I’ve just returned from (another) fantastic talk by Professor David Nutt. Below is a short interview I did with him on the future of drugs in the UK. (Click here for my review of a previous talk by Professor Nutt.)
Neurobonkers: Congratulations on your success in founding the ISCD! How has your role changed now that you work independently from the Government?
Professor Nutt: Well, one thing is for sure, it is much easier to say what you think. You don’t realise when you are working for the Government just how you align your thinking to theirs. There is always that subliminal pressure to give them the right answers so it is actually very liberating. The only problem is that I’m doing a lot more because now I’m doing this full time ISCD job as well as doing my academic work so I’m a lot more busy unfortunately… but for a good cause I hope.
Neurobonkers: How do you feel about the Government’s plans under the “Police Reform Bill” to remove from law the need for the quorum of scientists on the ACMD?
Professor Nutt: I must say I am a bit concerned about this. Their arguments are that the statutory number of people with particular positions like vets for instance was cumbersome. If the vet was sick they couldn’t make decisions but I think they’ve partly done it to make sure they can get the kind of decisions that they find most helpful because there are some key things that vets know about that other doctors don’t know about. We learned from the vets when I served on the council that there are quite a few drugs that are important to veterinary practive we could have banned without realising that we would have done a lot of harm to animal health. I think it is unfortunate that they are trying to change it, hopefully we will still be able to hold them to account but I am frightened science may be going out the window here
Neurobonkers: How do you feel about the media’s reporting or lack of reporting of these developments?
Professor Nutt: The media have actually had a very interesting role in the whole saga. Clearly there has been a lot of misreporting of issues relating to drugs but I think the media are wising up now. Some of the broadsheets are becoming a lot more balanced in their attitudes towards drugs and I think that we can with that section of the media have a really mature, sensible discussion and I think it’s only a matter of time eventually before the red tops and the lower end of the media begin to come in line. Because when you see some of the arguments that are out there in relation to the harms of drugs compared to the harms of alcohol any sensible person has got to reason that the costs of alcohol is so enormous that I think that in time things will swing. Also the internet of course has been a huge influence because that really opens the debate up very wide and you can predict that in ten or twenty years the internet will be where all the debates happen and most internet commentators are behind me and sensible policies.
Neurobonkers: What do you consider the impact to be on scientific progress of the recent changes in drug law with respect to analogues?
Professor Nutt: I have to say it is quite concerning for us to go on the route of analogue laws that they have done in the states, it concerns me for a number of reasons. One, of course it is arbitrary and may actually push people down in to a field of less known drugs that could be even more harmful. Also it interferes with medical progress, it stops the development of new treatments and also it potentially stops the development and the use of drugs as sources of pleasure that could be potentially less harmful than the ones we have at present and I’ll talk about this in my talk today in relation to mephedrone and related compounds. I am firmly of the view that we shouldn’t ban something until we know it is harmful.
Neurobonkers: The UK was one of the first countries to have made Mephedrone and its analogues illegal, what do you foresee the impact being as this ban is extended globally?
Professor Nutt: Well Mephedrone is a very interesting case because it was illegal in some countries anyway under analogues legislation and some countries such as Sweden and France did ban it before us but England was the first country in which it was widely used and then became banned and we now know that there is a recommendation to the European council that it be banned widely in Europe. I think like I said in answer to the previous question there are a lot of possible down sides to banning it. You may find that other drugs come along to take over the market or you may find that the ban does nothing at all because maybe the police can’t enforce the ban. I don’t know, it’s going to be a very interesting few years and we’ll see how things shape out.
Neurobonkers: Are there any urban myths regarding drugs that you would like to dismantle?
Professor Nutt: Well, there are so many myths about drugs, one thing we do at the ISCD is try to make people understand that alcohol is a drug and that is the most important one because that is the drug we should really be targeting in terms of reducing health damage and improving health outcomes.
Neurobonkers: Thank you very much David!
Nutt DJ, King LA, Phillips LD, & Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (2010). Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet, 376 (9752), 1558-65 PMID: 21036393
The paper that got the former home secretary in a huff:
Nutt, D. (2008). Equasy — An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms Journal of Psychopharmacology, 23 (1), 3-5 DOI: 10.1177/0269881108099672
The opium wars are arguably the darkest years of Britain’s history and coincidentally a huge segment of our legacy that is exempt from the British curriculum. Click below to play the fantastic, historically accurate “High Tea” flash game brought to you by the Wellcome Collection in which your task is to keep britain’s cravings for tea satisfied and keep your bank balance high by illegally pushing Indian opium on China! But before you do that, read on to refresh yourself on the back story!
