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Cannabis News Roundup - Book Review: “Drugs - without the hot air”

David Nutt is the former chair of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He might still have that post if not for the horses.

In a rational (and non-political) examination of harmful activities, he noted that around ten people die each year in the United Kingdom while riding horses. And there are more than a hundred traffic accidents involving horses annually, some also resulting in death.
In the US, Nutt says, there are “approximately 11,500 cases of traumatic head injury each year due to riding.”

Those numbers are easier to come by than the number of people harmed solely by using the club-drug Ecstasy (for reasons he explains), so Nutt made an educated guess of perhaps 2,000 “serious but non-fatal injuries from Ecstasy every year,” a number he says is probably high. Far fewer ailments are linked directly to Ecstasy than those connected to riding horses – and no deaths -- yet Ecstasy is categorized as a Class A drug, the most dangerous.

This neutral assessment, while true, was not what Members of Parliament wanted to hear. So after chairing the ACMD for over a decade, Nutt was fired. (He remains president of the British Neuroscience Assn., and a vice president of the European Brain Council, among other posts.)  Nutt wrote this book is to show that making things illegal is not the only way to deal with them.

The book’s all-inclusive title obviously goes beyond cannabis, which is our interest here. A cleverly titled chapter  (“Cannabis, and why did Queen Victoria take it?”) shows the plant has three lives: as a widely used fiber (hemp), as “probably the world’s oldest medicine” (cannabis), and as a pleasure drug (marijuana). It’s now the world’s third most popular recreational substance, according to Nutt, after alcohol and tobacco, both of which are considerably more damaging to people than cannabis, even though it’s the only one that’s illegal.

Nutt makes clear that all drugs can be bad for you if not taken in the right conditions and in the proper dosage.  And cannabis strains available today are significantly more potent, and therefore more dangerous, than they were a few decades ago. Ease of availability also adds to the problems. It should be better controlled, he asserts, more in line with prescription pharmaceuticals. Banning use of the plant “is an odd way to have dealt with the problem,” since the harm of going to prison far surpasses that of ingesting cannabis. “Doctors have access to a wide range of other drugs with abuse potential, and we stop those supplies being diverted by having strict rules.” They should apply equally to cannabis, whether medicinally or recreationally.

But what about the children?  That’s always the question, and that’s Nutt’s final chapter, offering eleven clear-eyed statements that apply to all drug experimentation. A frank discussion, the earlier the better, may not prevent young people from trying drugs, but “at least they will better understand what they are doing.” And they’ll have the assurance of knowing they can discuss the issue with a caring adult when problems arise.

The author hasn’t always held these views. “When I first started working with the government,” he writes, “I thought that our drugs policies were broadly going in the right direction. As time went by … I came to the conclusion that the Misuse of Drugs Act is no longer fit for purpose and needed to be thoroughly revised.  The crucial point is that I changed my mind (his italics).”

Such willingness to change a long-held position after being presented with new or better findings is a required element in correcting policies that are outdated or misinformed. Professor Nutt’s objective book could help in clarifying misconceptions on both sides of the legalization debate.


DRUGS – without the hot air:
    Minimizing the harms of legal and illegal drugs
        by David Nutt

Published by UIT Press, Cambridge, England
    © 2012   www.uit.co.uk
Paperback, 368 pages

Available in USA from River North Editions, Chicago