By Les Hern (also at the Workers Liberty website and the current issue of Solidarity newspaper)
“Against stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain”, Goethe.
Towards the end of January, “mostly supine” MPs passed a bill after a “clueless debate”.
The Psychoactive Substances Act which is intended to ban “legal highs” (novel psychoactive substances — NPSs) is “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever conceived.”
“Watching MPs debate…it was clear most didn’t have a clue. They misunderstood medical evidence, mispronounced drug names, and generally floundered. It would have been funny except lives and liberty were on the line.”
Not my words but those of an editorial in New Scientist (30 January 2016) and a report by Clare Wilson. The act came into force on 26 May, meaning that previously legal “head shops” must cease selling NPSs. The banned drugs will only be available from illegal drug dealers.
The story starts with the panic about “legal highs”, chemicals with similar effects on mood to banned drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or speed, hence the term “psychoactive”. Legal highs were not covered by drug laws that banned named compounds but not new ones with similar effects.
If history tells us anything, it is that humans take drugs. Sometimes, these drugs cause harm to those who take them or to society in general. Banning specific drugs makes their use more dangerous.
A logical approach would be to reduce the harm by controlling purity, taxing their sale, and educating users instead of criminalising them.
Drug users would prefer not to break the law, providing a considerable incentive to synthesise new drugs that mimic banned drugs but aren’t on the banned list. But these new drugs will have unknown side effects and there is no control on dose and purity. In contrast, the effects of many “traditional” drugs are known.
The rationale for banning NPSs was that they were dangerous. Legal highs were mentioned in coroners’ reports for only 76 deaths from 2004 to 2013 (Office for National Statistics). Despite the government’s banning of NPSs as fast as it could, the number of mentions was increasing (23 in 2013). Reliable data are extremely difficult to obtain and mere mention of a drug in a coroner’s report is not evidence that the drug caused the death.
As each NPS was banned, more were synthesised. There were 24 NPSs in 2009 and 81 in 2013, making the government’s actions futile, so some bright spark came up with the idea of banning the production and supply of all substances which produce “a psychoactive effect in a person… by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system [thus affecting] the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.” A bill was proposed by the new Conservative government and specified that anyone producing or supplying (but not merely possessing for personal use) the previously legal NPSs could be sent to prison for up to seven years.
The proposal soon ran into problems.
Firstly, what is meant by stimulating or depressing the central nervous system?
Secondly, what constitutes an effect on a person’s mental function or emotional state?
Thirdly, how could it be proved that any suspected substance was psychoactive? After all, placebos can be psychoactive.
Fourthly, what about alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, many medicines, and foodstuffs such as nutmeg and betel nut (or, in my case, cake)?
Finally, would bona fide scientific research on psychoactive substances be outlawed?
Criticism poured in from scientists. Respected medical researchers said the bill was “poorly drafted, unethical in principle, unenforceable in practice, and likely to constitute a real danger to the freedom and well-being of the nation” (letter to The Times).
The Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, and others wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May that “Many types of important research could potentially be affected by the Bill, particularly in the field of neuroscience, where substances with psychoactive properties are important tools in helping scientists to understand a variety of phenomena, including consciousness, memory, addiction and mental illness.”
Even the government’s Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), more in line with politicians’ wishes since the shameful “firing” of Professor David Nutt (see below), produced a list of objections. The government’s omission of the word “novel” made the bill apply to a vast number of other substances in addition to legal highs. It would be impossible to list all exemptions so benign substances, such as some herbal remedies, might be inadvertently included. Also, proving that a substance was psychoactive would require unethical human testing, since laboratory tests might not stand up in court.
The government changed the bill to exempt scientific research but otherwise remained obdurate. An example of the inevitable confusion concerns alkyl nitrites (poppers). Known since 1844 and used to treat heart problems, they have a short-acting psychoactive effect and are generally safe.
However, the government referred to several non-specific risks and claimed that poppers had been “mentioned” in 20 death certificates since 1993 (far fewer than for lightning). After a Conservative MP appealed for poppers, which he used, not to be included, the government said they would consider the arguments later.
