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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 23rd September 2012

I doubt if there is anyone with even just a passing interest in psychoactive substances who is not aware that, later this week, Channel 4 will be broadcasting two programmes about the potential use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), ecstasy, for therapeutic purposes.

The first, on 26th September, will show volunteers taking MDMA and having the changes it makes in their brains identified by a scanner. The second, the next evening, will be a live discussion of the results and the wider aspects of drug policy.

Both programmes have been titled ‘Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial’ leading to a degree of misunderstanding because, although the first programme will be broadcast live, it will present pre-recorded trials. The suggestion in parts of the media has been that people will be taking drugs live on TV.

But that misunderstanding is just one part of the furore that has been stimulated by pre-publicity for the programme. The trial is being conducted by Prof. David Nutt in conjunction with University College London (UCL) and the Beckley Foundation. Prof. Nutt’s involvement almost guarantees controversy mostly based on a misrepresentation of his position on psychoactive substance policy. But there is an added element, which is that some people, it seems, feel that David Nutt has an inflated ego and seeks publicity for its own sake.

I can’t tell if that criticism comes from prohibitionists who don’t like that David Nutt’s profile is bringing rational debate into the arena of drug policy or just from people who don’t have the skills to get their own scientific agenda into the spotlight. Certainly David Nutt has raised his profile in recent months with his new book, ‘Drugs - Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs’, his recent appearance on the BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ and a number of newspapers stories, interviews and discussions, two of which I’ll return to, shortly.

Before looking at those, however, I recommend that you read what the organisations behind this trial have to say on their own websites. The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, the Beckley Foundation and UCL all have extensive pieces explaining the trial and why it was necessary to turn to Channel 4 to fund it.

Put simply, the extra expense of running a trial using an illegal substance, together with the controversy bound to be stirred up by prohibitionists, means that conventional sources of funding were not available. Having heard Prof. Nutt speak about the way the media distorts and misreports scientific work on psychoactive substances I suspect he is also pleased that this trial can be presented direct to the public and without its results being perverted by journalistic prejudice.

There has been a lot of coverage in the press and, in the mainstream media, it has been overwhelmingly hostile. Earlier today Prof Nutt tweeted ‘Balanced article from the @DailyMail on the study and #DrugsLive’ and linked to this piece ‘A vicar, a pop star's dad and an ex-MP all taking drugs on live TV. Pioneering science - or a cynical new low from Channel 4?’
I don’t know if David Nutt was being ironic or whether, in comparison to most of the coverage, this article does seem to him to treat the subject more fairly.

I won’t go through the piece line by line but two sentences are indicative. The first says ‘He has also suggested that horse-riding is more dangerous than taking Ecstasy.’ That horse-riding is more dangerous than ecstasy is not a suggestion. It is a demonstrable fact.

But the second is more insidious. Turning to one of the 'usual suspects' whenever ecstasy is mentioned the Mail says;

‘Yet ‘brave’ is not the word that Paul Betts, whose daughter Leah died on her 18th birthday in 1995 after taking Ecstasy, would use to describe it.’

Strictly speaking that sentence is true. Leah Betts did die after taking ecstasy. But she did not die as a result of the ecstasy. She died as a result of drinking massive amounts of water because she didn’t have access to information about how to counter the dehydration that can result from ecstasy use. If ecstasy had been legal, so that guidance could be readily available about its safe use, Leah Betts and many others would still be alive today.

So the Mail is right to say she died after taking ecstasy but it wants its readers to conclude that she died because of the ecstasy.

The other piece worth examining appeared on the Guardian website in its ‘Comment is free’  section and is entitled ‘David Nutt and Julia Manning: is it right to take ecstasy in a TV trial?’ It is in the form of an interview conducted with the two people named in the headline. I am not going to attack Julia Manning personally; I’d never heard of her before today. But, the fact is that she is a qualified optometrist who, after standing for parliament in 2005, formed a think tank called ‘2020health.org’ self-described by its website as ‘an independent, grass roots think tank whose purpose is to both improve individual health and create the conditions for a healthy society’.

So, not an expert on psychoactive substances.

The problem for critics of Prof. Nutt is that it is very hard to criticise what he believes in so they have to make claims about him that are simply untrue. Thus Julia Manning accuses David Nutt of ‘wanting to legalise access to drugs’. The printed version has that as ‘wanting to legalise access to [some] drugs’. I assume the ‘some’ was added after. But anyone who understands Nutt’s position knows that as he says later in this piece ‘I am anti-drugs’. ‘[M]y entire research career has been directed towards understanding the harms of drugs so we can minimise them’.

Then Ms Manning makes one of those illogical assertions that so often trip up prohibitionists. Prof Nutt points out that many of the substances classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act have approved medical uses so he wants to see if ecstasy might have a medical use. Julia Manning who is critical of this trial being conducted at all says that those medical uses resulted from trials. Well, if medical uses of things like opium, from Papaver somniferum, ketamine and amphetamines resulted from properly conducted trials where is the harm in carrying out a properly conducted trial of MDMA?

The final point I want to draw attention to is where Ms Manning either reveals how little she knows about the subject or simply gives a false figure. The interviewer suggests that drugs are a fact of life. Ms Manning disagrees with this saying ‘Only three million adults have tried drugs’. If we assume that ‘have tried’ means lifetime prevalence, and I don’t know what else it could mean, and if we take ‘drugs’ to mean all substances classified under the MDA then the figure for 15-64 year olds is something over 15 million. If we restrict the definition of ‘drugs’ to Class A the number falls to over 6 million and, if we look only at ecstasy, the number is 3.5 million not 3 million.

Ms Manning is trying to present drug use as limited to a small part of society because that is what prohibitionists do; they try and suggest drugs are used by an aberrant minority that the rest of society should condemn.

You can be sure that there will be nothing in this week’s programmes to change the mind of Ms Manning and her like but, by presenting information directly to the viewers, there is a small hope that a rational assessment can be made of the situation without the filter of ignorant prejudice.     

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