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UK Does Not Want to Discuss Drug Law Realities, Says Former Chief Adviser

Amid a row over a government study which found strict laws did not reduce use, a leading neuroscientist tells VICE News that Britain's ruling politicians are only interested in appearing tough on the issue.
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British drug laws are "arbitrary" and policy makers work in a "black hole where thought disappears and rhetoric emerges," the UK's former chief drugs adviser has said, amid a row over a government study which found no evidence that a tough approach reduces use.

Last week the British crime prevention minister, Norman Baker, resigned from the Home Office after an internal dispute over a report the department had commissioned on the impact of drug laws. Explaining the move, he said there was little support for "rational evidence-based policy" within the government.


Responding to Baker's resignation in an interview with VICE News, leading neuroscientist David Nutt said the ruling Conservative Party was only concerned with presenting the image that it was tough on drug use.

"The Tories do not want to discuss drugs," he said.

"All they want is the mantra 'We are winning the war on drugs'. That's all they are interested in.

"They do not want a discussion on drugs for a number of reasons. One is they'd lose the argument. The second is that senior Tories have got rather spectacularly interesting drug histories."

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Baker, a member of the Liberal Democrats, which is the junior partner in the ruling coalition, said that the Conservatives had for three months "suppressed" the Drugs: International Comparators report, which found there was no evidence that tough enforcement of laws on personal possession leads to lower levels of drug use.

The former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Nutt was sacked from his home office advisory role in 2009 after repeated clashes with the government over drug policy. Referring to Baker's resignation, he said: "I kind of thought, if the minister himself cannot effect change, I was pissing in the wind wasn't I? It sums up the problem. Scientists can't make things change, politicians can't make things change. This is a monolith."

In an interview with VICE News, Nutt added that policymakers within the Home Office attempted to "dilute" the drug reports he authored during his tenure as chief drugs advisor.


He said: "Going in the Home Office is like going to a black hole where thought disappears and rhetoric emerges and the ministers just get consumed by it. You can see with Baker. You'd think you could change things, but you can't. Because they don't want to change."

Nutt added that Home Secretary Theresa May "will not open her mind to a sensible drug policy at all because she thinks that the Daily Mail will then turn against her," referring to the conservative-leaning tabloid that is one of Britain's best-read dailies.

Giving the government-commissioned drug report his backing, Nutt said that it "shows that basically what we're doing is clearly out of step with progressive thinking."

The UK's "arbitrary" drug policies "were never based on any principles or any systematic evaluation of evidence," he added.

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Nutt, a leading drugs researcher who has just completed the first ever brain-imaging study of LSD, was the recipient of last year's John Maddox Award for promoting science on a matter of public interest in the face of hostility.

A Home Office spokesperson told VICE News: "This government has no intention of decriminalising drugs.

"There are positive signs that our drug strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.

"It is right that we look at drugs policies in other countries and the International Comparators report summarizes a number of these international approaches."


What an evidence-based drug policy would look like, according to Nutt
In his interview with VICE News, the former government adviser outlined his proposals for reformed drug legislation and regulation. This would include the decriminalization of possession and the introduction of a personal allowance for some drugs, with a fine or mandatory community service for those caught with larger amounts, and a blanket ban on marketing or advertising. There would be regulated access to stimulants such as MDMA and mephedrone with a view to curbing the use of more toxic drugs such as cocaine.

Cannabis - Sold over-the-counter in pharmacies or licensed coffee shops. Up to 5g unregulated for personal possession.

MDMA - Sold in pharmacies over-the-counter with regulated access, and an annual limit of e.g. 50 doses for personal use.

Ketamine - Preferably unavailable, but otherwise strictly regulated as a pharmacy-only medicine in limited amounts, with a daily maximum of 1g.

Cocaine - Preferably unavailable.

Crack Cocaine - Preferably unavailable.

Alcohol - Brought back as a licensed drug — i.e. only available to buy in pubs or other licensed premises, and not available from supermarkets.

Heroin - Available on prescription only (as it currently is).

Psilocybin/LSD- Sold in pharmacies over-the-counter with regulated access and an annual limit.

NBOMes (synthetic psychedelics) - preferably unavailable.

Khat - unregulated access.

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @BenBryant