Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Adviser attacks ecstasy refusal

People for and against a reclassification of the drug explain their views

The government's drug adviser has accused ministers of being influenced by politics after they rejected his recommendation to reclassify ecstasy.

Professor David Nutt says the drug should be downgraded from Class A to the less serious Class B.

He also said the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) would review the status of the Class A drug LSD.

The Home Office rejected the council's recommendation on ecstasy saying it was "unpredictable" and could kill.

The council's head, Prof Nutt, said: "Our job is not to give messages to the public. Our job is to tell the home secretary and drugs minister about the relative harms of drugs.

"I think they have accepted our evidence but I think they have made a political decision."

But Home Office Minister Alan Campbell said "ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably" and added the government had a "duty" to protect the public.

A row broke out earlier this month after Prof Nutt likened the dangers of ecstasy use and horse-riding.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith responded by accusing him of trivialising the dangers of the drug. He later apologised for any offence and said the views were not those of his colleagues on the council.

Latest evidence

The advisory council reviewed the latest evidence on ecstasy last year and held a secret ballot of its 31 members on the issue of re-classification.

It is understood the result was not unanimous, but a majority voted to recommend moving the drug to Class B.

Graph of drugs deaths
Deaths mentioned on death certificates where cause is listed as drug poisoning
Cocaine and crack cocaine are indistinguishable in the body after death so no separate figures
The total number of deaths, which includes anti-depressants and painkillers, is 3,095

The advisers' view is that ecstasy is not as harmful as other Class A drugs and causes far fewer deaths.

It says ecstasy use has no significant impact on short-term memory loss and finds little evidence to link ecstasy to criminal behaviour.

But it will call for further research into the effects of taking ecstasy, particularly on younger users.

On LSD, Prof Nutt said there was an "issue" whether it was in the right classification and added a detailed review would be carried out.

The Home Office said it was against re-classifying the hallucinogenic drug which it said had "random" and "sometimes very frightening" effects.

A spokesman said: "It can have serious longer term implications for somebody who had a history of mental problems and may also be responsible for triggering a mental health problem that had previously gone undetected."

The ACMD is made up of medical and pharmaceutical experts, as well as people with experience of social problems caused by drugs, including police and lawyers.

Its role is to keep classification under review and advise ministers on any measures it thinks should be taken about drugs misuse.

Martin Barnes, chief executive of the think tank DrugScope, who sits on the advisory council, said it was crucial that a rigorously independent body was entrusted with this type of research precisely because drug classification was politically charged.

He did not dismiss the dangers of ecstasy, but said the job of the council was to dispassionately look at the relative harm of ecstasy compared with other drugs, such as cocaine, crack or heroin.

The council's report found that over the past 10 years, deaths in which ecstasy was implicated averaged between 33 and 50 per year, while deaths where it was considered the sole drug responsible averaged between 10 to 17 per year.

But the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales has expressed opposition to suggestions that ecstasy should be downgraded to a Class B drug.


Ian Johnston, president of the association, told the BBC: "This is not some academic or scientific exercise, this is dealing with people's lives."

Mr Barnes said that when no other drug was involved, ecstasy accounted for between 10 and 17 deaths a year.

Last month, the Home Office restored cannabis from Class C to Class B, against the wishes of the advisory council.

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said this latest recommendation raised real doubts about how long the council could continue in its present form if its experts continued to be ignored.

Most common club drug
Comes as pills and as a powder
Active ingredient is a drug called MDMA
Home Office surveys show 4.8% of UK 10-25 year olds have tried it at least once and 9% of 18-25 year olds have. (Offending, Crime & Justice Survey 2004)
Linked to 58 deaths in 2007
Ecstasy is an illegal class A drug
Maximum penalty for possession is 14 years in prison. For supply, life in prison. You can get an unlimited fine for both
Source: Kate Roach, BBC Surgery

The row over ecstasy erupted after the publication of an article by Prof Nutt in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

In it, he wrote: "Drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life. There is not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy."

He said horse-riding accounted for about 10 deaths a year, and went on: "This attitude raises the critical question of why society tolerates - indeed encourages - certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use."

Jacqui Smith said she was "surprised" and "disappointed" by his comments and told him he had gone beyond his role as head of the advisory council.

The professor later said in a statement: "I am sorry to those who may have been offended by my article.

"I would like to assure those who have read my article that I had no intention of trivialising the dangers of ecstasy."

Fatalities from ecstasy are caused by massive organ failure from overheating or the effects of drinking too much water.

Correction 13 February 2009: An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed to Professor Nutt a figure of 100 horse-riding deaths a year instead of 10.

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