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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 30th March 2012

As I was skimming through the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) first batch of written submissions on Wednesday, I noticed one submission that was taking great lumps out of Professor David Nutt for no reason other than that he has dared to say that policy should be based on evidence.

Just because, I decided to search for his name throughout the document and see how many times it appears and in what circumstances. By my count, his name appears a total of 83 times, though 14 of those are as part of references. 37 of the 182 submissions make reference to Professor Nutt. (To complete the maths, his name appears more than once in a number of the submissions.)

Of those 37, 35 are supportive of changes to existing drug policy. For nearly all of them, the treatment of David Nutt by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, in 2009 was a defining moment for illustrating how governments deal with scientific evidence. For anyone not familiar with that incident, Prof Nutt had made himself unpopular with politicians as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). After previously deciding to downgrade Cannabis sativa, marijuana, from Class ‘B’ to Class ‘C’ the Labour government decided to reverse the change. It has been rumoured that this was a deal between Gordon Brown and the Daily Mail but I expect we’ll have to wait many years to learn if there is anything in those rumours.

Unfortunately, for the government the law requires them to act on scientific evidence reviewed by the ACMD. That review concluded that there were no scientific reasons for re-classifying cannabis as Class ‘B’. Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, found a way to justify ignoring the science and went ahead with the reclassification anyway.

It was that event that made David Nutt a marked man as far as the Labour government was concerned but it was left to the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, appointed after Smith resigned when it emerged that her husband had charged TV pay per view items to the taxpayer, to find the excuse for dismissing Nutt.

Johnson, in spite of heading the department responsible for dealing with terrorism, demonstrated that he had no concept of what martyrdom could do for a cause. As evidenced by these HASC submissions, his treatment of David Nutt continues to shape public opinion about politicians’ lack of respect for evidence. Like so much associated with drug policy, politicians fail to see that attitudes created by it spread further into the whole of society. There is a general suspicion that ‘evidence’ presented by politicians has been fudged to suit a pre-existing agenda and that is true for policies like planning law or transport that, on the face of it, have nothing to do with drug policy.

The two witnesses that disagree with Prof Nutt are both hard-line prohibitionists who, by their irrational positions, reinforce the importance of the work of Prof Nutt and the ISCD.

The first is David Raynes. I blogged about his writing on 14th July 2011 and on 27th January I suggested that he was, probably, the author of the ‘Position Statement’ from The International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy. I say, probably, because no author was named on that occasion. That seems to be part of the way Raynes works. For the HASC, his submission is said to come from Pheon Management Services and begins with a summary of its main points before saying ‘The Writer…David Raynes’.

I just wrote that the termination of David Nutt’s position at the ACMD was the result of his falling out with Jacqui Smith. Raynes, however, clearly believes he should be given the credit for that;

‘He was the first person in the UK to point out publicly the inappropriate pro legalisation antics of Professor David Nutt when the Professor was on the ACMD and to call for him to consider his position, (or for government to do it for him). Professor Nutt was subsequently sacked by the Labour Home Secretary’

Raynes’ submission is as flawed as his other writings so I won’t trouble to comment any further.

The other ‘anti’ is Mary Brett. Mary Brett was a school-teacher. She is associated with the Centre for Policy Studies that gives Kathy Gyngell a platform and is/has been involved in various staunch prohibitionist lobby groups.

She continues to promote the disproved COMT gene theory of cannabis and, by so doing, demonstrates how little she understands of how people think. The COMT gene theory suggested that 1 in 4 people might be pre-disposed to be harmed by cannabis. It was only ever a theory, the original abstract talks of ‘suggesting’ a connection, and later work has clearly demonstrated that this is not so. Nonetheless, Brett clings to it because she believes that telling children there is a one in four chance of them being harmed by cannabis will deter them.

On 22nd October last year, I wrote;

‘There is a fourth thing, which is that health problems happen to other people. When I talk about smoking tobacco, I explain that, statistically, 50% of those who smoke regularly shorten their lives as a result but that, anecdotally, 100% of smokers believe themselves to be in the other 50%.’

Telling children that they had a 25% chance of being harmed by cannabis wouldn’t deter them because they would assume themselves to be part of the other 75%. If the COMT gene theory had been correct, I repeat it isn’t, but if it were the only responsible way to use it would be to offer testing as a prerequisite to obtaining permission to use cannabis. Any other approach would actually result in cannabis use increasing.

Indeed, one of the papers that disproved the gene connection concludes with the very sensible point (from the perspective of prohibitionists) that no-one can conclude they are safe from harm. You’d think Mary Brett would embrace that viewpoint.

It is very hard to critique her submission to the HASC without seeming to mount an ad hominem attack. Mary Brett may be an intelligent, responsible woman who genuinely believes what she writes but what she writes is so silly that pointing out the silliness may infer that the woman herself is silly. I don’t mean to do that.

Her ‘Executive Summary’ begins by complaining that the government consults the ACMD on drug policy and goes on to claim that ACMD information is ‘inaccurate’ and ‘sometimes wrong’. ‘Sometimes’? I wonder how information can be inaccurate and right. Since the law requires the government to consult the ACMD we must assume she is either calling for a change in the law or, more likely, a change in the personnel at the ACMD.

Clearly Ms Brett does not see the irony in saying ‘Children do not want to take drugs. They want reliable information to be able to refuse them.’ Before setting out all the unreliable information she believes should be force fed to children.

This blog entry is not intended to be a line by line dismantling of Mary Brett’s submission; that would be too easy and would quickly become tedious.

I’ll limit myself to what she has to say about David Nutt. She doesn’t like that the ACMD, when Nutt was a member, suggested that ecstasy should be downgraded from Class ‘A’ to Class ‘B’. She says that this contradicts the position of ‘the foremost ecstasy researcher in Britain, Professor Andrew Parrott of Swansea University’. The ACMD gave Prof Parrott 20 minutes to make his case. (Brett calls this a ‘mere’ 20 minutes but a scientist, speaking to scientists, can get a lot across in that time.) This comparison of the claims made by Prof Parrott and the findings of the ACMD by the BBC’s Mark Easton is interesting (as well as being an example of what science journalism should be about).

But Ms Brett doesn’t limit herself to criticising Prof. Nutt. She speaks out against the public funding of research by Professor Val Curran on the basis that he ‘is a member of Professor Nutt’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD)’. She is also critical of MRC funding for Professor Glyn Lewis who found that, ‘there is no certainty of a causal relationship between cannabis use and psychosis’, and assessed the risk of psychosis from cannabis use to be at worst 0.013% and perhaps as little as 0.003%.

In the world of Mary Brett and her ilk, government should only fund research that produces the results the government wants.

For a long time I’ve felt that many questions are followed by an unspoken statement. For example, if Mary Brett asked ‘Is cannabis harmful?’ that question would be followed by the unspoken statement ‘And there is a correct answer’.