British drugs sacking fuels science, politics row
8 hours 12 mins ago
The government's sacking of its chief drugs adviser highlights the tense relationship between scientists who see evidence as objective data and politicians who want use it to woo voters.
Britain's scientific community reacted with dismay to Home Secretary Alan Johnson's decision to push David Nutt out of his job as head of the independent drugs advisory body, saying it undermined the integrity of science in policy.
Scientists said the decision to sack Nutt, who criticised Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government for ignoring scientific advice on cannabis and ecstasy, could devalue policy-making in areas including health, environment, education and defence.
Climate change, healthcare and tackling the H1N1 swine flu pandemic are all high on the political agenda as Brown -- whose Labour party trails way behind the Conservatives -- prepares for an election due by June next year
Nutt said Brown's was the first government in the history of Britain's 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act -- the main law covering illegal drugs and categorising them into risk groups -- to have gone against the advice of its scientific panel.
Analysts say playing politics with science may prove to be dangerous.
"Scientific data and their independent interpretation underpin evidence-based policy making -- and nobody rational could possibly want a government based on any other type of policy making," said Chris Higgins, chair of an advisory committee on spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease.
The Labour government downgraded cannabis' legal status on the advisory body's advice in 2004 but Brown reversed that decision last year saying he wanted to send a strong message that use of the drug was unacceptable.
Nutt publicly criticised this decision, and was told by ministers Friday to quit his job.
"Some aspects of science...should not be subject to petty party politics," he told BBC radio Saturday. "There's no point in having drug laws that are meaningless or arbitrary just because politicians find it useful and expedient occasionally to come down so-called hard on drugs."
What angers scientists most is what they see as cherry-picking of evidence by politicians who use data when it suits them and ignore it when it doesn't.
Nutt said that of the hundreds of recommendations made by his committee, the government has chosen to ignore just two. He accused ministers of misleading the public about the dangers of drugs like cannabis and ecstasy for purely political reasons.
Maurice Elphick, a professor of animal physiology and neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, said politicians should look elsewhere if they wanted data to back social policies and allow science to maintain objectivity.
"If, however, politicians really do want to have an objective assessment of the relative risks to health of different recreational drugs, then they should listen to what the medical scientist has to say, not sack him." he said.
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Dominic Evans)
Alcohol, cigarettes more harmful than LSD: scientist
Thursday, October 29
Alcohol and cigarettes are more dangerous than illegal drugs such as cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, the government's top drugs advisor said Thursday.
Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London called for a new system of classifying drugs to enable the public to better understand the relative harm of legal and illegal substances.
Alcohol would rank as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone, he said in a briefing paper for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London.
Tobacco would come ninth on the list and cannabis, LSD and ecstasy "while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively". The ranking is based on physical harm, dependence and social harm.
"No one is suggesting that drugs are not harmful. The critical question is one of scale and degree," said Nutt, the chairman of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
He added: "We have to accept young people like to experiment -- with drugs and other potentially harmful activities -- and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives.
"We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you are probably wrong."
Nutt criticised ministers for their decision to upgrade the classification of cannabis in January from class C -- which includes tranquillisers and some painkillers -- to the higher class B alongside amphetamines.
The decision, which increases the penalties to a maximum 14 years in jail for dealing and five years for possession, was against scientific advice and came just five years after cannabis had been downgraded from class B to C.
Nutt said such policies "distort" and "devalue" research evidence and lead to mixed messages to the public.
While he acknowledged that cannabis was "harmful", he said its use does not lead to major health problems. Users faced a "relatively small risk" of psychotic illness compared to the risks of smokers contracting lung cancer.
Nutt caused controversy earlier this year by saying that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than horseriding, a claim he repeated in his paper.