Politics and Science Collide as Chief U.K. Drugs Adviser Dismissed

November 3, 2009 Updated: November 4, 2009

The worlds of politics, science, and drugs have collided in a heated public debate following the firing of the chief adviser on drugs to the U.K. government.

Professor David Nutt was dismissed on Oct. 30 for saying in a public lecture that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than cannabis and the risks of taking ecstasy were no greater than horse riding.

Professor Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), strongly protested his dismissal through numerous media interviews.

Two other key members of the advisory panel resigned soon after, saying Nutt’s right to free speech had been violated and the validity of the advisory council is undermined.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the professor had crossed the line and was asked to resign because he could not be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.

In a letter to the Guardian, Mr. Johnson wrote, "There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse—there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction."

In the several days since the firing of Professor Nutt, the row, played out in the media and Parliament, has pulled in more and more prominent political figures, including the head of the political opposition, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the government’s chief scientific adviser.

The debacle has its roots in an earlier review of drug classifications ordered by the prime minister, which saw the advisory council recommend cannabis remain as class C drug, the lowest classification.

The government ignored the recommendation, and reclassified cannabis in Class B in January, where it joins the likes of amphetamines and Ritalin and carries a maximum five-year sentence for possession and 14 years for dealing.

Some in the scientific community are now concerned about the relationship between the government and its scientific advisory panels, which are staffed voluntarily by researchers and experts who say they have a right to publish their own opinions and research freely elsewhere.

The remaining panel of 28 advisers on the drugs council is now threatening to resign en mass, unless the home secretary can clarify their position and allay their concerns.

In a letter to the home secretary widely published in the media they said the issue had "brought to the fore wider and pre-existing concerns among members about the role and treatment of the council."

"For some members these matters are of such seriousness as to raise the question whether they can, in good conscience, continue on the council. In this situation members wish for clarity and assurances about how the ministers view the council's advice and will view the council's advice in the future."

BBC political editor Nick Robinson in his blog asserts that the reclassification of cannabis was done in part to avoid appearing “soft on drugs” and at the behest of the prime minister.

Like many commentators he also says the current row has stemmed from two different approaches to drug classification; the school of “harm reduction” based in scientific assessment of health impact, and a broader assessment of social, moral, public order, and criminal implications.

On Tuesday Gordon Brown stepped into the fray to defend the dismissal of professor Nutt and stood firm on classification.
“It was right to reclassify cannabis. It is right to reject any attempts to reclassify ecstasy,” he told the Evening Standard. “It’s right also to say that drugs can cause such damage, particularly when dealers are pushing drugs on young people and making them victims of a cruel trade.”

“We’ll get tougher on drugs. A tough policy on drugs is essential and it is what the public want.”

Writing in the Times, Professor Nutt said, "It seems unlikely that any 'true' scientist will be able to work for this, or future, home secretaries. My sacking has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy."

Professor Nutt is adamant that drug classification reflect the level of harm they can cause, for fear that "injustices may occur and the educational message be undermined."

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