UK government drug policy in disarray as more scientific advisors quit

Three advisors to the UK government on drugs policy resigned yesterday in protest at the sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). This means a total of 6 out of 31 advisors have now quit after home secretary Alan Johnson sacked Prof Nutt for claiming that cannabis is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.

Prof Nutt said that the government had made a mistake when it decided to reclassify cannabis from Class C to the more allegedly-harmful Class B. He questioned the evidence that cannabis causes mental illness in a large number of users, and disagreed with the hypocrisy of sanctioning prosecution for the possession of a substance that he considers less harmful than the legal, government-approved drugs tobacco and alcohol.

The advisors who resigned yesterday are: Ian Ragan, director of a consultancy for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, CIR Consultancy Ltd; John Marsden, a research psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry; and Simon Campbell, a synthetic organic chemist and former head of Worldwide Discovery and Medicinals R&D Europe at Pfizer. All three argued for the reinstatement of Prof Nutt before resigning, claiming that government belittled and interfered with their advice. The scientists in particular wanted assurances their reports and recommendations would in future be taken seriously, and sought an agreement over how their advice was handled by ministers.

Dr Les King, the former head of the drugs intelligence unit of the Forensic Science Service, and Marion Walker, the clinical director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS foundation trust’s substance misuse service, resigned in the immediate aftermath of Nutt’s sacking.

Prof Nutt’s dismissal shows that the government doesn’t really care how its policies reflect on objective reality. The reclassification of cannabis was a political act, based on questionable scientific evidence. And the resignations further demonstrate the government’s lonely position relative to truth and honesty.


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