Towards a science-based drug policy

Article first published as Moving Towards a Science-Based Drug Policy on Technorati.

The government is responsible for formulating a drug policy that protects both the health of its citizen’s and its delicate societal fabric from harm. The policy is enforced by the police and upheld by the courts via custodial sentences and rehabilitation. It is in the best interests of the government to therefore base the policy on scientific or sociological evidence to ensure consistency and transparency which in turn would be represented by an improvement in the health and well-being of the people. When scientists and medical experts report that  new evidence no longer supports the government’s position, it is expected that the policy should be changed to reflect the facts. Everyone’s a winner; the government can use science to formulate their policies accordingly and have irrefutable statistical and medical evidence to back-up their decisions, whilst citizens are protected from harm and addiction. Representative and democratic. Unfortunately, as with many decisions regarding politically sensitive topics, ideology and the ability to secure votes often trumps the science and this leads to inconsistencies within the policy making it more difficult to defend and police as well as ripe for judicial review and further scientific scrutiny.

Let us postulate that two new drugs have been formulated and they need to be assessed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to decide whether the evidence suggests that they should be legal for use or criminalised. Drug A is a powerful anaesthetic and depressant with damaging side effects and high toxicity, a strong potential for addiction and overdose, as well as a verifiable record of violent, risk taking and socially damaging behaviour. Drug C is a mild hallucinogenic and depressant with no recorded instances of overdose and very low toxicity, little or no propensity towards physical addiction or violent behaviour, as well as several scientifically validated medicinal uses. It seems like a straightforward decision. These two drugs do in fact exist and their appropriate legislative positions are opposite to what may be expected. Drug A is alcohol; legal, popular and often cited as a corner-stone of UK culture, whilst drug C is cannabis; illegal but still popular despite the possibility of a custodial sentence or rehabilitation programme for its possession and cultivation.

Cannabis. It’s a controversial topic, and one seldom addressed by UK politicians despite their individual propensity towards it’s use. It’s the UK’s most popular illegal recreational vice and is currently categorised as a class-B drug, along with amphetamines and other stimulants, and possession of even small quantities of cannabis can result in a 5-year prison sentence or an unlimited fine or both. Based on the severity of the government’s stance towards cannabis, one naturally assumes that it must be a physically, psychologically and societally harmful drug deserving of this level of strict policing and custodial enforcement. Over the last few years however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this may not necessarily be the case and many claims about the deleterious affects of smoked or ingested cannabis do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. The juxtaposition between the evidence and the current policy suggests that legislation regarding the recreational use of this substance may be dictated not by science, as it should be, but rather by the political machination of successive governments in the UK and abroad.

The cannabis plant and the biochemistry of the psychoactive compounds it produces are well studied. The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a secondary metabolite of the cannabis genus of flowering plants, which includes the species cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. THC is thought to have evolved as a defence against herbivorous animals, or as a form of protection against harmful UV-B rays from the strong tropical sun throughout its native range of Central and South Asia. The mature flowers of the female plant contain abundant glandular trichomes (see image) that secrete dozens of organic cannabinoids, including THC, and these structures are normally dried and then smoked, vapourised or eaten.

Evidence alluding to the ancient use of smoked cannabis as a sacrament in ritual or religious ceremonies, as well as the use of hemp – a versatile material made from the fibrous stems and stalks of the plants – for clothing and paper, has been found across Asia and the Middle East. The most ancient record of cannabis use is documented by tablets found in Assyria, northern Iraq today, dating to the 7th century BC, but archaeological evidence reveals that it was probably in use for many hundreds of years before. Cannabis remains part of several modern-day religions, including Hinduism, Rastafarianism and contemporary and ancient African religions such as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. ‘Magic’ hallucinogenic psilocybe mushrooms may have also been used as entheogens as far back as 6000 years ago.

THC laden granular trichomes visible on the surface of the flower of the female Cannabis plant.

Regardless of its sacramental use in religion, which could act to further enforce any reservations non-religious people may have on the legalisation of the drug, cannabis is used recreationally by millions of people from many backgrounds, including the sciences. Cannabis’ international fan-base formerly included respected cosmologist Carl Sagan, one of my scientific heroes, who anonymously authored an essay detailing his positive personal experiences of cannabis use. Sagan’s second wife Ann Druyan is a campaigner for the reform of marijuana laws in the US. Renowned evolutionary biologist Stephan Jay Gould was an advocate for the use of medical marijuana and claimed that the drug eased the chemotherapy-induced nausea associated with his 20-year battle against lung cancer.

