Why Melanie Phillips is Nutts on drugs

A point-by-point fisking of Daily Mail extremist Melanie Phillips’s analysis of the Professor Nutt sacking.

Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail today has backed Alan Johnson’s decision to sack Professor Nutt. You can read her full article here.

She makes a number of claims about Professor Nutt’s work, which are worth addressing:

Firstly she suggests that Professor Nutt is not a voice of scientific reason and that his claim that ecstacy is less dangerous than horse-riding is “fatuous”. She says:

“This fatuous argument was shredded by one of the country’s leading experts on ecstasy, Professor Andrew Parrott, who said that ‘nearly every statement Nutt made about the effects of ecstasy was incorrect’ and ‘displayed a staggering disregard for the empirical evidence’ which showed that ecstasy was at least as powerful as cocaine.”

I had not heard of Andrew Parrott until I read Ms Phillips’s piece today but he is apparently a Professor at Swansea University. I found a post for the “Addiction Today” website done by him in November last year which is an open letter to the ACMD in which he criticises their advice on ecstacy. The Professor seems very dismissive of meta-analysis in his post on the site which the ACMD have apparently used.

There are organisations such as the Cochrane Collaboration which have actually made significant scientific breakthroughs through the use of this method. You also only have to read through the comments below Professor Parrott’s post to see that there are plenty of people who take issue with his approach. The bottom line here is that the ACMD is made up of eminent scientists in this field and they came to a conclusion based on their evidence and research.

I am not sure why Professor Parrott was not on the ACMD himself but the idea that his view “shreds” the findings and recommendations of the ACMD seems very far fetched.

Phillips then moves onto Cannabis:

“Other scientists have also come out against Nutt. According to experts such as psychiatrist Dr Robin Murray, there is significant evidence that cannabis triggers psychosis and schizophrenia.

“Even the Government’s own National Director for Mental Health, Professor Louis Appleby, told the Advisory Council last year that cannabis should be reclassified as more harmful because there was now sufficient evidence that it could contribute to a pattern of relapse and risk in mental health patients.

“Nutt claims his arguments are ‘scientific’. Does that mean that scientists such as Professors Parrott and Appleby or Dr Murray are not scientific?”

No Melanie, it means that there are a divergence of views among some scientists. However, at the risk of repeating myself, the ACMD is made up of leading scientists in this field and their findings and recommendations were clear by a large majority, that Cannabis should remain a Class C drug. According to them, the evidence of a causal link between cannabis and schizophrenia is weak. There is a correlation but this may well be that people who suffer from, or are prone to, mental illness are more likely to self-medicate with cannabis.

A clear causal link has never been shown.

Now Phillips moves on to criticise Professor Nutt’s methodology:

“And just how rigorous is Nutt’s science anyway? For his comparison of the relative risks of alcohol, tobacco and soft drugs is distinctly unscientific.

“Any proper comparison of the risks involved can be made only with similar levels of consumption. But, clearly, the general level of consumption of illegal drugs is very much lower than that of alcohol or tobacco. So Nutt is not comparing like with like.”

Three quick points on this:

  1. Phillips might be surprised at just how people out there are taking cannabis and ecstacy. Yes, there won’t be as many as those who use tobacco and alcohol but still plenty enough to derive a good enough sample size.
  2. If Phillips is saying that there is no scientific way to compare very large (but different sized groups of people) then that would be a lot of scientific method right out the window. There are ways to deal with this through sampling.
  3. Melanie Phillips read English at Oxford University. She is simply not qualified to make these sort of judgements about Professor Nutt’s scientific methodology.

Next Phillips tries to make an argument for big differences between legal and illegal drugs:

“No one disputes the immense harm done by alcohol or tobacco. But the crucial point is that the damage done by illegal drugs kicks in at a far lower level of individual consumption.

“If people have a pint of beer or a glass of wine once a week, this hardly causes any health problems.

“But according to Professor Parrott, if people take ecstasy every weekend, this causes low moods, fatigue, disrupted sleep, mid-week depression and other ailments.”

