Professor David Nutt: ‘Any drug less harmful than alcohol should be available legally’

The Tab chats to the government’s outspoken former drug expert


Professor David Nutt’s Wikipedia page is the sort of bio that makes you re-evaluate every single one of your life choices. He’s studied at Cambridge, trained at Guy’s, lectured at Oxford, directed Bristol Uni’s Psychopharmacology Unit, published more scientific papers than you’ve had hot dinners and started Imperial’s Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging. You haven’t started a department of anything, especially not one with so many words in it, and you never will. For shame.

More importantly, Professor Nutt is widely-renowned for publishing a 2010 study in which he suggested that alcohol is more harmful than either cocaine or heroin and heavily implied that the government’s classification of drugs wasn’t fit for purpose.

Perhaps now a walking embodiment of what happens when you stray from the herd, Prof. Nutt has since found himself stripped of his position within the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and now balances his research into drugs with hosting conferences and giving talks, one of which he gave at King’s Biochemistry society.

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The talk largely concerned his studies into LSD; its possible curative effects, its influence on everyone from William Blake to the Beatles via Steve Jobs and how it affected the brains of those who used it. Prof. Nutt reiterated time and again that the government is making it more and more difficult for scientists to research illegal drugs and continues to “censor” research with laws grounded in “unscientific” reasoning.

When the lecture finished, we sat down for a chat about drugs.

In your publication in Lancet in 2010, you came to the conclusion that alcohol was more harmful than cocaine. Could you explain to the maybe less scientifically literate readers of The Tab how you arrived at such a controversial conclusion?

We did, for the first time, a systematic analysis of all the possible harm done by drugs. There are 16 ways in which drugs harm humans; there are nine ways drugs harm users and seven ways drugs harm society. And then we took 20 drugs, including alcohol and cocaine, ranked them all on those 16 different scales and because of the huge social harm (i.e. harm to others) done by alcohol, it turned out to be the most harmful drug in the UK. That’s because it is responsible for the majority of spousal abuse, child abuse, child-sexual abuse, a lot of crime in its own right through drunkenness, driving etc. etc. etc. The social costs of alcohol are huge and that’s because it’s so widely used.

It’s heavily implied that that publication lost you your position on the ACMD. What’s it actually like to work in such an organisation?

When you work for the government, you find yourself walking this terrible tightrope between complying and – you know – lying for them. And it is difficult. The analogy I used to use – and this was after the ten years I was advising the government on the use of drugs – when I got sacked I said to myself “I feel better, I feel liberated.”

Over those ten years it was like I was a chunk of iron (Ed: SCIENTIFIC ANALOGY AHOY, THIS IS NOT A DRILL) and all my atoms were lining up along a magnetic field and I was sort of beginning to think like them. Because, you know, you want to please your masters and in the end I couldn’t… it was too difficult to try to please them and also to please the scientific community and I thought “sod it! I’m a scientist. I’ll just say what the science is”.

Professor David Nutt giving a talk at King's yesterday

Professor David Nutt giving a talk at King’s yesterday

Your research suggested that the current A, B, C classification system currently enforced by the government is outdated…

Yes. It’s useless. It’s unscientific… and it’s meant to be scientific.

… assuming then that you had the rights to reformulate the classification system yourself, how would it look?

I would change it. I would fundamentally change it. I would actually say that a drug which is less harmful to the user than alcohol should be available legally in a pharmacy. I would make alcohol harder to get, I would make it more expensive and I would control its availability. And then I would hope that that would be enough to make people stop using the really hard drugs like heroin and crack. So I would have an open, controlled, and non-advertised – like a pharmacy market – for all drugs; with cards, with licences so that we know how much people are getting and we can regulate access.

The drug of choice for many a university student is the study drug, modafinil. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t think there’s any evidence that modafinil improves performance in anything unless they’re sleepy! So if you want to stay up one night partying and stay up the next night working… I’m not sure modafinil really improves the ability of a student to learn or think or create… in fact, it’s probably anti-creative. That’s why students shouldn’t take stimulants before an exam because they can get locked into ways of thinking that are not very helpful, like they’ll answer the same question twice.

It was recently revealed that a very high proportion of university students suffer from mental illness and depression, how do drugs figure into that? Would you recommend LSD?

I certainly wouldn’t recommend any drug. I mean depression in students is an interesting problem… it’s not just a biological problem – it’s stress. You know you’ve got a shit life of it, really. You’re basically building up massive debt doing subjects which might not give you jobs. You know, you’ll end up with debts and no work so you know you’re not gonna be as well off as your parents and you’re being sort of shat upon.

I’m not surprised students are depressed – the sense of failure! If you fail, you’ve got all the same debts and you’ve failed your degree. I think we’ve made it so that the lot of a student is actually less agreeable than it was 30-40 years ago – I had a grant which I could live on, save up and have a holiday on as well!

(At this point someone who had actually failed their previous degree chimed in with all of the sunbeams of optimism you might expect.)

Yes, it’s awful, it really is.

Last question. For any students looking to potentially follow into your footsteps into government organisations such as ACMD, do you have any advice?

Well you should follow me on Twitter (Ed: no joke, he actually said this)… and you should engage in dialogue. Have a dialogue with your peers and try to find out all the myths that the older generation are perpetuating; find out where they got them from. Is it the media? Is it books? Is it politicians? Because I think that until we break this peculiar hostility to innovation and drugs… You know, why do they think alcohol is safe when it’s more likely to kill you, as a student, than other drugs? So I think I would always trying to challenge the status quo and the origins of the status quo, because we still don’t really understand.

You can follow David Nutt on Twitter: @ProfDavidNutt