Professor Nutt’s new council

Returning to the subject of an earlier blog from last November… There must be more to Professor Nutt (sacked last November as head of the government’s Drug Advisory Council) than meets the eye, or finds its way on to radio or page.  He had in his recent spat with Alan Johnson the support of Colin Blakemore, one-time head of the Science Research Council.  How, I ask myself, can two such eminent men be so wide of the mark?  

Professor Nutt has now launched his new independent advisory panel on drugs. His interview on Five Live on Friday (15th January) evening showed how curiously out of touch with reality he is. In response to a call from someone running a unit for mental health patients, every one of whom had a link with previous cannabis use, he simply denied there was any scientific proof. The explanation seems to lie in different definitions of what harm entails. Alcohol causes more deaths than cannabis and LSD and ecstasy no doubt. But most of us don’t use death as the main criterion. We use impairment of mental faculties, anxiety, distress, inability to live an ordinary family or working life. There is also a wide spectrum of impairment, from minor difficulties to psychosis. The lack on the one hand of any awareness (he never speaks of it) of mental impairment together with the absence of any subtlety in his analysis is what is so worrying. 

Reversibility is another criterion I’d like to see discussed. Drying out at the Priory is one thing, tough as hell I’m sure, but alcoholism is an addiction and can be reversed if the will is there. For cannabis, whether or not it is addictive is not the issue. Rather it’s the connection with mental illness, which is so often irreversible.   

The irony for Prof Nutt is that his only supporter among the few who phoned in on Friday night was a regular user of cannabis these last twenty years. He hadn’t suffered, he said, apart from some impact on his sleep patterns… 

What this shows up is the danger of talking of ‘the science’ as explanation and justification of all things. So much depends on the criteria you use, what you include and exclude. Nutt excludes or downgrades a wide range of impacts in his analysis. He over-emphasises one impact, that of death, and is happy it seems to allow the press to pick up the misleading message it presents.  Nutt would of course dispute that he’s manipulating evidence, but that to my mind, and that of many others, is what he’s doing.

Blakemore, pre-eminent as a neuro-scientist, Nutt with pretensions to similar eminence, it seems to me have an overly mechanistic approach to the brain and to the mind,  and don’t have the understanding of the nature, subtleties and extremes of mental illness. It just can’t be calibrated or indeed dismissed as they would wish.

I’m not writing here with any great sense of certainty. But Nutt’s arguments fail to tie in with the experience of so many of us, and I’m trying to understand why that might be.

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