A retired academic who once called for cannabis to be legalised was appointed yesterday as the Government’s new adviser on the harm caused by drugs.Les Iversen, a former pharmacology professor at the University of Oxford, was made interim chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He replaces Professor David Nutt, who was sacked for criticising the Government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B substance.After the Home Office announced his appointment it emerged that in a 2003 lecture Professor Iversen said: “There have been no deaths to date caused by use of cannabis. Cannabis should be legalised, not just decriminalised, because it is comparatively less dangerous than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.”In an article in 2003 he wrote that cannabis had been incorrectly classified for nearly 50 years as a dangerous drug and that it was one of the “safer” recreational drugs.
Questioned about his remarks yesterday, Professor Iversen said that he no longer held the same views. He said during an interview on BBC Radio 5: “I don’t remember saying that. It’s certainly not my position now.
“We have now to confront the more potent forms of cannabis. We have the new evidence that arose since 2003 linking cannabis to psychiatric illness. I think it’s quite free for a scientist to change his mind when faced with new facts.”
He said that he accepted it was the Home Secretary’s prerogative to make decisions about drug classification and to accept or reject scientific advice.
“The way I look at this is that the Government should have respect for the experts on the advisory group and the advisers should have respect for the Government’s prerogative to govern.”
The row over Professor Nutt’s sacking provoked a crisis over the role of scientific advice within the Government. It prompted ministers to commission a review of how it deals with scientists and forced Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, to give assurances to the remaining council members on how they would be treated in future.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, said: “What the scientific community wants to know is whether Professor Iversen has been guaranteed academic freedom and the right to state what the evidence says on drugs policy, even when this conflicts with government policy.
“Without that assurance, the crisis in confidence from scientific advisers in the Government will continue.”
Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope and a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said: “Les is a very experienced, knowledgeable and highly regarded member of the council. It has an important role in robustly informing a range of policy responses to drug use and drug harms — it is crucial that its work continues.”
The council is required to keep under review drug misuse in Britain and advise the Government on those drugs that appear likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having, or appears to experts capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.