British Science vs. Politics Battle Explodes As Top Drug Advisor Fired for Heresy

The British Labor government has created a firestorm of controversy with its firing of Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) last Friday. Nutt was canned by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after the psychopharmacologist again went public with his criticism of the government for refusing to follow a science- and evidence-based drug policy. As of today, after a weekend of furious back and forth in dozens of newspaper articles, two more members of the ACMD have resigned in protest over the firing, and a mass resignation of the 31-member body may come after a meeting next Monday. Johnson told parliament Monday that he had agreed to a request from the ACMD for an urgent meeting, but he also told parliament he had ordered a review of the ACMD to satisfy ministers that the panel is "discharging its functions" and that it still represents a value to the public. The ACMD's charge is to "make recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification and scheduling under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its regulations," its web page explains. "It considers any substance which is being or appears to be misused and of which is having or appears to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem. It also carries out in-depth inquiries into aspects of drug use that are causing particular concern in the UK, with the aim of producing considered reports that will be helpful to policy makers and practitioners." Tensions between the ACMD and the Labor government began rising after the government up-scheduled marijuana from a Class C drug (least harmful) back to Class B, where it had been prior to being down-scheduled in 2004. The Labor government ignored the ACMD's recommendation that marijuana remain Class C. Things only got worse when the ACMD recommended that Ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, and the government promptly ignored that advice. At that point, Nutt went public with his criticisms of then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. He also famously compared the dangers of Ecstasy to those of horse-riding, deeply offending both the horsey set and the Labor government. Smith told Nutt to shut up, and he managed to do so until last week. Last week, in a lecture and briefing paper at the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, Nutt accused Smith of "distorting and devaluing" scientific evidence when she decided to reclassify marijuana. He also said that Ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. "We have to accept young people like to experiment – with drugs and other potentially harmful activities – and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives," he said. "We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you are probably wrong.” Nutt's briefing paper included a ranking of various licit and illicit drugs by comparative harm. Heroin and cocaine were ranked the most harmful in Nutt's scheme, with alcohol fifth, marijuana ninth, LSD fourteenth, and Ecstasy eighteenth. "We need a full and open discussion of the evidence and a mature debate about what the drug laws are for — and whether they are doing their job," Nutt said. That was too much for Home Minister Alan Johnson. He told parliament Monday that Smith had warned Nutt not to publicly disagree with ministry decisions again. "Well, it has happened again," said Johnson. "On Thursday October 29 Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my department, to initiate a debate on drug policy in the national media, returning to the February decisions, and accusing my predecessor or distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt's ability to be my principal adviser on drugs." Prime Minister Gordon Brown is standing behind Johnson. An official spokesman said the firing was based on the "important principle" that advisers should present advice to ministers but not speak out against their policy decisions. "It would be regrettable if there were other resignations, but this is an important point of principle," the spokesman added. "The government is absolutely committed to the importance of having independent advice and evidence presented by advisory bodies." Nutt defended himself and attacked the government in a London Sunday times opinion piece. "My sacking has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy," he wrote. "Several of the science experts from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have resigned in protest and it seems likely that many others will follow suit. This means the Home Office no longer has a functioning advisory group, which is very unfortunate given the ever-increasing problems of drugs and the emergence of new ones. Also it seems unlikely that any 'true' scientist — one who can only speak the truth — will be able to work for this, or future, Home Secretaries. One of the ACMD members who resigned, chemist Les King, said ministers were putting inappropriate pressure on scientists to make drug policy decisions based on political—not scientific—reasons. "It's being asked to rubber stamp a predetermined position," he said, warning that others could leave the council over the brouhaha. "If sufficient members do resign, the committee will no longer be able to operate," King said. Scientist and Labor MP Robert Winston said Nutt had a "very reasonable" point about the relative dangers of legal and illegal drugs, and that he was disappointed by the firing. "I think that if governments appoint expert advice they shouldn't dismiss it so lightly," he said. "I think it shows a rather poor understanding of the value of science." Reuters reported Saturday that the firing is causing consternation in scientific circles. Scientists told the news agency the decision could undermine the integrity of science in policy-making, including critical areas like health, the environment, education, and defense. "Scientific data and their independent interpretation underpin evidence-based policy making -- and nobody rational could possibly want a government based on any other type of policy making," said Chris Higgins, chair of an advisory committee on spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease. Maurice Elphick, a professor of animal physiology and neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, said politicians should look elsewhere if they wanted data to back social policies and allow science to maintain objectivity. "If, however, politicians really do want to have an objective assessment of the relative risks to health of different recreational drugs, then they should listen to what the medical scientist has to say, not sack him." he said. The Labor government has picked a fight with science. It's unclear how this will all play out, but Labor doesn't seem to be doing itself any favors so far.
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!
borden's picture

"Why does England want to" comment

A good comment urging England to listen to science in order to save lives was deleted accidentally while we were cleaning up comment spam from the site. If you wrote this comment, I hope you'll post a new version of it, and please accept my apology for the error.

If someone out there happens to have a copy of the page saved with that comment on it, please email it to me and I will repost it.

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

We have the same disconnect in this country

The UK is not alone in this, and it is quite possible the UK government's attitude is directed (perhaps even ORDERED) by our government's attitude -- "Science be damned, we'll keep these drugs illegal because we want to fuck with people!".

I'm pro-choice on EVERYTHING!

zzz

The deleted comment probably said something Borden didn't agree with. Hes definitely one to call the kettle black.

borden's picture

logic

Then why did I ask the writer to repost the comment? To delete it a second time? Right...

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

Not the Deleted Comment-------Heresy is a Good Comparison

As the author Thomas Szasz noted, the word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek word hairesis meaning ‘to choose’.

But a heretic isn’t just someone who chooses wrongly; it’s someone who has the audacity to think that they have the right to make any choice at all, especially concerning some belief or social behavior that is ultimately victimless.  BTW, an heresiarch is a teacher of heretics, and in the Middle Ages the heresiarch would most likely be put to death.  Had there been bloggers back in the bad old days, they would have been charged and executed as heresiarchs, as would Dr. Nutt.

While Dr. Nutt and his colleagues will probably escape burning at the stake, history echoes the British government’s move to fire him from his post.  One would think that after Galileo, the Scopes Trial, and the recent victory of science over the oil and coal lobby’s denial of global warming effects, and so on, the bureaucrats would wise up when it comes to firing the scientific messenger.  Not so the U.K. government.

Scientists are right to be upset with the U.K.  The junk science that’s been pouring out of British labs concerning pot and its alleged links to schizophrenia or psychosis, the same junk science that was vetted and discredited by the peer group review process, or for its lack of reproducibility, continues to be cited as fact by know-nothing prohibitionists.  All of which results in science losing more of the public’s respect, something which affects scientists greatly in their ability to get future public support and attention paid to critically important work.

Giordano

An inconvenent time

If the public sees that politics, not science, plays a role in health... as it has here... maybe they will think twice about lining up for the swine flu vaccine? A very bad bungling by Gordon Brown, and will likely provoke a wider debate.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <i> <blockquote> <p> <address> <pre> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <br> <b>

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School