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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Politics of Psychopharmacology

It's always nice when a local boy makes good in the big wide world. Many British neuroscientists and psychiatrists have been feeling rather proud this week following the enormous amount of attention given to Professor David Nutt, formerly the British government's chief adviser on illegal drugs.

Formerly being the key word. Nutt was sacked (...write your own "nutsack" pun if you must) last Friday, prompting a remarkable amount of condemnation. Critics included the rest of his former organisation, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), and the Government's Science Minister. The UK's Chief Scientist also spoke in favour of Nutt's views. Journalists joined in the fun with headlines like "politicians are intoxicated by cowardice".

Even Nature today ran a bluntly-worded editorial -

"The sacking of a government adviser on drugs shows Britain's politicians can't cope with intelligent debate... the position of the Labour government and of the leading opposition party, the Conservatives, which vigorously supported Nutt's sacking, has no merit at all. It deals a significant blow both to the chances of an informed and reasoned debate over illegal drugs, and to the parties' own scientific credibility."
They also have an interview with the man himself.

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What happened? The short answer is a lecture Nutt gave on the 10th October, Estimating Drug Harms: A Risky Business? I'd recommend reading it (it's free). The Government's dismissal e-mail gave two reasons why he had to go - firstly, "Your recent comments have gone beyond [matters of evidence] and have been lobbying for a change of government policy" and secondly, "It is important that the government's messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them."

Many people believe that Nutt was fired because he argued for the liberalization of drug laws, or because he claimed that the harms of some illegal drugs, such as cannabis, are less severe than those of legal substances like tobacco and alcohol. On this view, the government's actions were "shooting the messenger", or dismissing an expert because they didn't like to hear to the facts. It seems to me, however, that the truth is a little more nuanced, and even more stupid.


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Nutt's lecture, if you read the whole thing as opposed to the quotes in the media, is remarkably mild. For instance, at no point does he suggest that any drug which is currently illegal should be made legal. The changes he "lobbies for" are ones that the ACMD have already recommended, and this lobbying consists of nothing more than tentative criticism of the stated reasons for the rejection of the ACMD's advice. The ACMD is government's official expert body on illicit drugs, remember.

The issue Nutt focusses on is the question of whether cannabis should be a "Class C" or a "Class B" illegal drug, B being "worse", and carrying stricter penalties. It was Class B until 2004, when it was made Class C. In 2007, the Government asked the ACMD to advise on whether it should be re-reclassified back up to Class B. This was in response to concerns about the impact of cannabis on mental health, specifically the possibility that it raises the risk of psychotic illnesses.

The resulting ACMD report is available on the Government's website. They concluded that while cannabis use is certainly not harmless, "the harms caused by cannabis are not considered to be as serious as drugs in class B and therefore it should remain a class C drug."

Despite this, the Government took the decision to reclassify cannabis as Class B. In his lecture Nutt criticizes this decision - slightly. Nutt quotes the Home Secretary as saying, in response to the ACMD's report -
"Where there is a clear and serious problem [i.e. cannabis health problems], but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that. I am not prepared to wait and see."
Nutt describes this reasoning as -

"the precautionary principle - if you’re not sure about a drug harm, rank it high... at first sight it might seem the obvious decision – why wouldn’t you take the precautionary principle? We know that drugs are harmful and that you can never evaluate a drug over the lifetime of a whole population, so we can never know whether, at some point in the future, a drug might lead to or cause more harm than it did early in its use."
But he says, there's more to it than this. Firstly, we don't know anything about how classification affects drug use. The whole idea of upgrading cannabis to Class B to protect the public relies on the assumption that it will reduce drug use by deterring people from using it. But there is no empirical evidence as to whether this actually happens. As Nutt points out, stricter classification might equally well increase use by making it seem forbidden, and hence, cooler. (If you think that's implausible, you have forgotten what it is like to be 16.) We just don't know.

Second, he says, the precautionary principle devalues the evidence and is thereby self-defeating because it means that people will not take any warnings about drug harms seriously - "[it] leads to a position where people really don’t know what the evidence is. They see the classification, they hear about evidence and they get mixed messages. There’s quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that public confidence in the scientific probity of government has been undermined in this kind of way." Can anyone really dispute this?

Finally, he raises the MMR vaccine scare as an example of the precautionary principle ironically leading to concrete harms. Concerns were raised about the safety of a vaccine, on the basis of dubious science. As a result, vaccine coverage fell, and the incidence of measles, mumps and rubella in Britain rose for the first time in decades. The vaccine harmed no-one; these diseases do. We just don't know whether cannabis reclassification will have similar unintended consequences.

That's what the Home Secretary described as "lobbying for a change of government policy". I wish all lobbyists were this reasonable.

The Home Secretary's second charge against Nutt - "It is important that the government's messages on drugs are clear..." - is even more specious. Nutt's messages were the ACMD's messages, and as he points out, the only lack of clarity comes from the fact that the government and their own Advisory Council disagree with each other. This is hardly the ACMD's fault, and it's certainly not Nutt's fault for pointing it out.

All of this is doubly ridiculous because of one easily-forgotten fact - cannabis was downgraded from Class B to Class C in 2004 by the present Labour Party government. Nutt's "lobbying" therefore consists of a recommendation that the government do something they themselves previously did. And if the government are worried about the clarity of their message, the fact that they themselves were saying that cannabis was benign enough to be a Class C drug just 5 years ago might be somewhat relevant.

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Nutt has said that he was surprised to learn that he had been sacked. I'm sure this surprise was genuine because Nutt is an academic, and in academia, Nutt's "criticisms" would hardly even be considered as such. Here by contrast is an extract from a peer review comment I got a couple of days ago regarding a scientific paper I wrote:
The manuscript falls short of its goals in several respects: The basic phenomenon ... is barely presented... The style and language of the review leave a lot to be desired... The citations and reference list are appalling.
The same reviewer also criticized the basic argument of my article, implicitly branding the whole paper - all 10,000 words of it, which took dozens of hours to write - a complete waste of time.

Ouch. But as an academic, giving, and receiving, this kind of treatment is all part of the job, and that's just as it should be. I'm confident that my argument is sound, so I'm going to take the criticisms on board, rewrite the paper appropriately, and submit it to another journal. What I'm not going to do is bear a grudge against the reviewer. (Well maybe a little: the references weren't that bad.) To be fair, unlike Nutt's, this review was not made in the public domain, but then, I'm not a Government elected by the public.

Nutt's mistake was to think that it's possible to have a serious debate about a serious political issue. In fact, it was probably not such a bad mistake, since the job of the ACMD, as the Government sees it, is a fairly pointless one: their job is to give expert advice and then let it be ignored. As various ACMD members have noted, they work for free, in the public interest. If I were on the Committee, I would resign now, not just out of sympathy for Nutt, but because it's a crap job.

In his dismissal letter, the Home Secretary told Nutt, "It is not the job of the Chair of the Government's advisory Council to initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs". I would have thought he was exactly the person who should do this if such a debate was necessary, as it obviously is. Well, now we know better. It wasn't his job. Although, thanks to the government who sacked him, a drug debate is now going on in the British media for the first time in years. In the long run, Nutt's most important action as Chair of the ACMD may well have been getting sacked from it.

[BPSDB]

ResearchBlogging.orgNature (2009). A drug-induced low Nature, 462 (7269), 11-12 DOI: 10.1038/462011b

Daniel Cressey (2009). Sacked science adviser speaks out Nature

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