Drugs, drink and David Nutt

Prof Sharon Ruston from Lancaster University explores how our moral and scientific perspectives on drugs have changed through the centuries and highlights some pioneering experiments by one of the Ri's most eminent scientists.

  • Cartoon of Ri lecture theatre

    New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! - or - an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air by James Gillray, 1802

    Credit: Royal Institution

Lots of people know the name of Prof David Nutt. He is the scientist who was sacked in 2009 from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson because he opposed the regrading of cannabis from Class C to B.

He is the man who openly stated that alcohol is more harmful to our society than cannabis. Despite having been asked to investigate such matters using proper scientific research, Prof Nutt’s advice was repeatedly ignored and contradicted by government policy.

I am very excited about the prospect of speaking at an event with Prof Nutt at the Ri on Thursday 13 March titled ‘From Laudanum to Meow-Meow: Drugs, Science, and Society; Past, Present, and Future’. I’ll be presenting the bit about the past: discussing the medicinal and recreational uses of nitrous oxide and laudanum (a preparation of opium dissolved in alcohol).

There are many points of connection and contrast between Prof Nutt’s research and that of the two figures whom I will be talking about: the chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and writer Thomas de Quincey (1758-1859). For example, when considering how drugs were thought of in the early nineteenth century, it is important to remember that there was not the same moral panic felt or stigma attached to these drugs as there is today.

Prof Nutt’s treatment at the hands of the Labour government in 2009 distinctly shows that scientific evidence is often considered less important than the moral aspects of the drugs debate. Prof Nutt’s conclusion that the Misuse of Drugs Act ‘is no longer fit for purpose and needed to be thoroughly revised’ calls for a radical shift in the way that drugs are perceived.[1]

The politicisation of the drugs debate means that the possible benefits of, say, a drug like ecstasy, for the 7.7 million sufferers in Europe of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is ignored (Nutt, pp. 24-26). Prof Nutt’s thinking on such subjects is logical and scientific rather than moral and emotional. For him the real concern is alcohol. I imagine, therefore, that he will be pleased to hear that the Home Office has finally decided to ban the sale of ‘below cost’ alcohol.

Davy’s self-experimentation with nitrous oxide was very brave under the circumstances: inhaling the drug was thought to be fatal before he tried it himself. Decades later, nitrous oxide became an invaluable medicine in the form of a much-needed anaesthetic to be used during surgical operations. Similarly, morphine, which came from opium, is still one of the most powerful pain-relief drugs we have today.

  • Page of Humphry Davy's notebook written under the influence of nitrous oxide

    A page from one of Humphry Davy's notebooks, written under the influence of nitrous oxide.

    Credit: Royal Institution

In the talk that I’ll give to the Ri, I will contextualize Davy’s and De Quincey’s scientific and recreational experiments with drugs and remind the audience that both nitrous oxide and opium were thought to offer the means by which, in Davy’s words, we could ‘destroy our pains and increase our pleasures’.[2]

If we can think of these experiments in a scientific rather than a moral way, their true significance to the wellbeing of society can be established.   

[1] David Nutt, Drugs Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs (Cambridge: UIT, 2012), p. 7.   

[2] Humphry Davy, Collected Works, ed. by John Davy, 9 vols. (London: John Murray, 1839), ii,85–6.

Prof Sharon Ruston holds a Chair in Romanticism at Lancaster University. She researches the relations between the literature, science and medicine of the Romantic period, 1780-1820 and is currently co-editing the Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy and his Circle.

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