It would appear that cannabis has a following amongst scientists because when objectively scrutinised it appears to be an extremely safe recreational drug, especially when compared to legal alternatives such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. Pharmacologist Professor David Nutt resigned from his position as head of the UK government’s drug advisory panel (ACMD) after instigating a political furore by noting that medical science suggests that LSD, ecstasy and cannabis pose much less of a risk to individual users, and society at large, than alcohol or tobacco. It would appear that his successor is likely to agree with his position. Given the evidence, it is difficult to disagree. It is obvious that inhaling smoke of any kind is likely to cause damage to the lungs, but it should be noted that cannabis smoke is known to contain markedly fewer carcinogens than that of tobacco. Personal experiences of cannabis intoxication may be differ between regular users and occasional smokers with heavy doses possibly resulting in nausea, anxiety and paranoia. It is however physically impossible to overdose on cannabis due to its remarkably low toxicity and there have been no recorded cases of any deaths linked solely to excessive cannabis consumption. There is also a temptation to associate cannabis use with loss of motivation, psychiatric problems and cognitive degeneration, but the science simply doesn’t reflect this perception. An increasing amount of evidence seems to suggest that cannabis has several beneficial properties, from appetite stimulation to sleep modulation, as an analgesic and and for treating glaucoma, amongst others.

Why does alcohol and tobacco remain legal whilst mountains of legitimate, scientific evidence suggests that cannabis, magic mushrooms and ecstasy are almost certainly less harmful. Legalising cannabis, for example, would most likely reduce its use (table 2) and eliminate the possibility of  it acting as a ‘gateway drug’. The key to the gateway is very much in the possession of the supplier as opposed to the buyer. Legalisation severs the supply chain that fosters this association and in so doing serves to board up the gateway and throw away the key, providing the gateway existed in the first place (paragraph 52 and 53). This progressive approach also removes the responsibility of the supply of the drug from the black market, where it is unregulated, its quality variable and toxic adulterants rife, to that of a regulated public or private institution where use can be monitored and its sale regulated, potential addiction addressed whilst also being heavily taxed for additional income.

In choosing to ignore the evidence of experts the government is setting a dangerous precedent. It is important to at all times make rational, informed and objective judgements when navigating the muddy waters of governance; basing your policies on substantial, easily defended evidence is a sure-fire way to ensure that they have added depth and consistency beyond shallow ideology and will stand up well to criticism and analysis. It’s difficult to write about cannabis, or drugs in general, without appearing biased. Although I have used the example of cannabis in this article, the same applies for a number of other recreational drugs that have been proven to be safer than it was initially thought. The subject is very polarising, and the direction of the schism seems to run parallel to the left-right orientation of the traditional political spectrum. It is for this reason that emotive politics should be left by the wayside and the lens of drug policy focussed instead by science.

Lessons from Easter Island

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian inhabitants the Rapanui, is an isolated, triangular volcanic island located in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, some 3500 km west of Chile. The total area of the island is about 160 km2 and it is currently home to an estimated 5000 people, the majority of whom are from Polynesian Rapanui descent. There is some considerable uncertainty surrounding the original date of settlement of Easter Island by seagoing Polynesian peoples from the Marquesas Islands in the west. In his excellent and highly recommended book Collapsegeographer Jared Diamond outlines studies suggesting that 900 CE is a more realistic estimate than the earlier dates of 300 to 400 CE.

The location of Easter Island, one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, 3500km west of Chile (Source: Wikipedia)

Easter Island is famed for its turbulent and mysterious history, epitomised by the island’s famed anthropomorphic moai statues and the ahu stone pedestals upon which they stand, constructed by the early inhabitants in the form of their deified ancestors and dedicated to their glory. There is also archaeological evidence of extensive and impressive stonemasonary in the form of walls and houses and other monumental structures, thousands of stone carvings known as petroglyphs, evidence of a written, but undecipherable, language known as rongorongo as well as intricate wooden carvings and amulets.

The moai statues are peppered along the coastline of the island with their backs to the sea, providing spiritual protection to the island’s inhabitants and ensuring that the Rapanui had a constant connection to their ancestors in the afterlife, upon which the entire cultural and religious ideology of the island’s societal structure was based. These impressive monuments, numbering around 880 – the largest of which is 10m tall and weighs a staggering 75 tonnes- were constructed at great cost by rival, class-based clans in desperate competition with each other. As a result of this competitiveness and chronic overpopulation, the island’s already delicate ecosystem collapsed under the weight of extreme, practically complete deforestation, as extensive supplies of wood were required to move and effectively carve the moai. Unsustainable management of the islands long-lived, slow growing indigenous flora resulted in the extinction of practically all native trees and shrubs. The agricultural structure of the island disintegrated as erosion decimated the fertile, unprotected topsoil and fishing was limited by the lack of materials for canoe and outrigger construction. Fuel for warmth during the cold nights became scarce and wild food in the form of fruits and animals and birds disappeared. The population of the island plummeted some 70% and in dark times an increasingly desperate society turned to cannibalism or starvation.

