Former ACMD senior chemist Les King would join new independent drugs committee set up by dismissed scientist David Nutt
David Nutt has insisted he has ’right on his side’ following his unceremonious dismissal as chair of the UK Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The future of the council, however, is in doubt after two other members, including senior chemist Les King, quit as result of the ’disgraceful’ way the scientist was treated.
On 30 October, Nutt was sacked from the ACMD by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after he became aware that Nutt had openly questioned the government’s drugs policy in a lecture at Kings College London earlier this year. The comments made by Nutt regarding the relative risks associated with cannabis and ecstasy use compared to alcohol and tobacco led Johnson to say that he had ’lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be [his] principal adviser on drugs’.
The decision to ask Nutt to resign from the council has, however, caused the scientific community and a number of politicians to round on Johnson, saying his actions throw the role of scientific advisers into question and punish Nutt for merely voicing his scientific opinion as an expert on addiction and psychopharmacology.
’I’ve got right on my side,’ Nutt told Chemistry World. ’I haven’t done anything wrong; all I’ve done is tell the world what they already knew. Sacking your adviser because he tells you something that 95 per cent of the population agrees with seems a bit daft.’
Although Nutt admits that Johnson has found support from a small number of psychiatrists with an interest in the effects of cannabis, he says he has had ’almost universal support’ from scientists, his peers and the general public.
The Science and Technology Select Committee, the working group set up to ensure governmental decisions are based on sound science, has now written to Johnson asking him to clarify the sequence of events leading up to his decision. Nutt and John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, have also been asked for their accounts and views.
Losing a key chemical element
’I resigned from the council because of the way David Nutt was treated,’ former ACMD senior chemist Les King told Chemistry World. ’I thought it was disgraceful.’ King has been associated with the ACMD for 15 years, becoming an official member of the council two years ago, but says the event of recent weeks were ’the final straw’ that drove him to resign.
’I’ve provided chemical advice over many years, and the thing that has really irked me is the way that government has come to the advisory council with a predetermined expectation of what the conclusion of various reviews would be,’ he explains.
’We all recognise that the government could ignore our advice if they wish to, but if they consistently ignore it then we feel we’re wasting our time.’
King’s resignation in particular throws the ability of the ACMD to function effectively into doubt. The Misuse of Drugs Act defines six specific positions on the council which must be filled in order for it to be quorate - one of these is a chemist.
’The ACMD struggled to find a chemist who understood the drugs situation, and I did that,’ says King, explaining that the council repeatedly advertised the position and chased him for over a year to accept the post. Finding a suitable replacement and persuading them to take up the post following recent events is likely to be a difficult task.
King has been instrumental in drafting legislation currently going through parliament on the control of synthetic cannabinoids, such as the smoking mixture Spice. Without someone with this knowledge and expertise, the government is going to struggle to digest the ’intensely chemical’ package of proposed controls, says King.
’Chemistry is coming more to the fore,’ says Nutt. ’Losing such a senior, experienced chemist as Les King is a very stupid mistake because he’s the only person who understands - he put together the legislation around Spice and now he’s gone.’
Outside the ACMD, scientists from the wider scientific community have been showing their support for Nutt and using the circumstances surrounding his dismissal to call for a new code of conduct for government and science advisers to be drawn up. Twenty-eight leading UK scientists yesterday called on the government to endorse new ’Principles for the treatment of scientific advice’, which they say would ’enhance confidence in the scientific advisory system and help government to secure essential advice’.
Roger Pertwee, an expert in cannabinoid pharmacology from the University of Aberdeen, UK, agrees that the rules must be made clearer. Members of advisory councils ’should be perfectly free to talk about the science unless [they have] signed some confidentiality agreement’, he says.
’This is not the first time that advisers have given advice and governments have ignored it,’ says John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, and author of a recent book on psychoactive drugs. ’Unfortunately, most politicians are scientifically illiterate, and so if the science doesn’t suit their requirements, there is always going to be the tendency for them to ignore it.’
Reform or replace
Nutt has made it clear that he is willing to establish an independent committee to provide scientific advice on drugs distinct from the ACMD, and has already received an offer of financial backing for the venture. Unless the rules of the ACMD change, he says, it will be impossible for the council to regain the trust of the public.
’I don’t want to set up an independent council,’ says Nutt, ’but if the government doesn’t react to the issues that have been raised by my sacking and change the way in which the drugs council is managed, the public and the media will not believe what it says.’
Les King has agreed to join Nutt’s independent committee if it is formed: ’I’d like to carry on giving chemical advice to government in some way,’ he says. ’It needs it because chemistry is at the core of what the advisory council does.’