Macho madness over cannabis: flawed drug policies in both hemispheres

October 14, 2010

[Updated 26 October 2010]
I spent a week over the summer lecturing in New Zealand where I had the chance to speak with a number of politicians, lawyers and health professionals who were engaging in a review of their drug and alcohol laws under the leadership of their Law Commission. This independent body has made sensible recommendations that would reduce drug and alcohol related harms by providing more just laws but is experiencing a similar stonewall response from their government as we have from ours in the UK.

I had assumed that New Zealand was a land of mature attitudes and common sense and so was surprised to discover that pro-rata New Zealand  has a greater proportion of its population in prison than we do [2 – v – 0.15%] and a greater conviction rate for cannabis possession [roughly 30 per thousand –v- 25 in the UK]. The current government [National Party] is conducting a policy of increasing police interventions and building more prisons to deal with the increase in criminals, seemingly oblivious that much of the “crime problem” is of their own making. Hopefully they won’t reach the absurd position of the USA where over 0.7% of the population is imprisoned, mostly for drugs and other minor offences that have statutory sentences e.g. a 3rd cannabis conviction can lead to someone spending the rest of their life in jail [The Economist 24th July 2010].

Why does any country criminalise the personal use of cannabis?  The fundamental purpose of the law is to optimise the quality of life in society and justification for drug laws is usually couched in terms of reducing personal and social harms from drug use [e.g. the UK MDAct 1971]. So does criminalising cannabis users reduce harms?  Of course not, especially if we take into account the proven harms that a criminal record brings. Moreover the huge costs of policing and criminalisation are economically damaging.

The MDAct was brought into law in 1971 yet since then cannabis use in the UK has increased 20 times [Rawlins et al 2008] despite heavy sanctions of up to 5 years in prison for possession for personal use, and increasing numbers of convictions to 160,000 per year [Lloyd and McKeganey 2010]. But have cannabis harms increased with the increase in use? The UK government’s figures for hospital admissions for cannabis related illness suggest about a thousand per year [Rawlins et al 2008]. In contrast, alcohol use which has about doubled in the same 40 yr period  is associated with and rising epidemic of harms that lead to over 1million hospital episodes in 2009 [NHS statistics].

There has been much media concern over the increase in schizophrenia that cannabis is supposed to be causing yet this 20-fold increase in use has not been accompanied by an increase in either schizophrenia of psychosis, whereas the 2 fold increase in alcohol intake has lead to death rates from liver disease increasing year on year [Leon and McCambridge 2006 Lancet] so that within a decade, liver deaths will outnumber deaths from heart disease so becoming the biggest killer in the UK .

Given the harms of alcohol are much greater than those of cannabis, why do so many countries persist in the prohibition/criminalisation route for cannabis users? This is particularly relevant because of the growing evidence from a number of countries e.g. The Netherlands [cannabis in coffee shops], Australian states [decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use] and Portugal [abolition of criminal sanctions for personal use of all drugs ] are viable policies that have major public health benefits – and are also more just. The answer is complex reflecting a mixture of ignorance denial and deliberate obfuscation on the part of policy makers. However an important factor is the macho model of politics initiated by the USA/UN “War on Drugs” which deludes many politicians into believing that being “hard” is necessary and a voter-winner, a view they hold even in the face of contradictory public opinion [Nutt 2009].

Sadly, I found this attitude just as prevalent in the New Zealand parliament as in the UK, where in 2009 the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson famously said in the House that he was “big enough, strong enough, bold enough” to sack me for saying cannabis was less harmful than alcohol. We need voters to make it clear to future MPs and political leaders that policies based their desire for political machismo rather than evidence will not be acceptable.


37 Responses to “Macho madness over cannabis: flawed drug policies in both hemispheres”

  1. Jez Weston Says:

    Thanks for a very interesting talk in Wellington. Looking around the audience, I was surprised by the number of policy analysts present, but not by the lack of politicians.

    One minor point about your comments – the prison populations are out by a factor of ten. For NZ, it is 0.15% not 1.5% (, the numbers for the UK & USA are similarly out.

  2. Steve Rolles Says:

    I dont think the 7% US prison figure is correct. the prison population is about 2million which is nearer 0.7%. You get figures approaching 7 for some populations (like young black males) but not the total population.

