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Scientists stand up against New Labour bullies

The resignation of two more eminent scientists from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) over the weekend, in support of chair Prof David Nutt who was sacked by New Labour, is a blow against an enforced consensus that regards dissent as something akin to subversion.

Dr David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, is an expert on the workings of the human mind and in particular the effects upon it of the ingestion of various substances. He was the chair of ACMD. The council researches and reports on the activity and harmfulness, or otherwise, of a range of illegal drugs with a view to aiding the government to come to arrive at sort of sensible and consistent drugs policy.

Professor Nutt and the ACMD came to the "wrong" conclusion however and he was sacked last Friday by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson. Two senior members of the committee have resigned in protest at the treatment of their chairman and more members seem set to follow suit.

The committee found that people's use of cannabis and ecstasy to be in fact less harmful than the use of alcohol and tobacco. Ecstasy, on the basis of the number of deaths attributed to it, is less harmful than horse-riding in Professor Nutt's opinion while cannabis, contrary to media reports, government and some popular opinion, is not in itself responsible for a range of psychotic disorders.

Cannabis may, while active in the brains of users, give rise to symptoms similar to those observed in psychosis, but is probably not causative of actual psychotic conditions. Furthermore, the concern that cannabis can cause schizophrenia seems also to be erroneous. The rate of schizophrenia in the general public has actually fallen in the last 30 years despite the rise in popularity of cannabis and marijuana. Meanwhile our old friends tobacco and alcohol continue to wreak havoc on people's health, overuse of alcohol in particular being a major cause of death and misery far in excess of any harm produced by either ecstasy or cannabis type drugs.

Neither the ACMD nor anyone else with an ounce of sense is saying that piling even class C drugs into one's system is actively good for you, (although marijuana does seem to have some medical benefits) or that anyone with mental health issues should carry on using them, but simply that their position as Class C drugs is appropriate (whereas the government insists for political reason that cannabis should be in the more dangerous Class B category). The ACMD hasn’t even advocated their decriminalisation. Not good enough, they came to the wrong conclusion and “off with his head” metaphorically anyway, is the Home Secretary's response to David Nutt's temerity. Today, Johnson accused the professor of – wait for it – “straying into politics”!

This has serious implications and sets a dangerous precedent, since any team of experts or specialist opinion the government may consult in the future, may well feel under pressure to skew their investigations towards what they consider a particular government committee, minister or the government as a whole, wants to hear. Why indeed even bother with considered, scientific, evidence-based opinion at all?

More broadly I think this episode can be seen as a sign that there exists a broad mainstream consensus to which all must adhere. Not just with regard to drugs, but one which extends right across the board to embrace various forms of dissent and dissenters such as environmental activists and those with particular concerns relating to civil rights, for example.

The media and not just the more hysterical tabloid media forms either, are complicit in the creation and maintenance of this consensus, criticism of various aspects of it such as drugs policy, notwithstanding. It is very important therefore that we stand up to it and put forward and effectively argue our very different points of view.

Fiona Harrington
2 November 2009

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