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Government alcohol and drugs policy in disarray

The Government’s approach to tackling the problems of drugs, legal and illegal, was brought into severe question when the Home Secretary sacked its Chief Scientific Advisor on Drug Policy, Professor David Nutt, from his position as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The sacking followed publication of a briefing on drug policy written by Professor Nutt for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London.

In the briefing, which was written in his capacity as an academic rather than as Chairman of ACMD, he criticises the existing drug classification system for artificially separating legal and illegal drugs, and argues that cannabis and ecstasy are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Professor Nutt criticises, in particular, the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith for ‘distorting and devaluing’ scientific research when she re-classified cannabis from Class B to Class A. Later, he also criticised Gordon Brown for being the first Prime Minister to go against the advice of his scientific advisors on drug policy.

Alan Johnson, the present Home Secretary, promptly demanded Professor Nutt’s resignation, stating that he had lost confidence in him as an impartial adviser to the Government. He said that Professor Nutt had been sacked not for his views but because he could not be an advisor to the government while simultaneously campaigning against government policy.

The sacking resulted in a major public row in which the Government was roundly condemned for attempting to gag scientists and accused of preferring to pander to popular prejudice than base drug policy on scientific evidence. Other members of the ACMD also resigned in protest, and there were widespread demands in the media and from the scientific community that new rules should be brought in to safeguard the independence of scientists who agree to participate in governmental scientific advisory committees.

While most of the coverage and comment regarding the row appeared to be framed in terms of ‘politicians versus scientists’, and to take Professor Nutt’s side in the dispute, there was a minority view which was less sympathetic. Some commentators took the view that it was perfectly reasonable for the Home Secretary to say that scientists advise but it is the government which decides policy, and agreed with Mr Johnson that Professor Nutt and the ACMD had crossed the line into territory which properly belonged to Government. Others accused the ACMD of diminishing its own scientific credibility by itself ignoring or downplaying the evidence on the harmfulness of cannabis and Ecstasy.

In a letter to The Guardian, Professor Robin Murray took Professor Nutt and the ACMD to task for having ‘an unfortunate history’ in relation to cannabis. Professor Murray wrote:

“In 2002, it boobed by advising David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, that there were no serious mental health consequences of cannabis use; the council had done a sloppy job of reviewing the evidence. Since that time, they have been trying to regain credibility, and now accept that heavy use of cannabis is a risk factor for psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia. However, Professor Nutt’s comments demonstrate how difficult it has been for some members of the committee to accept their error.”

Another critic was Professor Neil McKeganey, Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow. Writing in the Scottish newspaper, The Herald, Professor McKeganey said that abolishing the distinction between legal and illegal drugs would open the possibility of much wider drug use and undermine efforts at drug prevention. He criticised, in particular, a claim previously made by Professor Nutt in which he had stated that Ecstasy was no more dangerous than horseriding. This claim, Professor McKeganey said, served only ‘to trivialise, normalise and ultimately encourage’ drug use, and represented ‘a very dangerous position for a government adviser on illegal drugs to take.’

Alcohol most dangerous drug

In a later interview to The Times, Professor Nutt amplified his views on the dangers of alcohol. It was alcohol, he said, that was the ‘gateway drug’ and it remained the greatest threat to society. The Government’s failure to address the problem epitomised its disregard for scientific evidence. Professor Nutt said that the comparison he made between the harm caused by alcohol and Ecstasy, which led to his dismissal as Head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, ‘was incontrovertible’.

“When I say alcohol is more dangerous than Ecstasy, cannabis and LSD, I mean it, and the council means it,” Professor Nutt said. “The Government has to wake up to this time bomb and the health risks of alcohol. Across the political spectrum everyone knows that alcohol is the biggest killer.” He added: “If alcohol was discovered tomorrow it would definitely be illegal. It’s a dangerous drug — there’s no doubt about that. There is an issue about understanding that it’s alcohol that will kill people’s kids, not Ecstasy.”

Professor Nutt advocated the tripling of alcohol prices, with taxation the most obvious way of achieving this.