Hysteria and hubris: lessons on drug control from the Scunthorpe Two

May 28, 2010

The announcement today of data obtained several weeks ago that the “Scunthorpe two” – the young men who supposedly died of mephedrone (meow meow, M-cat) poisoning – had not taken this drug raises a number of fundamental questions over the decision to make mephedrone a Class B drug just before the election.

The ensuing media hysteria over their deaths that was fuelled by the local police holding an international press conference was probably the tipping point in the decision to ban mephedrone, that was made by an incomplete ACMD in an intemperate and rushed manner.

At the time, it seemed unlikely that mephedrone was to blame as the two young men had been drinking heavily until the early hours of the morning and stimulants like mephedrone usually attenuate counteract to some extent the sedative effects of alcohol.

What appears likely is that they took some other sedative drug – probably methadone – which is highly dangerous in combination with high levels of alcohol.

It is too late now to reverse the government decision to make mephedrone Class B but we do need to learn the lessons from the debacle of its being banned. The main ones are:

1. That the police should not make pronouncements and certainly not hold press conferences on mere conjecture.

2. The media should wait for evidence and allow the scientific process to take place before claiming harms of new legal highs.

3. The government and their advisers should have the courage to face down media hysteria and let the truth evidence drive decision making.

4. Proper investment in the science of new drugs is required – we at the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs [www.drugscience.org.uk] are currently developing guidelines on the minimum data set that will be made public and should be acquired for any new drug before a decision to ban it is made.

5. There is a real need for a new approach to the drug laws; the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is forty years old, fatally flawed in its current classification system and not fit for purpose in this new internet-based environment in which it must be used; it needs fundamental revision or better still, a completely new approach should be taken.

6. The message must be conveyed to anyone who drinks and takes drugs that alcohol itself is very toxic (killing by acute poisoning, hundreds of young people each year through stopping breathing) and these actions are magnified when in combination  with other drugs that lower breathing. If you do consider taking drugs whilst drunk then avoid at all costs other sedative drugs such as opioids and GHB/GBL.

If the media, the police and the government are serious about reducing the real harms that  drugs are causing in the UK, they need to address the drug that is killing a young person every day purely through poisoning: alcohol. Until they do, no sense can enter the debate.

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9 Responses to “Hysteria and hubris: lessons on drug control from the Scunthorpe Two”


  1. David, I wanted to thank you for having the guts to stand up for what you know is right. I sincerely hope that the new UK government takes your advice. My thoughts on the issue are here: http://monicabarratt.net/?p=95

    It’s also fantastic to see a professor enter the blogosphere. I am a researcher and PhD student conducting illicit drug use research in Australia, and I began blogging in January, but have found few other researchers and scientists in this field are doing so. Welcome!

  2. Dr Grumble Says:

    Welcome to the blogoshpere, David, and thank you for making a stand for evidence-based policy making.

    We are, of course, backing a loser. Politicians are not daft but they will always do what is politically expedient. Anybody in their right mind must have known that the right thing to do in response to the unfortunate deaths of the Scunthorpe two was to gather the evidence and then decide what action, if any, to take. But the political imperative was to ban mephedrone to assuage the anger of Daily Mail readers who were about to go to the polls. There was never going to be much science or evidence in this. The headlines about the supposed cause of the deaths of these two young men were always going to be bigger than the ones telling the true story.

    Why the horse riding thing wound the politicians up so much I do not know. Out of curiosity I have read the paper and it would seem to me to be perfectly reasonable to try and create a yardstick against which the risk of recreational drugs can be measured.

    It is a very curious thing that all that damage that we doctors witness as a result of the taking of legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol causes remarkably little concern to politicians and the public. It seems to be OK to expose yourself to a high risk of killing yourself with a legal drug (or a horse) but not OK to expose yourself to a lower risk, sometimes much lower risk, of killing yourself with an illegal substance. Why should that be?

    It does all rather baffle Dr Grumble.

    It is an honour to have someone of your stature join us in the blogoshere. Welcome once again.

  3. James Phillips Says:

    Many thanks for taking such a position in this absurd ‘war on drugs’. We need more voices of reason and science.

    I personally always found it baffling that the following was never pointed: Of the hundreds of thousands of people likely to be taking Mephedrone on that weekend up and down the country, the two who very unfortunately lost their lives whilst ‘using’ the drug happened to have been taking it together, presumably from the very same same source. Surely on that mere point it should have been clear that other causes of death needed to be considered due to the odds of two deaths occurring together being so low?

    The entire thing is an argument for regulation – if they had indeed taken alcohol and methadone together, they should have been made aware of the dangers of doing so and that is far easier to achieve in an open system where there is no incentive for scaremongering. In such a situation, young people like myself will be able to trust the advice they are given, something that currently does not happen. Its all presumed to be propaganda and not sincere advice.

  4. CommunityCriminal Says:

    Dave many thanks for the stand on this most important of issues.got to say i saw this coming a few years ago aid that synthetic drugs that simulate cocaine speed and other amphetamines were only around the corner. I hope by the time my grandchildren 0 and 3 years old get to the stage in life were these recreational choices are made that they can buy safely with real QA and support for the product just like every bottle of scotch has now.
    But all i can see now is an advancement in synthetics with either a new branch into gene coding or actual bacterial life Cynthia being the first purpose build cell imagine the drug factory you could fit in one of them and then sell a legal food for it…….. maybe some of this is possible now maybe not but it will arrive just as the old 286 personal computer turned into the 386 and so on until intel 8 core processors.
    Drugs are now just software for the brain and nervous system are they not ?

    Synthetic alcohol is just software for the receptors which unlike ethanol leaves receptors intact?

  5. jccoh Says:

    Is the research still continuing on synthetic alcohol? There was so much publicity about it in the new year then all went quiet. I read that there may be a problem with funding but I am not sure if that is correct.

  6. CommunityCriminal Says:

    UPDATE 2-Britain approves GW Pharma’s cannabis drug Sativex
    | Reuters
    http://www.reuters.com
    * Drugs regulators MHRA says Sativex granted British licence * GW in line for 10 mln pounds milestone payment from Bayer * Shares up 11 percent at four-year high

    does this mean that MODA71 needs amending?

  7. admin Says:

    David Nutt:
    5. Jcoh – The research on synthetic alcohol is ongoing and I have had interests from several brewers who feel that this may be the way forward in the long term! We are currently looking at candidate molecules and hope to begin some human studies next year.

  8. jccoh Says:

    Excellent news regarding synthetic alcohol. I would love to see this become a reality in my lifetime. I think history will view you very kindly prof Nutt.

  9. Noelle Conti Says:

    Mr. Nutt are you available tomorrow (Wednesday)between 2:00 and 2:30 PST (US/California) for a live interview on NPR affiliate KPCC in Southern California? Please email me if you are. Thanks, Noelle


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