David is a scientist not a politician and much of his work has been about identifying the harms associated with various drugs and other activities. His research shows that most illegal drugs are less harmful than legal drugs and other activities. The fact that horse riding is more dangerous than taking ecstasy and smoking cannabis is far less likely to kill you than wine or beer is an inconvenient truth for a government that whilst supporting the alcohol industry promotes the criminalisation of less harmful drugs on the basis of risk. The chart below produced by Nutt compares the harmfulness of legal and illegal drugs:
This shows clearly that the claim that drug classification is anything to with harm is nonsense.
Despite having demonstrated the nonsense of drug policy Nutt was appointed as Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) effectively making the Government's chief advisor on drug policy. Not surprisingly Nutt tried to advise the Government to move towards an evidence based policy and to sort out the mess of the classification system. This was too much for Home Secretary Alan Johnson who following the publication of the Eve Saville Lecture last week sacked Nutt.
Much though I respect David Nutt I thought he was wrong as the classification system needs abolishing not reforming. This case has been made powerfully by Steve Rolles in an article The ABC of UK drug classification - not fit for purpose (pages 7-9). Essentially classification links criminal sanctions to 'harmfulness'. This presumes that criminal justice is the most appropriate method for managing drugs potential harm. This approach has clearly failed with drug use increasing, availability widening, and price falling since it was introduced. It has also seen incentives on producers to produce stronger products and dealers to mix all sort of (often dangerous) rubbish with the product.
I suspect that although Nutt was an irritant to Government whilst he was an advisor, insisting on telling them truths they really didn't want to hear he will be a more substantial critic now he has been sacked. Freed from the ACMD and its role in the classification system he will now be able to look at wider drug policy and use his expertise to critique drug policy in far more detail. His sacking is likely to prove a massive mistake for government.
FURTHER UPDATE there is a petition which can be signed up to on the Prime Minister's web site - you can sign it here
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Re-instate Professor David Nutt On 30 October 2009 the Home Secretary sacked the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor Nutt has expressed politically unpopular opinions such as -
Alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco is ranked ninth"
Cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively."
Drug policy should be based on science not hysteria. Scientists expressing their honestly held expert opinions should not find themselves in fear of losing their jobs.