Nutt’s “Dangerous” Views Fall Short of Radical

Professor David Nutt press conference

Former UK drugs adviser David Nutt, arguably most famous for being sacked  in 2009, has written a book on the subject of his expertise. Although Drugs Without the Hot Air was published last year, many may not be familiar with it, and it is notable for several reasons.

Firstly, Nutt continues to stand behind his research on the relative harms of various drugs, legal and illegal, research which was largely responsible for his sacking. He rightly argues that he was fired for simply doing his job, and that current drug policy is largely free from the influence of hard evidence, but readers are probably already familiar with this story.

Nutt also continues to defend the medical potential of certain currently banned substances, and does not limit this to the most popular of them, cannabis. He points out that MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, is highly effective in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; he cites one study which yielded an 83% success rate in essentially curing the condition, compared with a placebo success rate of only 25%. He mentions that there have been at least six studies showing potential for the psychedelic drug LSD as a treament for alcoholism, and also mentions cluster headaches, for which psychedelic drugs “seem to be the only effective therapy.”

The former drugs adviser admits that psychedelics “are among the safest drugs we know of;” specifically, “It’s virtually impossible to die from an overdose of them; they cause no physical harm; and if anything they are anti-addictive.” In a somewhat impressive display of honesty for a former government anti-drug official, he even points out a thoroughly non-medical benefit some people have gained from LSD. The drug has provided “moments of inspiration to designers, architects and engineers;” among others, he cites Nobel laureate chemists Francis Crick and Kary Mullis, both of whom “attributed some of their understanding and insights to it.”

Although he should be commended for all of these points in defense of a more sensible drug policy, the book also reveals that in some ways his thinking is far from libertarian. Indeed, as part of the chapter on smoking and the recent UK smoking ban, he engages in a brief and clumsy attempt to rebut libertarian attitudes toward drug use. The rejection of individual freedom here is based on a clear misunderstanding of what is meant by “freedom.”

He characterizes the libertarian view as a belief in “our right to be free from the influence of others.” According to this inaccurate characterization, it is easy to frame libertarians as out of touch with social reality, since no one can be subject to absolutely zero external influence. He goes on to claim that since people are subject to influences, including misleading ones, they never had this “freedom” to begin with, and so the government cannot be restricting it. “Firstly,” he claims, “you are only free to choose if you have correct information, and this means being free from false or misleading presentations of the benefits and risks of an activity. Advertising is always going to emphasise benefits and obscure harms, and so it confounds our freedom to choose.” In other words, because advertising for tobacco exists, people are so “confounded” by it that they cannot freely choose whether to smoke, nor can they find more accurate information for themselves. But as he fails to recognize, the actual issue of concern to libertarians is freedom from the threat of legal sanctions, and this is exactly what is restricted, by definition, by any government policy banning anything.

He continues with this line of thinking, repeating the conventional attitude that “you can’t make a free choice if you’re an addict. …addiction changes our brains and impairs our judgment….once your brain has adapted to the drug, your desire to [smoke] is mostly driven by the unpleasantness of nicotine withdrawal.” In other words, according to his illusory concept of “freedom from influence,” an addict is already far from being free, so we can safely deny that we are restricting him at all. In fact, we are protecting freedom by restricting it; “Protecting people’s freedom to choose must include taking steps to avoid addiction.”

Although drug addiction naturally influences people to continue using drugs, there is evidence suggesting that addicts are not necessarily the helpless slaves to a drug which Nutt repeatedly paints them as. He characterizes heroin withdrawal categorically as an unbearable nightmare, which an addict will do anything to avoid, and during which he will find it essentially impossible to avoid using heroin again if he has access to it. Yet in the same book, he admits that “Around 50% of the [American troops in Vietnam] tried opium and heroin, half of whom started showing sings of addiction,” but that contrary to the Nixon administration’s fears, “most of the USA soldiers using opioids in Vietnam stopped easily once back in the safety of the USA.”

He continues that “drug-taking isn’t an isolated, personal matter,” and can restrict other people’s freedom, using the examples of drunk driving and smoking in areas where other people would rather not be exposed to second-hand smoke. These affect “other people’s freedom to be safe on the road,” as well as their “freedom to choose whether or not to be exposed to your smoke.” But regardless of the merits of these more nebulous freedoms, the vast majority of drug use does not fit in either of these categories, and I doubt he would deny this.

Second, he continues with this odd conception of freedom by arguing that “the costs that are covered by public services” are an example of drug use infringing on the freedom of others, as the others would have to bear the tax burden of drug-related illnesses. “Tobacco addicts are also taxpayers, and while banning smoking in public places restricts them as smokers, it increases their freedom as taxpayers by releasing money from treating tobacco-related illnesses.” But inflicting costs on the public health system is simply an incidental risk of heavy smoking (or drinking) under the current system. Indeed, it could just as well be used as an argument against the National Health System, as he is implying that its existence justifies further government intrusion into people’s lives for their own good. It is neither an inherent attribute of drug use, nor even a common one for many drugs, as his own research shows.

He concludes his criticism of libertarian views by criticizing the late American novelist Ayn Rand. Although Rand’s philosophy was actually known as objectivism, and she herself repeatedly mocked those calling themselves “libertarian,” Nutt describes her as “one of the 20th century’s most famous libertarians.” He points out that she suffered from lung cancer, presumably caused by her smoking, and relied on Medicare at the end of her life. As he puts it, “many…proponents of this particular idea of freedom have found their own “free choices” have had consequences which have led them to rely on society for support.” There is no subsequent explanation of the significance of this for the legitimacy of libertarian attitudes themselves.

Presumably we are expected to assume that someone else’s bad decisions with regard to their health discredit the idea of individual freedom entirely. How exactly this is possible is left to the imagination; certainly no one denies that exercising one’s liberty implies accepting risks, so an example of someone freely making a self-destructive choice is neither surprising nor a convincing argument.

Her use of publicly-funded services when necessary is not a serious indictment of a philosophy of individual liberty either, nor would it be if every libertarian did so. Everyone can be said to benefit from some public service at some point if they so much as drive on the roads, but this does not mean that they agree with, or should agree with, the policy or philosophy behind such things. Pretending to “opt out” of public services might score rhetorical points among some, but ultimately it is hardly feasible to entirely disconnect oneself from the government without going to prison for tax evasion. If Nutt actually intends his comments as criticism of any libertarian who uses public services, his criticism is unwarranted.

He also makes a few basic errors of fact. He claims for example that acute effects of psilocybin, the main active chemical is so-called “magic mushrooms,” last for only 20-30 minutes; the actual figure is closer to 4-6 hours. Although such obvious errors in the book are rare, readers should not expect much greater intellectual rigor in the remainder of the book than was displayed in his critique of libertarianism. The book does offer basic summaries of many types of drugs, including the histories of their use and some of the relevant neuroscience, as well as relevant facts concerning recent anti-drug hysteria. But what is most interesting is just how far this book is from a libertarian view, how strongly Nutt still adheres to some of the mainstream government attitudes toward drugs, and yet how hostile the UK government has been towards him regardless. That this book is the writing of a man whose views are apparently still so “dangerous” that publicizing them got him fired from a top government position does not bode well for the future of drug policy in the UK.

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