Blair’s Other War

April 26, 2011

I write this from Mexico, where the ‘War on Drugs’ and clashing drug cartels have claimed thousands of lives. The billions of dollars worth of aid being pumped in countries in South America, Afghanistan and elsewhere have resulted in, at best, the ‘balloon effect’, where production is pushed down in one area only to pop up in another. In the fifty years since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the ‘War on Drugs’ has morphed from a figurative battle to a literal one. The fog of war has driven politicians to go beyond the bounds of law in their lust for battle: the Single Convention allows for the medical and scientific use of controlled drugs and yet, many countries interpret it as prohibiting all use of all Schedule I drugs, hindering potentially life changing research.

Domestic law has also been trampled upon in the rush to act tough on drugs. The UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act [MDAct] was designed to remove decision-making about drugs from the party politics of parliament to minimise the risk that short term party interests might lead to bad laws.  The MDAct classified drugs in three levels – A B C – based on their relative harms of drugs, which were decided upon by an expert group, the ACMD [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs]. This worked well for the first 30 years and even Margaret Thatcher accepted its recommendations on needle-exchange to limit HIV spread.  Though this went against her political philosophy, she accepted that it was logical to be guided by experts and was rewarded by the UK leading the world in terms of slowing the rate of HIV spread from intravenous drug use.

In the last decade under Tony Blair’s government, things began to change. It decided it knew better than experts and hunted for evidence to support its policy decisions rather than the other way round.  In late 2004, Blair decided to wage a different type of war – this time on drugs. For unknown reasons – at least not explained in his autobiography – he decided to ignore the MDAct (i.e. break the law)  and make decisions on drugs without consulting the experts on ACMD. He convened a special meeting of senior police, military and customs officials, from which the war was initiated.

The first salvo was aimed at magic mushrooms. These were legal at the time  but the government decided that they had to be hard on head-shops selling freeze-dried preparations so they made them a Class A drug without consulting the ACMD.  The well known adage  “the first casualty of war is the truth” certainly applied to the mushroom decision as by no metric are mushrooms as harmful as the real Class A drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.

The mushrooms were an easy battle to win and perhaps this rewarding feeling of success fueled the next campaign against cannabis. In 2004, all preparations of cannabis had been made Class C (they had been either Class A or Class B previously). This downgrading was made after an extensive review of the evidence by the ACMD, yet was viciously opposed by parts of the media and many politicians.  From that date a concerted war was waged against cannabis users justified by statements that cannabis, particularly the new variant skunk, was more harmful than its Class C status would indicate.

Gordon Brown continued the war when he took over as Prime Minister. Within weeks of coming to power, he made the absurd claim that “skunk was lethal” when in reality cannabis, in contrast to alcohol and controlled drugs, has never killed anyone by direct toxicity/poisoning.  He oversaw  a new Home Office war policy of increasing convictions for cannabis users in an attempt to deter use. This doubled the number of people convicted for cannabis possession from 88,000 in 2004/5 to 158,000 in 2007/8.  Police with sniffer dogs became a common site on London tube stations where young men were searched and prosecuted if cannabis was found.  That this behaviour almost certainly breached their human rights was ignored; rights have a lesser place when at war. Predictably an even greater injustice was seen by the ethnic bias in convictions with Asian and Afro-Caribbean men being significantly overrepresented.

Worse, the war extended to those using cannabis for medicinal purposes such a people with multiple sclerosis or spasticity. Police would conduct dawn raids on possible users, smashing down their front doors just in case they might leap from their wheelchairs and abseil out the window! Why? Because violence is what wars allow, if not demand.

The war on medicinal cannabis became more aggressive in 2005 when the Law Lords seriously aggravated the situation of those using cannabis for medicinal purposes. They colluded with the government by changing the law to disallow the centuries old “Defense of Necessity” for medicinal cannabis use. This common law allows users to plead that their use of a drug was simply and solely to ameliorate a medical condition for which other treatments had not worked.  The Law Lords decided that since the government had decreed that cannabis was sufficiently harmful to be a Class B drug, patients should be deterred from using it by removing this defense. A truly cruel and inhumane piece of legislation that brings shame on those who enacted it and great distress to those prosecuted because of it.  However it was predictable as the corruption of the law is a recognized element of war.

The final battle before my sacking was on MDMA (ecstasy). This had been classified alongside cocaine and heroin as a Class A drug ever since it was made illegal. This was patently absurd from any evidence-based perspective but the government had actively resisted any attempts to review the evidence on which ecstasy was classified until ordered to do so by a Select Committee report. When the ACMD with the help of a NICE health technology assessment unit reported that its harms had been overestimated and were commensurate with a Class B status, the government refused to reclassify.