Now it is Ms Phillips who is not comparing like with like. A pint of beer or glass of wine once per week is so low a dose as to have virtually no effect, therefore it is not surprising there would be little or no side effects. One ecstacy pill does have a more potent effect than a pint of beer and carries on that effect for several hours.

A more valid comparison would be to compare someone taking ecstacy every weekend with a typical amount of alcohol drunk by someone of the same age and similar peer group on a typical weekend for them, more likely to be several pints or glasses of wine per night. I suspect over time the side-effects listed by Phillips above would equally apply to the person using alcohol instead of ecstacy.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the person taking ecstacy in the comparison above cannot actually be sure of the potency of the drug they are taking due to its illegality. This is a consequence of the drugs laws that Phillips is so keen to defend. She might wish to reflect on this.

There’s more:

“…the way Nutt assessed the risks posed by all these substances is even more questionable still.

“For he invented his own drug classification system, for which he asked 77 psychiatrists to grade the harm done by a range of illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco.

“Only 29 replied – far too few for a reliable assessment – so he asked other medical experts to give their views. But we don’t know what kind of doctors these were.”

Professor Nutt is the leading scientist in this particular field. The only reasonable way that the findings could be questioned like this is through a systematic review by people qualified to do it.

Towards the end of the article, Phillips now tries to implicitly smear Professor Nutt and the ACMD:

“In the field of drug policy, science has been in part corrupted by the climate of opinion in which the dangers of illegal drugs have been deliberately minimised.

“This is part of a trillion-dollar global campaign to legalise drugs – in which certain pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest, since they stand to make a huge amount of money from the sale of cannabis, ecstasy and other drugs if they were to be legalised.

“With virtually the whole of the drug-related voluntary sector succumbing to the siren song of the legalisers, the whole discourse around drug policy has been changed to ‘harm reduction’, the camouflage for legalisation.”

No evidence is provided for any of the above. She is essentially implying that Professor Nutt and the ACMD has been corrupted to fit in with a legalising agenda. David Nutt is not in favour of legalisation and has never made any statements that I can find that fit in with Phillips’ characterisation. He is just trying to analyse the evidence to the best of his ability and ensure drugs end up in the correct category based on this.

Melanie Phillips also provides no evidence that pharmaceutical companies have been involved in this supposed “corruption”. The paragraph is just tossed in to leave the reader in no doubt as to what they are supposed to think.

The final point she makes is worth looking at too. She claims that harm reduction is a “camouflage” for legalisation. The truth is that many people who have spent years working with drug addicts have come to the conclusion that the best way to reduce harm is to legalise and regulate them. It is not a “camouflage”, it is a genuinely held view about how best to stem the tide of disease and death that continues to occur under the existing legislative regime.

I haven’t quoted everything in Phillips’ article for reasons of brevity (you can follow the link at the top of the article to read for yourself) but there are further examples of her questioning the methodology of Professor Nutt’s work. I reiterate that Melanie Phillips is not a scientist.

28 Responses to “Why Melanie Phillips is Nutts on drugs”

  1. Niklas Smith

    Another excellent article is Ron Liddle’s column in yesterday’s Sunday Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/rod_liddle/article6898190.ece

    An interesting statistic he mentions is that it is estimated that one million ecstasy tablets are consumed EVERY WEEK. Sounds to me like a pretty high general level of consumption, certainly among those who actually use ecstasy.

    I don’t think that legalisation is a panacea. Perhaps medicalising (rather than criminalising) drug abuse in the way that Portugal has done is the least bad alternative. Putting you hands over your ears and shouting meaninglessly like a toddler who doesn’t want to be corrected will not get us anywhere – Ms Phillips, Mr Johnson and Mr Grayling please take note!

    P.S. Mark, great article but could we spare poor Professor Nutt from the puns in the future? 😉

  2. blind steve

    Good call. Phillips shows not only her general ignorance, but also that she either has exceptionally poor reading comprehension skills (believable) or that she simply hasn’t bothered to actually read any of the studies that Nutt has contributed to (also believable). Or both (almost certainly true)

    If she had, she would have found refutations of most of her more retarded statements. There’s a particularly good section the most recent on media misconceptions.

