Monday, 2 November 2009

David Nutt

Richard Baum has a very thoughtful piece on the dismissal of the head of the drugs advisory council. Having read this, and seen the short Q&A session on BBC-Parliament this afternoon, I am now not so certain that Alan Johnson was wrong to respond to the recent attacks by Professor Nutt on the subject of declassifying cannabis.

The Home Secretary was responding in the Commons this afternoon to an urgent question put down by Christopher Grayling, his Conservative opposite number. He immediately established that there was not a Rizla between the respective policy positions. However, what Grayling most objected to was not Nutt's attempt to re-open the cannabis debate, but his earlier use of a homely analogy to put the dangers of Ecstasy in proportion. In a lecture, he had pointed out that, based on mortality statistics, it was more dangerous to go horse-riding than to take E.

This is demonstrably true, and, as Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats argued, Dr Nutt had a perfect right to make the point he did, in a lecture which was reported in a journal of pharmacology. If academics, who give their time as advisors gratis, are going to be called to account by the media for papers and lectures which are part of their "day job", they will be increasingly reluctant to volunteer.

It was unsurprising that nobody on the Conservative benches stood up for academic freedom in this area, and that most of the payroll vote on the government side also supported the Home Secretary. It was puzzling, though, that the Speaker did not call Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) who is known to have liberal views on drugs. Unless he has recanted of the views on his blog, he would have helped to balance the discussion. It was not for want of trying to catch the Speaker's eye.

As it was, it looked as if only Liberal Democrats and one SNP member were prepared to stand up for a position which will no doubt be caricatured in the popular press tomorrow. (Though I have faith that the Independent will support us on this.) [There is an Indy report here - FHL 2009-11-3]

Alan Johnson had at his disposal a more apposite and respectable argument, that put by Professor Robin Murray on Radio 4's "World at One", that Professor Nutt was slow to accept evidence contrary to his position on cannabis. Murray cited the potency of "skunk", the damage to memory caused by long-term use of cannabis and the significant correlation between cannabis use and schizophrenia. Murray asserted that Nutt had initially rejected all three findings, but had later had to accept them. If this accusation is true, then Nutt's suitability as chairman of the advisory council would be in doubt. A closed mind would surely disqualify him.

Nutt should have a chance to answer these criticisms in public. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this real debate on the science. As Chris Huhne said, so far the debate has not risen above the schoolboy level.


Anonymous said...

This does show a contempt towards Scientist from both the Labour and Conservative benches.

Science has a very low priority in the UK; ditto Engineering, hence the Labour party turning it's back on industrialised towns in South Wales which due to the demise of manufacturing jobs are suffering from Unemployment and social deprevation.

Hand in hand with social deprevation comes drug abuse, congratulations Labour!

Frank Little said...

But see Prof Bedington's comments in the Indy reference I have just added to the original posting. It seems it is just on drugs that Labour has this blind spot.