in Drugs and drugs policy

Ecstasy and Jacqui Smith

There’s been a fuss in the press and in Parliament this month following a report on ecstasy from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and a similarly themed article in Journal of Psychopharmacology by ACMD chairman.

The ACMD’s report made an evidence based recommendation that ecstasy be downgraded to ‘Class B’.  With ‘A’ being the worst, illegal drugs are graded in terms of their harmfulness which informs their illegalness.  The ACMD judged ecstasy not sufficiently harmful either at a personal or societal level to warrant inclusion with the Class A big boys (heroin etc.); alas the UK Home Secretary has chosen to ignore this advice, as she did with similar advice regarding cannabis

At almost the same time David Nutt, chairman of AMCD, wrote an article entitled Equasy – An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms.  In it he makes up an addiction, to that of equine sports, which has a similar hazard rate to ecstasy use and draws parallels between attitudes to ecstasy use and those to horse riding. Given the subsequent fallout, it’s as if he engineered the reaction specifically to illustrate his point.

Here’s Professor Nutt:

‘The general public, especially the younger generation, are disillusioned with the lack of balanced political debate about drugs’

And Jacqui Smith

I’m sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking.  For me that makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs.

(Smith’s thought process: I find what you say unspeakable, therefore it’s unsayable, therefore you are wrong)

Nutt’s article is sensible and clearly reasoned about the risks we take in our society and how our judgement of them is informed by society’s wider stance on whether they are worthy or not.  In the case of horse riding it’s thumbs up, and ecstasy, thumbs down.  Maybe on balance this is how it should be but Smith’s retort is knee-jerk and lacks nuance or any intellectual flexibility.  A thoughts comes to mind: sometimes, during a particularly exasperating consultation, I say something like ‘look, people come here and ask me what I think.  So I tell them and then it’s up to them to go away and consider what I’ve said and whether they agree with me about the best way forward or not; sometimes they decide to do what I think is a good idea, and sometimes they don’t’.   This, perhaps, is how David Nutt and the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs must feel.

Previous: Cannabis and Jacqui Smith



Jacqui Smith slaps down drugs adviser for comparing ecstasy to horse riding Guardian February 9 2009
Drugs adviser says sorry over ecstasy article Guardian February 10 2009
Home secretary accused of bullying drugs adviser over comments about ecstasy BMJ February 13 2009

Taking ecstasy no more dangerous than riding a horse? – Before you take that pill
(note this statement as an example of relativism: ‘…something creepy about comparing deaths from drug use and horseback riding. I mean horseback riding is a healthy and uplifting activity, while drug usage, even if it doesn’t kill you, drags you down into lower levels of spiritual and mental functioning’
Psychiatrist Says Ecstasy Less Harmful Than Horse Riding, Controversy Ensues – Furious Seasons

Horizon: Britain’s most dangerous drugs

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  1. I totally agree with you here. Quite clearly Smith’s position is based on normative middle-class considerations of what is acceptable and ‘worthwhile’ behaviour in society, no doubt influencing her biased reading of the facts about drugs.

    It’s utterly irrational and completely anti-intellectual of Smith to take this stance towards Nutt. This third refusal* to consider the scientific facts and verdict from an Expert Committee on mental health matters demonstrates yet again the tabloid level of sophistication this government seems to operate at.

    *The first I know of was in regard to recommendations for capacity0based mental health legislation – Prof Genevra Richardson’s 1999 committee – and the second was in relation to cannabis. I expect there are probably more.


  • David Nutt resigns « February 25, 2009

    […] not the first time Professor Nutt has landed himself  in trouble with a Home Secretary;  he was severely reprimanded by Jacqui Smith in March 2009 following publishing an article which compared the dangers of using […]