Tuesday, 11 December 2012

David Nutt on drugs

David Nutt has been writing about drugs in The Guardian again. As usual, his ostensibly pro-liberalisation article is mainly an anti-alcohol polemic.

There are several reasons for people choosing to try drugs. For "legal" drugs particularly alcohol and tobacco that most people find unpleasant to start with, the choice to use is largely driven by fashion, manifesting through peer pressure. With alcohol, the drinks industry has marketed less aversive mixtures (alcopops) to help people overcome the taste of alcohol. It also engages in massive sexually orientated advertising to induce use, much of this illegally targeted at underage drinkers via social media sites.

Nutt has bought the traditional temperance/anti-smoking line that people do things because those fiendish advertisers tell them to. There hasn't been any tobacco advertising in this country for a decade, of course, and people were drinking heartily in Merrie Olde England long before the advertising industry was born, but Nutt ignores all that because it doesn't fit his argument. Illegal drugs: good. Legal drugs: bad. (And why does he put the word 'legal' in scare quotes in the first line?)

In the UK last year half of all 15- to 16-year-olds were intoxicated on alcohol at least once a month, despite the drinking age being 18. This behaviour is de facto "illegal" though the government turns a blind eye, which means that many are addicted to alcohol before they are able to legally purchase it.

I don't know where the factoid about 15-16 year olds comes from—it sounds a little more sensational than the data I've seen in recent years—let alone the claim that "many" people are addicted to alcohol before they turn 18. Leaving that aside, it is not illegal for 15 and 16 year olds to drink. It is perfectly legal, de facto and de jure, for them to consume alcohol and so naturally the government "turns a blind eye."

But if people drink because of peer pressure, marketing and "fashion" (it's been in fashion for a very long time now, hasn't it?), why do people take drugs? The clue is in the headline 'Drugs are taken for pleasure – realise this and we can start to reduce harm'.

In some cases illicit drug-taking is about challenging authority, but in most cases it's about psychological exploration, often driven by positive comments and encouragement from friends.

"Driven by positive comments and encouragement from friends" sounds very much like "peer pressure" to me, but "peer pressure" has negative connotations and so the professor only uses it in reference to the demon drink. Where now is Nutt's outrage at the state's failure to stop people taking drugs? Only a few sentences earlier he was bemoaning the government's tendency to turn a blind eye to young people breaking a law that does not actually exist. One does need to be Peter Hitchens to see that the Misuse of Drugs Act could be more rigorously enforced when it comes to petty possession, so why does Nutt not demand tougher sanctions? Could it be because upholding the law is not, in fact, his real aim?

Moreover, does it not also make sense to view underage drinking and smoking as a way of "challenging authority"? Apparently not, because the teenager drinking at a party is a victim of the advertising industry whereas the teenage amphetamine user is a brave challenger of authority on a psychological journey.

What muddle-headed, starry-eyed nonsense this is. People take drugs for exactly the same reason they smoke and drink—because they offer a shortcut to pleasure through chemistry. How dispiriting it is that one of the country's best known (putative) liberalisers regurgitates rhetoric from the neo-prohibitionists (and, indeed, the classical prohibitionists). The whole point of an evidence-based drugs policy is that you leave prejudice and cultural baggage at the door. This is what Nutt claims to do in his work and yet his emotional involvement in the issue prevents him from doing so.

If this is a liberaliser, give me a prohibitionist.


Curmudgeon said...

Entirely agreed - but, as you say, the actual headline is spot on.

Michael J. McFadden said...

"massive sexually orientated advertising to induce use, "

I've been wondering how long it would take the Puritans to start this particular slam at the alcohol industry. Now let's see how long it takes them to push for bans on showing alcohol images or putative alcohol drinking in films or on television.

P.S. Odd that Nutt didn't include caffeine (coffee) with alcohol and tobacco... maybe his thinking just isn't "advanced" enough yet?

nisakiman said...

"People take drugs for exactly the same reason they smoke and drink—because they offer a shortcut to pleasure through chemistry.

Succinct and accurate.

The sooner people accept that spiking the pleasure receptors is not aberrant and depraved behaviour but a very normal human desire (which has been with us since the dawn of mankind), the sooner we can get to a sensible position on all recreational drugs.

James MacLochlainn said...

Please note that Dr Nutt holds a patent for an alcohol replacement product.

Michael J. McFadden said...

James, very interesting! Any details on that?


C.A.G.E. said...

Here you go Michael, he's been at it for a while. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6874884/Alcohol-substitute-that-avoids-drunkenness-and-hangovers-in-development.html


Michael J. McFadden said...

Thanks Iro. Very interesting!


Steve Wintersgill said...

Just done a quick patent search and there's nowt showing up for our Prof. Nutt - any more details James?

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