Sacking of UK Drug Chief Sparks Major Controversy
CANNABIS CULTURE - The fallout continues after the UK's top drug adviser, David Nutt, was fired for claiming cannabis and ecstasy are safer than alcohol and tobacco, with several resignations, increasing criticism of the government, and the possible collapse of the country's advisory council on drugs.
Nutt was fired after making comments and releasing a paper called "Estimating drug harms: a risky business?" which suggested the UK adopt the following drug harm index list of the 20 most dangerous drugs (rated from most-to-least harmful),
In brackets is the classification given under the Misuse of Drugs Act [current law in the UK], with Class A attracting the most serious penalties.
1. Heroin (Class A)
2. Cocaine (Class A)
3. Barbiturates (Class B)
4. Street methadone (Class A)
5. Alcohol (Not controlled)
6. Ketamine (Class C)
7. Benzodiazepine (Class B)
8. Amphetamine (Class B)
9. Tobacco (No class)
10. Bupranorphine (Class C)
11. Cannabis (Class B)
12. Solvents (Not controlled)
13. 4-MTA (Class A)
14. LSD (Class A)
15. Methylphenidate (Class B)
16. Anabolic steroids (Class C)
17. GHB (Class C)
18. Ecstasy (Class A)
19. Alkylnitrates (Not controlled)
20. Khat (Not controlled)
Nutt has made truthful/controversial statements in the past, including pointing out in February that taking ecstasy is no more dangerous than riding a horse, and criticized the government for raising cannabis' classification from "C" to "B".
Though Nutt's lecture and materials conformed to the Government's own code of practice for scientific advisers, he was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who appeared on SKY News and said Nutt was "campaigning against political decisions."
Two other members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) quit in protest - Dr. Les King and Marion Walker of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society - prompting rumors of a mass walkout of the 31-strong committee. According to BBC News, without a pharmacist on it's board, "the ACMD is contravening its statutory requirements" - and remaining members are expected to meet Alan Johnson on November 10 to discuss the council's future.
Nutt also appeared on SKY News to defending his position, saying "We did the most detailed analysis of ecstasy, the most detailed analysis of cannabis ever done - we know what the harms are."
Speaking directly to a critical news reporter he said, "You're not a scientist. We've done the analysis. If you don't like what we say about the science, then say 'ok, we'll take a moral position', but don't try to tell me that the science we've done is wrong."
More fuel was added to the fire when the UK Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson "said he was pretty appalled" by the Home Secretary's actions, and John Beddington, the governments Chief Scientific Adviser, said research showing cannabis to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco was "absolutely clear cut".
Nutt, who says he wants to establish a new scientific committee if the current advisory body disbands, penned a piece for the New Scientist called "Governments should get real on drugs", where he criticized UK authorities for ignoring evidence and pandering to public prejudice.
I can trace the beginning of the end of my role as chairman of the UK's official advisory body on drugs to the moment I quoted a New Scientist editorial (14 February, p 5). Entitled, fittingly enough, "Drugs drive politicians out of their minds", the editorial asked the reader to imagine being seated at a table with two bowls, one containing peanuts, the other the illegal drug MDMA (ecstasy). Which is safer to give to a stranger? Why, the ecstasy of course.
I quoted these words in the Eve Saville lecture at King's College London in July. This example plus other comments I have made – such as horse riding is more harmful than ecstasy – prompted Alan Johnson, the home secretary, to say that I had crossed the line from science to policy. This, he said, is why I had to go.
But simple, accurate and understandable statements of scientific fact are precisely what the advisory council is supposed to provide. Why would any scientist take up some future offer of a government advisory post when their advice can be treated with such disdain?[...]
The current British government has said repeatedly that it wants its policies to be evidence-based, but actions speak louder than words. On ecstasy, for example, it made policy first, sought advice second – and cynically rejected the advice it was given. The result is shambolic policy-making which gives great cause for concern if that is how governments operate more generally.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the London Evening Standard he supported the move by Johnson, saying "We'll get tougher on drugs. A tough policy on drugs is essential and it is what the public want".
"On climate change, or health, for example," he said, "we take the best scientific advise possible. But in an area like drugs we have to look at it in the round."