Another example concerns nitrous oxide (laughing gas), included in the ban despite its long history of use in medicine and recreationally. Discovered in 1772, laughing gas was greatly enjoyed by Sir Humphry Davy and friends, including the poet Shelley. It has an impressive safety record and has been used in dental and childbirth anaesthesia and sedation since 1844.* Nevertheless, the government referred to “the harms” of recreational laughing gas and included it in the bill. In fact, the deaths “caused” by nitrous oxide result from incorrect methods of inhalation which could be eliminated by education.
The Act was finally implemented on 26 May. Independent expert David Nutt described the government’s policy as “pathologically negative and thoughtless.” He predicts that deaths from drugs will increase as people turn to illegal drug dealers in the absence of legal “head shops.”
Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. This just about sums up successive governments’ policies towards drugs.**
**But not all drugs. Nicotine and alcohol are legal, despite their addiction potential, toxicity, and role in causing accidents. See, for example, Smoking and accidents
Labour’s problems with scientific evidence
Tories don’t have a monopoly on cluelessness.
Expert neuroscientist Professor David Nutt was “sacked” from his position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the right-wing press’s favourite Labour politician, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. This was after Nutt showed that cannabis, then being upgraded to Category B (the same as codeine, ketamine, mephedrone or speed) was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
This wasn’t an ordinary sacking since Prof Nutt gave his time and expertise freely, believing that it was important to present the evidence to improve the quality of the debate. Three members of the ACMD resigned in protest.
Nutt stated in a lecture to fellow academics that the evidence showed that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Johnson called this “campaigning against government policy” and “starting a debate in the national media without prior notification to my department.”
Johnson was then accused of misleading MPs since Prof Nutt had given prior notice of the content of his lecture and no journalists were invited. Further, as an unpaid advisor, Nutt was not subject to the same rules as civil servants. Other ACMD members who resigned said that they “did not have trust” in the way the government would use the ACMD’s advice and that Johnson’s decision was “unduly based on media and political pressure.”
Shamefully, PM Gordon Brown backed Nutt’s removal, saying that the government could not afford to send “mixed messages” on drugs. Both Brown and Johnson (some people’s favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn) were quite happy to send the wrong message.
Supported by other scientists, Nutt was awarded the John Maddox Prize for standing up for science by the pro-evidence charity Sense About Science.
The government subsequently accepted a new ministerial code allowing for academic freedom and independence for advisers, with proper consideration of their advice. Under this, Nutt would not have been dismissed.
• Nutt now works with Drugs Science
Above: the trailer for Vaxxed, promoting the discredited claims of a quack
Robert De Niro’s support for the fraudulent quack Andrew Wakefield, struck off by the GMC in 2010 for “callous disregard for the distress and pain of children” has raised fears that American parents will be unwilling to give their children the MMR -measles mumps and rubella – jab, needlessly putting thousands of children at risk.
Although De Niro has withdrawn Wakefield’s film Vaxxed from the Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro has continued to back Wakefield and told the Today show: “I think the movie is something people should see … There is a link [between the MMR jab and autism] and they are saying there isn’t and there are … other things there.”
In this age of conspiracy theories (especially prevalent, it seems, in the US), the very fact of the film being withdrawn in response to an outcry against it by the scientific and medical “establishment” may well only serve to give publicity and credibility to the dangerous, dishonest fraud and quack Wakefield and his discredited claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism.
Below is an open letter by film director Todd Drezner, who is himself (like De Niro) the father of a boy with autism, to the distributors of Vaxxed. It was first published at left brain right brain:
Dear Cinema Libre,
I’m writing to explain why I’m so disappointed in your decision to distribute “Vaxxed.” I have three main objections:
1) Perhaps of most relevance to Cinema Libre is that Andrew Wakefield has assembled his film using unethical and dishonest editing techniques. As documented here, the “Vaxxed” trailer splices excerpts from two different phone calls together and then inserts a narrator giving an interpretation of those calls that is not supported by the facts. And this is merely one example from a brief trailer. Who knows how many misleading edits Wakefield has made in the full film?
Given Cinema Libre’s commitment to the idea that documentaries can make a social impact, I would think you would want to be associated with filmmakers who follow ethical practices and journalistic standards when making documentaries. When a dishonest filmmaker like Wakefield receives distribution and a theatrical release, it undermines all documentary filmmakers. We depend on the trust of our audiences. Your decision to support a dishonest film like “Vaxxed” destroys that trust. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane outlines these issues nicely here.
