Drugs, Science and Society – Royal Institution Lecture

“Narcotics have been used by humans since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and even today around 300 million people across the world take drugs each year. But what is a drug? And who is it that should decide what a drug is?

In this Ri event chaired by Kate Kelland, EMEA Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, Sharon Ruston and David Nutt explore the past, present and future of our societal and political attitudes towards drugs. From supposedly “medical” experimentations in the 18th and 19th centuries, to modern-day government drugs policy and the rise of new ‘legal highs’.

In the 1800s, eminent Ri scientist Humphry Davy carried out numerous experiments on the effects of breathing nitrous oxide, testing it on both himself and others. These experiences lead to his claim that this drug could “destroy our pains and increase our pleasures”. Comparing Davy’s trials with those of Thomas De Quincey with opium, Sharon Ruston, Professor of Romanticism at Lancaster University, explores what were clearly some rather blurred boundaries between medical and recreational drug use at this time. Both nitrous oxide and opium have become invaluable medicines, the first as an anaesthetic, the second as morphine — one of our most powerful forms of pain relief. But it seems during these early experimentations that these drugs’ were heralded as much for their pleasurable uses as for the control of pain, enabling humans to access a new world of “sublime perception”.

Such research was aided by the fact that, in Davy’s day, science had little, if any, interference from politics. Times have certainly changed, and the use and classification of drugs has become heavily entrenched in politics. In the second half of the talk psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt, explores this complex relationship, considering the challenges posed by politics, media and the alcohol industry in the future of drugs policy. Nutt raises some controversial questions, including whether alcohol is more dangerous than other drugs, and gives his thoughts on what drugs, and society’s view of them, will look like in the future.”

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