    I think the UK % stats are similarly too high (90K prison popn, 60 million total population). Not sure re NZ.

  3. Paul Ivetic Says:

    I find it totally bizarre that in the London borough that I work in they are regularly giving DRR’s to cannabis users.

  4. Alex Says:

    Sadly, in the Netherlands they are thinking of reversing, or at least tightening, their policy. I can sympathise with Dutch people who do not want to be associated with a supposedly sex and drug obsessed culture, and drug tourism certainly brings its problems, but they should realise it’s the rest of the world’s problem more than theirs.

    • Live Mic Says:

      I think the Dutch are thinking of coming in line with Europe who say they are thinking of taxing and controling and its a rediculous system anyway. there is no maedicinal knowledge in Holland and the strains available are very minimal. the world neds to truly embrace the full culture of canabis and hemp… ASAP.

      and if the dutch dont like the sex side of things, what has that got to do with cannabis? I dont believe for a minute that Dutch law will change that dramatically.

  5. Marcus Says:

    ” …the USA where over 7% of the population is imprisoned…”

    It’s actually more like 0.7%:

    And the Economist article you cite says one in 100…


  6. Tim Kendall Says:

    Dear Prof. Nutt

    We all know that cannabis is an effective pain relief for MS sufferers, to give one example of many.

    Is there any medical evidence for the benefits of cannabis for keeping off alcohol? My personal experience tells me this is so.

    I think there is a strong possibility for use of medicinal cannabis in this field.

    The drinks and pharmacutical companies won’t like it though!

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Peter Reynolds Says:


    It is immensely valuable to have this evidence published by such an authoritative figure as yourself. There is a momentum at the moment based around the outcry on the Your Freedom website, Proposition 19, the new drugs strategy due in December and the recent news of legal prescribed medicinal cannabis. Your words are gold dust for journalists and ammunition for campaigners.

    If it is true that Portuguese sources and the Beckley Foundation have been consulted about the drugs strategy then there may be real cause for optimism. Certainly the news of legal medicinal cannabis under European law revels the absurdity of British law more than ever.

    Let us hope that this momentum can create some real change.

    Legal Medicinal Cannabis In Britain:

  8. Great piece Professor Nutt.

    If this was a debate on health and science, there is no question we would have sorted this out along time ago. It is such a shame that, not only is politics clogging up progressive ways ahead, but it is actively fighting them while repeating the same rhetoric AND ignoring all advice from people like yourself, Professor Pertwee, Sir Ian Gilmore (just to mention a few).

    Any other subject matter, and this support would be enough to at least open a debate, the fact it hasn’t just goes to show that there is something awry.

    It’s also noteworthy that senior health professionals are urging regulation. This also speaks volumes.

  9. Mark A. Says:

    “We need voters to make it clear to future MPs and political leaders that policies based their desire for political machismo rather than evidence will not be acceptable.”

    Thats what we tried to do and look what the coalition government is planning, more of the same. What ever happened to the Lib Dems revolutionary drugs policy?

    • Couldn’t agree more with you there on both points Mark A.

      The “Your Freedom” crowd sourcing site was a case in point.

      I too agree that, as voters, we need to be heard, regardless if you use cannabis or not, this issue needs addressing quickly. There is a lot of public support out there, many of us making a noise at the harms of prohibition. The UK has been a bit backward in coming forward wherever cannabis is concerned, there is a genuine right wing media phobia it is clear to see.

  10. Paul Oldham Says:

    To re-iterate what others have said here all your prison population numbers, although correct in proportion, are out by a factor of 10. The International Centre for Prison Studies has detailed figures which you can find here

  11. Jordan Gross Says:

    We need to look at profits that the drinks companies are making and the amount of money they spend lobbing governments around the world to keep Alcohol as the legal “drug of choice” for the masses. No one [at least not the same corporations] stands to make equivalent monies out of the legalisation of Cannabis, or indeed any other drug.

    Great article David.

    • Cad Says:

      “No one [at least not the same corporations] stands to make equivalent monies out of the legalisation of Cannabis …”

      During the 1970s/1980s, it was alleged (perhaps apocryphally?) that every major tobacco company had brand names and pretty much everything else ‘ready to go’ if and when cannabis became legal for sale in any country. I don’t know if that is still the case—if it ever truly was!

