The past week has been a big one in terms of breakthroughs in drug science. Perhaps the most well-known case is the recent revelation that LSD could be, in small doses, a viable treatment for anxiety and depression. Pharmacological science has never been more exciting, so why is it still so hard to get our hands on the drugs for research?
I had the pleasure of listening to psychiatrist Professor David Nutt, and he does a very good job of making it very clear the he knows what he is talking about. There’s about ten minutes of cutting jibes against David Cameron and just about every politician you can think of; it is hard not to notice that Nutt is still particularly bitter about being sacked by the Department of Health.
And he makes his message obvious: there’s just too much politics in drug policies.
The first ten minutes is a tidal wave of statistics, and it is really quite sobering stuff. There are four times as many tobacco-induced deaths per year than alcohol; there are less than 20 cannabis-rated deaths per year; the list goes on and on. Nutt tells us alcohol horror stories, perhaps the most notable being the death of Amy Winehouse who died of blood alcohol poisoning back in 2011. Where many other preventable diseases have been controlled effectively since 1970, deaths due liver disease have shot up exponentially and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for <44 year olds in the UK.
So if this is the case, then why aren’t we talking about it? Why is it that marijuana, a statistically ‘safer’ drug is illegal and alcohol isn’t? Why does this stigma around smoking cannabis exist when we are seemingly killing off our livers every Friday before Timepiece?
The answer isn’t particularly surprising, it’s all about the money, and there’s a lot of dollar in the drinks industry. Over the past 40 years, the cost of alcohol has halved whilst overall consumption has doubled along with drink-related disorders. Admittedly, Nutt’s language gets a bit dramatic and romantic at times, but I suppose I’d be pretty frustrated too if my life’s work was hindered by antiquated policies. But what about the weed though? Is there a scientific foundation behind the criminalisation of marijuana? What about its proposed links to neurological disorders?
The classic example is schizophrenia, a mental disorder that has reported had links to cannabis abuse. Despite this, where marijuana users have increased 20-fold over the past 40 years, we’ve actually witnessed a decline in cases of schizophrenia among cannabis users; bit strange for a drug that has historically been labelled as a confident cause of it, isn’t it? Nutt jokes that closest you’ll get to a schizophrenic episode is the hour or so after you’ve put a joint to your lips. Of course, this proves nothing. There is still a wealth of research to do in this area and that is why the decriminalisation of marijuana is so important.
Obviously, it isn’t just the pot that’s prohibited. Back in 2010, the drug Mephedrone was immediately banned, despite no knowledge of its pharmacology, due to a media uproar in response to two death reportedly related to abuse of the drug. Nutt’s talk takes an interesting turn at this point. With the help of a graph he clearly showed us that cocaine-induced deaths actually decreased with introduction of Mephedrone to the market and instantly increased again in the wake of its prohibition.
Nutt doesn’t provide a lot of answers, in fact, he only offers one: put the scientists in charge. It’s a bit of a hopeless plea, but Nutt makes his points loud and clear, correctly backed up by data. We can’t possibly learn more about the neurological impacts of these chemicals whilst they’re criminalised, you don’t need a graph to see that (although, if you did, Nutt has one of those too).
Mr Cameron, don’t do it for the stoners; do it for the science.