The UK government faces a revolt from its scientific advisers after it sacked the chair of its independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) last week.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson demanded the resignation of psychopharmacologist David Nutt on Friday, after Nutt reiterated his views on the relative safety of various drugs in a lecture at King’s College London Centre for Crime and Justice. Nutt gave the lecture in July but his comments came to light when the centre last week published a briefing based on the lecture. He had previously clashed with Johnson’s predecessor Jacqui Smith, over his comments regarding the dangers of MDMA (‘ecstasy’) and his call for a wider debate on society’s approach to risk (see ‘Ecstasy advice is a bitter pill’).
At least two members of the ACMD have already resigned in protest at Nutt’s sacking. Nutt, who holds appointments at Imperial College London and the University of Bristol, speaks to Nature about his sacking.
Were you surprised to be sacked?
Yes it was a surprise. I still don’t fully understand why. It’s sort of sad isn’t it that you criticize government policy and you get sacked? It smacks of a very intolerant attitude and the regime of not wanting people to have public debate.
How was the decision broken to you? Did the home secretary himself call you?
I was sent a letter in an e-mail as an attachment. I was rung by someone at the Home Office who said “read your e-mail” and I read my e-mail and there it was.
What it said, basically, was that I’d strayed too far from science into the policy arena … and because I’d strayed into policy I was confusing the public about the harms of drugs. My reply to him points out there is a grey area and that it’s perfectly reasonable for scientists to talk about policy issues in which science can inform.
When we last spoke, over your run-in with Jacqui Smith, it was suggested by some people that if the government continued to take this hard line, scientists would be less willing to become advisers. Do you think that is something that will come to pass now?
I would imagine so. It’s a pretty thankless task. You work for 10 years unpaid and you get spat out because you say something they don’t like, even when it is directed at helping the health of the country. It’s weird. I’m fascinated by who they’re going to find to replace me. I don’t envy the person doing the job.
You sound quite angry about this. Is that a fair description?
I’m hurt. I don’t think it’s just. I’m disappointed rather than angry. I’m not so much disappointed for me, I’m disappointed for science and for the common sense of the government. It just seems to me a nail in the coffin of evidence-based government.
I did the job to help other people. I feel I did a good job and could continue to do a good job. They’re going to struggle to find someone who’s better qualified than me. It will be difficult for anyone who has got views to express them now that the threat of being sacked is hanging over them.
Things have changed over the past few years. Until two years ago the government had never gone against the advice of the ACMD. Two years ago, the new prime minister decided that cannabis was a class B drug. Clearly he was determined that he was going to decide what the classification was, independent of the evidence.
After that, it was ecstasy. When we said it should be class B, the home secretary Jacqui Smith said “we need to give out the message it is a dangerous drug”.
We’re having a kind of Luddite phase now in politicians. I don’t think it’s going to get any better if the Tories [Conservative Party] get in frankly.
Overall then, is your impression that the government has abandoned making drugs policy on the basis of science?
It has on ecstasy and cannabis. On Monday it’s going to legislate — on our advice — for [the ‘legal high’ party drug] GBL and for [the herbal smoking blend] Spice. I think it’s going to accept our recommendations there.
Would you be willing to serve again for a future government, of any political persuasion?
Of course. Provided it was clear that we were the experts and they took our advice. This whole business of being hard on drugs, the ‘war on drugs’ is all a bit bonkers. I’m perfectly happy to give advice on the harms of drugs but if it’s going to be usurped by simple political posturing then it would be rather unrewarding.
For instance, my dream scenario: let’s remodel the act. Let’s decide we’re going to have proper independent regulation of drugs. Let’s take the ACMD out of government. Let’s make it an independent body that reports to parliament but not to the home secretary and that gives independent advice, rather like the Bank of England takes away the politicking around interest rates.
That’s what we should do, and if that were to happen of course I’d serve.
How do you respond to the suggestion that it was naive to say these things again?
Look, I tell the truth. That’s what scientists do. Why shouldn’t I tell the truth? I think it’s very important that people tell the truth about the criminal-justice system in relation to drugs. Is it reasonable to hang a five-year prison sentence over you for a joint? Is that proportionate in any sense when cannabis doesn’t kill anyone? Yet on the streets there are going to be people getting into serious injury tonight, there are going to be people dying from alcohol poisoning.
The whole drugs war is ridiculous and someone needs to stand up and say it is wrong and we need to seriously look at where the real harms are.
That’s a scientific question. It’s about the harms of drugs.
What do you plan to do now?
I’m going to carry on what I’m doing: I’m going to do research on the psychopharmacology of drug misuse and try to understand the nature of addiction and to develop new treatments. That’s what I’ve always done. And hopefully keep educating people about the harms of drugs in an appropriate way.
By Daniel Cressey