The UK’s drugs policy has “gone backwards” in the past 10 years, representing a “litany of failure,” a former chief adviser to the government has said.
David Nutt was speaking at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of his dismissal as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, was sacked after stating that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. 1
His dismissal led to several other council members resigning and an outcry from leading scientists. Just a few weeks ago Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, resigned from the council after accusing the government of “political vetting” of members. 2
At his lecture at King’s College London, organised by the educational charity the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Nutt called for drug policies to be guided by harm reduction, not prohibition. He criticised the UK’s drug laws for not being evidence based and said he believed that the Misuse of Drugs Act was “immoral and illegal.”
Deaths in England and Wales related to drugs rose to a record high of 4359 last year, with the biggest annual increase (16%) since the time series began in 1993. 3
Nutt predicted that it was “very likely” that the UK would see an epidemic of fentanyl deaths, as had happened in the US. “Fentanyl is so cheap and very powerful,” he said. Dealers were increasingly mixing it with other drugs such as opioids and ecstasy, he added.
He called for regulated access to drugs and said that decriminalisation would be a good start. He pointed to the evidence from Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalised the personal possession and consumption of all drugs, including heroin. In the past 15 years opiate deaths have doubled in Britain, whereas in Portugal they were now a third of what they were before 2001, Nutt said.
He pointed out that alcohol was the leading cause of death of men under 50 and was likely to become so among women. He praised Scotland for introducing minimum unit pricing for alcohol and criticised England for “continuing to do what the drinks industry tells them to do.”’
Responsibility for drug policy should be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care, Nutt argued. He also called for more access to drug testing for consumers, such as at festivals; safe injection rooms; and a major roll out of naloxone to thwart the expansion of fentanyl misuse.
BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6323 (Published 31 October 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6323