2) Cinema Libre’s blog post about “Vaxxed” refers to “the suppression of medical data by a governmental agency that may well be contributing to a significant health crisis.” This is, I’m sorry to say, no more than a fever dream. First, as you will remember from watching “Loving Lampposts,” the autism “epidemic” can be explained by a combination of changing diagnostic criteria, increasing awareness of autism, and the benefits of receiving a diagnosis (in terms of the access to services and support the diagnosis provides).
Secondly, the CDC “whistleblower” around whom the trailer (and I assume the film) revolves did not reveal anything nearly as sinister as the trailer suggests. It is true that William Thompson of the CDC revealed to Dr. Brian Hooker that a 2004 study of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism supposedly found an association between the vaccine and autism in African American males.
Before I say anything about that finding, let’s note what that finding rules out: any association between the MMR vaccine and any other group besides African American males. Even if Thompson’s assertion were true (it’s not), it still doesn’t support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism in the many people who are not African American males.
But what about the supposed link between the vaccine and African American males? It’s nothing. Basically, the original study of the association between the vaccine and autism did not leave out African Americans on purpose. Rather, it did so to eliminate “confounders” — that is, any factor other than the vaccine that could have been associated with autism. The authors of the study wanted to be sure that any effect they saw was caused by the MMR and not something else. Dr. Hooker’s “re-analysis” of the study does not account for confounders properly and even if it did, the population of African American males in the study is too small to support any broad conclusions. And one more time, even if the supposed link between African American males and the MMR vaccine were significant, it still rules out any link between the vaccine and all other groups. You can read about these issues in much more detail here and here.
It’s well known that Andrew Wakefield’s research into the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. His film is based on equally poor science.
3) Despite Richard Castro’s statement on your blog that the Tribeca Film Festival succumbed to “pressure to censor” “Vaxxed,” there was no censorship. As I’m sure you’re aware, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting speech. The Tribeca Film Festival is not government. It is a private organization that is free to screen, or not screen, any film it chooses for any reason. Indeed, Tribeca rejects the work of thousands of filmmakers every year. I’m sure Cinema Libre rejects many filmmakers as well. Are they being censored? Of course not.
On the “Vaxxed” website, Andrew Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree claim that they were “denied due process” when Tribeca decided not to screen “Vaxxed.” This is absurd. There is no such thing as due process when it comes to the decisions of a film festival selection committee. Nor should there be. If such a thing existed, every prestigious film festival would spend all its time sifting through complaints from unhappy filmmakers. There will always be unhappy filmmakers who are denied admission to film festivals. Andrew Wakefield is now one of them. But he is not a censored filmmaker.
On a personal note, I was and remain grateful for the work Cinema Libre did to promote “Loving Lampposts” when it was released. You got the film screened at venues I could not have and publicized it through news coverage I did not have access to. I hoped and believed that along the way, you came to appreciate the film’s message that autistic people can thrive when they are accepted and when they receive the support they need to function in a world not built for them. Apparently, and much to my dismay, this message did not sink in.
By releasing “Vaxxed,” Cinema Libre is actively harming thousands of autistic people. While we should be discussing ways to best support autistic people and help them lead fulfilling lives, you would instead have us follow a discredited scientist and dishonest filmmaker down a rabbit hole that leads only to long debunked conspiracy theories. I am profoundly disappointed.
I don’t expect that Cinema Libre will change its decision. But given our long business relationship, I felt I owed you this explanation of where I stand. I hope that sometime in the future you may find ways to undo the damage you are about to cause.
By Pat Corcoran
The Unite report of its recent conference for members in the defence sector is at: http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/unpatriotic-government-policy-putting-defence-jobs-at-risk/ McCluskey says that his speech is not a nationalist rant. Which is the roundabout way of saying: it is a bit of a nationalist rant.
The book of conference motions for the 2016 Unite policy conference has just been published. There are 13 pages of motions about Trident renewal, ranging from full support to outright opposition. Most motions take the latter position. Unsurprisingly, the motion from the Aerospace and Shipbuilding National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) does not. What that motion calls for is for Rule 2 to be upheld. Rule 2 of the Unite Rulebook is a commitment to protect members’ jobs and communities. As the motion puts it: “We are not a political party, we are a trade union.”
