UK In ‘Worse Position Than 10 Years Ago’ When It Comes To Drug Policy, Says Expert

A leading expert has slammed the UK’s drug policy and claimed that we are in a worse position now than we were 10 years ago.

Professor David Nutt has published over 400 original research papers, a similar number of reviews and books chapters, eight government reports on drugs and 27 books, including his most recent, Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health.

He is an expert on drug science and knows more about illicit substances than almost everyone on the planet. Which could be why he was sacked from his position as Chief Advisor of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in October 2009.

Worse now

Back the, Prof Nutt was upsetting the status quo by insisting that cannabis was less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco, and that it should be treated as such. 

“A decade later,” Prof Nutt writes in an editorial for Drug Science, “UK drug policy has done nothing but go backwards. We are currently in a worse position now than we were 10 years ago.”

“However, there is a path to a brave new world.” 

Harm reduction

Nutt is one of the scientists behind the graph below, which ranked 20 drugs (legal and illegal) against in terms of the harm they cause the user and their environment.

Working collaboratively, 30 experts looked at all the harms that drugs produce. They defined 1000s of harms that were  condensed into 16 different variables, 9 of which harmed the user, the remaining 7 harmed society. 

As you can see, cannabis is fairly low on the scale while alcohol is the most damaging drug looked at. 

Nutt says that “Although heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine all harm the user more than alcohol, however, by assessing both the harms to society and the user, we can see that the collective harm of alcohol is far worse than any other substance. 

“What this graph demonstrates is that, if we, as a society, want to reduce the overall harms of drugs we must prioritise the harms of alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine. 

“Furthermore, this graph demonstrates that the legal status of a substance is not based on its relative harms thus calling into question the scientific basis of both the UK MDAct1971 and the UN Conventions on Drugs.”

Using the same harm-estimating methods, Nutt and his team also concluded that nicotine-containing products, such as vaporisers, have a harm rating that is 95% lower than traditional cigarettes. 

If reducing harm is a government’s true goal, then Nutt says, when it comes to alcohol and cannabis, that his research shows a state-controlled model is routinely superior to absolute prohibition, decriminalisation or a free market.

Evidence-based drug laws needed

“A legal but strictly regulated market is judged to yield the best reduction in harm and highest benefit to society,” he writes. 

However, Nutt is clear in his views that there is “no relationship between the harms of drugs and their classifications under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or the various United Nations conventions on drugs.”

“…these laws and conventions are not-evidence based, they are based on morality and politics and are therefore failing at their legal duties.”

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Keeping cannabis illegal causes many problems, Nutt explains. Not least the fact that up to 90% of prisoners in the UK are routinely using synthetic cannabinoids. 

They’ve turned to these lab-made compounds, many of which had never been clinically tested on humans, because they don’t show up in drug tests, like real cannabis does. Furthermore, synthetic cannabinoids are far more potent and easier to smuggle into prisons.

“…these drugs are significantly more dangerous than cannabis from which there has never been a death in prisons. If prisoners were allowed to smoke cannabis in the first place, it is highly unlikely that they would have transitioned to synthetic cannabinoids.”

Halting research 

Nutt goes on to attack the Government’s policy to ban any substances that individuals are using recreationally. 

“There is a litany of drugs that have been banned despite having therapeutic potential and what makes things worse is that the current regulations make it almost impossible to research these substances to define their place within medicine. 

Professor David Nutt

“Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations deems substances to be very dangerous and have no special medical value and the regulations controlling these makes research with Schedule 1 drugs is virtually impossible.”


Nutt suggest a number of ways we can turn the tide on rising drug deaths and harm. They are as follows: Move drug policy from Home Office to Dept of Health and Social Services as the Home Office’s approach has been about banning and prosecuting rather than public health outcomes. This is not a new approach; many countries vest their drug policy within the hands of their healthcare departments.

  • Testing – and not just at festivals. The Dutch Modelis a national scheme whereby those that want to take drugs can get them tested beforehand so informing users and healthcare providers of the risks out there.
  • Safe injection rooms and massive role out of nalox- one to thwart the expansion of potent opioids especially the fentanyls.
  • Regulated access to drugs less harmful to users than alcohol as per the Drug Science MCDA
  • Rectify the scandal of medicinal cannabis. In over a year, the UK government only handed out 50 pre- scriptions for this drug, AND NONE ON THE NHS, which is nowhere near the amount of prescriptions needed to give patients the medicines that are most effective for them.

4 Comments on “UK In ‘Worse Position Than 10 Years Ago’ When It Comes To Drug Policy, Says Expert”

  1. Even David Nutt gets it wrong sometimes and quite obviously he has with this rash statement. UK drugs policy is a shambles but after the new medicinal cannabis regulations, to claim it’s actually worse than it was 10 years ago is poppycock.

    1. 50 prescriptions when there is probably 1.4 million in this country is hardly progress.
      Done as a publicity sop more than for genuine reasons methinks. Professor nUtt is on the right path and needs to be supported.

      1. 10 years ago, Philip, there were no prescriptions at all and apart from a very small minority of people involved in the campaign, there was no sympathy or understanding at all for people in your position. In fact, in 2010, a large majority of people would probably have said about you ‘lock him up and throw away the key’.

        We are a long way away from a satisfactory position but the progress in the last 10 years has been excellent. Public opinion has dramatically reversed and most MPs now support medicinal access and further reform.

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