Leading article: A welcome injection of science

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The Independent Online

No wonder they got rid of Professor David Nutt. The man who was the Government's chief adviser on narcotics – until he was sacked by the previous Home Secretary – has produced a new guide to the relative harmfulness of drugs and it runs almost entirely counter to the official classification. Dr Nutt and others have formed a breakaway Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs which has produced the new study. Published by The Lancet, it suggests that alcohol is a more dangerous drug – when the ill-effects to both the user and wider society are added together – than heroin, crack or crystal meth.

This is an important contribution to the debate. The results suggest that, as a society, our efforts are in the wrong areas. What is needed is exactly what Dr Nutt has set out to provide: independent thinking based on scientific criteria. That suggests, he says, that alcohol is three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco, and that ecstasy causes a mere one-eighth the harm of alcohol.

Dr Nutt's conclusions are open to challenge. Critics will dispute the differential weighting he has given to the impact on morbidity, the NHS, crime, the family, the environment, the economy etc. Balancing those requires political as well as neuropharmacological judgement, as does balancing avoiding harm to individuals and damage to the social fabric. Nor does it make political sense to say that if alcohol had just been discovered it would be considered so dangerous it would be banned. It hasn't just been discovered and is a relatively harmless pleasure for most people.

But Dr Nutt has rendered an important service by suggesting the drugs debate should be reorientated to focus on scientific evaluations rather than social preconceptions and political prejudice. Controls on alcohol exist, both on age and hours of sale. More may be needed, particularly in taxation (strong cider is taxed at only a fifth of the rate of wine). Supermarket loss leaders, the targeting of alcopops at the young, the link between cheap prices and higher consumption are all areas in need of review. Culture can be changed by law, and Britain's drinking culture is one on which politicians would do well to place greater focus.