A sixth senior drugs adviser has resigned from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs over the government's persistent refusal to listen to experts properly when formulating policy.
"There is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers," wrote Dr Polly Taylor in her letter of resignation.
Dr John Marsden, Dr Ian Ragan and Dr Simon Campbell all resigned from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs in November 2009, following the much-criticised sacking of the chief adviser, Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary and the resignation earlier that month of clinical director Marion Walker and Dr Les King.
The announcement came hours before ministers were expected to ban the'legal high' mephedrone. The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, may still do so, even though much informed opinion suggests that he is once more reacting to tabloid opinion and poll ratings rather than to research.
The Liberal Democrat science spokesperson, Dr Evan Harris, said that the decision should wait until the council was "properly constituted" again.
The law states clearly that any move to ban a drug must follow consultation with the Advisory Council.
There has been pressure to ban mephedrone after it was linked in recent media reports to at least four deaths in the UK.
The Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which argues that the solution to the drug problem is control and regulation, not prohibition, has argued that the government is panicking once again over mephedrone, and that the loss of the trust of scientists and experts is hardly surprising.
The agency's blog commented on the latest scare: "If mephedrone is 'evil' because it can hurt people, then alcohol and tobacco (which kill respectively, 100 and 300 a day in the UK), must truly be the work of Satan."
Transform (http://www.tdpf.org.uk/) has argued that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should be seeking a genuinely evidence-based review of mephedrone, but warned that more sackings or regulations might result if it did so and if the government continued its policy of banning at the first opportunity in order to appear "determined".
Effective public policy needs to be separated from political posturing and rooted in social and scientific analysis, say reformers.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, commented: “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.”
Here is Dr Polly Taylor's full resignation letter to the Home Secretary.
Dear Secretary of State
I am writing to resign my position as independent scientific adviser on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).
When you met the ACMD in November 2009, many of us expressed our grave concern about the way that our advice had been treated by you and your predecessor, culminating in the dismissal of our chairman, Professor David Nutt.
Prof Nutt was dismissed for the content of a lecture he gave in his academic role and which reiterated the advice that the ACMD had given on the appropriate classification of cannabis and ecstasy, advice which the government had rejected.
Two of our members, Dr Les King and Marian Walker, resigned in protest.
At that meeting, you were unable to give the necessary assurances about how independent scientific advice would be treated in future and three further members, Dr Simon Campbell, Dr John Marsden and Dr Ian Ragan resigned.
Others of us on the ACMD agreed to wait for the government's response to the principles for the treatment of scientific advice, which had been drawn up by the scientific community and endorsed by several ACMD members.
The government's first response, published in December, was highly unsatisfactory and appeared to justify ministers appointing and dismissing independent scientific advisers according to "trust" which is an arbitrary and subjective matter.
We had understood that the requirement of us, as advisers, was to comply with the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, and not to maintain the favour or trust of a minister with our advice and its communication.
Senior scientists and advisers set out these objections in detail, as did the ACMD's submission to the government's consultation on that document. The same points were made by the Science and Technology Select Committee in their letters to the government.
I am therefore surprised and dismayed that the government has rejected these concerns in the publication this week of a final version of the principles, the first of which is a requirement for "mutual trust" backed up by sanctions against independent advisers irrespective of whether the code of practice has been complied with.
I feel that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day's press.
I am very proud of the high standard of work achieved by the ACMD, and I have full confidence in my colleagues on the ACMD and its chairman, Prof Les Iverson, and so it is with regret that I feel the need to express my lack of confidence in the way that government will treat its advice and therefore am unable to continue to serve on the committee.
Dr Polly Taylor