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Prof David Nutt sacked from Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, asked Prof David Nutt to step down from the ACMD, as he has “lost confidence in your ability to advise me as Chair of the ACMD.”

This follows the publication of a briefing paper by Prof Nutt, based on a lecture he gave in July, in which he discussed the framework for the regulation of drugs in the UK. He also covered issues of public opinion and media bias.

In a section headed “Assessing harm”, he refered back to a paper published in the Lancet in 2007 in which he and colleagues evaluated the harm caused by different drugs. Alcohol was ranked as more harmful than all class C and most class B drugs. Prof Nutt said, “I believe that the challenge of dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today.”

The briefing paper also referred back to an editorial published in the journal Psychopharmacology earlier this year, in which Prof Nutt compared the risks of horse-riding with those of taking ecstasy. Risk and probability are notoriously difficult to communicate effectively (see link below to Ben Goldacre’s article on this subject). People can easily grasp the severity of the possible consequence (e.g. death), but tend to overlook information about the likelihood of this occurring.

By presenting data on the risks associated with taking a drug alongside those of a familiar activity such as horse riding, Prof Nutt gave his readers a context against which to evaluate the risk of harm arising from taking that drug. In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, Alan Johnson responded by saying,

“As for his comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.”

In his letter to Prof Nutt, Mr Johnson said,

“It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.”

Two members of the Council, Dr Les King and Marion Walker, have resigned in protest. There are rumours that other members of the council are considering resigning en masse.

Professor Nutt has received widespread support, including a petition calling for his reinstatement.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which published the briefing paper that triggered the sacking, is hosting an audience with Prof Nutt on 11th Nov. All are welcome to attend, but places must be booked in advance.

At the same time, the Home Office has launched a review of the functioning of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Submissions from stakeholders are invited, to be received by 30th November 2009.

Links

The Home Secretary’s letter to Prof Nutt is published by the BBC here

The briefing paper and associated press release that triggered the dismissal are available here

Editorial in Psychopharmacology, comparing horse riding with ecstasy, here

Ben Goldacre’s Article on public understanding of risk here

Link to petition here

For information about the forthcoming audience with Prof Nutt, click here

Link to Home Office review of ACMD here

Update:

This question was discussed in the House of Commons on Monday 2nd November, 2009.
A transcript of the debate is available here.