This week has been a massive middle finger not only to every single scientist, but also to legal highs users all across the UK. Today, I’m going to be moaning about both.
Malcolm Tucker: The angriest man on telly
Firstly, as everyone will know Prof. David Nutt was sacked as head of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Ever since this news broke, I’ve not been able to shake the image of Prof. Nutt getting a bollocking from Malcolm out of The Thick Of It. On its own, this isn’t big news; people get sacked all the time. But the reason why he got sacked is gobsmacking.
It all started in 2008 when the government decided cannabis was far more deadly than ever before, what with all these new “skunk” strains appearing, and reclassified it back up to Class B. Of course, because the cannabis was “much stronger” than in previous years (for more on why that’s total horse shit, read Bad Science), everyone who smokes it will get schizophrenia, or so Gordon “Golden” Brown would have us believe. Actually, he just pulled that straight out of his arse. Prof. Nutt, et al., wise to this bullshittery, recommended against the reclassification and was ignored. More recently, Dave (I’m sure I can call him Dave) published a paper comparing the dangers of ecstasy with the dangers of horse riding, finding that horse riding was actually more dangerous — “Equasy — An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms”. This wasn’t a piece of propaganda published by some idgit with an agenda; it was a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, alongside other factually accurate and interesting publications — all Dave did was let the evidence speak for itself. Dave’s final piss-take of current policy came when he delivered a lecture on entitled “Estimating drug harms: a risky business?” [pdf; 366 kb], basically saying the same thing that this episode of Horizon says — heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone are the only drugs more harmful than alcohol, while LSD, ecstasy and cannabis are all less harmful that both alcohol and tobacco. As a result, Alan Johnson, our beloved home secretary and ex-postman, has lost confidence in the advice given by Dave, with over 40 years of relevant scientific background in the subject. Here are my top quotes (and interpretations) from Alan “I’m a fucking moron” Johnson:
This was not about Prof Nutt’s views, which I respect though I don’t agree with them.
This means “I don’t understand the importance of evidence” or “I disagree with the evidence because it doesn’t support my conclusion”
You cannot have a chief adviser… campaigning against government
This means “We’re not willing to accept advice that goes against the political message we’re trying to send”
There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.
This means “What goes on in my constituency is applicable to the entire country.”
More Dangerous Than Ecstasy
This last (and most recent quote) is my favourite. Not only does it show an unbelievable arrogance, it also shows a deep misunderstanding of either the research or his constituency. Horse riding kills more people than ecstasy — that’s a fact. Is he arguing that thousands of people are at risk from a hitherto-unheard-of ecstasy addiction? Bollocks! Or is he perhaps saying that all drugs are a problem? In that case, the comparison to horse riding isn’t fair, since that only applies to ecstasy, not all drugs. Who’d have thought that one single sentence could make someone look so stupid? Oh, and one final point — what about cheap, legal alcohol? I wonder how many people in his constituency have been sucked into hopeless despair though alcohol addiction?
Why Dave Is In The Right
Firstly, the Code o’ Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees states:
Rules of conduct need not affect a member’s freedom to represent his or her field of expertise in a personal capacity. The committee’s rules however should generally oblige members to make clear when they are not speaking in their capacity as committee members.
Guess what — the lecture was given as the Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, not as chairman of the ACMD. This was made perfectly clear. BAM! Next, the Misuse of Drugs act includes the following within the ACMD’s remit:
educating the public (and in particular the young) in the dangers of misusing such drugs and for giving publicity to those dangers
BOOM! If that includes setting the current drugs policy straight in order to better communicate the relative harms of illegal drugs, then well done Dave for doing the job you were hired to do!
So far, other than Dave, Dr Les King and Marrion Walker have resigned. Les is part-time advisor to the Department of Health, and was a senior chemist on the ACMD, who’s responsible for drafting the legislation I’ll talk about shortly. Marrion is the clinical director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s substance misuse service and was the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s representative on the ACMD. As you can imagine, the resignation of these key figures has been a massive blow to the ACMD’s future credibility.
With any luck, the rest of them will resign next Monday, and no other respectable scientist will take their place.
What YOU Can Do About It
Facebook has been the primary theatre of action in this conflict between reason and the idiot brigade in power. If you use Facebook, you might like to join the “Support and Reinstate Professor David Nutt: We want an evidence based drugs policy.” group, which has been set up by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK. There are tonnes of comments, discussion, links ‘n’ all that, and it’s currently just over 8600 members strong. Alan Johnson’s Facebook page was public until very recently. Last time I went on there, it was covered in comments informing him of his own stupidity.