In fairness, Unite does face a genuine dilemma: Around 7,000 people in Barrow-in-Furness work for BAE Systems Maritime, with up to 10,000 more working for its suppliers. The firm is currently building seven nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines and planning the Successor programme to replace the aging Vanguard-class submarines, which carry nuclear missiles, ensuring jobs for 30 years. The industry is responsible for around one in ten jobs in the area and if the supply chain is taken into account it’s probably nearer one in five.
In addition, Unite has a long established tradition of respecting the wishes of its directly effected sectors when it comes to key industrial issues.
McCluskey and the overwhelming majority of the Unite EC would genuinely like to see nuclear disarmament, but they face a real dilemma: surely the first duty of a trade union is to defend the jobs of its members? The Aerospace and Shipbuilding NISC has a point about Unite not being a political party.
There is only one way to resolve this dilemma: Unite must commission an expert report into how to replace Trident-related jobs and put serious resources (ie financial resources) into coming up with a detailed, practical alternative jobs plan, just as the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards did in the 1970’s. Corbyn could also be offered support for abolishing Trident so long as assurances are forthcoming regarding a future Labour government safeguarding jobs. Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that McCluskey and the United Left majority on the EC are minded to adopt such a strategy.
The British Medical Association (BMA) has announced three further 48-hour strikes of junior doctors. The BMA also announced that it is to seek a judicial review into the government’s plans to impose new contracts.
The dates planned for industrial action are 9 March, 6 April and 26 April. All are scheduled to begin at 8am. Emergency cover will be maintained.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s controversial push to impose new terms and conditions on all 45,000 junior doctors has exacerbated the bitter and long-running dispute.
We publish, below, a detailed critique, by science writer Les Hearn, of Jeremy Hunt’s “evidence” of excess deaths at weekends, used to justify imposing the new contract. This article first appeared in Solidarity:
Lies, damned lies, and Jeremy Hunt’s statistics
The government’s argument in their attack on junior doctors’ pay and conditions has been that they had a manifesto commitment to introduce seven-day access to all aspects of health care and that this was necessary to reduce excess deaths among weekend hospital admissions.
The government’s approach seems to amount to forcing junior doctors to work more at weekends for less pay. But, unless they also force them to work longer hours, this must reduce the number of doctors on weekdays. If the original problem of excess deaths was due to a lack of junior doctors at weekends, the result would be to equalise death rates by lowering death rates following weekend admissions and raising those following weekday admissions. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was very keen to talk about the evidence of excess deaths to justify his actions and, of course, evidence is very important. He claimed “We now have seven independent studies showing mortality is higher for patients admitted at weekends.” We will look at this evidence.
The DH says there is significant evidence of a “weekend effect” where patients admitted over the weekend have higher rates of mortality.1 The DH lists eight pieces of what they call research in support. 1. The major study cited by DH is from the British Medical Journal (Freemantle et al., 2015):2 one of its co-authors is Bruce Keogh, National Medical Director of NHS England. It found that death rates were higher for patients admitted on Fridays (2% higher), Saturdays (10% higher), Sundays (15% higher) and Mondays (5%) than on other days. Since the overall death rate within 30 days for all admissions is 1.8%, this means that the 15%-higher Sunday rate is 2.1% or 3 in 1000 “extra” deaths. We need to understand why and this is where it is important to look at how ill patients are on the day of admission. Risk The study informs us that, while 29% of weekday admissions are emergencies, on Saturdays the figure is 50% and on Sunday 65%. Using another criterion, mortality risk from all factors except day of admission, while 20% of weekday admissions were in the highest category, 25% on Saturdays and 29% on Sundays were in this highest risk of dying group. On these bases, we would expect an increased death rate for weekend admissions of anywhere between 25% and 125%. The observed “excess” of 15% on Sundays should be a cause for congratulation.
This paper is an update of the previous study by Freemantle et al. (2012)3 (see 5 below), also including Keogh. The findings were broadly similar except that the death rate on Saturdays and Sundays were very significantly lower than the average for weekdays. In the update this curious fact, which certainly needs discussion and explanation, is barely mentioned. To summarise, death rates for admissions on Saturdays and Sundays are increased by 10 to 15% but death rates for those already in hospital are reduced by 5 to 8%. Thus, the main source of support for the government’s Seven Day NHS plans does not provide any evidence for it. The weekend death rates for all patients are in fact far lower than one would predict from the seriousness of their illness. Read the rest of this entry »
Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP
The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.
