Friday, 6 November 2009

On his high horse over ecstasy

IS horse-riding really more dangerous than ecstasy?
Let's ask Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine.
"It is one of the more dangerous sports," she says. "There have been quite a few fatalities in Britain over the years.
"Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it."
I imagine that if you were to ask an ecstasy-user a similar question, they might give you a very similar answer.
Horses for courses; thrills for pills.
Both riding horses and popping ecstasy are, in fact, rather more risky than taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.
Perhaps, if we are to take Prince Edward seriously, the excitement is therefore greater too.
I don't really think, though, that the death-risk is a major incentive in either case. In fact, I don't suppose it's something either riders or pill-poppers often consider.
So let's consider it for them.
According to David Nutt, until very recently the government's chief adviser on drugs, riding accounts for about 100 traffic accidents and ten deaths a year.
Putting it another way, one study suggests that on average riders suffer a serious accident once in every 350 hours in the saddle.
Which apparently – and almost incredibly – suggests riding horses is 20 times riskier than riding motorbikes. But it still doesn't tell us how it compares with taking ecstasy, or any other drug.
Those risks are much harder to assess. Simply because it's illegal, it's very hard to tell how many people take ecstasy and how often.
Estimates are likely to be bent to suit whatever argument someone is trying to convince you of.
There's also a great blurring of lines where drug-related deaths are concerned.
Just how "related" does an incident have to be in order to be classified that way?
The most famous "ecstasy victim", Leah Betts, actually died of drinking too much water. It is at least arguable that had the drug been legal, better advice would have kept her alive.
Her tragedy is just one example of statistics telling rather less than the whole story.
But the bleakest figures for ecstasy suggest there could be 40 deaths a year in the UK.
So are there four times as many ecstasy users as horse-riders?
I don't know – and I have a sneaking suspicion Professor Nutt doesn't know very precisely either.
In fact, headline-grabbing though it obviously was, I fear his comparison between the two activities is a giant red herring.
I haven't yet heard anyone recommend ecstasy – as they do riding – as part of a healthy lifestyle.
A more relevant comparison might be between ecstasy and another drug – a legal one.
The best-accepted UK figures suggest seven ecstasy-related deaths a year per million users.
Even allowing a decent margin for error, that's still a long, long way short of the figure for alcohol. The NHS puts that at 625 deaths per million drinkers.


GORDON BROWN may claim that he wants government based on sound advice from independent scientific advisers. The sacking of David Nutt suggests otherwise.
His horse-riding analogy was perhaps unfortunate. Perhaps even, as home secretary Alan Johnson said, "political".
But it is clear overall that Professor Nutt was dismissed as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for telling the truth.
Drug policy in this country, as in most others, is determined by sensationalism and hysteria, not calm wisdom.
The facts – for example, that use of cannabis actually declined after its legal classification was lowered – seldom fit the screaming headlines. But as we know, it is headlines that determine New Labour policy.
Particularly, for some reason, headlines in traditionally Tory-supporting papers.
Nutt's fundamental error wasn't just telling ministers what they didn't want to hear. It was making headlines by doing it.
At least he has opened up the debate.
Not just on drugs policy. But on the even more important question of how the government balances informed advice against the howls of an uninformed public.

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