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Politics v Science yet again

Mark Easton | 10:03 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

The government and the scientific community could be on a collision course over what critics describe as plans to "emasculate" the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The Home Office says its proposals will allow "greater flexibility".

Campaigners for drug law reform are claiming the government is "reaping vengeance" over the David Nutt affair with plans to remove the statutory requirement for scientists to sit on the ACMD.

Readers will recall how Professor Nutt, the former chairman of the advisory body, was sacked after suggesting that classification of some drugs was at odds with their relative harm. Seven members of the council then resigned in disgust, resulting in a showdown between ministers and the science community.

Without public consultation or any prior notification, government plans to remove the need for scientific experts on the committee appear under the "miscellaneous" section of the Police Reform Bill [742KB PDF].

Text from the Police Reform Bill

It may look like a small arcane change, but the amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act effectively removes a keystone in the architecture of Britain's drugs policy.

The ACMD was created to ensure that the prohibition of substances was conducted with regard to the evidence of how harmful those drugs were rather than moral or popular pressures. As such, the Misuse of Drugs Act insists there must be at least six scientists among the 20 members including a chemist, a doctor, a vet and a dentist.

Text from the Misuse of Drugs Act on membership of the Advisory Council

The Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire has told the BBC:

"Scientific advice is absolutely critical to the government's approach to drugs and any suggestion that we are moving away from it is absolutely not true. Removing the requirement on the Home Secretary to appoint to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs at least one person with experience in six specific areas will allow us greater flexibility in the expertise we are able to draw on. We want the ACMD to be adapted to best address the challenges posed by the accelerating pace of challenges in the drugs landscape."

This adaptation, however, has gone down very badly with some sections of the scientific community. The Drug Equality Alliance which campaigns for what it calls "rational and objective drugs laws" has penned an open letter condemning the proposals:

"Seemingly the legacy of the sacking of former council chair professor David Nutt, and the subsequent resignations of most of the former scientists on the council, is now reaping vengeance by sweeping away potential heretics that might seek to use evidence rather than tabloid hysteria to fulfil the need to be seen to be doing something."

Strong stuff, but representative of the depth of feeling still remaining after Professor Nutt's dismissal by the previous government. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has been equally forthright in its criticism of the move. Director Imran Khan says "the government are trying to take us back to the time of 'Minister knows best'."

"Scrapping the need for expertise on the drugs advice is not only bad science, but it's also terrible politics. The status of the ACMD is still a raw nerve, after Alan Johnson sacked its Chair and caused the resignation of over half a dozen of its members. The Home Office would be hard-pressed to find a worse fight to pick with the science community."

The government is adamant that it is not picking any fight and is committed to using evidence to drive policy decisions. The Science Minister David Willetts said as much to the BBC recently. "I certainly believe in evidence-based policy and the prime minister does and the cabinet are committed to it".

However, the decision to remove the statutory requirement to have half a dozen scientists on the ACMD is a significant moment in the sweep of UK drugs policy. The so-called "British system" of narcotics control, which held sway for most of the 20th Century, assumed that it was primarily a matter for doctors and other professionals.

In the 60s, amid public anxiety at the arrival of many new psychotropic substances, it was decided to follow the American model and criminalise the possession of a wide range of drugs. The legislation was enshrined in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

But also included in the statute was the creation of the ACMD, regarded as a bulwark against the perceived risk that prohibition and criminal sanction against drug users would be driven by morals or populism rather than evidence of harm. It was part of that debate which saw Parliament demand there must be at least six expert scientific advisors on the advisory council.

Dr Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and Director of the Campaign for Evidence-based Policy, said:

"The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was ahead of its time in embedding expert and scientific advice into policy-making. In the forty years since then the need for good evidence to inform policy has increased, yet the Government seem to want to go back to a pre-scientific era in policy terms."

I understand existing members of the ACMD are broadly content with the idea of scrapping the requirement on the understanding it will make room for more social scientists to come onto the body rather than, perhaps, a dentist or a vet.

Critics of the move point out that there is no reason why you can't have more social scientists AND maintain the "key" scientific roles, but there has been growing ministerial disquiet that the strict rules can hamper the government's ability to move rapidly against a new drug threat.

In March this year, after a number of the scientists on the ACMD had resigned in protest at David Nutt's sacking, the home secretary was warned that the absence of a vet on the council meant the government could not proscribe mephedrone. I wrote about the crisis at the time.

In the end, Home Office lawyers found a way to work around the problem, aided by the fact that there was little Parliamentary opposition to the move to ban the so-called "legal high".

Since then, of course, there have been a number of learned articles suggesting that the absence of proper scientific scrutiny of the harms associated with mephedrone has made the situation worse, not better. Again, I wrote about this last month.

It is the desire to deal rapidly with new and potentially dangerous drugs arriving in Britain that is driving the government reform proposals for the ACMD. Section 149 of the Police Reform Bill enacts an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act allowing ministers to slap a temporary ban on any substance without consideration by the advisory council.

Some critics suggest that this is a "charter for political moral panic". The government argues it is a practical solution for dealing with the fast-moving threat from new and potentially dangerous drugs. Either way, it appears that hostilities may be about to start up once again between the worlds of politics and science.

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