Q&A With UK Scientist Who Gave Out Ecstasy on Live TV

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Last month, Dr. David Nutt, the UK’s former scientific advisor to the government on drugs, gave 25 British volunteers ecstasy (MDMA) on live TV.

Why? A respected psychiatrist and neuropharmacologist who served on the U.K. government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Nutt is known for taking controversial positions on illicit drugs. In 2009, he lost his role as chair in part because of his statement that ecstasy is no more dangerous than horseback riding— and because he said the science did not support the British government’s plan to increase legal penalties related to marijuana.

Now a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, Nutt has just published a new book, Drugs: Without the Hot Air. Healthland spoke to him about his statements and that drug-taking experiment on live TV.

So why did you decide to give ecstasy (MDMA) to people on live TV?

This is a fascinating story. I have been systematically trying to understand what drugs do in the brain. I spent 15 years trying to understand what alcohol does in the brain and I’ve given heroin to dozens of addicts in brain scanners. I wanted to study other drugs to see the similarities and dissimilarities.

But I could never get funding to study MDMA or amphetamines. Then one day about 18 months ago, a TV company came along and said we’d like to make a scientific film about drugs. We want to do something novel showing the science.

It was the biggest ever human experience study of MDMA and it was paid for by a TV company. The reason it was presented live was that they said that viewers believe it more if they can see live. It was a remarkable success.  Just a few crazies attacked me.

It was on two nights in a  row and I got to say hippocampus [a brain region involved in memory] on TV to 2 million people.

What about the claims that MDMA damages the serotonin cells in your brain, causing a brief depression three days later and maybe leading to longer lasting mood problems?

Our study was the first proper study of what happens at day three, what people call the 3-day blues.  We found that three days [after taking MDMA] there was no difference in mood. That suggests that the 3-day blues has more to do with dancing all night and taking other drugs and not getting enough sleep than with the drug itself.

There was a notorious 2002 study in which MDMA was supposedly given to monkeys in an equivalent dose to that taken by users and it caused death and Parkinson’s disease.  But, it turned out that the drug used was actually methamphetamine in an overdose…

That was one of the worse examples of scientific corruption I have ever seen.   When they tried to publish that paper, the referees said that there’s something wrong.  It was rejected by Science, but one of your senators put pressure on Science [to publish it].  It really was a low point we knew it was wrong, but we didn’t know why it wrong.

We previously had a [contaminant in illegal heroin] that caused Parkinson’s disease [a movement disorder]. We can see a signal like that fast.

By seeing a signal, you mean that if MDMA were as dangerous as the experiment suggested or as dangerous as that contaminant was, it would be very obviously killing thousands of people…

Yes.  And we’ve done many studies and cannot find any good evidence that MDMA damages serotonin neurons.

Will you publish the results of the televised study?

I think we will get at least five major publications out of it.  As well as the brain imaging, we used some new empathy tasks and it does make people more empathetic and more trusting.

Did you measure oxytocin, the hormone linked with social bonding?

We did. We’ll find out whether it’s correlated with empathy. We’re going to have an ‘E day’ in December to go through the results. They will be in the public domain hopefully in the new year.

So how did, as the British headlines put it, Professor Nutt get sacked?

I was chair of the [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)].  The remit is to provide information on the harms of drugs and therefore allow the government to determine their [legal] classification.  What we found over the years was that whenever we recommended that a drug be made illegal or recommended increasing the severity of the penalties, the government was quite happy to agree.

But when we said some drugs should be downgraded, they refused. Essentially, it got to the point where they were not doing what the law said they should do. They were denying the evidence when it suited them.

Then I criticized them publicly for this. I basically said they were just creating injustice.  The law does impact thousands of people. I criticized them and they sacked me.

What drugs really are the most harmful?

There are two dimensions:  harm to society and harm to the individual.  Our most recent research report was published in the Lancet in 2010.  Basically, it adds the two together. Overall, the most harmful drug is alcohol and that’s largely because it’s far and away the most harmful drug to society.  Then it’s crack and then heroin and crystal meth.

Synthetic “fake marijuana” substitutes like Spice and K2 are sold as “legal highs.”  But they haven’t been tested in humans and may turn out to be far more dangerous than marijuana.  Do you believe that legalizing marijuana itself would offer a safer substitute?

Absolutely. I heard that the ACMD is now going to make illegal a new cannabinoid called Annihilation.  Why are kids using synthetic cannabinoids?  Because they’re legal and they don’t want a criminal record.  As with all prohibition, going right back to alcohol prohibition in the U.S., people use more potent and toxic substances to get around prohibition. [By prohibiting drugs], we ratchet up the risk: it’s totally predictable. If we had a more liberal attitude towards cannabis, we wouldn’t have Annihilation.  We’re creating this market by our absurd policies.

(MORE: ‘Cuddle Chemical’ Oxytocin Relieves Alcohol Withdrawal)

Drug policy is generally divorced from data, particularly on marijuana.  Why doesn’t it ever change?

I think it’s partly because politicians don’t like admitting they were wrong.   And there’s a myth like the Emperor’s New Clothes that if you talk sense about drugs, you will be seen as weak politically so they toe this hard line because they are scared that they will be seen as being weak.

[But] I think the public debate is changing. It’s harder and harder for people to simply deny the evidence.  The public has wised up.  I think we’re winning the public debate. Often these switches are dramatic and once the public is on our side, the politicians will follow.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.