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Needle in a haystack of Thatcher's legacy

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Among Margaret Thatcher’s many controversial decisions that affected the lives of UK citizens, one less known from her 11 years as UK Prime Minister was her decision to support needle exchange schemes.


Until last week, I did not know a great deal about Thatcher. In my youth, she was the reason I stopped getting free milk at school when I turned seven. Living in Belfast I was marginally aware of the hostility towards her there. Indeed, by the time I could really understand politics and could vote, Tony Blair was the focus for public disaffection and the UK had just gone to war.

And so now that it is impossible to avoid the consequences of her leadership being depicted and debated in the media — and I do not wish to spark a political debate about the rights and wrongs of Thatcherism — I would like to draw your attention to her advocacy of harm reduction for drug misusers.

David Nutt, president of the British Neuroscience Association, last week paid tribute to Baroness Thatcher for her “brave and important” decision to support the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to set up the first needle exchange programmes in 1986.

“As a scientist she understood the importance of evidence-based decision-making and accepted the ACMD’s advice. Her bravery in sticking to her guns undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and halted the spread of AIDS in Britain,” said Professor Nutt, adding: “This is one of her greatest legacies to our country”. 

Professor Nutt criticised present day politicians for their “knee jerk” reactions with drug policy and called for them to consider the evidence behind drug research.

I believe there is a wider message here: that scientists and healthcare professionals should be empowered to pursue evidence that informs policy-making, and that governments have a duty to back this evidence even when it does not suit them politically – especially when the health of the public is at stake.

Maureen O’Sullivan is assistant editor of Clinical Pharmacist.

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