Chief drug adviser sacked over cannabis stance
Saturday October 31 2009
Alan Johnson, the home secretary, has sacked Professor David Nutt as senior drugs adviser after the scientist renewed his criticism of the government’s decision to toughen the law on cannabis.
Johnson wrote to Nutt saying he no longer had confidence in him as chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and asking for him to consider his position.
Nutt had accused ministers of “devaluing and distorting” the scientific evidence over illicit drugs by their decision last year to reclassify cannabis from class C to class B against the advice of the ACMD.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The home secretary expressed surprise and disappointment over Professor Nutt’s comments which damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs.”
In his reply, Nutt said: “If scientists are not allowed to engage in the debate then you devalue their contribution to policymaking.”
The sacking is likely to raise concerns among scientists over the independence of advice to the government and may trigger further resignations.
The Home Office describes the ACMD as a independent expert body that advises on drug-related issues including recommendations on classification under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
It is not thought that the home secretary spoke directly to Nutt before requesting his resignation in writing.
Nutt told the BBC: “I think the issue is whether I am straying into the realm of policy. I personally don’t think I was.”
The decision follows the publication of a paper by the Centre for Crime and Justice at King’s College London, based on a lecture Nutt delivered in July. He repeated his familiar view that illicit drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they cause and pointed out that alcohol and tobacco caused more harm than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.
He also argued that smoking cannabis created only a “relatively small risk” of psychotic illness.
Jacqui Smith, who took the decision as home secretary to increase the penalties for cannabis use, said on BBC Question Time on Thursday: “His job is to advise and my job as home secretary was to decide.” This led the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik to argue: “What’s the point of paying people to give you expert advice if you then run your government policy through the red tops?” The shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, backed Johnson’s decision. “This was an inevitable decision after his latest ill-judged contribution to the debate but it is a sign of lack of focus at the Home Office that it didn’t act sooner given that he has done this before.”
Richard Garside, director of the centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, accused Johnson of undermining scientific research. He said: “The message is that when it comes to the Home Office’s relationship with the research community honest researchers should be seen but not heard.”
Phil Willis, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the Commons science and technology committee, said independent advice to the government was essential and the sacking of Nutt was “disturbing if an independent scientist should be removed for reporting sound scientific advice”.