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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 19th June 2012

I’ve written a number of times about apparently separate stories that, in my mind at least, come together to make a single point and it has happened again today.

This morning the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) heard evidence from Prof. David Nutt and Dr. Les King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and, then, Dr Les Iversen (Chair, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor Ray Hill, and Annette Dale-Perera, ACMD members.

This is the fifth time I’ve written about the HASC inquiry into drug policy. Previous blog items appeared on 24th April, 8th April, 30th March and 28th March. I wasn’t going to cover today’s hearing because I’ve said most of what follows before in one form or the other. But it was the coincidence I referred to before that changed my mind.

I’ll come back to that but I’ll begin just with an impression of how the session went. I’m certainly not going to try and give a he said, he replied account. The video of the session is available1 and the transcript will appear in due course.

Prof. Nutt restated many of things he’s said before and written about. This is mostly about how to minimise the harm caused by substance use and how we have to stop ignoring the scientific evidence, especially about the harm being caused by alcohol, when determining policy.

While there are clearly some on the committee who are sympathetic to his views there were a couple (I can’t resist) who were not sym. Nutt put forward his view that permitting Cannabis sativa, marijuana, to be consumed in social settings similar to the Dutch coffee shops would reduce the amount of alcohol consumed and achieve a net reduction in harm. Nutt thinks the decrease in alcohol consumption could be as much as 25%.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Now this is quite a nuanced point. You are going to facilitate, and possibly encourage, an activity that might be harmful so increasing the harm that activity causes but you believe that, as a result, a more harmful activity will decrease in prevalence and the reduced harm from reducing that activity will be greater than the increase. For the population, as a whole, therefore, there will be a net benefit.

Whether Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, couldn’t grasp that overall concept or whether she chose to ignore it is hard to say but she accused Nutt of not caring if more people got lung cancer from smoking cannabis. Nutt tried to get across the idea of population wide effects but, unfortunately, perhaps because the Chair, Keith Vaz, had already asked him several times to keep his answers short, he didn’t address the question of the uncertainty of the link between cannabis and lung disease nor the alternative ways to consume cannabis that remove tobacco from the process.

I think the problem is that scientists think in terms of populations whereas politicians see the individuals who make up those populations. Suppose, for a moment, that Ms Blackwood is right and there is a direct link between cannabis and lung cancer. And suppose that David Nutt’s proposal is adopted and for each new case of lung cancer there are two fewer cases of liver disease. Clearly, there is a population benefit. For the politician, however, the two people who didn’t become ill are invisible whereas the one who got lung cancer might turn up on Question Time and blame you.

Erythroxylum coca

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

The possible positive from the session was that Nutt and King mentioned the difficulty of getting information from the Home Office especially if that information is likely to put current policy in a bad light. Keith Vaz invited them to provide examples of information they would like to see openly published rather than having to be squeezed out via Freedom of Information Act requests and said he would press for them to be published.

Prof. Nutt began his appearance by saying that the ISCD was the only fully independent body looking at drug policy scientifically. That had clearly rankled Les Iversen who began his appearance by stating that the ACMD under his chairmanship was independent. For me, maybe I’m just being cynical, he rather undermined that point with his first answer when he explained that the Home Secretary writes an annual letter to the ACMD telling them what work to do.

I must say I found the session with the ACMD members a little confusing. It seemed to jump around from abuse of prescription medicines to ‘legal highs’ with only passing reference to the substances presently classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

I think Iversen let himself down by saying that Portugal had either been a complete failure or a roaring success depending on who you believe. If he isn’t aware of the Hughes, Stevens paper (see blog entries 6th January, 9th March & 18th March ) he really shouldn’t be chairing the ACMD so shame on him for not mentioning that carefully reasoned science can give answers.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

On the other hand, to his credit, Iversen did repeat the ACMD’s view that decriminalisation of simple possession would be a way to prevent young people having their life chances destroyed by a criminal conviction. This is an opinion, also mentioned by David Nutt in his evidence, that the ACMD has put forward in the past and the Home Secretary has rejected it out of hand.

Theresa May very quickly repeated her rejection of the ACMD’s proposal.2 This was first made in a letter to the Drug Strategy Unit in October 2010 and repeated in advice to the Sentencing Council in October 20113 and both times the Home office slapped the ACMD down. I wonder if Theresa May will make the same mistake as Alan Johnson did in the face of an ACMD Chair who won’t shut up.

Talking of Johnson and his very foolish action in firing David Nutt because of a media fuss about something he’d said months before, there were some quite amusing Twitter exchanges when his former special adviser tried to rubbish Prof. Nutt. If you were the special adviser who failed to advise a minister not to make himself look extremely stupid it might be a good idea to keep your head down.

The last thing worth mentioning about the session was that Annette Dale-Perera made the very firm point that drug education is failing to reduce drug use because it is based on inaccurate information and is seen to have no credibility with the target audience. The young people who respond to drug awareness education were, almost certainly, never going to be users, anyway.

Back to the coincidence that caused me to write this entry. David Nutt said that he believed that having something similar to Dutch ‘coffee shops’ to allow cannabis to be consumed in a social setting might reduce alcohol use by 25%. This afternoon, Sanho Tree  tweeted a link to an interesting story from Sweden.4 This story says that Swedes are mostly growing their own cannabis. This is said to be the result of growing equipment being freely, and legally, available even though Sweden has one of the toughest regimes on drugs in Europe.

The story also says that, according to Björn Trolldal of the substance abuse prevision group Stockholm Prevents Alcohol and Drug Problems (STAD), at the start of the 21st century 3% of total alcohol in Sweden was illegally produced at home but, now, that figure has dropped to 1%.

Time for all the caveats about this being one man’s estimate with no indication of the evidence behind it and there being no way to demonstrate a correlation between more people growing pot and fewer making moonshine but it rather suggests that people care more about getting intoxicated than what they use for that purpose.

And that, if true, says the moral approach is to steer people towards the intoxicants that do least harm. 


1.HASC Public Hearing 19th June 2012 UK Parliament website
2.Theresa May rejects drugs adviser's call for more non-criminal penalties Guardian 19th June 2012
3.ACMD repeats call for decriminalisation of drug possession Transform Drug Policy Foundation 14th October 2011
4.Pot farming 'booming' as moonshining declines The Local 7th June 2012 

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