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David Nutt: MPs against smoking ban should legalise drugs

Will the smoking debate provoke a conversation about illegal drugs? Credit: Getty

April 18, 2024 - 7:00am

MPs who voted against Rishi Sunak’s proposed smoking ban this week should be in favour of legalising psychedelic drugs, former Government adviser David Nutt has claimed.

Speaking to UnHerd yesterday afternoon, the neuropsychopharmacologist said MPs were demonstrating “logical inconsistency” over the ban. He criticised the “absurd” double standard between defending cigarette-smoking and at the same time supporting the banning of psychoactive and Class C substances which cause far less damage to the user.

“I have no problem with Britons who choose to smoke,” Nutt said in exclusive comments. “But it is absurd to vote not to ban cigarettes, which kill eight million people [worldwide] a year, while nitrous oxide has killed a handful of people in the last 20 years [56 in the UK between 2001 and 2020] — and most of those weren’t directly related.”

In Tuesday night’s smoking debate, 383 MPs voted in favour of the Prime Minister’s proposal to prevent anyone born after 2009 from purchasing cigarettes in their lifetime. Of the 67 Members who opposed the bill, 57 were Conservatives rebelling against their own leader.

Last year the Government changed the classification of nitrous oxide — also known as laughing gas — to Class C, making possession of the drug illegal, with repeat offenders facing up to two years in prison. In all, 404 MPs voted in favour of the ban, with 35 against. Of the 57 Tories who challenged Sunak on the smoking bill, 42 voted to ban the use of laughing gas, including former home secretary Suella Braverman and former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Nutt claimed that to take a stand in support of the right to smoke while seeking to criminalise use of “substances which have been found to do minimal harm” constitutes “total hypocrisy”. The professor previously worked as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Department of Health, and the Home Office. He was removed from his position as the Government’s chief drug adviser in 2009 after claiming that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.

Since then, Nutt has advocated for therapeutic drug use, arguing that psychedelics can serve to alleviate symptoms of depression. At an UnHerd event last May, he claimed that he had been “pleasantly surprised by the positivity” with which his proposals had been met in the academic community.

According to Nutt, the UK is some way off legalising LSD but progress may yet be made on Class B and C drugs, particularly cannabis. Speaking yesterday, he expressed his desire that the next decade might bring more awareness of research into drug harms. “The best scenario, from a legalisation standpoint, would be a Lib Dem-Labour coalition,” he said, citing his work on the Liberal Democrats’ 2017 general election campaign when the party backed the legalisation of cannabis. “That sort of approach is sensible,” Nutt claimed. “Radical, but sensible.”


is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.

RobLownie

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Nominative determinism. The increase in recent years in the use of drugs as a recreational alternative to cigarettes and alcohol has not noticeably improved public health – for example it has been reported that half of young people in Ireland have low levels of mental wellbeing (Ireland has the highest rate of cocaine usage in Europe, and is a major hub in the European illegal drugs trade). Meanwhile the rise in life expectancy brought about in part by a reduction in smoking has been so ruinously expensive, respectable commentators are now calling for old people to be euthanised instead. The proposed law is so bonkers – that in the future a (say) 35 year old could legally buy tobacco products, but a 34 year old could not – that its proponents must have been smoking something.

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The issue is not whether drugs are good or bad for you but whether the State should have the power to stop you doing things to yourself. I say it shouldn’t but, of course, the State would also have to stop socialised medicine where, for example, ordinary citizens are forced to pay for the treatment that drug users ‘need’ as a consequence of the damage they have inflicted on themselves.

With freedom comes great self responsibility.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob N

What sort of treatment do the users of psychedelic drugs “need”, just as a matter of interest?

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

they’re considered to have a positive impact on mental health disorders.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Do you mean a “negative impact”, in that they make “mental health disorders” worse?

