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“using a sledgehammer to crack a Nutt” – the media furore over ecstasy

It’s hard to express just how dismayed I feel at the shameful way in which one of my favourite scientists was treated by the Government this week. Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was condemned in parliament by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for comments in the media in which he argued that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than riding horses. Slamming the Prof’s comments as “trivialising the dangers of drugs” and “showing insensitivity to the families of victims”, the Home Secretary informed MPs that she had called the scientist to demand that he apologise publically to her and to the families of victims. As one sketch writer described it: “With shameless self-righteousness, Miss Smith became the wielder of a sledgehammer to crush Professor Nutt.”

With the honourable exception of Lib Dem MP Evan Harris who complained to the Speaker about the unprecedented attack on a “distinguished scientist who was unable to answer back in parliament”, MPs raced to pile in against David Nutt with Keith Vaz prompting Jacqui Smith’s outburst by asking whether she planned to have a word with her adviser and Tory MP Laurence Robertson suggesting that Professor Nutt “might be appropriately named but he’s in the wrong job” (no apology yet issued for his rudeness!).

Of course demanding apologies these days is de rigueur – just this week the BBC demanded one from Carol Thatcher for her allegedly racist comments, Jeremy Clarkson for calling the PM a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’ and of course we are drowning in apologies from bankers. But spot the difference here. Professor Nutt was not asked to apologise for an insult overheard or for scientific fraud – he was being told to apologise for saying what he believes to be true based on over thirty years of distinguished scientific research in this field. To be precise this eminent scientist was being told to apologise for something he wrote in an editorial published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, a respected peer-reviewed journal.

Unlike Thatcher and Clarkson who gave half-hearted apologies, David Nutt did deliver the required apology which was widely reported in the press. But this was an apology that should never have been demanded and I believe it marks a shameful episode in the relationship between Government and their independent scientific advisers.

Let’s look at a few facts here. David Nutt was appointed as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a few months ago after taking over from the equally wonderful and respected Michael Rawlins. The independent advisory body was set up in 1971 and as reported in the Guardian this week is widely respected for ‘injecting some rationality’ into drugs policy. The Home Office would have been fully aware of David’s stance on ecstasy when they appointed him as Chair because he has presented scientific papers on it, published on it and argued around it for many, many years now. The Home Secretary was quick to declare that the views quoted in the press were incompatible with David’s role as Chair of ACMD but the idea that leading researchers should abandon 30 years of their own research when they agree to chair an independent advisory body is ludicrous. David was appointed to this and many other influential advisory bodies because of his expertise, not in spite of it. And anyway, the comments that so angered Jacqui Smith were made in a paper published before he was appointed to chair the ACMD and written in his capacity as a Professor of Psychopharmacology, not as Chair of ACMD.

As Evan Harris MP pointed out: “As a scientist David Nutt would be expected to publish peer reviewed work in the scientific literature. In so doing he can occasionally expect to be criticised publically by the Daily Mail (as happened here) and by ignorant politicians (as happened here). But he would surely not expect to be phoned by the Home Secretary and told to apologise to her and to the families of [victims of] drug deaths. Surely the fact that he is an independent adviser to Government entitles him to more protection, not less, from public criticism from ministers.”
While most of the scientists I spoke to felt sorry for David, some felt that speaking out like this the week before the long-awaited ACMD Report on ecstasy was due to recommend the downgrading of the drug was riskier than ecstasy and horse-riding put together (and no – don’t try that at home!). I too wondered why David had decided to go public with comments that would obviously grab the headlines just days before he was due to brief the media on the considered and comprehensive recommendations of his committee. So I called him up and guess what – David hadn’t gone to anyone with this story. Instead, as is so often the case on controversial issues like this one, the media came to him. On the weekend before the launch of his report David was contacted by journalists from the Daily Telegraph who had suddenly and inexplicably become regular readers of pre-prints of the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The Telegraph got their exclusive which was then picked up throughout the media forcing David into a number of interviews defending his position. This row was not of David Nutt’s making or timing – a fact that should have been blatantly obvious to Government ministers and their army of sophisticated spin doctors.

This episode is laced with ironies, but perhaps the most obvious one is that Jacqui Smith accused David Nutt of “making light of a serious problem and trivialising the dangers of drugs”. I feel the exact opposite has happened. The Home Secretary was not responding to David Nutt’s scientific work on this issue but to the selective and partial reporting of that work in the news timed to stir up the row in advance of the ACMD report. What’s that if not trivialising the issue?

David Nutt may well be controversial; you may well reject his work on comparing drug risks with other legal but dangerous activities – many excellent scientists do. But one thing you cannot accuse him of is being trivial or making light of the issue. I was present at press briefings where David Nutt explained his scientific work on harm analysis; he and the eminent scientist and former head of the Medical Research Council Colin Blakemore published a major paper on this approach in the Lancet at the Science Media Centre a couple of years ago, where they presented a complex evidence-based model which they argued could be used to rank illegal drugs in terms of harms and also drew out risk comparisons with some legal but dangerous activities. My point here is not that David Nutt is right, but that his approach is well known to the Home Office, shared and respected by many eminent scientists, and basically anything but ‘trivial’.

As Professor Nutt said in an interview with Eddie Mair on PM on Radio 4: “The Government is concerned that downgrading ecstasy would be sending the wrong signal to young people. But I believe that the only correct signal is a signal based on the true scientific evidence. We damage that signal if we say that a drug is more harmful than it actually is.”

And there is one other worrying aspect of this whole affair. One of the reasons that I and the Science Media Centre are friendly with David Nutt is that we have hosted the media briefings of the ACMD in the past. But this time we declined to do so on the basis that the Centre’s fiercely protected independence was being undermined by the conditions being placed on us by the Home Office press officers about aspects of the press briefings. While the press officers for the ACMD are really nice people who have clearly developed some loyalty to the committee, at the end of the day they are Home Office press officers and the Home Secretary is their boss. For cases like cannabis and ecstasy where the evidence-based advice on classification from the advisors has been firmly rejected by the Government, this is a serious conflict of interest. One of the things that has emerged from this miserable affair is the critical importance of the mass media in these scientific controversies, and the SMC has now asked the IUSS Committee to look into how independent scientific advisers can get access to independent media relations support.

I was initially saddened that David Nutt had been forced to apologise but what became clear in his brilliant interview on PM on the day the report was published is that David Nutt wants to keep his job. Why? Because this scientist passionately believes that the ACMD can reach out beyond the shallow and superficial confines of a manufactured media spat shamefully engaged in by ministers, and generate a more considered, rational public debate on drugs. For that we should all salute him!


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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