Government faces more expert resignations over drugs policy

By staff writers
November 11, 2009

The British government today faces more embarrassment over its treatment of scientific evidence on the misuse of drugs, as three more top advisers resigned last night, bringing the total to five.

Dr John Marsden, Dr Ian Ragan and Dr Simon Campbell quit the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs following the sacking by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, of chief adviser Professor David Nutt and the resignation earlier this month of clinical director Marion Walker and Dr Les King.

The committee remains quorate, but many of its remaining members are deeply worried about the operability of an independent scientific committee in current circumstances.

The Home Office had earlier issued a statement about the meeting which said: “The discussions were very constructive, and it was agreed that the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs would continue discussions with the Home Office and government chief scientific advisors in establishing a way to work collaboratively together into the future with a common purpose of reducing any drug-related harm in the UK.”

The latest three to resign were a psychologist, a synthetic organic chemist who has received a CBE for services to science, and a pharmaceutical consultant.

Professor Nutt was sacked after calling cannabis less harmful than alcohol and nicotine - legal but dangerous drugs which observers note have been in high use among parliamentarians. He also suggested that cannabis had been upgraded from Class C to Class B for political reasons.

The Home Secretary has been accused of acting out of pique and then refusing to step back. Mr Johnson says he wanted to improve relations with the ACMD, and that he will give “due weight” to its views in future.

But his meeting on 10 November 2009 failed to reassure key advisers, whose resignations have been accompanied by calls for a truly independent advisory body, free from government influence.

Mr Johnson says the issue is Professor Nutt “stepping over the line” from scientific advice to politics, but experts respond that the Home Secretary “simply does not understand the role of science”, which cannot avoid comment on the measurable effects of particular policies.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia commented: “The outcome of a meeting described by the Government as ‘very constructive’ has been the resignation of another three scientific experts on the misuse of drugs. This aptly illustrates the air of unreality around current policy and its unease about evidence-based advice or comment.

“A more sane drugs debate, which recognises that legislation should be aimed at harm reduction and the breaking of criminal control, rather than an ineffectual ‘look how tough we are’ attitude, is needed. Moral posturing and a ‘war on drugs’ approach do not seem to be working.”

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