My response to both the cannabis and ecstasy decisions was to point out how they undermined the scientific integrity of the MDAct and, by allowing longer than appropriate prison sentences, were bound to lead to injustice. Moreover, I believed that these decisions could increase the harms from legal drugs particularly alcohol; by scaring people from ecstasy and cannabis they might be increasing use of alcohol, a more harmful drug.  By fighting battles on mushrooms, cannabis and ecstasy the government was deflecting attention away from the rising tide of deaths from alcohol.

Military wars are evaluated through public enquiries – surely it is time to seek the truth about the war on drugs and make good the damage done to drug users, their families and the scientific process caused by this unhappy example of political lust for wars.


32 Responses to “Blair’s Other War”

  1. James Conroy Says:

    Nice post. The fact that there are political incentives to compromise people’s civil liberties as we have seen here is preposterous.

    We need to take a leaf out of the Spanish people’s book. This country badly needs something similar to the Spanish constitution

  2. SilverSmith Says:

    Before linking two current issues I want to say that I have no wish to hijack Prof Nutt’s analysis, only to comment on it from one perspective…

    The root of the problem is clearly political. Our politicians currently have no need to respond to the will of the people. The necessity for reform is therefore a given. The most important long-term result of the last General Election was the concession of a referendum on voting reform. A vote in favour of reform may, one day, reach a position where politicians are responsive to their voters. A vote against reform will delay reform for generations.

    It may not seem too obvious that the referendum on the Alternative Vote has much to do with the damage caused by the War on Drugs but it is key to making our politicians listen.

    • ed Says:

      the war on drug has cost more lives than the wars that we are involed in ….. i have seen the resalt of the missuse of drugs act 1971 as i myself was an adicct at one time and having lived on britsh streets for the past ten years and things are chaging getting worse and the police with there havy handed tackets are costing the tax payer millions are getting us no ware the drug trade in the uk is an estmated 19.5 billion pounds a year and the fact of it is that the uk has one of the worst drug problems in the eu we have to make changes the probem just gettings pushed under ground we have to make changes or its going to get much worse

  3. Peter Reynolds Says:

    David, I always feel rejuvenated when I read your articles. You reassert a common sense and proportionate view that is often lost in the process of analysing evidence.

    I also want to endorse fully your use of the words “cruel” and “shame” when talking about the government’s attitude towards medicinal cannabis. Cannabis has a transformational effect on some people’s lives, rescuing them from pain, suffering and disability.

  4. Nick Says:

    I think the trend is towards treating drug use as an illness rather than a criminal offence. What can we do to help bring about this change?

    How can we communicate the facts to people who don’t want to listen and make them understand it’s time for a new approach?

    • ed Says:

      because its choice what gives anyone the rigth to tell anyone what is rigth or wrong drink kills more than drugs do every year

  5. Consultant Says:

    There is a sort of madness about these ramblings. It is the madness of personal certainty in an uncertain world.

    Everybody is out of step and indubitably completley wrong, but dear old Professor Nutt. The science is always clear cut, there are no shades of grey. Government is not duty bound to be cautious.

    Listening to David Nutt one might believe that the ACMD were united about not reclassifying cannabis upwards (they were emphatically not united) or that there was only one view about the science around cannabis (there were several).

    The main call for reclassifying cannabis came from the Department of Health and the National Director of Mental Health, Professor Appleby.

    The other important player, a proper expert on cannabis, Professor Robin Murray, while not as strong on reclassification as Appleby has said of Professor Nutt that “he is playing fast & loose with the statistics”.

    Professor Ashton at Newcastle (also an expert) disagrees with David Nutt.

    None of the people who I have named, are political activists.

    Your core argument is unsustainable.

    • Peter Reynolds Says:

      Professor Robin Murray “a proper expert on cannabis”??

      No one has a longer record of hysterical anti-cannabis campaigning than Robin Murray. Entirely because of his record of political campaigning, he is the scientist with least credibility on the subject – and therefore the one which all the tabloids like to quote most often.

      Anti-cannabis campaigners such as the anonymous “Consultant”, frequently try to argue that there is disagreement between scientists but this is not true. In fact, there is remarkable unanimity. Certainly there are minor differences of interpretation and prognosis but all the scientific evidence is that cannabis is a remarkably safe substance and the risks of any negative consequences from its use are very, very small.