A Whistle-stop Tour of The Opium Wars
In the early 17th century England was rapidly growing a taste for tea which we imported from the friendly people of China. England however had absolutely nothing to give the Chinese in return. (Partly because the Quing dynasty made it illegal to pay for export goods in anything but silver.) To solve this problem we rapidly turned the cotton fields we occupied in India in to poppy fields which could be reaped for Opium for illegal sale to the Chinese.
It wasn’t until 1890 that Bayer synthesised Heroin from Opium. The fact that we weren’t selling the Chinese heroin was not a moral imperative.
The Chinese dynasty was staunchly opposed to opium consumption and had made it illegal to posess since 1729 but this did not stop the chinese buying it or the British evading the Chinese navy to sell it. Things kicked off in 1839 when the Chinese Dynasty legislated that the import of opium would be punishable by death by which point two million Chinese were habitual users of Indian opium.
When the Chinese began seizing opium consignments Queen Victoria sent in the Royal Navy to settle the matter by bombing Chinese ports and vessels.
The first opium war only ended when in 1842 China signed the Treaty of Nanking which forced the Chinese government to pay Britain six million silver dollars for lost opium. The legal status of opium was unsettled however and there was a decade of black market trade.
The second opium war in 1856 lasted for two years and ended with the humiliating Treaty of Tientsin which legalised opium in China (and incidentally led to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty and the rise of the Communist party).
By 1879 6700 tonnes of opium was being sold to China a year but China had taken a new tact. China began to farm opium on a massive scale and by 1906 was producing 35,000 tonnes of opium per year, that was 76% of global opium production! In perhaps the greatest irony of all england was soon battling it’s own opium problems and propagandising against it with the “yellow peril” message that billed opium as a dirty Chinese vice!
After learning the ins and outs of the opium wars it makes you consider the “war on drugs” in a new light. Maybe that’s why the opium wars are one war we don’t teach our children.
What about today?
Opium trade today
There are endless parallels to be drawn between the opium wars and drug trade today. One undeniable case regards the US tobacco syndicates which successfully lobied the US government to force sovereign Eastern nations to abandon their trade embargos on US tobacco. In a stunning replication of a century and a half earlier in the mid 1980’s the US threatened a ban on textile imports from countries that would not accept tobacco. The effect was colossal with Japan falling in 1986, Taiwan in 1987 and South Korea in 1988. In two years US tobacco in Japan rocketed from the 40th to the 2nd most aired type of commercial. Even at the height of the opium wars, only 27% of China was addicted to opium. In contrast, the average Taiwanese smoked 80 more cigarettes in 1987 than in 1986. This in only one year at a time when it had previously been experiencing a downward trend!
Here in the UK, gangsters who run the major cannabis farms near exclusively employ individuals trafficked from East Asia, imported under lorries on the pretence of freedom in England. These people are employed as slaves, locked in houses without a key. A recent BBC documentary follows the police as they raid such a house and find a man imprisoned inside. He is promptly charged and sentenced to three years in UK prison before deportation back to Taiwan. The scale of this problem can not be assessed because as Ben Goldacre recently pointed out, UK criminal justice statistics are not available for academic analysis. One thing is clear, the illegality of drugs raises the fiscal incentive to push them exponentially. This is the reason drugs won the opium war and this is the reason the drugs are destined to win the war on drugs.
If you hadn’t already noticed, this piece is a final plug for the High Society exhibit at the wellcome collection in London that tells the history of drugs and is open for only two more weeks!
Chen, T., & Winder, A. (1990). The opium wars revisited as US forces tobacco exports in Asia. American Journal of Public Health, 80 (6), 659-662 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.80.6.659
The futurist, apolitical, underground blockbuster hit “Zeitgeist” is back for round three. With it’s characteristically mind bending visual effects and water tight logic it’s hard not to be blown away by the social commentary it provides and the case for progress it puts forward. So sit back, open your mind and prepare yourself for two hours and forty-four minutes of something else.
I stumbled across this rather witty cartooon about the Egyptian crisis, it sums up the problems that are to face the region wonderfully. The Boston Globe has recorded a pretty harrowing photo diary of the events that have been taking place there, it’s worth a look. Fingers crossed democracy pulls through. This week Louis Theroux released a fantastic documentary on the situation in Isreal, it’s definitely worth a watch. It really makes you realise how man made the problems the middle east is facing are, sadly that doesn’t mean they’re likely to go away any time soon.
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