"I think I'd be even more forceful now, because clearly we haven't moved on - in the last four years, if anything, we've moved backwards."
David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, when asked by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight whether he would be more "judicious" in speaking out about the drug laws now than he was when he got the sack as chairman of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009. No wonder he's the recipient of this year's John Maddox Prize for Standing Up for Science, the judges specifically citing "his continued courage and commitment to rational debate, despite opposition and public criticism".
Nutt's "crime", in the eyes of former Health Secretary Alan Johnson and others, is to present solid scientific evidence revealing the (politically) inconvenient truth about drugs - namely, that their harmfulness is often grossly exaggerated and is actually comparable to that of many supposedly ordinary activities.While not disputing the damage that drugs can do, he argues that the decriminalisation (not legalisation - a subtle difference) of ecstasy and cannabis would be the best step forward, and that the current legal framework is impeding the work of scientists like himself who are trying to gain a better understanding of drugs and of their possible clinical uses. By contrast, he describes alcohol and tobacco as "unquestionably" more harmful to society as a whole (if not always the individual user) than some illegal drugs, and has continued to reiterate a call for tighter regulation and increased prices, most recently in a Guardian article this week.
It may not be what a lot of people - the government, the Daily Heil, the drinks industry - want to hear, but Nutt's clearly going to keep saying it, and backing it up with evidence. The findings of appointed scientific advisers should help to direct government policy but if, as he suggested in his Newsnight interview, these advisers are routinely ignored or even silenced when their recommendations contradict preconceived policy, then it seems utterly pointless to have them at all - it's mere lip service. The government are essentially operating like the drug companies who fund research and then embargo or suppress the findings if they're not favourable.