      • Consultant Says:

        Calm down dear & nice try.

        I would expect someone like you to try it on. Robin Murray is actually very restrained on classification at one stage saying classification was not too important “User advocates” attack him because he does not sing the legalisation tune. Presumably you can justify the term “hysterical” applied to anything he has said. You do him a great injustice.

        I note you do not attack the two other Professors I named.

        Appleby was reflecting the concern about mental health consequent upon cannabis use. He is not a political activist nor
        is Heather Ashton.

        For whatever reason David Nutt has chosen to line himself up with the legalisation lobby. One of the important players he lines up with, believes that boring a hole in the skull (self trepanning) is sensible.

        This is what most sane people will think is lunatic fringe activism. Yet you have the audacity to say a well respected scientist in his field, Professor Robin Murray is “hysterical”.

        I suggest you re read the biblical expression about “motes & beams”.

        I could equally describe you as “a cannabis legalisation obsessive”, that would be rather nearer the mark than your “hysterical” about Murray.

      • Peter Reynolds Says:

        I am perfectly calm thank you sweetie.

        Who mentioned classification?

        I don’t advocate legalisation and neither does Professor Nutt. I propose a system of regulation that is fact and evidence based rather than the big, dumb, self-defeating fist of prohibition.

        The only field in which Profesor Murray is well respected is the demonisation of cannabis. That is why he is the tabloids’ favourite.

        Your words about Lady Niedpath are meaningless insults, always the last refuge of knaves and scoundrels.

        Most revealing of all is your complete departure from the evidence which, I repeat, amounts to a consensus that while there are risks from cannabis use they are very, very small.

      • Consultant Says:

        Peter you say in your post below:
        “Who mentioned classification?”

        It is always good advice to read the article upon which one is commenting.

        Professor Nutt mentioned classification. The thrust of his second paragraph is about classification.

        As for “departure from the evidence”. The ACMD heard evidence on cannabis. After that evidence it was not united on the classification issue for cannabis and there were (as I have poinetd out) powerful scientific figures ranged against Nutt’s view outside the ACMD.

        Professor Nutt’s view (and presumably yours) did not prevail.

        It was a marginal judgement call. The issue of classification is important because in my view Professor Nutt consistently misrepresents the debate.

        What became clear from all the evidence is that cannabis is not a suitable substance for legalisation and normalisation and that it is more harmful than many people thought.

        Legalisation will never happen in the UK. I suggest you get over it and move on.

        If you do NOT support legalisation/normalisation on something like the tobacco/alcohol model, I suggest you spell out exactly what your “regulation” would mean. Otherwise all your debate is just 50p for an argument and intellectually worthless.

        You can do better than this.

      • Peter Reynolds Says:

        The ACMD 2008 report is quite clear that re-classification back up to B was not warranted. Indeed, it goes further and says that “…criminal justice measures…will have only a limited effect on usage”.

        So you are entirely wrong. Professor Nutt’s view did prevail in the ACMD. Quibbling about what may or may not have happened in the council meetings is meaningless in the face of collective responsibility.

        What evidence is there that cannabis “…is more harmful than many people thought.”? By a recent analysis of morbidity, hospital admissions, toxicity and propensity to psychosis, cannabis is 2953 times safer than alcohol, so just how harmful do you think it is?

        We are very close to permitting prescription of medicinal cannabis by doctors. When, as looks virtually certain, at least one state in the US opts for full legalisation next year then common sense will roll out across the world. Britain will follow shortly afterwards.

        My proposals for the regulation of the production and supply of cannabis are well documented and easily found on the web. I am not hiding behind some silly pseudonym.

      • Consultant Says:

        You are deliberately and not very bcleverly overstating what I said.

        I accept what the ACMD said about cannabis, how could I disute that. I do not dispute that, how could I.

        I said that the ACMD was not unanimous which is true and an inconvenient fact that Professor Nutt does not advertise, so plainly their were differring views on the ACMD.

        Secondly Professor Nutt’s view did NOT prevail overall because their were powerful scientific minds, outside the ACMD who counselled otherwise and government decided on the balance of argument to be cautious.

        Your words are duplicitous. You say “My proposals for the regulation of the production and supply of cannabis are well documented and easily found on the web”.

        Just how are proposals that do that, not legalisation?

        Lastly the UK is nowhere near allowing prescription of cannabis by Doctors. This is just nonesense. We are further away from that situation than we have been in 15 years or so.

        You seem to inhabit some sort of dream world where facts are what you say they are. It is a fantasy land. I will comment no more to you until you get a grip on reality.

