The Keystone Pub in Guildford was already heaving with people by the time I arrived for Professor David Nutt’s talk at Cafe Scientifique last Monday.
Getting there 15 minutes early clearly wasn’t enough time to guarantee a seat to listen to the controversial scientist, who was at the heart of last year’s facing-off between some members of the scientific community and the government over drugs policy.
So, writing my shorthand notes standing up and leaning on the bar, I and a large crowd listened to the former drugs adviser on why he thought it could take years to get his synthetic, hangover-free alcohol into pubs across the country due to a lack of social and political will.
“I don’t want to stop people drinking, but we want to reduce the cost of alcohol in terms of physical damage,” said Professor Nutt.
“So why don’t we set that challenge to find a safer alcohol, guaranteeing that it would be sold alongside current alcohol.
“It’s something that science could easily achieve. The problem is that if I were to sell it to you today, it’s very likely I would get arrested because I’m contravening either the Medicines Act or Misuse of Drugs Act. That’s not a particularly appealing prospect.
“No drug or drinks company is going down that route. But as soon as the government says yes, you can sell it, I think they will. It’s a question of getting political and social impetus.”
Over the course of the evening, the discussion veered from whether all drugs should be made legal (yes, according to Professor Nutt, albeit with regulation), why the government linked schizophrenia to cannabis use and Queen Victoria’s strong advocacy of the drug (“She swore by it,” said the professor).
By the end of almost two hours of presentation and discussion, stimulating questions and one or two more argumentative audience members, the evening was wrapped up.
An evening’s debate still couldn’t cover all the many facets of such a complex issue, and certainly not for one man – as I left the pub, I saw one audience member running after Professor Nutt as he rushed to catch his train back, intent, perhaps, to carry on the debate.