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New Drugs Research is Just Plain Nutts!

riotact | 05.08.2006 10:59 | Analysis | Health | World

The Independent this week splashed a study (1) across the front page purporting to show the relative dangers of different drugs. The Indy claimed:

“This is the first ranking based upon scientific evidence of harm to both individuals and society. It was devised by government advisers - then ignored by ministers because of its controversial findings”

In a misleading report the Indy implies that this list was part of the recent report by the Science and Technology Committee entitled ‘Drugs classification: making a hash of it‘ . Commoner Colin Blakemore took time out from torturing defenceless animals to oversee this report which savaged the current system of classification as well as the role of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

The report only contains the study quoted in the Independent as part of the appendix and is actually quite critical saying

“We welcome the initiative taken by the ACMD Technical Committee to develop a standard framework for the assessment of harm but we also note that determining harm scores using the matrix is almost as much an art as a science.”

Which sounds like damning with faint praise to us, in fact the report is at times scathing in it‘s criticism of the ACMD.

Alongside the study the Indy also included statistics on annual drug deaths which has also contained controversy claiming as it does that cannabis killed 16 people in 2004.

This information appears to be based on statistics (2) which take into account whether cannabis was mentioned on the death certificate as opposed to whether cannabis was described as the cause of death. In 2004 cannabis was mentioned on 16 death certificates, however on at least 8 of those alcohol was also cited as a factor. These statistics are not included in the actual report, which leave you wondering why they chose to include them.

Back to the study which was the creation of Professor Nutt (oh yes) who is in favour of vaccinating children against drugs from an early age (3), nicely letting us know early which side of the libertarian fence this particular puritan sits on.

Closer analysis also reveals that his study is far from scientific and based on pure opinion rather than facts as would be hoped for in a scientific study.

This study, which claims cannabis is more dangerous than solvents and the most dangerous drug is heroin suffers from the usual prejudices of those who may well work in the drugs field but have little accurate information about the dangers of drugs. This is not an uncommon phenomena, just check out the Talk to Frank (4) website (and the critique here (5) to reveal the sad naivety of those who direct drugs policy and provide information to drug users.

The methodology for the study was relatively simple. Various assessment parameters were established based on three categories
Physical Harm which was further broken down into
1 Acute—meaning the immediate effects, eg respiratory depression with opiates, acute cardiac crises with cocaine, and fatal poisonings;
2 Chronic—referring to the health consequences of repeated use, eg psychosis with stimulants, possible lung disease with cannabis;
3 The specific aspect of intravenous (iv) use.
Dependence broken down into
4 Intensity of pleasure
5 Psychological dependence
6 Physical dependence
And finally Social Harms whivch broke down into
7 Intoxication (based on the effect of someone intoxicated on the rest of society)
8 Other social harms
9 Healthcare costs

Ratings were to be awarded to each drug for each parameter using a four-point scale, with 0 being no risk, 1 some, 2 moderate and 3 extreme risk. This mean of these ratings was then established for each parameter and for all 9 parameters which gave each drug its final place in the list.

Nuttjob and his team then asked two independent groups of experts to perform the ratings. The first was a national group of consultant psychiatrists who were on the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ register as specialists in addiction. Replies were received and analysed from 29 of the 77 registered doctors canvassed on 14 compounds (not 20 as in the final list).

The first flaw therefore becomes immediately apparent. These experts were in effect self-selected and had all the information they needed in advance. This means that any rabid anti (or pro) drugs shrink would be likely to partake whilst those who did not hold strong opinions either way probably gave it a miss.

The question should also be asked exactly how a shrink is qualified to give an 'expert' opinion on the physical health risks of most recreational drugs. Pharmacologists or even medical doctors may have been able to give a better assessment. Perhaps the wealth of research on physical dangers of different drugs could have been a better starting point and have avoided such anomolies as LSD (a completely and provably non-toxic substance) being given almost the same rating for physical health risks as solvents, known killers.

Nutt and his team of nutters (sorry, but I'm not gonna stop) then sent the assessment out to a group made up of "individuals with a wide range of expertise in addiction - ranging from the forensic science service through to general practitioners and epidemiologists and including law enforcement officers." That's right folks, those notorious intellects in the field of bio-chemistry and sociology, the old bill were called in to give their, as ever unbiased and professional opinion.

The Nutty Professor then chucked in a further 6 substances for good measure (khat, 4MTA, GHB, ketamine, methylphenidate, alky nitrites) of for what he calls 'completeness.' Nutt gushes about how similar the results were for each of the two groups, neatly sidestepping the fact that they were not comparing like with like and that all he has actually proved is that drugs professionals share similar prejudices and ignorance when it comes to drugs.

Probably because they get most of their information from studies like this one. The one group who are most qualified to discuss relative drug risks ... experienced drug users, were obviously not consulted.

the void does welcome the inclusion of tobacco and alcohol on the list, rightly both scoring highly and sending those who would lock up drug users for life into such a rage that they needed a stiff drink and a couple of valium to calm down.

Having said that this list is at best a waste of time and presumably tax payers money and at worst dangerous suggesting as it does that cannabis is more harmful than solvents, steroids or 4-MTA, all of which have claimed lives. On the other side of the scale Khat, which is devastating some parts of the Somali community where unemployment is higher than almost any other ethnic group is given a ludicrously low score for social harm. This would almost certainly be because most of the so called 'experts' had probably never heard of it!

We wonder what the cops on the list would have made of being asked to rate the physical harm of Buprenorphine over Methylphenidate, words they are unlikely to even be able to pronounce.

Finally, whilst it can be noted that many of the drugs on the lists are drugs which are proscribed by doctors and produced by the pharmaceutical industry (lets just ignore the laughability of 'street' methadone, known to become infinitely more dangerous the second it leaves the chemists) the old nutter managed to miss one of the biggest killer drugs from his study. Deaths involving paracetamol and its compounds accounted for 453 drug related deaths in 2004, but of course that kind of information only upsets advertisers and doesn’t make particularly good copy.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this study it that many of the same old misconceptions about drugs, psychedelics and cannabis remain firmly entrenched within the medical establishment . Until a truly scientific method is developed which takes into account actual , factual information on toxicity and realistic statistics on damage from drugs (including legal highs like booze and fags as well as pharmaceutical substances) then any attempt to classify drugs based on the opinions of a few cops and shrinks is likely to end up making a bit of a hash of things.


read the report (the study in question is in the last part of the appendices)

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