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Saturday, February 14, 2009


Politricians Refuse Scientific Advice (news at 11)

It's a familiar story, distinguished scientist publishes report for government, government ignores report. On in this case, both the government and opposition are attacking the scientist in question, one MP demanding his resignation. The scientist in question, Professor David Nutt of the University of Bristol. Now I know David, having met him at conferences (he probably doesn't remember me, even though we are in the same receptor society), and he is a nice bloke, and a good scientist.

What is the report that has caused such vituperative offence? He has the temerity to recommend, based on the best scientific evidence available, that Ecstasy be down-graded from a Class A drug to a Class B drug. Note that, not "Ecstasy is safe" or that Ecstasy should be decriminalised, but that it be put into a category more appropriate to the level of harm it causes. The home secretary wants David to apologise stating "...that his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the [council]". In other words, he didn't tell the home secretary what they wanted to hear.

Now people get passionate about drugs, the levels of emotion can rise high and swamp all logic. Ecstacy is associated with harm. In the UK, Ecstacy use [1] is associated with about 17 deaths per year. But to put that in perspective, in one year in the UK 500 people died from taking paracetamol. Actually, thats misleading, but then, so are the artilces that emphasise the absoulte number of deaths. Which was the point of presenting it this way. You should express the deaths in terms of the number of users. For paracetamol thats 3.1 deaths per million, and for Ecstacy its 27 per million. So Ecstacy is only 10 times more lethal than a common drug that can be obtained without prescrition. Put it anotherway, take Ecstacy, and you have a 0.003% chance of dying[2].

There are other harms associated with Ecstacy use, and the possibility of long-term damage, but the point is that the best available science shows that Ecsatcy is just not a Class A drug like Herion in tems of its harm (see here and here and here for a nice image of compartive harms). Read the report here. See also Davids article on "Equasy" to give you another handle of comparative harms.

The UK government wants to maintain ecstasy's class A status to avoid giving any impression that the drug is safe. But it is clearly not a Class A drug, and downgrading it to class B will not give the impression it is safe. The young adults who take these drugs are not stupid, and know that the government is exgaerating the risks, and will be more likley to ignore government advice. That can only be a bad thing for rational drug policy. The UK goverment should start by actually listening to what David has to say.

[1] Or at least ingesting tablets that people thought were Ecstacy, some of the deaths in Australia have been linked to contaminants, and in some cases the "Ecstacy" tablets were something else entirely.
[2] Risk perception is a tricky thing, obviously, if you are taking a drug to cure a life threatening illness, a small chance of drug related harm is acceptable. But if you are taking a pill just to make you happy one should expect a very low risk of harm, but how low. Is 0.003% chance of death low enough if it's your child taking the drug? (some people think drugs should have zero risk of harm under any circumstances but that is just not possible, any drug that actually does something physiologically, and has any effect, has a chance of interacting badly with the quirks of peoples metabolism). Even so, exagerating the risks of these drugs, and villifying researchers who point out a more rational assessmnet, is a stupid thing to do for a government.


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