Coinciding with the collapse of the ecosystem and population of the island, the traditional religious class-based structure of Easter Island was also overthrown in a military coup during the middle of the last millennium, which resulted in a fundamental upheaval of the dynamics of Easter Island society – moai were toppled, civil war erupted, traditional homes were abandoned and in their diaspora people took to living in caves for protection from each other.

There is a lesson for us in the sad tale of Easter Island – a once proud, prosperous and advanced society with a rich cultural history descended into chaos, violence and cannibalism at the hands of the environmental mismanagement that they wrought upon themselves, fuelled by their innate sense of competition and greed. Isolated populations can and do collapse under the strain of the overexploitation of the bounty of their natural environment. In the case of Easter Island the pivotal resource was wood; today it could be any number of finite substances in which we place our unbridled trust, and around which our entire society is based: oil, coal, metals and radioactive fuels for example. The Easter Islander who cut down the last tree did so in desperation – probably not aware of the significance of that final plant – but by the time that solitary shrub was felled it was already too late for the population of Easter Island to avert the environmental disaster that was now imminent. The damage was done long before; life giving soils washed into the cold Pacific, canoes vital to fishing rotted and leaked and the chilling wind of violent societal upheaval swept across the tiny island. Decades of short-sighted exploitation, environmental mismanagement, greed and overpopulation resulted in the decimation and collapse of an entire civilisation.

Milky Way Above Easter Island

We are an isolated population here on Earth, as they were on Easter Island. A retrospective microcosm of our lonely planet whose turbulent history should serve as a reminder that our global society is not too big nor too advanced to fail and if, or rather when, it does – when that last tree, or drop of oil, or lump of coal has been forcefully extracted from the earth – then we will have only our blind dependence on non-renewable resources to blame. I hope that in the coming decades we, as a global community, can work together to wean ourselves off of our dependence on non-renewables and take progressive steps towards a globally integrated, sustainable energy solution to ensure that our world does not befall the same fate as that of the Easter Islanders.

Science in 2011: I’ve got good news, and bad news…. (Technorati Article)

Article first published as Science in 2011: I’ve Got Good News, and Bad News…. on Technorati.
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Even though higher education and universities in the UK are facing huge spending cuts, most of which will have to be passed on to future generations of students, the news for science in the coming years may not be all bad.
Granted, students who begin a course at any one of England’s universities during the 2012/13 academic year will bear the full brunt of these austerity measures when they fork out an extra £5000-a-year for tuition fees, an increase of about 150% on the fees of the previous cohort of students. The measures were passed earlier this year by the House of Commons (and later by the Lords) and were greeted by mass outcry, violent protest and fervent disapproval from students, university chiefs and union members. Whilst it is too early to tell if enrolment will be affected, what seems apparent is that the cuts to government funding of universities will be felt hardest in departments focussing on social science and the arts. Continued lobbying, protest and petitioning of the government seems futile now. The cries of a 250,000-strong protest against the cuts that took place in London on the 26th of March seems to have fallen on deaf or indifferent ears, perhaps plugged with a sense of unyielding stoicism or steadfast determination in their belief that these cuts are right, necessary and fair.
However, the news is not all doom and gloom. The recent UK budget outlined an extra £100 million for science institutions focussing on space science and physics across the country, and the recent inception of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) will hopefully usher in a new era of space science innovation whilst ensuring that the UK remains a world-leader in high-technology research. However, this investment is still relatively meagre, at £240 million-a-year, in comparison to other leading European countries. France, for example, has recently announced an investment of £440 million in its domestic space industry.
In other news, the British Isles will soon be the proud operator and home to the world’s largest radio telescope array – the Square Kilometre Array or SKA – the headquarters of which will be opened in 2012 at Jodrell Bank in Chesire. The project will be completed at the cost of a cool £1.2 billion. The SKA is considered an international ‘mega-science’ project and operates via the collaboration of partner observatories in 20 countries across the world. It is hoped the SKA will shed some light, or radio waves, on the birth of galaxies and planets and also contribute to the search for extraterrestrial civilisations.

However, a recent report by the Royal Society reports that the UK may have already slipped to third place in terms of citations of original scientific research, behind the US in first, and lagging tiredly in the wake of the extraordinary explosion of scientific output by China. This is an admittedly crude metric for measuring quality research output but worrying news none the less. Hopefully this report will serve as a reminder to the current coalition government on the importance of maintaining a well funded, competitive research and development industry in the future.

Conversely, the report may also point to a change in the nature of research, from a mainly national vocation to a more international and cosmopolitan affair. Other developing countries like Brazil, India and South Korea are increasing their research output, and a positive trend in the proportion of the world’s papers produced with more than one international author is becoming increasingly evident. Personally, I see the increasing internationalisation of science as a positive step towards an integrated global scientific community, drawing on the personal cultural perspectives of its members in an attempt to further the entirety of our collective understanding of our world and the universe in which we live.