve got a government that’s run by idiots who don’t understand the value of science and don’t really understand the value of anything.
“Psychedelics will revolutionise the treatment of a whole range of mental health problems. They are already available in Australia on a compassionate basis for people who are at high risk of suicide. Some American states have already made the natural products – like magic mushrooms – available. We’re losing all the opportunities. Given my group was the one which opened the door to this revolution in psychedelic therapy by showing they could be used to treat severe depression, I’m miffed that we’re not being allowed to progress and patients are suffering as a result.”
But Nutt is more than just a little miffed. He says there are people taking their own lives due to mental health conditions which could be treated by psychedelics.
“I am frustrated because around 5,000 people a year in Britain commit suicide,” he says. “Probably half of them or maybe more have disorders such as depression, addiction, PTSD.
Most of them have been in treatment and those treatments fail, so they kill themselves. There’s a good chance that half of them or more would respond to psychedelics; you could reduce the suicide rate by up to 50 per cent if we had better treatments. The Home Office doesn’t want to admit that after all these years of telling people these drugs are dangerous.”
While Nutt is hugely optimistic about the potential uses for psychedelics, others have sought to strike a more cautious tone. Last year, scientists at the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research published a paper in which they described the research into psychedelics as being “trapped in a hype bubble driven largely by media and industry interests”. The authors said coverage of the drugs had gradually gone from being “alarmist and extremely negative” to suggesting they could be “miracle” cures.
Otherwise engaging and forthcoming, Nutt goes coy when I ask him whether he ever dabbled in psychedelics as a younger man. Born in the early 1950s, he was a teenager in the mid-1960s when American psychologist Timothy Leary was testing the therapeutic effects of LSD and when The Beatles helped popularise use of the drug recreationally.
“I don’t talk about myself because that’s what people want the story to be,” Nutt says. “There’s no right answer to that question – I would be vilified whatever I told you.
“The [current] ban of psychedelics hasn’t stopped recreational use. The only place it’s enforced is on doctors like me who have to jump through an enormous amount of hoops in order to do the research. If we do something wrong, our licence will be taken away and our research will end.”
Forced into action by Scotland’s woeful drug-death statistics, the government in Edinburgh has in recent years sought to follow a more liberal approach than its London counterpart. Earlier this year, it called on Westminster to decriminalise personal drug use, following the lead of Portugal which compels those found in possession into treatment rather than putting them through the criminal justice system.
The cynically minded might argue the Scottish Government can put forward all the radical solutions it likes knowing its UK counterpart will not act on them. But the need for action is born out of the increasing pressure on ministers due to figures showing Scotland has the highest drug-death rate in Europe – more than two-and-a-half times that of the UK.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nutt backs the Scottish Government’s approach and he’s also a supporter of plans to open a safer drug consumption facility.
“In 1971 in Britain, when we started banning the prescription of heroin to people who were heroin addicts, we had around 2,000 heroin addicts,” he says. “Most of them went off to become user-dealers and within 20 years, we had 200,000. We created a monster by potentially criminalising drug users rather than treating them as people or as patients.
“The Portuguese took a calculated risk and have been proven right. Now there is absolutely no justification for any Western country not to follow suit. That’s why I’m so pleased the lord advocate has said that no public benefit will be served by not allowing safe consumption rooms. That’s a landmark decision and I totally endorse it – it’s come 20 years too late.”
As our time draws to a close, I ask Nutt if he still thinks ecstasy is safer than horse riding. He admits that while equestrian pursuits are unlikely to have become more dangerous since he wrote his famous article, the drug probably has due to what he calls “idiotic attempts” by the United Nations to stop the manufacture of MDMA which has led to underground chemists finding cheaper ways of making it. He draws a comparison with an Edwardian crackdown on opium dens which caused users to begin injecting heroin.
“We have known for over 100 years that this kind of prohibition leads to more harm and we actively choose to ignore it for political rather than health reasons.”