What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
I urge you to read the whole thing, here.
The leading American Trotskyist, James P Cannon spoke at a memorial meeting in New York for Leon Trotsky on 22 August 1945. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just taken place (August 6 and 9), and Cannon used the occasion to express his outrage at the atrocity:
What a commentary on the real nature of capitalism in its decadent phase is this, that the scientific conquest of the marvellous secret of atomic energy, which might rationally be used to lighten the burdens of all mankind, is employed first for the wholesale destruction of half a million people.
Hiroshima, the first target, had a population of 340,000 people. Nagasaki, the second target, had a population of 253,000 people. A total in the two cities of approximately 600,000 people, in cities of flimsy construction where, as reporters explain, the houses were built roof against roof. How many were killed? How many Japanese people were destroyed to celebrate the discovery of the secret of atomic energy? From all the reports we have received so far, they were nearly all killed or injured. Nearly all.
In the [New York] Times today there is a report from the Tokyo radio about Nagasaki which states that “the centre of the once thriving city has been turned into a vast devastation, with nothing left except rubble as far as the eye could see”. Photographs showing the bomb damage appeared on the front page of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi. The report says: “One of these pictures revealed a tragic scene 10 miles away from the centre of the atomic air attack”, where farm houses were either crushed down or the roofs torn asunder.
The broadcast quoted a photographer of the Yamaha Photographic Institute, who had rushed to the city immediately after the bomb hit, as having said: “Nagasaki is now a dead city, all the areas being literally razed to the ground. Only a few buildings are left, standing conspicuously from the ashes.” The photographer said that “the toll of the population was great and even the few survivors have not escaped some kind of injury.”
In two calculated blows, with two atomic bombs, American imperialism killed or injured half a million human beings. The young and the old, the child in the cradle and the aged and infirm, the newly married, the well and the sick, men, women, and children — they all had to die in two blows because of a quarrel between the imperialists of Wall Street and a similar gang in Japan.
This is how American imperialism is bringing civilisation to the Orient. What an unspeakable atrocity! What a shame has come to America, the America that once placed in New York harbour a Statue of Liberty enlightening the world. Now the world recoils in horror from her name.
One preacher quoted in the press, reminding himself of something he had once read in the Bible about the meek and gentle Jesus, said it would be useless to send missionaries to the Far East anymore. That raises a very interesting question which I am sure they will discuss among themselves. One can imagine an interesting discussion taking place in the inner circles of the House of Rockefeller and the House of Morgan, who are at one and the same time-quite by accident of course-pillars of finance and pillars of the church and supporters of missionary enterprises of various kinds.
“What shall we do with the heathens in the Orient? Shall we send missionaries to lead them to the Christian heaven or shall we send atomic bombs to blow them to hell?” There is a subject for debate, a debate on a macabre theme. But in any case, you can be sure that where American imperialism is involved, hell will get by far the greater number of the customers.
What a harvest of death capitalism has brought to the world! If the skulls of all of the victims could be brought together and piled into one pyramid, what a high mountain that would make. What a monument to the achievements of capitalism that would be, and how fitting a symbol of what capitalist imperialism really is. I believe it would lack only one thing to make it perfect. That would be a big electric sign on the pyramid of skulls, proclaiming the ironical promise of the Four Freedoms. The dead at least are free from want and free from fear…
Long ago the revolutionary Marxists said that the alternative facing humanity was either socialism or a new barbarism, that capitalism threatens to go down in ruins and drag civilisation with it. But in the light of what has been developed in this war and is projected for the future, I think we can say now that the alternative can be made even more precise: the alternative facing mankind is socialism or annihilation! It is a problem of whether capitalism is allowed to remain or whether the human race is to continue to survive on this planet.
We believe that the people of the world will waken to this frightful alternative and act in time to save themselves…
Ive only just discovered QualiaSoup, an artist and thinker whose YouTube videos present the case for rational, critical thinking and the scientific method. It’s excellent stuff, that anyone with religious hang-ups, belief in the “supernatural,” tolerance of backward ideas in the interests of “open-mindedness” and indeed quite a few people who consider themselves “Marxists,” would do well to watch and ponder. Here’s an example:
P.S: It transpires that QualiaSoup has a brother, TheraminTrees (!)