    Thus she provides a shining example of exactly the point that Proff Nutt is trying to make, that people are prepared to devalue and denounce good science in order to suit their ‘moral’ or political agendas.

    But then, the woman is exceedingly dense. Anton LaVey (a renowned Satanist) once quoth “it’s to bas stupidity isn’t painful”. We can infer from this that he had never read the Daily Mail.

  3. Hugo Hirsh

    Melanie Phillips is an idiot. The mail loves to incite this stuff doesn't it? First Moir, now Phillips? http://tinyurl.com/yjy4vpj

  4. Chris

    I don’t agree with Melanie Phillips, but this article is far from your best work.

    Firstly, it’s clear that her comments about level of consumption relate to the individual levels throughout – she’s not talking about sample size in the first comments quoted.

    Secondly, the fact that she is not a scientist does not disqualify her from commenting on research methods. I studied sociology and politics, but I understand enough about scientific method to be able to perceive when research conditions are rigorous or not. Whatever you think about Melanie’s views on the research methods here, your assumption that someone without a science degree couldn’t possibly understand basic principles of scientific objectivity is startlingly elitist.

    Thirdly, she does actually make a valid point about individual consumption levels. The fact is that ecstasy comes in small tablets, and the lowest realistic dose that someone would take – half a tablet – is far stronger than “social” levels of drinking. In this sense, she is comparing like with like in the sense that she is comparing the impact on the body of the smallest realistic dose of the drug. I don’t believe she has the right conclusions, but she is right that this creates important differences between alcohol and ecstasy which we should not simply ignore – whether or not we believe in legalisation.

    Fourthly, and with apologies for being pernickety, your argument is not helped by your repeated mis-spelling of “ecstasy”.

    For me, these weaknesses ended up obscuring the excellent points that you did make. And I’m in favour of legalisation, so I wonder how much impact your article will have had on those who are not…

  5. Mark Thompson


    Thanks for your comments. I’ll have a go at addressing them below:

    1) I think you mean: “Any proper comparison of the risks involved can be made only with similar levels of consumption. But, clearly, the general level of consumption of illegal drugs is very much lower than that of alcohol or tobacco. So Nutt is not comparing like with like.”. That seems to me to be talking about the number of people in the country who take illegal drugs vs legal drugs. I can’t really see any other way to read this. Perhaps you could explain where you think I’ve got that wrong?

    2) It’s a fair point that non-scientists are within their rights to comment on science. The problem is that she is trying to pick holes in something outside her field of expertise (and she doesn’t even caveat it). It would be a tall order for anyone to do so but for a newspaper columnist who has no specialism in this field it is an invidious task. Yet she chooses to try and do it anyway. She has form for this too. She has waded into the MMR debate on numerous occasions and seems absolutely convinced that there is some conspiracy afoot despite the fact that there is no credible evidence of a link between MMR and autism. Some people will have made decisions about vaccination based on her ill-informed columns. I see the same pattern here. So I think it is fair for me to point out that she is not properly qualified to analyse Professor Nutt’s methodology in a rigorous enough way for there to be enough credence in what she says. She is setting herself up as an authoritative voice on the science relating to this subject when I do not think it is warranted.

    3) I disagree with you. I do not think it is valid. Comparing taking an ecstasy tablet with one glass of wine is not a fair comparison. An ecstasy user can take one tablet and the effects will be substantial and last for several hours. The only fair comparison in that case with alcohol is to look at an evening’s drinking which would typically comprise several (perhaps more) drinks. I think it is also worth briefly asking why the potency of ecstasy is so high. The drugs have to be smuggled and hidden so the smallest possible volume for the maximum possible effect is what the manufacturers aim for. Exactly the same sort of thing happened in the USA during prohibition with alcohol. Very strong hooch was brewed and in some cases people went blind because of it. This was a result of its illegality. So this is another situation where what Melanie is complaining about is largely a function of the laws she supports.

    4) Hands up. I will try harder in future not to spell things rongly.

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