      So, and speaking as someone who worked in the head office of a major UK alcohol company for many years, if anyone is likely to ‘cash in’ on the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis, it would be most likely to be the tobacco companies in my opinion.

  12. Paul Ivetic Says:

    A DRR or Drug Rehabilitation Requirement is a probation order and replaced the old DTTO and was originally for problematic drug users who commit offences to sustain their dependence. This was typically just applied to Class A drug users predominantly heroin and crack.

    • Peter Reynolds Says:

      Strikes me as way of creating some sort of “evidence” that cannabis use is problematic/harmful. It’s the Stasi again

      • Paul Ivetic Says:

        The irony is as a practioner working with those type of Class A users I would be jumping for joy should they begin to use more cannabis and lots less heroin & crack.

  13. jimb0b Says:

    Well Professor Nutt… i could drone on and on about the utter farce of criminalising drug users namely cannabis users but i wont.

    What i will say is THANK YOU, your voice of reason and credibility is like light at the end of a tunnel for myself and probably MANY others out there.

    You need to be in the public spotlight a LOT MORE to help make the government address the ridiculous situation regarding cannabis.

    I recently saw your interview on sky news from 2009

    You OWNED!

    There needs to be more enlightenment like this with a tough stance against political points scoring vs scientific review.

  14. Jw Says:

    politicians implement prohibition with the notion it will reduce child drug abuse ,addiction and interrupt criminal activity by having no control or regulation ,putting in place no age limit and creating a criminal run multibillion pound, unregulated ,tax free ,recession proof black market industry that will sell anything to any age group at increasing public cost , there a joke in there somewhere lol

  15. Well said sir!

    I’m so glad someone of your stature has called politicians out on their out the sheer bravado and shallow machismo when it comes to drug policy.

    We need a David Nutt in the USA!

  16. Where can I find the ACMD report? It seems to have been removed from the Home Office webside. Can someone send it to WikiLeaks, please?

  17. NZ has rather interestingly passed (royal assent) a restricted substances regulatory model for psychoactive recreational soft drug ‘use’, under the Misuse of Drugs Act [1975]. It makes provision for Place of sale or supply restrictions, Restrictions on advertising, labels to contain certain information, Restricted substances to be packaged in tamper-proof and child-proof containers, Sign(s) to be displayed when restricted substances are sold, Storage and display in premises of restricted substances for sale or supply, along with an Explanatory note as follows.

    This note is not part of the regulations, but is intended to indicate their general effect.

    The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2005 (the Act) created a regime for regulating restricted substances. Restricted substances are psychoactive drugs that are considered to be of low risk but still in need of some regulation. Part 3 of the Act established a limited number of controls for restricted substances, including a minimum purchase age of 18 years and prohibitions on free-of-charge distribution and the advertisement of restricted substances in certain media. Section 62 of the Act allowed for wider controls to be implemented through regulation.

    These regulations, which come into force on the 28th day after the date of their notification in the Gazette, place further controls on the places from which restricted substances can be sold or supplied, the signage that must be displayed, and the advertising, labelling, packaging, and storage of restricted substances.

    Currently, there are no restricted substances.

    Issued under the authority of the Acts and Regulations Publication Act 1989. Date of notification in Gazette: 9 October 2008.

    These regulations are administered by the Ministry of Health.

    If my memory serves me correct, Professor Nutt in answer to a question from the floor at the Otago School of Medicine, Christchurch campus lecture, described these regulations as ‘beautiful’, that cannabis should be in these regulations “definitely” and in a private conversation added the rejoinder “I wish I had thought of them myself”.

    For a look at the worlds most concise tax and regulate, UN convention compliant, USE of drugs model that recognises that posession is a barren right without the right to trade, manufacture (grow), merchandise and impute sales taxes, payrol, etc see PDF @

    NZ may well be sliding backwards on one front, but the glass is half full too. We have the right rules, all we have to do is put cannabis in there…..

  18. Leander Says:

    Hi Prof, an excellent artical to open your new blog with! Informative, reasonable, rational, logical, ethical and sensible.

  19. Professor Nutt.

    I’ve had an ongoing debate with the Home Office, the latest reply is here and may be interest to you given the ACMD report of 2008 (cannabis and public health) is heavily cited.