There are also a couple of worthwhile petitions UK residents can sign:
And finally, I’d suggest writing to your local MP. Obviously, an actual letter would carry more weight than an email, but if you’ve got 10 mins to spare, you can use the website WriteToThem to find your local MP and fire off an email. I sent one off yesterday and got an encouraging reply this morning. I copied one someone else wrote from that Facebook group above and edited a few bits here ‘n’ there, and if you do the same, please edit my letter before you send it — that website won’t send identical messages. Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lynne Jones,
I am writing to express my disappointment at the recent sacking of Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the current Home Secretary, Alan Johnson.
It is the role and duty of a scientist to objectively determine truth and fact about the way in which the world works, and to present the evidence demonstrating those facts. Whether such facts are convenient, inconvenient, comfortable or uncomfortable or happen to contradict government policy is irrelevant. A scientist influenced by political expediency is not a scientist.
I fully understand that advisers advise and that ministers are responsible for decisions on policy, but the terms of reference of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as laid down in the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971 include the following:
“educating the public (and in particular the young) in the dangers of misusing such drugs and for giving publicity to those dangers; ”
Professor Nutt has made public remarks about the relative risks of the use of substances currently illegal in the UK, comparing them to other legal substances and other common leisure pursuits. This fulfils the remit, quoted above, of ‘educating the public’, especially since the current drugs classification system does nothing to highlight the relative harms of illegal drugs.
In this case, the facts, as determined by the scientific method, may well cause many members of the public to question current Government policy. This is only right and proper in a democracy.
By asking Professor Nutt to stand down, the Home Secretary has sent a message that he finds it acceptable to disrupt the education of the public and that he is willing to suppress those who have a clear remit to present the public with facts in order to do this.
It is also worth noting that the document: “Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy: Government Response to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee’s Eighth Report of Session 2008-09 — Science and Technology Committee ” states the following in Appendix One:
“SAC members should not be criticised for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as Government advisers. (Paragraph 64)
“The Government agrees that the independence of science advisers is critical. It was precisely for this reason that the GCSA wrote to then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to express concern over her criticism, in Parliament, of Professor Nutt (Chairman of ACMD) with regard to an article he published in a peer-reviewed journal. ”
To my mind, the actions of the Home Secretary are undemocratic, dishonest, an attempted suppression of freedom of speech and a middle finger to anyone who understands and appreciates the scientific method.
Should not the Home Secretary now be considering his position?
I would be grateful for your thoughts.
Here’s her reply:
I agree with you. When the issue if reclassifying cannabis back to class B in 2007, I tabled the following parliamentary motion:
RESPONDING TO THE DANGERS OF CANNABIS USE
That this House supports the mental health charity Rethink in its call for a public education campaign to convey the dangers of cannabis use; offers this support in light of the recent review of research published in the Lancet, which concludes that frequency of cannabis use increases the risk of psychotic illness such as schizophrenia by up to 40 per cent.; calls for clarity on the cannabis debate, particularly regarding the strength of skunk varieties of the drug; believes that reclassifying cannabis will not in itself lead to a decrease in the number of people who use it; notes that the proportion of young people using cannabis has actually fallen since it was reclassified in January 2004 from 25.3 per cent. of 16 to 24 year olds in 2003-04 to 20.9 per cent. in 2006-07; and urges the Government to commit to the development of a long-term awareness and information campaign with health promotion rather than a change in the law as the main lever to reduce use, in addition to funding research into the link between cannabis use and mental ill health.
If search under cannabis on my website, link below, you will find further information on my views and a report of a meeting of the All-Party Group on Mental Health on cannabis and schizophrenia.
I will pass on your comments to the Home Secretary to get his response.
Personally, as a former scientist myself, I despair at the selective use of science by colleagues from all parties and this latest example will no doubt give me further opportunities to raise my concerns. [My emphasis]
LYNNE JONES MP
House of Commons
That’s certainly much better than I’d have hoped!
Legal Highs ban
Next up is the BZP/GBL/Spice ban — here’s the proposal [pdf; 46 kb]. It looks like it goes into effect on December 23rd. I can’t give much more detail yet, since I’m not really a chemist, but it looks like all the decent smoking mixes will be gone by then. Better stock up before Christmas.