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article imageScience and Politics at Odds in UK Drug Row

By David Antrobus     Oct 29, 2009 in Politics
In what appears to be a clash between scientists and politicians, Britain's chief drug advisor has re-ignited a familiar debate by suggesting that Ecstasy, LSD and cannabis (marijuana) are less dangerous than both alcohol and cigarettes.
Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), has spoken out against former UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who re-classified cannabis as a Class B drug in January of this year, accusing her of “distorting and devaluing” scientific research.
In both a recent lecture and a briefing paper for London King's College Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, published today, Professor Nutt ranked alcohol and tobacco fifth and ninth, respectively, on a hypothetical "harm list" of dangerous drugs, both legal substances rating as more harmful than marijuana, Ecstasy and LSD.
In what looks like a clash between the purported objectivity of science and the agenda-driven business of politics, Professor Nutt stated that drug classification in the United Kingdom has, in recent years, become "highly politicised", whereby a wholly artificial divide between legal and illegal drugs has been established, with only minimal regard to actual risks.
Conservative home affairs spokesperson James Brokenshire has, in turn, accused the professor of politicising the issue himself, stating: “Rather than providing clearer evidence on the harms linked to illicit drugs, Professor Nutt is making an overtly political pitch and that isn’t helpful.”
The background to this row is fairly complex. In 2004, then Home Secretary David Blunkett dropped the classification of cannabis back down from a Class B (where it had remained since 1971) to a Class C drug, until Ms. Smith announced in 2008 she would reverse that decision. The ACMD characterised the move at the time as a response to a "skunk scare", implying it was a knee jerk response to, if not sensationalised, then at least exaggerated stories about, a potent super-weed.
Marijuana advocates will also take heart from the professor's assertion that earlier claims about marijuana's psychosis-inducing properties have been distorted, calling the risk "relatively small" and citing studies which estimate that "to prevent one episode of schizophrenia, we would need to stop about 5,000 men aged 20 to 25 years from ever using the drug". During the time frame within which stronger strains of marijuana have been in use, Professor Nutt says, no corresponding increase in the prevalence of schizophrenia has been noted.
Perhaps his most compelling arguments, however, centre around the idea that boosting a drug's classification tends to increase its cachet among young people, and that only by accurately reporting about any drug will that same target demographic learn to trust the information:
"We have to accept young people like to experiment - with drugs and other potentially harmful activities - and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you are probably wrong."
Naturally, with such an emotive topic, there are plenty of vehement dissenters on both sides of an argument that, in some form or another, has rumbled on for decades, and will no doubt continue long after this episode has died down.
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