Another resignation at the UK’s Advisory Council on Drugs

14 05 2010

cannabis drug advisory council evidende disregardedOver the past 6 months the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)—an independent expert body that advises government on drug-related issues—has hardly been out of the headlines. One sacking and seven resignations is not a good track record for any organisation. The public’s discontent at the ACMD over how it operates and how it is unduly influenced by government has left a bitter taste, together with a crisis in confidence about evidence-based policy making in the UK.

The trouble at the ACMD began in October, 2009, after the controversial sacking of the then chairman, Professor David Nutt for criticising the government’s policy over cannabis and ecstasy. Five more members quit soon after in protest. In January, 2010, the equally distinguished neuroscientist, Professor Les Iverson, was appointed interim chair. In March, 2010, Dr Polly Taylor was the next to leave, outraged by the publication of the revised Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, the rewording of which compromised scientists’ independence and would dissuade them from giving objective advice lest they disagreed with government policy.

The current outcry at the ACMD is over the recreational drug mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone), a synthetic stimulant most similar chemically to amphetamines. It is a derivative of cathinone, a compound found in the plant called khat. Clinical and pharmacological research on cathinones is sparse and knowledge about the human effects of this drug class have been reliant on anecdotal reports from users and physicians. Adverse reactions include tachycardia, hallucinations, vasoconstriction, increased anxiety, and possible psychosis. The substance has received substantial media attention in the UK after reportedly being linked to 25 deaths. Indeed, the ACMD has suggested that media coverage has increased the use of the drug.

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Chairman Of British Advisory Drug Council Got Sacked

2 11 2009

cannabis drug advisory council evidende disregardedLast week we talked about Professor David Nutt, the (former) chairman of the Britisch Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He accused ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith of “devaluing” scientific research and making an “artificial” separation of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs.

Professor Nutt used a lecture at King’s College in London and a briefing paper to attack the way British politicians ignore scientific evidence and the contradictory and incoherent nature of the U.K’s current drug policy.

Alan Johnson, the current British home secretary, has asked Professor Nutt to resign because his comments “damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs”.

We feel the message David Nutt was trying to get across couldn’t be any clearer. Some of the most harmful drugs are legal, while other less harmful drugs are illegal. How is this not clear, Mr Johnson?

Anger over the “disgraceful” decision by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, to remove Professor David Nutt could lead to a meltdown in the 40-year-old organisation. As many as six of its scientists may resign from the independent organisation, putting further pressure on the Government over its handling of the affair.

The row has wider ramifications for the relationship between politicians and scientists, many of whom are concerned at Mr Johnson’s reaction to Professor Nutt’s comments. Dr King said: “Academics, medics and others are going to ask themselves if they want to serve on these agencies without payment, on their own time and expense, when the advice that they produce is routinely ignored.”

Dr Les King, a respected chemist and former head of the Drugs Intelligence Unit in the Forensic Science Service, said; “What we say is objective and evidence-based. Sometimes people do not want to hear that. The Government has a statutory obligation to consult the council before it makes any changes to the classification of drugs – the Misuse of Drugs Act is clear about that. If significant figures resign, it cannot function any more, and without a change to the Act of Parliament the Government cannot make any changes.” Members of the council, which meets twice a year, are due to gather again on 10 November, when discussions will be dominated by Professor Nutt’s sacking. But the resignations are likely to occur sooner, said Dr King.

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