Rob N
Rob N
29 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No idea and don’t care. Whatever the effects the drug taker takes full and sole responsibility for them – as long, of course, as they are taken voluntarily and are as described.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Expensive.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I note that Professor Nutt suggests the legalisation of “psychedelic drugs”. I doubt this definition would cover cocaine and amphetamines, but would certainly cover LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT. The key is that these substances have “been found to do minimal harm”, something that could probably not be said of cocaine and amphetamines.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

The trouble is,as a lot of places have found out,the waywardness of human nature means the “unlegal” drug mixes become the more desirable as most drug users,at least the ones I know – at arms length,do not want to.get.their supplies in Boots,or PAY TAX. And the illicit dealers won’t be able to compete with the likes of Richard Branson in the legal market so they have a huge incentive to market the illegal forms.
Plus drug use is rarely a quiet,solitary secluded activity. It usually.comes with an entourage,as the neighbours of erstwhile lovely parks in Portugal or Amsterdam have found out. The entourage consists of ; their mates,their dogs,pimps and prostitutes,mentally ill aggressive abusive shouters,alcoholics,sex criminals,and just unpleasant,smelly,dirty.people so your children can no longer play on the swings.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Not just me ! The ND thing! It’s a huge scam IMO. A nice drugged up complacent compliant population.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

Good point, well made. I agree entirely. David Nutt has long been a voice of sanity in this area.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Include in the legalisation the proviso that the user by accepting this law can no longer have any help from the NHS. For anything. I don’t pay the BBC and I don’t pay for other people’s self imposed harm

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Nitrous oxide isn’t a “drug”. It’s a naturally occuring gas present in small quantities in the atmosphere. It’s also produced – legally – by car engines.
Apart from that, Sunak’s deathbed conversion to rushing through ill thought out prohibitions which cannot possibly work is farcical.
Why not actually do something positive for a change rather than just stop people doing stuff and making everything more costly, slower and complex (that should be Labour’s job) ?

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Given that Sunak has made a certain brand of trainer undesirable by simply wearing them, perhaps if he really wants to stop kids from doing bad stuff, he should do it himself. Prohibition just makes bad stuff more desirable.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

The further, the more Britain becomes like a dying nation.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I was once in favour of decriminalising drugs until I saw what legalisation did to Amsterdam, San Francisco and New York. Even Scotland which has gone the furthest down this road in the UK (and was harmed massively by Irving Welsh associating Edinburgh with heroin in the minds of millions of impressionable youths) has terrible numbers of drug deaths.
I was in NYC recently and I had to step over unconscious people on the pavement in the middle of the afternoon. And there is a cannabis shop on every corner.
Keep the drug laws as they are and arrest vagrants and drug users.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Keep the drug laws as they are and arrest vagrants and drug users.
Except that isn’t happening, which is at least part of the impetus behind decriminalizing everything. People should be free to ingest what they want, BUT this sort of thing comes with tradeoffs. NYC’s problem is not weed; it’s tolerating the harder stuff and the fallout that comes with that. Until govts enforce their own laws and understand the principle of tradeoffs, every “solution” is going to cause problems.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
23 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

I get your point, but I do wonder whether the fact that these are islands of permissiveness means they end up concentrating all the users there, with consequent knock-on effects. If the same dispensation were widely available, then perhaps people wouldn’t congregate in Amsterdam or wherever. God knows what the only city in England that served alcohol would look like six months later.

George Locke
George Locke
1 month ago

‘It is absurd to vote not to ban cigarettes, which kill eight million people [worldwide] a year, while nitrous oxide has killed a handful of people in the last 20 years.’

Maybe this is because nitrous oxide had a relatively small userbase compared to cigarettes?

Ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.

Again, maybe this is because these drugs had a small userbase compared to alcohol and tobacco, perhaps owing to the fact that they are illegal?
I’m against the smoking ban, but I don’t think Nutt’s logic makes much sense either when you consider the different availability of the drugs he is comparing.

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago
Reply to  George Locke

It’s possible you don’t know much about ectasy and lsd. Look it up for enlightenment… seriously. You can’t hold that position about them unless you check it out, and when you do, you won’t hold that position.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  George Locke

But those little silver canisters get strewn all over the pavement by the seat. The irony is the litter strewers would probably claim to be followers and admirers of Greta.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
1 month ago

Nonsense. And BTW there is a massive difference between decriminalization of possession or even growing for personal consumption and creating a massive corporate market. Trudeau doing the latter has wrecked an entire generation in Canada; and effectively bought quiescence across thousands of small towns and poorer urban communities…..and a massive uptick in mental-health related homelessness and violence. It’s been a complete disaster. Look before you leap UK

