Last week Professor David Nutt, psychiatrist and director of the Unit of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, spoke at Det Akademiske Kvarter (the student culture house) in a Studentersamfunnet (the Bergen Student Society) organized event. This was a talk many students might have found interesting, whether they are studying to be health professionals, researchers, or just because they’re wondering how alcohol and other substances might affect their bodies.
Alcohol is a drug
Dr. Nutt has some opinions about the world of drugs and alcohol which may be controversial. His 2007 study “Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse” published in The Lancet, as well as a lecture pamphlet espousing his views that there is a disconnect between the scientific evidence of harmfulness and the legal classification of recreational drugs, eventually contributed to his 2009 termination from his position in Britain’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Some of his colleagues also resigned from the ACMD following his dismissal and together they founded the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, now known as DrugScience.
His presentation shared research which he seems to feel is undervalued or even ignored. This research seems to indicate that society has misconceptions both about the dangers of certain substances as well as the safety of more ubiquitous substances, such as alcohol and drugs. Nutt emphasized that alcohol and tobacco are drugs, they create chemical changes in the brain which change how a person feels, just like other substances. Their legality, however, has given them an air of safety and distanced their association with ‘drugs’. Nutt spent the first part of his presentation offering data which showed the relative harms of alcohol and tobacco versus other controlled substances. While he does not claim that there are never any harms involved in the consumption of some of the other substances he highlights including cannabis, MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD, he points out that the relative harms both for the person ingesting these substances as well as society at large, may be much more significant for commonly used substances like alcohol and tobacco.
Studies on the harms of a variety of drugs
Additionally, Nutt does not claim that there are no harmful illegals substances. His 2007 study clearly indicates that heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and street methadone, among others are harmful in its suggested ranking system.
A more recent study by Nutt and colleagues (November 2010) also in The Lancet ranking the harm done to user and society by a number of drugs, indicated that heroin, crack and methylamphetamine (crystal meth) most harmed individuals, but alcohol causes more societal harm than both heroin and crack.
In the presentation, he emphasized that he’s spent much of his career trying to help alcoholics recover and he feels he has failed in that mission, the treatments we currently have for alcoholism are not terribly effective. He showed an MRI scan of ‘the alcoholic brain’ compared to normal brains. There were essentially holes in the brain scans of alcoholics, large black areas. Terrifying if you really like craft beer. Although he is working on developing synthetic alcohol substitutes (complete with antidotes for safe drives home), he didn’t seem to be advocating for abstinence, he even enjoyed a beer in the break before questions. He did, however, actively encourage reducing alcohol consumption.
War on drugs
He also discussed some of the research which was interrupted by the ‘War on drugs’, and how the United States spread the ban of many substances by pressuring other countries to put in effect the same sanctions the US had in place. Ultimately he holds the view that politics, and the contributions of the alcohol industry to anti-drug campaigns which at times popularize drug myths are getting in the way of logic as well as scientific progress. He mentioned several studies which had shown promise in the past only to be abandoned in the face of categorization as as illicit, for example LSD’s potential for helping treat alcoholism.
He is the first to admit that long term studies on the safety and lasting effects of banned substances have not been done. We don’t have brain scans of people are long time consumers of psilocybin, for example. He seems most of all to want research on these substances to continue (it does seem to be reviving) both to determine if the substances that look promising hold any potential for benefits to society as well as to gather information about any possible harms which do exist.
Missed Dr. Nutt’s presentation?
Studentersamfunnet offers many events at Det Akademiske Kvarter which are free for Studentersamfunnet members, including Tuesday Breakfast Meetings on current affairs (Aktuelt), Popular Science (Upop) presentations (Tuesday evenings), Culture Wednesdays, and Debate Thursdays. Some of these are in English. Membership is only 50 kr per semester. There are no more English presentations lined up at the moment, but there is a jazz improvisation night tomorrow, Wednesday 15 April at 20:00, or if you speak Norwegian there are other upcoming events.
To find out more about Dr. Nutt’s research and opinions, read his book, “Drugs without the hot air”, which won the 2014 Transmission Prize for Communicating Science; a blog to which he contributes; or just follow him on Twitter.