    We are addressing legal highs and the decriminalisation too; the Home Office reply can be found here:

    I hope this will be of some interest to you.

  20. maffo Says:

    Cannabis is a wonder drug. If it was legalised it would eliminate legal drugs such as – Prozac and all anti depressants, zanax and all muscle relaxants, Pain killers,headache medicine and countless other drugs that go to make a multi billion pound buisness. This is the real reason that cannabis will never be legalised. There is no way that the these huge pharmaceutical companies are going to let cannabis become available to all those who are hooked on their expensive and often pointless drugs. The big pharmaceutical companies would lose billions if cannabis was legalised…. Think about it!

  21. maffo: Bigpharma has been awefully quiet over California, with funding against dwarfing that pouring into Yes on Prop19, maybe there really isnt a case for paranoic conspiracy theories afterall! (grin) /Blair

  22. Bernie Heideman Says:

    David, Is it possible to calculate the costs to individuals (and society) of high fructose corn syrup or sugar (the sweet addiction) at the current very high levels of consumption?

  23. Mark Stone Says:

    Sorry you got sacked for speaking the truth…specially by a posturing politician. In the U.S. it’s about money, and the large Pharmaceutical Corps. don’t want cheap, effective, analgesics available to the public. The “Justice” establishment doesn’t want legalization, and the illegal drug establishment doesn’t either. Only the man on the street who needs something more powerful than OTC meds and doesn’t have the cash to see a medical “professional” wants a free market on traditionally effective meds like, cannabis, opium and coca.

  24. Adam Says:

    Hello Professor Nutt, I’ll keep it brief as this is just a comment, I feel like I could talk to you for days re: drug policy and how to change it in this country.

    “The answer is complex reflecting a mixture of ignorance denial and deliberate obfuscation on the part of policy makers.”

    I think people would like to know less about the science (it pains me to say it, I am also a scientist) and more about the reality of this obfuscation in terms of who benefits from drug policy. People respond to incentives [Stephen Levett – Harvard economist] and I think illustrating how we all share a common enemy in drug policy rather than highlighting the hypocrisy/redundancy of it might get a few more people on board. I admire your ability to avoid conjecture during interviews, it seems like interviewers love asking you questions that you will HAVE to speculate on to answer.

    I’m a 25 year old BSc and anything I’ll do what I can to carry on where you leave off, there are a growing number (not percentage unfortunately!) of people with a good level of critical thinking emerging in society now, please don’t burn yourself out feeling like this is your cross to bear.

    That said, keep up the good work!

    [audio src="" /]
    A podcast on american drug policy by Joe Rogan, very very comprehensive from an historical perspective.

  25. AN unfortunate and disapointing result from California there… I think politicians know why prohibition is important for them. it eeps them in jobs. the prohibition of cannabis and other drugs along with the open advertisemnt of alcohol and nicotine keps them in jobs… crime keps them in jobs fixing crime.
    social problems caused by the system keeps them in jobs fixing societies problems…
    the pyramid is crumbling.. drugs are an alternative currency including some herbs.. and hemp.

    i have compied a list of docs and stuff to demonstrate the inportance of cannabis.

    and a podcast by ASA spokes person Claudia Little released last year that goes through all the latest news on the cannabis front clinnically well almost all

  26. Stephanie Says:

    I haven’t yet read every comment, so forgive me if this point was addressed already. People should know the origins of some of the laws against marijuana, at least in the U.S.; I’m unsure of other countries. Big, powerful corporations are at the heart of many of the ridiculous laws in this world. Please see these links:

    Thank you.

  27. Sadly,I think cannabis prohibition is less of a conspiracy of big business (paper, plastics, pharma, oil etc.) than it is a predliction of humanity to have something to blame, something to be prejudiced about, something to hold responsible rather than deal with the consequence of our foibles. We can blame everything but ourselves. This cauterisation of self-will suits a conformance world of multimedia messages at odds with identity and harm reduction choice.

    On a global scale the war on some substances (and those who like them) makes seperatism based on genetics look good.

    Drug are illegal because [we say] they are immoral, and immoral because they are illegal. This tautology fails evidential science and philosophical reason and thus all humanity.

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