Source: The Economist
Nov 5th 2009
An outspoken scientist is dumped, leaving the government in a mess
“THE Nutty Professor”, as David Nutt is known in the Sun and other newspapers, has never been far from controversy. As chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Mr Nutt, who heads Bristol University’s psychopharmacology unit, issued reports on narcotics and recommended where each should be placed on Britain’s three-point scale of harmfulness. Such is the seething state of the drugs debate that more or less anything he said was guaranteed to enrage somebody.
Most recently he managed to upset Alan Johnson, the home secretary, who promptly sacked him on October 30th. His offence was to have repeated his view that cannabis and ecstasy are both less harmful than the government implies in its classification of them. Cannabis, currently class B, and ecstasy, class A, should both be demoted to class C, he said, adding for good measure that both were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
His comments about cannabis, which Mr Johnson described as part of a “campaign” against government policy, were made in a lecture at King’s College London in July, which was published as a pamphlet last month. It followed an article in the racy Journal of Psychopharmacology in January, in which Mr Nutt upset ministers by comparing the risk of taking ecstasy with the risk of riding horses, a pursuit that claims a few deaths each year. Both lecture and article represented Mr Nutt’s personal views and were clearly billed as such.
The government insists that the professor was sacked not for his scientific views but for overstepping the boundary between advising government and criticising it. But lecturing and publishing papers is hardly something that a full-time academic can give up when he takes on an (unpaid) advisory role. Anger has spread beyond the drugs world: Lord Drayson, the science minister, sent a private e-mail to Downing Street asking if the “big mistake” of Mr Nutt’s dismissal could be reversed (it could not), and many of science’s great and good have voiced their dismay.
Two more of the 31-member ACMD have since resigned in protest, and at least five others are said to be wavering. Mr Johnson is due to meet remaining members on November 10th to explain himself. Unless he manages to reassure them, other scientific jobs in government may prove harder to fill. By coincidence, the chief scientific adviser to the Home Office is to step down early next year. That job, like many across government, looks decidedly less appealing now.
In the meantime, who would want to take Mr Nutt’s place? Even before the latest fiasco the job was wretched. The ACMD’s recent reports on cannabis and ecstasy were dismissed by ministers before they were published. Following his article on ecstasy and riding, Mr Nutt was told by the home secretary of the day, Jacqui Smith, to apologise to the families of ecstasy victims for his “insensitivity”. (He may have enjoyed her own comically insincere apology last month for over-claiming thousands of pounds in expenses. Ironically for someone who repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the ACMD, she said that she had only been following the recommendations of advisers.)
Unfortunately, the Conservatives are unlikely to handle things very differently if they win power next spring. David Cameron, who leads them, spoke out as a backbencher in favour of reclassifying ecstasy but has now clammed up. His party says only that Mr Nutt should have been sacked sooner. Amid the squabbling, important work is being neglected.
One of the ACMD members to resign was Les King, an expert on Spice, a “herbal high” which is not banned but many think should be. His departure means that work on it has stalled. Not for the first time in the war on drugs, public safety is taking a back seat.