A senior government drugs adviser has been ordered by the home secretary to apologise for suggesting that taking ecstasy is no more dangerous than riding a horse.
Jacqui Smith hit out at comments made by Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), in an academic journal.
Miss Smith accused Prof Nutt of “trivialising” the harmful effects of drugs and showing “insensitivity” to the families of ecstasy victims.
The ACMD, which was opposed to tightening the law on cannabis, is expected to recommend on Wednesday that ecstasy be downgraded to a class B drug.
In 2004, under advice from the Council, the Government downgraded cannabis from class B to class C. It proved to be a disaster and the Government reversed the policy earlier this year.
Critics warn that weakening laws on drugs sends out mixed messages about the harm they cause.
Campaigners and families of ecstasy victims have called for the resignation of Professor Nutt claiming he is on a “personal crusade” to decriminalise ecstasy and other harmful class A drugs such as LSD.
Yesterday the Home Secretary told MPs in the House of Commons that the comments sent the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs.
She said: “I made clear to Prof Nutt that I felt his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect of him as the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
“He apologised to me for his comments and I’ve asked him to, as well, apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy.”
Miss Smith said she was “surprised and profoundly disappointed” by the remarks, which Prof Nutt wrote for last month’s edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
She added: “I’m sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking.”
In his article published in the journal, Prof Nutt suggested taking ecstasy was no worse than the risks of “equasy”, a term he invented describing people’s “addiction” to horse riding.
Prof Nutt said horse riding accounted for more than 100 deaths a year and he wanted to open a debate about drug abuse and risk-taking.
He said: “This attitude raises the critical question of why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use.”
He told The Daily Telegraph: “The point was to get people to understand that drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life.”
Prof Nutt maintains the drug is not addictive and does not lead to violence or heart damage and claims only ten deaths per year.
But the UK’s leading expert on ecstasy, Professor Andy Parrott of Swansea University, who has spent more than 14 years researching the drug, believes the real annual figure is 40-70 deaths.
Prof Parrott says nearly everything Prof Nutt has said about ecstasy is incorrect.
He warns that ecstasy has a powerful effect on the brain, perhaps even stronger than cocaine. Among its effects are lethargy, irritability, depression and aggression and, in the longer term, damage to the cognitive part of the brain and to the immune system.
The ACMD have distanced themselves from Prof Nutt’s comments claiming the article was not produced in relation to his position as chair of ACMD but in relation to his academic work.
A spokesperson for the ACMD said: “Professor Nutt’s academic work does not prejudice that which he conducts as chair of the ACMD.”
David Raynes, of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, told The Daily Telegraph: “He is entitled to his personal opinion, but if his personal view conflicts so very strongly with his public duties, it would be honourable to consider his position.
“If he does not, the home secretary should do it for him.”
Last September a Home Office spokesman said the government believed ecstasy should remain a class A drug.
“Ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably. There is no such thing as a ‘safe dose’,” he said.
Pauline Sumner of Birmingham, whose daughter Julie died nine years ago after her drink was spiked with half a tablet of ecstasy, said: “Maybe Prof Nutt should try losing a daughter to that drug the way I did and perhaps he wouldn’t be so flippant about it in future.
“Young people have difficult enough choices to make as it is when they go out these days, so for someone like him to say that ecstasy is not dangerous is just deplorable.
“Ecstasy is a killer. We don’t need any more deaths to prove that, and I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through because it is with you every day of your life.”