      • Peter Reynolds Says:

        Well run away then. The truth is so difficult for you to face that you cannot even debate in your real name!

  6. Rev. Paul Says:

    It seems the blind hypocrisy of prohibition has been buried once again amongst cuts, coalitions and royal c.. erm weddings. Nice bit of stoking David. Must admit I’m thinking we’re not going to get much from politicians who think everyone else should obey laws they admit ignoring but you never know.

  7. julianbuchanan Says:

    Well said David – science and evidence has been subordinated to propaganda and populism, and sadly you are one of the many casualties.

    I think too the Drugs Act 2005 was an affront to human rights giving police sweeping powers (including detention for 192 hours) on arrest (not charge) of ‘suspected’ drug users.

    I have supported your efforts in a number of articles, and recently published on the Blair years saying similar things to yourself:

    ‘Drug and alcohol policy under New Labour: Pandering to populism?’


    “Drug policy under New Labour, 1997-2010: Prolonging the war on drugs”

    All the best

    Julian Buchanan
    Victoria University of Wellington
    New Zealand

  8. Tony Ward Says:

    All logic points to legalisation, regulation and taxation, what we have at the moment is the worst possible scenario on every level, the only people to benefit from prohibition are criminals as anyone with eyes can see, this can only point to a hidden agenda from somewhere within government.
    The fact that both Labour and the tory/lib alliance follow the same policy points to corruption, no logical intelligent person could possibly argue that prohibition is the way to deal with this issue.
    Quite frankly it stinks.

    • hugh jones Says:

      Yes it could well be true. The drug trade is in the hands of criminals, but the criminals may not be quite who you think they are. But they are criminals nevertheless.

      • Tony Ward Says:

        I think it might be more to do with protecting the industries that had cannabis prohibited in the 1st place, it was never about public health, the prohibition was to outlaw industrial hemp, that was and continues to be a crime against humanity, it may be related to the cannabis plant but it is of no use whatsoever as a recreational drug, it could whoever replace the fuel and plastics made from oil along with many of the medicines our health service pays though the nose for from pharmaceutical companies, many countries are already promoting their hemp industries, we’re going to miss getting in to a new green industrial revolution that could transform our economy because our self interested or ignorant politicians will not do what they are paids to do, i.e. manage our country with logic and common sense to make the best use of the peoples taxes.

  9. […] Blair’s Other War « David Nutt’s Blog: Evidence not Exaggeration. Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook share via Reddit Share with Stumblers […]

  10. […] Source: David Nutt’s Blog […]

  11. Natalie Coupar Says:

    Prof Nutt,
    As always, you make several important points. It has now been 50 years since the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs was signed by around 180 states.
    It has been fifty years since UN drug control policy adopted the line of chiefly US-led prohibitionist ideas, which would aim to eradicate coca-leaf chewing within 25 years.
    In those fifty years, the Western world has engaged in an ideological and, as you note, literal “War on Drugs.” The UK government continues to place the onus on supply countries, disproportionately engaging in harmful methods of reduction such as aerial eradication over alternative development.
    In addition, the UK governments 2010 drug strategy continues to forward punitive measures over harm reduction for drug users, baulking at numerous scientific studies which prove that in some cases drug use is no more harmful than alcohol – or horse-riding 😉

    It can no longer be argued that the War on Drugs is merely an ideological battle, particularly when looking at the creeping effect the cocaine trade is now having upon so-called “narco-states” in West Africa.

    I agree most definitely that it is indeed time for a military inquiry on the War on Drugs – one which assesses the benefit it has had on domestic users, illegal trade routes and the public health.

    Yet Prof Nutt, I do have one question.

    In a polarized international community which sees, on one hand, a marginal group of leaders such as Evo Morales (who famously took to chewing a coca leaf at the UN summit on drugs) forwarding sensible changes to drug policy; and then, on the other hand, conservative leaders such as Coalition government, continuing to dismiss scientific advice in order to forward their own party agenda, how does one suggest the review on the War on Drugs is led? Would it not be more appropriate for the UNODC, INCB and CND to lead an international review on all drug control policies since the 1961 Single Convention?

    – Natalie Coupar

  12. Rory Says:

    Well said David.
    And I echo the words from Peter and James.

    Put simply – putting people through the Criminal Justice System is not the most effective way to approach drug use.

  13. Isn’t it FIFTY “years since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs”?

    A great post though. Educational.

