Neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt lost his job as the UK’s chief drug advisor when he publicly criticized the government’s drug policies. Now, as the Edmond J Safra professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, he’s publishing articles in prominent journals to encourage physicians to “embrace cannabis like penicillin.”
Nutt says that doctors embraced penicillin without first running a full suite of trials because it met a major clinical need at the time. The same is true for patients suffering from severe epilepsy and other debilitating conditions, Nutt says, and therefore the response to medical cannabis should be no different from how the healthcare profession embraced penicillin 70 years ago.
Distinguished Professor Wants Doctors to Overcome Fears About Prescribing Cannabis
The UK’s restrictive drug laws have been in the spotlight more than a few times in recent years. A number of high-profile instances of young patients being denied access to medical cannabis products, including non-psychoactive CBD generated such public outcry that UK lawmakers had to move the needle—slightly—on medical cannabis policy. Despite the loosening of the UK’s restrictive policy, however, doctors have still been reticent to actually prescribe cannabis to patients, especially minors.
As a result, Nutt said, the rollout of the UK’s medical cannabis program “has been much slower than patients and parents had hoped.”
Nutt said the medical community is still riven with fears and concerns about the adverse public health implications of prescribing cannabis. Nutt mentioned fears about cannabis-induced psychosis, “ignorance” about medical cannabis’ value and the challenges of obtaining products as major obstacles.
But while Nutt is calling for more research to investigate those concerns, he still feels doctors should embrace medical cannabis treatments.
Controversial Comparisons from Contentious Professor
Teachers know that a startling analogy can sometimes be the best way to drive home a point, and Professor Nutt is no stranger to controversial comparisons. In 2009, Nutt was fired from his post as the UK’s Chief Drug Advisor after he compared taking ecstasy to riding a horse.
In an editorial published in Journal of Psychopharmacology, titled “Equasy—An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms,” Nutt made the Swiftian argument that horse-riding presented a much greater harm to the public than illegal club drugs. Comparing rates of serious adverse events between the two activities—1/350 for horse riding, 1/10,000 for ecstasy/MDMA—Nutt made the statistical case that an addiction to horse riding was way worse than taking ecstasy.
Nutt said the point of the editorial was to draw attention to the way society measures the harm of drugs versus the harm of accepted and legal activities. But then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith didn’t appreciate the rhetorical move. Smith sharply criticized Nutt and fired him from his post over the editorial.
Now, Nutt is at it again. In an article for the medical journal BMJ, the professor compared the British medical community’s historical embrace of penicillin to its need to embrace cannabis today.
“About 70 years ago another natural medicine came into the medical arena,” Nutt said of penicillin. “This was welcomed enthusiastically by UK doctors even though there had been no placebo-controlled trials of its efficacy, because it was seen to fulfill a major clinical need.”
Nutt feels patients with severe and debilitating conditions in the UK present an equally urgent clinical need. And he wants doctors to respond by prescribing more cannabis.