December 2009

Advice and Dissent

Former U.S. President George W. Bush was not a man given to irony. Yet, when asked where he got his information, he replied, “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff.”Gregory Petsko

Sadly, for the United States and for the world, he was not being ironic— he actually believed what he said. The notion that people close to the king typically try to remain close to the king by telling the king what he wants to hear does not seem to have occurred to that remarkably unreflective man.

Woe betide the courtier who troubles his or her monarch with unpleasant realities. David Nutt must now understand this principle better than anyone. Until a few weeks ago he was the chairman of the U.K.’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs— an independent expert body that provides scientific advice to the British government on drug-related issues, including recommendations on how to classify the dangers of cannabis (marijuana), Ecstasy and other drugs of abuse. On Oct. 30, he was summarily fired from his position by British Home Secretary Alan Johnson for giving the government advice and then criticizing it for not taking it.

That advice concerned the thorny issue of reclassification, of cannabis in particular. Few subjects illustrate the divide between conservatives and liberals more starkly than drugs, and cannabis is the drug that provokes the most heated debate. People may argue about whether all drugs should be legalized, but they generally agree that heroin and cocaine are dangerous substances that can have severe psychotropic effects. Cannabis, however, is viewed so differently by liberals and conservatives that one’s opinion on its harmful effects could serve as a shibboleth for distinguishing the two philosophies. Most liberals consider marijuana a relatively harmless recreational drug, along the lines of alcohol but less addictive and not socially damaging, whereas most conservatives regard it as a tool of the devil— a drug that, in addition to producing all manner of terrible side-effects, is guaranteed to lead its user down a slippery slope to even more dangerous drugs.

In Britain, cannabis originally was classified in 1971 in The Misuse of Drugs Act as a Class B drug. The category was created specifically for cannabis and some other drugs (such as amphetamines), as a compromise between those who thought cannabis was as dangerous as heroin (Class A) and those who thought it was a “soft” drug like the benzodiazepines (Class C). After several abortive attempts to reclassify it as Class C, marijuana officially was downgraded in 2004. Nutt’s ACMD was the group that made the recommendation for that downgrading. (These classifications can have significant consequences: If cannabis is a Class B drug, people convicted of possessing it can face up to five years in prison.) However, in 2008, then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith rejected the advice from the ACMD to keep cannabis at Class C and moved it back to Class B, despite the council’s extensive review of evidence concerning its long-term effects, including any link to mental illness.

Nutt reacted angrily to this decision and earlier this year publicly accused ministers of “devaluing and distorting” the scientific evidence over illicit drugs by their decision to reclassify cannabis to Class B against the advice of the ACMD. In deciding to speak out, he was probably also stung by the government’s decision, in February, to veto another ACMD recommendation, after a review of 4,000 papers on the subject, that the drug Ecstasy be downgraded from Class A. This public criticism prompted his dismissal from his post as head of the committee, a government action that has ignited a firestorm of editorials and comment, including predictable references to the Catholic Church’s prosecution of Galileo in 1633. (For a set of links, see www.guardian.co.uk/uk/david-nutt.)

No one questions the government’s legal right to sack someone they appoint; the issue is the cause. It can’t be a question of competence: David Nutt is certainly well qualified. A professor at both the University of Bristol and Imperial College London, he is a specialist in the psychopharmacology of depression, addiction, insomnia and other psychiatric disorders. The stated reason for his dismissal was that, by going public with his dissent, he made it impossible for the government to send a clear and consistent message about drugs to the public.

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