  14. John Rowbotham Says:

    David, I wrote a letter of disgust to the ex-postman when you were silenced as head of the ACMD only to receive a predictably sterile response.

    The problem I see is the frames of reference for those trying to examine, understand and campaign for a pragmatic, rational drug policy aren’t even viewing the same landscape as those prosecuting the drug war. Seeking rational, scientific understanding of drug war policy and decisions by looking at the drugs themselves is futile.

    The origin of drug war are founded on racism, deception, self interest and above all greed. The whole circus was and remains little more than US sponsored interference motivated by money and privilege to protect patents, profits and careers. Drug war isn’t about drugs it’s about people and power.

    An ideological war of power and control over citizens who now find themselves trapped in a drug fuelled feedback spiral of empowered criminal activity and paramilitary government control.

    Ask the citizens of Mexico how that’s working out.

  15. strayan Says:

    “hunted for evidence to support its policy decisions rather than the other way round.”

    Ah the quest for confirmatory research; the most pervasive bias in the anti-drug movement today. At the same time a predictable response in a warring society – it’s natural to hunt for evidence to justify your actions no matter how unethical.

    There is more than one drug fit for human consumption!

  16. David,

    That’s some of the most impressive writing I’ve enjoyed reading for ages – apart from Bertrand Russell and some of my own best.

    And you write from the front-line of the War Zone. Hope it’s nice and sunny as it is here.

    Brother, friend, someone I dream of having as my father, your truth rings out clear against all these years of bull-shit.

    The Chimes of Freedom are Tolling, and you, Prof, are one of our best rope-pullers.

    I certainly hope you are well sorted for whichever drugs you find assist you personally. I only feel guilty about the tobacco and alcohol excess. I’ve never used genuine heroin or cocaine.

    I find myself agreeing with every word you say.

    If you ever find I might be of assistance to you, I’m on 07975507339. Like yourself I am a man who prefers not to remain hidden in life, but one who pushes for the maximum improvement in this time we have.

    God Bless

    You have helped me.


  17. treebeard Says:

    Legislation as far as cannabis is concerned is what I often hear from the same people who it seems also say that cannabis is not a dangerous drug,.is safe ..relatively harmless,all this being the case what is the need for legislation at all? Alcohol carrys legislation as far as age times etc are concerned and all I hear is underage drinking this/that and the other, cannabis is still illegal for one reason and one reason only, no government in this country after all the lies they have uttered past and present, all the money spent etc, is going to turn around and admit that they could not of been more wrong on this matter,im sorry to say this but balls that would be big enough for this to happen do not, have not, will not, exist on any politician with the power to end this ridiculous vendetta against a harmless plant and its users.

  18. loopedstranger Says:

    Professor Nutt

    I searched out this post having seen you speak at Skeptics in the Pub the other night. I think that your comments about the “medical necessity” defense aren’t quite supported by the evidence. In the first place, you make it sound as though the defense has always been available and that its status in law was uncontroversial. In fact, as the judgment of the Court of Appeal ( makes clear, the defense of necessity or “duress of circumstances” has been, and remains, a controversial area. It’s a staple of law exam questions on criminal law, for precisely that reason. Furthermore at paragraph 58 of the judgment the court stated that the earliest case which it had been shown of a medical necessity defense to a charge of cannabis possession was in 1998. If you can cite actual historical evidence of a centuries old right to a defense of medical necessity in cases of cannabis possession, I’d be very interested to see it.

    Secondly, you say that “The Law Lords decided that since the government had decreed that cannabis was sufficiently harmful to be a Class B drug, patients should be deterred from using it by removing this defense”.

    In fact, it was the Court of Appeal which decided this case, and their decision was based on the stated view that there was no such defense. As a matter of law they were making a rule as to what the common law is, not making a change.

    What the Law Lords did was to refuse permission to appeal from that ruling (as detailed here: You state above that this was a piece of legislation, but that is not an accurate description of what happened (at least from a legal point of view).

    Your piece gives the impression of the Law Lords simply having passed legislation to outlaw something that had previously been legal. However, the public record shows that the position is at least a little more complicated than that. You may argue that the decision was reached under political pressure, but that is a different matter.

    This whole debate is about the use and abuse of evidence. I think it’s just as important that statements about law, policy and how and why decisions are made are supported by evidence. Otherwise I think you risk undermining the valid points that you put forward.

  19. […] Blair’s Other War ( Share this:TwitterEmailFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Category : 2012, 20th century, drugs, laws Tags : Drug War, Drugs, Health, Narcotic Drugs, Single Convention, Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Substance abuse, United States […]

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