There are many, many reasons to be angry, frustrated, or simply full of despair at former Drug Czar Professor David Nutt’s latest outburst claiming alcohol is more damaging than any other drug, including crack and heroin.
There’s the fact that many reputable news outlets chose yet again to illustrate the story with a picture of cask ale, the least damaging, lowest alcohol drink on the market.
Or the fact that in many places Nutt was reported as ‘confirming’ or ‘revealing’ how damaging alcohol is, rather than ‘claiming’ alcohol to be more damaging – accepted as fact, rather than challenged in any way.
There’s the fact that Nutt has a serious conflict of interest which has gone uncommented on – that he is working with a team at Imperial College to develop a synthetic drug that gives a temporary alcohol buzz without the effects of drunkenness – something that will surely have a commercial application if trials are successful – meaning he has a personal, potentially profitable interest in undermining alcohol’s place in society – a fact that, at best, means his findings should be scrutinised rather than simply accepted.
There’s the fact that in the methodology of his study, the scores given to each drug are a combination of harm to the self and harm to others. And when you break it down, even according to Nutt’s own research, ALCOHOL IS NOT THE MOST DAMAGING DRUG TO THE INDIVIDUAL. The reason alcohol gets the highest overall score is because it is calculated to give by far the highest score for damage to others – which I’ll come on to in a sec. But Nutt’s own research shows heroin, crack and methylamphetamine are more damaging to the user than alcohol. This is determined by a combination of different factors, such as dependence, mortality etc. Serious concerns have been raised regarding the relative weighting of these factors. But never mind the fact that the methodology is flawed – even though the report DOES NOT CLAIM that alcohol is more harmful to the individual than any other drug, that’s exactly what has been reported.
The ‘harm to others’ bit is made up of scores given to various factors such as crime, injury, damage to the environment, cost to communities etc. For many of these, there is no way of calculating them accurately. Earlier this year I detailed serious doubts about the methodology of calculating economic cost, crime, cost to the health service, etc. And where there is no data available, Nutt and his team simply MADE THE SCORE UP. As the excellent Phil Mellows reveals this morning – these expert, scientific scores were determined not by months of research but by a one day workshop where they sat around and chatted, assigning scores as they saw fit. Scientific? About as scientific as a bunch of blokes in a pub working out a top ten list of shaggable birds.
And Nutt’s previous writing on alcohol reveals a worrying lack of knowledge even about current alcohol policy. In a recent ’21 point action plan’ to combat what he inaccurately refers to as an alcochol epidemic, this ‘expert’ on policy seemed unaware of the introduction of the mandatory code that limits promotions encouraging excessive drinking, and he repeated various ‘facts’ and figures that have been shown to be dubious. (My point-by-point response to his ill-informed action plan is comment number 44 beneath his post). I don’t believe that, on the basis of the knowledge he displays here, Nutt is qualified to determine the cost of alcohol to society. And then there’s the dodginess around weighting of different factors again.
Most obviously, Nutt doesn’t take into account the simple fact that alcohol is drunk by millions – of course it’s going to have a bigger impact. But when over 80% of us drink within the government’s recommended guidelines, the simple fact – that is completely ignored here – is that the vast majority of people drinking alcohol do so without causing harm to themselves or others, and the same cannot be said of many other drugs calculated here.
So – of course – the entire thing is a load of bollocks that has been widely accepted as fact. So far so predictable.
But here’s the main reason why I think this report is damaging:
I agree with what Nutt is trying to do.
When Nutt was sacked for saying alcohol was more harmful than LSD or cannabis, what he was actually trying to do was draw attention to the fact that government classification of drugs is completely out of whack with those drugs’ actual harmful effects. He’s right. The vast majority of ‘harm’ caused by illegal drugs is, in many cases, because of their illegality. Heroin users contracting diseases through using shared needles. Drug users turning to crime to fuel their habit. Drug pushers forming organised international crime cartels.
Cannabis, used in moderation, isn’t harmful – just like alcohol. And yet it’s illegal. The number of deaths from ecstasy use is tiny compared to the proportion of people using it – and it could be argued they were at least partially due to lack of information, because the drug is illegal. As Bill Hicks said memorably, no one ever took LSD and said “Let’s go and beat some people up”. And despite popular myth, there has been no recorded case of someone jumping to their death because they were tripping and thought they could fly. British aristocracy has a long history of heroin users living to a ripe old age because, although the drug is highly addictive, if you have access to a regular, clean supply, take it in the right doses, and you’re free to lie around doing nothing all day being really boring, and you have people to look after you, it doesn’t actually do you that much damage.
The only reason cannabis is illegal in America is because the hemp industry posed a serious threat to the dominance of the petrochemical industry in the 1920s, who were a very powerful lobbying force, which is why not just cannabis but any hemp product – even cloth – was made illegal. I’m paraphrasing, but read this excellent book for more details on the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of drugs policy.
Many people working with addicts suggest the best way to deal with drugs is to legalise them. Schemes where drugs have been made readily available to users, in a controlled environment, have consistently shown huge success in getting people off those drugs.
Policy on drugs is driven by political ambition, expediency, and commercial lobbying interests far more than it has anything to do with damage to the individual or society. On that I’m sure David Nutt and I would agree 100%. But because he’s an unashamed publicity seeker, every time he tries to make this point he does so by attacking alcohol in a way that is at best distorted, and at worst deliberately inaccurate.
That’s what makes me most mad. Because if Nutt truly wants a sensible debate about the relative harm that drugs do, all he succeeds in achieving is giving ammunition to the neo-prohibitionists who would rather any intoxicating drug be banned outright. Nutt’s approach is never going to make anyone say ‘Why isn’t cannabis or ecstasy legal?’ All he’s doing is encouraging people to be as stupid and wrong about alcohol as they are about other drugs.
And that’s why it is David Nutt who is causing huge damage to individuals and to society as a whole.