Podcast: David Nutt, ‘The current laws on drugs and alcohol – ineffective, dishonest and unethical?’

Professor David Nutt argues in this podcast of his lecture, that whilst the use of the law to control drug use is long established, it remains unproven in efficacy. Although seemingly obvious that legal interdictions should work there is little evidence to support this assertion. So for example cannabis though illegal is at some time used by nearly half of the population. Similarly drugs like ecstasy and amfetamine are widely used by up to a million young people each weekend. This use is underpinned by a demand for the pleasurable experiences that the drugs produce, and also by a paradoxical desire by some people to break the law.

As well as being ineffective for many users prohibition of drugs often leads to perverse magnification of harms and drug use. When the “English” approach to heroin use i.e. prescription to addicts was abolished in the 1970s on moral grounds heroin use increased tenfold in a few years as addicts were forced to become dealers so getting more people addicted to fuel their income. The banning of alcohol in the 1920s in the USA lead to huge criminal expansion of alcohol sales the perpetrators of which turned to other drugs once prohibition was repealed: a legacy that we still experience today.

Moreover the un-scientific and arbitrary distinct between legal drugs particularly alcohol and tobacco and “illegal” drugs also has perverse negative consequences. As well as bringing the scientific foundation of the drug laws into disrepute it also precludes the use of possibly life-changing drugs for those who might benefit from them as treatments: examples of these include cannabis for Multiple sclerosis, MDMA [ecstasy] for PTSD and psilocybin for cluster headaches.

For these reasons Nutt argues that there are serious ethical implications for a simplistic prohibitionist approach to drugs and suggest alternative strategies that might be used.


Recent references: ‘Popular intoxicants: what lessons can be learned from the last 40 years of alcohol and cannabis regulation?’ Ruth Weissenborn and David J Nutt (2012) Journal of Psychopharmacology 26(2) 213–220, and critique of current UK drug laws by David Nutt (2010): ‘The role and basis of the drug laws’, Prometheus, 28:3, 293-297 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08109028.2010.518052
David Nutt is currently the Edmund J Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology and Head of the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology in the Division of Brain Science, Dept of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College London.

He received his undergraduate training in medicine at Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital, and continued training in neurology to MRCP. After completing his psychiatric training in Oxford, he continued there as a lecturer and then later as a Wellcome Senior Fellow in psychiatry. He then spent two years as Chief of the Section of Clinical Science in the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in NIH, Bethesda, USA. On returning to England in 1988 he set up the Psychopharmacology Unit in Bristol University, an interdisciplinary research grouping spanning the departments of Psychiatry and Pharmacology before moving to Imperial College London in December 2008 where he leads a similar group with a particular focus on brain imaging especially PET.

He is currently Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and Past-President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), Vice-President of the European Brain Council and President of the British Neuroscience Association. In addition he is a Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, of Psychiatrists and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He is also the UK Director of the European Certificate and Masters in Affective Disorders Courses and a member of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. He has edited the Journal of Psychopharmacology for over a decade and acts as the psychiatry drugs advisor to the British National Formulary. He has published over 400 original research papers, a similar number of reviews and books chapters, eight government reports on drugs and 26 books.
Previously he has been member and Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD – 1998-2009), President of the British Association of Psychopharmacology (BAP), member of the HEFCE/NHS Senior Lecturer Selection Panel and member of the MRC Neuroscience Board. Other previous national contributions include serving as the medical expert on the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act (2000 Runciman report), and membership of the Committee on Safety of Medicines, the Committee on NHS drugs and the Ministry of Defence Science Advisory Board. He was the clinical scientific lead on the 2004/5 UK Government Foresight initiative “Brain science, addiction and drugs” that provided a 25-year vision for this area of science and public policy and in 2006 he was Director of Bristol Neuroscience.

He broadcasts widely to the general public both on radio and television including BBC and Channel 4 science and public affairs programmes on therapeutic as well as illicit drugs, their actions harms and their classification. His 2012 C4 programme “ecstasy live” was their highest rated programme ever in terms of viewer interaction. He also lecturers widely to the public as well as to the scientific and medical communities; for instance has presented three time at the Cheltenham Science and Hay Literary Festivals and several times for Café Scientifiques. In 2010 The Times Eureka science magazine voted him one of the 100 most important figures in British Science, and the only psychiatrist in the list.

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2 Responses to Podcast: David Nutt, ‘The current laws on drugs and alcohol – ineffective, dishonest and unethical?’

  • Darryl Bickler says:

    One or two errors in the write up, cannabis cannot be said to be “illegal” and nor can any substance be described as ‘legal’. One thing that is vitally important is to spot that the administration of law is based upon a reversed paradigm to the reality enacted by Parliament. The transference of the human subject into a mere object in language is objectionable; not only do government explain their policy in legally nonsensical terms, but seemingly the administration of legislation is founded upon this misconstruction of the law, that is we have a drug policy for people, not a people policy for drugs. Starting from the imaginary status of a drug makes the artificial divide appear coherent, so that some people causing harms with drugs appear outside of the law completely as ‘it’ is legal, and persons concerned with other drugs to be nearly always acting unlawfully, as ‘it’ is illegal. Of course there is no ‘it’. The lines defining our legal rights are illusory as they are formed around the definition of an object, not the person, of course legal processes apply to the subject (person), and their experience and outcomes with respect to the object (drug), and not the other way round.

    Unlike the human subject, a drug has no agency; it is misidentified as a binary commodity being supposedly almost indivisibly legal or illegal irrespective of the consumer’s outcomes with it. It is unconscionable to consider any substance to be an ‘illegal’ or ‘illicit’ drug, or indeed a ‘legal’ or ‘licit’ one because this misunderstanding obscures the true legislation,enslaving us as objects. We
    are property in the eyes of the law as it is currently (mis)construed.

  • Blair Anderson says:

    You make an interesting case Darryl. The legal status has no relationship to the pharmacology whereas the illicit status greatly impacts on drug use safety or ‘set and setting’ where harms and risks are maximised.

    If there is no legal construct to the the concept harm minimisation there can be no legal foundation to argue ‘societal harm’. One cannot exist without the other. Drug Law and its proponents (notably Police radicalise ‘drug use’, whereas their charter prohibits political allegiance/alliance towards directing policy seemingly except where drug use is involved, legal or otherwise.

    How is it for example, NZ Police are not upholding NZ Dairies etc. rights to sell a legal product, instead they actively lobby against adult choice to purchase recreational psycho-actives based on incomplete data and selected anecdote? They use such language as “lethal” yet no one has died. Millions of ‘doses’ and everyone seems to turn up for work on Monday’s.

    Police actioning such societal engagement via direct representation/activism in the community and in media serves to bring Police and policing into disrepute. It is particularly vexing that this occurs within a moral tautology (should be illegal because its immoral, immoral thus it should be illegal).

    The right to think as one wishes is a preeminent right over administrative right to determine that [any] harm to society [many] must be recompensed with arbitrary and disproportionate penance [of the few] to send a message no one is listening too. Leave teaching to Teachers and Public Health to Doctors.

    Viva Cognitive Liberty!

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