Professor David Nutt in his office, near a mushroom sculpture that he seemed particularly attached to.
Nothing illuminates the gaping chasm between political and public opinion quite like the war on drugs. With over half of British people saying that the government’s approach to illegal drugs is ineffective, and even Commons MPs saying we should look into decriminalisation, it’s a wonder that they haven’t just got on with it yet. But for British politicians, taking a stance on drugs is kind of like taking drugs: no one wants to be the first one at the party to suggest it.
And yet when Professor David Nutt merely put forth scientific evidence suggesting that – gee, I don’t know – maybe the drug classification system should accurately reflect the actual danger levels of each drug, he was sacked from his position as the government's chief drug adviser. (Nutt had the temerity to report that, statistically, ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol.) As if getting fired for literally doing his job wasn’t bad enough, he’s also been the victim of some serious misrepresentation in the tabloids since.
The professor recently put forth an idea that was just begging to be held down and turned into a headline – the notion that bankers taking cocaine caused the global financial crisis. But as the media frenzy began to percolate down into lesser blogs, the main thrust of his argument was lost. In fact, the professor has recently been focusing all of his efforts on obtaining a small amount of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, for a study into whether it can treat depression – the latest in Nutt's canon of studies that support a reform on illegal drugs in the UK. The cocaine-banker connection was merely an aside – albeit an obviously alluring one.
I visited Professor Nutt's office at Imperial College, London to see what it feels like to be the face of drug reform in the UK.
A graph mapping the harmfulness of drugs from the study that got Professor Nutt fired from the government's drug board. (Image via)
VICE: Hi David. So, it seems like the British media love sensationalist headlines about you. First it was, "Ecstasy Is Less Dangerous Than Horse Riding." Now it’s, "Cocaine Caused the Financial Crisis."
Professor David Nutt: [Laughs] Oh yeah, I've been "professor poison" and "the sacked drug tsar" before, and now I'm "Mr Mushrooms". I did say that ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding, but I didn't say cocaine caused the financial crisis. I was asked by a journalist, "Do different kinds of people take different kinds of drugs?" And I said, "Yeah, hippies take psychedelics and bankers take cocaine." And it went from that to "cocaine caused the financial crisis". Of course, it may have contributed to people making bad judgements.
It must be frustrating to see headlines about yourself that miss the point of your research.
Well, on one level yes, but the fact that there's a dialogue at all is very important. There was no public discourse about drugs at all for a long time, and I've made sure there is. The worst thing you could do is hide the issue, but the truth about drugs has been supressed because people haven't got the courage to speak about it.
Over the past couple of years you’ve become the voice for drug reform in the UK. How do you feel about being in that position?
Well, someone's got to do it. I haven’t sought out publicity, but if you know what should be said and you’ve got a chance to say it, then it’s absolutely my duty to do so. I think it’s time for scientists to stand and be counted.
It’s always bewildering for someone of my generation to think where this opposition to a dialogue about drugs comes from. It seems that most people are ready for change, yet the issue is rarely addressed.
It comes from two sources. It comes from a few newspapers – largely the Mail, the Express and the Sun. And it comes from politicians who feel that there's going to be some benefit to sticking to the tradition.
Some magic mushrooms resting in some grass. (Image via)
Are most politicians anti-drugs?
No, most politicians know that the drug laws are wrong. David Cameron wrote that the drug laws need to be completely re-written and that the international drug conventions should be changed when he was on the Home Affairs Select Committee ten years ago. But when you get to the level of cabinet and shadow cabinet, people get frozen in fear of being controversial, so they just shut up. Cameron changed his tune the day after he became head of the Tory Party. It was the most spineless collapse of a person’s view that I’ve ever seen. It was embarrassing, and it’s because it’s more expedient for someone in his position to be hard on drugs.
What did you think of Labour's approach to drugs while they were in power?
In many ways, Labour are worse. You expect them to actually care about people, but they actively criminalised young cannabis users. They incentivised the police on this false belief that cannabis causes schizophrenia and is a “gateway drug”. We now have a million people in this country convicted for cannabis use, and many of them find that the conviction actually impairs their career.
Do you think we're getting close to seeing a political shift on the issue?
I’m hoping so, but there are still horrendous things going on. A student told me she was strip-searched on Brick Lane because she smelled of cannabis, even though she didn’t have any. In Britain! To what end? It's outrageous. And we’re still prosecuting people who need cannabis for medical purposes on a daily basis. I had a letter from a guy who’s been arrested 27 times for possession of cannabis, and each police arrest costs six or seven hundred pounds. It costs half a billion pounds a year – that’s enough to build two major hospitals for the price of policing cannabis. Completely and utterly moronic.