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago

Yes,that myth you can grow a few marijuana plants on your allotment beside the cabbages,purely for pain relief for your Nan. It’s a myth. If you want those THCs you’ll have to hook up to your next door neighbours power supply.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

As you should laugh out loud at anyone who opposed the Tobacco and Vapes Bill but not the many assaults on civil liberties, so you should laugh out loud at anyone who supported that Bill but did not support the vigorous enforcement, and the strengthening, of the existing drug laws. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwarteng was obviously off his face at the funeral of the late Queen. The Truss Government was so awash with cocaine that it scandalised the servants. That is the “free” market in action. The Labour frontbench’s continued support for that Government’s policies does not speak to that frontbench’s sobriety.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

I am not a smoker but if a person is not free to choose which products to consume, then the person is not really free. We can quibble between legal and illegal products but the point remains. If cigarettes are banned today, what other products of dubious value will be banned tomorrow? Because you know things would not stop with smoking, not when so many other health conditions that are behavior-based and often self-inflicted exist.
Freedom is never clean and easy; it’s often messy and complicated. People will do things we may not approve of and the reverse is also likely to be true. Who gets the final say? I don’t care if you light up; just don’t do it sitting next to me, because rights cut both ways. And if you overindulge in bad foods and the like, then your cost of health care should be more than mine. Rights come with responsibilities.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Driving is very dangerous by the way. Why the govt still allows it is baffling.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Evs and road pricing etc are going to sort that.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

Nutt has half a point. If smoking is more dangerous than a to-be-defined threshold then there is justification for a ban – a total ban. Banning it in annual increments while continuing to garner tax revenue from smokers is illogical and immoral.
Smoking is, however, not analogous to drug-taking. Smoking only harms the smoker. Drug-taking harms the wider community. Tobacco is not a gateway drug and no-one has ever been killed by someone driving under the influence of a cigarette.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
1 month ago

‘Smoking only harms the smoker’? Not exactly: it harms others who have to pay for the smoker’s treatment for illnesses, and also the families of smokers who lose their lives from it.

Thorunn Sleight
Thorunn Sleight
29 days ago

Not to mention that second-hand smoke is unquestionably deleterious, and is noxious as well!

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
1 month ago

Smoking is bad. Taking drugs is also bad. And yet, we argue over these things being legal or illegal, as if this would make them good for us. Encouraging freedom from them rather than freedom to use them would be the best idea, but this is looked upon as ‘do-gooding’ (a very bad thing indeed!) Where did we go wrong?

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago

Well, you went wrong when you defined them all so broadly as “bad”. There’s no way that stands up to any scrutiny in the context of a life lived as you knowingly choose. You also went wrong when you thought the debate over legality meant anything about their relative health effects, and you took the position of “freedom from them”. That’s a ludicrous and deliberate distortion of freedom to serve your desire for a tidy world. It’s untidy and some of us like it that way.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
29 days ago
Reply to  Mark HumanMode

Can you prove that smoking, or taking recreational drugs is a good thing? Neither is good for your well-being, short or long term. You seem to believe that ideas are better than realities, but making harmful choices leads to the loss of your freedom. It all comes down to positive versus negative. Making a negative choice should alert you to the necessity of reversing it. (No thanks for the insults, by the way–they don’t prove anything either.)

David Holmes
David Holmes
29 days ago

Aside from the discussion of whether we should or should not ban smoking, people are missing a much more important issue: Control
At some point in the future, a 49 year old may purchase cigarettes but a 48 year old may not. How do you police that? Digital passports, of course! You can bet your life that these won’t be limited to cigarettes – it will also include alcohol, meat, petrol (if it is still allowed then), energy consumption, taking a flight and everything. You will need such a passport to do anything. Imagine the power that it gives to governments to control what you can and cannot do.
So, a vote for this ban may be well-meaning but it is naive at best to the point of stupidity, especially when all trust in government has plummeted to new depths.
Be careful what you wish for.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago

A clear proof of Nominative Determinism,this so called expert – who is paying him. Personally Im in favour of legalising drug use so that they can all OD + die. Humanity needs a good clear out of all the rubbish.Maybe a stoned population would be quite useful,easy to.control and manipulate.