Professor David Nutt is back in the news again, describing Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s suggestion to introduce mandatory drug testing by their employers as “bonkers”. Appearing on the BBC, Nutt highlighted how the current drugs policy is both morally and scientifically wrong and that a rational approach to the issue is crucial, citing Portugal, the Netherlands and Colombia – where plans have recently been announced to decriminalize ecstasy – as examples to follow.
Professor Nutt came to public attention following his work advising the government as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. His repeated clashes with government ministers on the classification of drugs eventually led to his dismissal after he publically claimed that his daughter was statistically at greater risk horse riding than she would be taking ecstasy. Despite the accuracy of this statement it met with intense criticism from the government, who demanded a full apology from Nutt. After releasing a pamphlet in July 2009, reiterating his position that policy should be based on the scientific evidence for harm and demonstrating that drugs such as LSD and ecstasy are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, Nutt was sacked. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said of his dismissal, “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” Never let it be said that politicians only cite the advice of professionals when it conforms to their policies.
This is a defining quality of international drug prohibition since the passing of the Harrison Act in 1914 and the subsequent hugely successful efforts on the part of the US government to enforce similar policies on the global stage via the United Nations. For decades studies which produce countervailing evidence pointing to the wrong-headedness of prohibition have been suppressed or ignored, a prime example being the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in 1972, which recommended ending marijuana prohibition after concluding that, “Looking only at the effects on the individual, there is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis.” Foreshadowing the kind of political games Nutt would face nearly four decades later, Nixon demonstrated the pernicious influence of the government on the pursuit of sane and rational policy in his warning to the commission’s chairman Raymond P. Schafer: “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell.”
Following Nutt’s dismissal and a swathe of resignations from scientists who supported his findings, he chaired the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, the independent drugs advisory committee proposed and initially funded by Toby Jackson. He again faced controversy – from supporters of draconian drug policies, reactionary media and small-minded members of the public – for his involvement in the Channel 4 Ecstasy Live programme, in which a number of volunteers including a vicar, a former MP and actor Keith Allen (who’s no stranger to drugs) took the drug (or a placebo) on live television.
As well as his work into the effects of MDMA on post-traumatic stress disorder, Professor Nutt has also conducted studies into the effectiveness of psychedelic drugs on mental illness. In June 2012, he published a study into the effects of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – on the human brain. MRI scans of 30 healthy volunteers demonstrated decreased activity in the regions of the brain which link up different areas, which Nutt concluded could be used as a model for psychosis.
“So, we’re thinking [psilocybin] might be an interesting model for early stages for schizophrenia, it might allow us to test new drugs. When people start to become psychotic, their ego boundaries break down, the relationship between them and the world gets disrupted and the relationship between their different inner experiences gets mixed up. Eventually they start hearing their own thoughts as someone else’s voice. That breakdown of connectivity in the brain is very classic in schizophrenia. If we can produce this in a laboratory in a normal volunteer, we can then look for new treatments and it is much more efficient to do that in normal volunteers than try to find young people who are starting to develop their illness and it’s ethically more acceptable too.”
There have been other recent studies into the potential medical and psychiatric applications of mind-altering drugs. Perhaps most notable was the study conducted by scientists at Yale University which revealed how ketamine, the dissociative anaesthetic used in hospitals (although sensationalizing journalists tend to only mention its veterinary application), vanquishes depression within hours. Other studies have pointed to cannabis stimulating brain cell growth – at least, in rats – while a survey of LSD research conducted in the 1960s, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology last year, indicated that the hallucinogenic drug had a “significant beneficial effect” on alcohol abuse.
As the LSD survey makes clear, research into the beneficial properties of psychedelic drugs is nothing new. Following on from Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of LSD in 1938 came nearly three decades of widespread and respectable research, with over 1,000 papers published examining ways in which psychiatrists could help patients with hallucinogenic chemicals. It was the anti-drug legislation of the early 1970s which put an end to research into this field – in this respect, contemporary research by the likes of Professor Nutt should be viewed more as a long overdue revival and continuation of previous scientific lines of enquiry, rather than cutting edge “new” research.
While such research is encouraging, it’s difficult to be optimistic when the political will to support it is completely lacking and the government remains staunchly prohibitionist in the face of all the scientific evidence.