Published online 12 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.95


Ecstasy advice is a bitter pill

Government refuses to swallow independent ecstasy recommendations.

David NuttDavid Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.University of Bristol

The UK government has again rejected key recommendations from its independent council on drug misuse, leading some to question its use of scientific advice.

The recommendation that MDMA, or 'ecstasy', be moved from the legal category of 'class A', reserved for the most dangerous drugs, to 'class B', was ruled out, along with the idea of offering a service to test the purity of pills for drug users.

Last year the government also rejected the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs's recommendation that cannabis remain a class C drug, and instead upgraded it to class B (see Table 1).

"One gets the impression that, on drug policy, the government's ears are closed to facts," says neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, former head of Britain's Medical Research Council. In March 2007, Blakemore co-authored an article with David Nutt, the council's chairman, and others on drug risk for the Lancet, which concluded that alcohol was more harmful than both ecstasy and cannabis1.

Released on 11 February, the council's report on ecstasy drew on a specially commissioned systematic review of more than 4,000 academic papers.

Many expected the recommendation to downgrade the drug to be rejected, as the government has previously affirmed a commitment to maintain ecstasy's class A status so as not to give any impression that the drug is safe. According to the council's report, the drug was implicated in the deaths of 33 people a year between 1993 and 2006 in the United Kingdom. It was, on average, the sole drug involved in 17 of those deaths per year.

Under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the government is not obliged to act on the council's recommendations, but it is supposed to consult with the council. The government did accept 11 of the council's 13 recommendations, including conducting more research into ecstasy's effect on brain mechanisms and gathering better data on the composition of seized drugs.

Nutt insists that the council is not saying ecstasy is not harmful, just that it is not as harmful as other class A drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine. "Not having ecstasy in class B undermines the whole of the act," Nutt says.

Independence issue

The government's decision comes days after the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and other politicians attacked Nutt over an editorial he penned in the Journal of Psychopharmacology2, which compared the risk of using ecstasy to that of horse-riding and called for a wider debate on how risks are tolerated by society.

Ecstasy pills and horse-riderWeighing risks — a tricky business.Joe Bird / Alamy & Punchstock

Smith said she was "surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article" and demanded that Nutt apologize. "I made it clear to Professor Nutt that I felt that his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the [council]," she said.

Other politicians were even more strident. Speaking in the House of Commons on 9 February, Conservative politician Christopher Chope said, "Is it not clear that the Home Secretary and almost everybody in the country has lost confidence in Professor Nutt, so why does she not sack him and his motley crew and save taxpayers some money?".

However, Liberal Democrat politician Evan Harris defended Nutt. "It is not on for a scientist to be called upon by the Home Secretary to publicly apologize for publishing his or her work in a peer-reviewed academic journal, especially when the individual is supposed to be independent of the Government," he said in a statement. "The idea of independent scientific advice is corrupted or rendered meaningless when advisers are publicly attacked by the politicians they are meant to be advising simply because they don't like the advice."


Blakemore agrees. "Does it mean that any researcher who publishes results that challenge government policy can expect a late-night call from a minister, demanding an apology?" he says. "It does make one worry about whether the government will be able to continue to rely on experts to provide help and guidance for the development of policy."

Nutt, however, was sanguine, and said the furore would not make him give up his role as chair of the advisory council. Asked by Nature News whether he would write a similar paper in future, he said, "I would think twice about it. I would probably still write it." 

  • References

    1. Nutt, D., King, L. A., Saulsbury, W. & Blakemore, C. Lancet 369, 1047–1053 (2007). | Article |
    2. Nutt, D. J. J. Psychopharmacol. 23, 3–5 (2009). | Article | PubMed |
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