Why do you think no one's realised that yet?
The problem is that Bernard Hogan-Howe [the head of the London Met] doesn’t understand drugs. Part of the reason we had the riots is because the Met started clamping down on black kids with cannabis in North London. It’s outrageous to persecute people for using a drug that’s safer than alcohol. I cannot go beyond saying that. How can you encourage people to drink? If they want to take a drug to become intoxicated, why would you force them to use one of the most dangerous drugs of all? It’s morally reprehensible.
Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe. (Image via)
Do you think MDMA might be getting to the point where it could change from a Class A substance?
No one drug could change now. When I was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, we recommended MDMA being downgraded from Class A to Class B, and the media went absolutely hysterical. The class system needs to be rewritten so that all drugs are in their right classes, and it would be effortless. And, in fact, that was the plan. Charles Clarke accepted the need to revise the act when he was Home Secretary. Unfortunately, he was sacked after the foreign prisoners scandal – and I actually think he was sacked because he was too outspoken, too critical of the cabinet.
I’m sure that's a familiar feeling to you.
Exactly. When Charles and I were at Cambridge, we were radical socialists together. He and I go back a long way. The next guy, John Reid, just said there are no votes in drugs, so he stopped the whole work around reclassification. But it has to happen, and it has to happen on an international level as well. There is one hope: the UN is to have a special assembly on drugs in 2016, and that’s a chance to rectify all this – to actually come up with a new drugs plan. I’m just hoping that Obama won't let the Americans derail it.
So currently you've been granted half a million pounds to research psilocybin. What does the study hope to discover?
We think it might be useful for people with resistant depression. We know from our volunteers that psilocybin switches off the part of the brain that is overactive in depression, and that there are mood benefits later.
And what roadblocks are you encountering?
Well, the law around doing a clinical trial is bonkers. It’s a European law called the Clinical Trials Directive, and it’s massively impeding research because it sets huge financial regulating thresholds for trials that don’t apply to treatments. We’ve done trials where it has cost us £30,000 just to get 100 placebo tablets, because even placebo tablets have to go through the same controls, largely based on the beyond stupid fear that we might transfer mad cow disease.
Then we’ve got to find a company that’s also got a Schedule 1 license [a license to possess drugs], which takes a year. A year in terms of a grant is hundreds of thousands of pounds, and I can’t just sack my staff for a year while they get a license. So finding the two together is near impossible. But we're going to do it.
This is what MDMA sometimes looks like. (Image via)
Are there any other studies in the UK or Europe that are currently encountering roadblocks due to the difficulty of acquiring the product for clinical trials?
Absolutely. There’s a mate of mine in Oxford trying to study a cannabis extract, THCV, which isn't intoxicating. The chemists who wrote the legislation and who later resigned with me from the ACMD say it's not an illegal drug, but the Home Office say it is, so he’s got to wait a year to get a Schedule 1 license.
There are non-hallucinogenic derivatives of LSD, like 2-Bromo-LSD, that may cure cluster headaches – a terrible, terrible illness. We believe that it's outside the act. It’s not psychedelic, so why would it be controlled? But the Home Office takes the view that, because it’s got LSD in its name, they’ve got to control it.
That's must be frustrating for you.
It's more frustrating for the people who are suffering. I got an email last week from a guy in Texas saying, “I suffered so much from cluster headaches that my son offered to kill me.” He said, “I now live in Mexico because in Mexico they allow you to use mushrooms for health reasons.” He was empowered to do that, but most people aren't. And I just hate to see suffering based on these lies about the drugs being too harmful to use.
People with multiple sclerosis rely on their partners to buy or grow cannabis because they can’t get out in the world and find a dealer. What the police do is bust someone’s house, smash the door in and find a cannabis plant or two. They prosecute the person with multiple sclerosis for possession, they prosecute the partner who’s growing it for supply, then they freeze their assets. It’s absolutely obscene.
It is. Lastly, can you clear up the Daily Mail’s recent suggestions that you’re in some conspiracy with Amanda Feilding to legalise all drugs?
Her Beckley Foundation is a registered charity that funds research on illegal drugs, so they fund some of our research. But the idea that Amanda Feilding is somehow controlling me is more absurd than the idea that I wouldn't stand up and speak my mind to the Home Secretary.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea
More stuff about drugs: