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Two members of the scientific panel that offers guidance to the Government on drug policy have resigned over the treatment of chief adviser Professor David Nutt.
Other members of the 31-strong Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs were also thought to be considering their positions following the sacking of Prof Nutt on Friday.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, ordered him out after a series of criticisms of Government policy including the reclassification of cannabis against the body’s advice.
Lord Winston yesterday added his backing to Prof Nutt, noting that he was “very surprised and disappointed” that the Government had acted in a “knee jerk” fashion. He added that laws not based on evidence would be ignored by the public.
The row has sparked concerns over the future role between the science community and politicians and the use of independent scientific evidence when formulating policy.
It deepened as Dr Les King quit the ACMD in protest over Prof Nutt’s dismissal. He was followed by Marion Walker a pharmacist, who is also clinical director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust's substance misuse service
At least one other is understood to have also quit as Prof Nutt said the position of the council, which reviews drugs and their classification, was now “untenable”.
It means the way the Government assesses illegal drugs and their potential harm is in danger of collapse.
Prof Nutt was sacked on Friday after losing the confidence of the Home Secretary. He had criticised the fact the Home Office had moved cannabis back to Class B, against the ACMD advice, and warned alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than both it and ecstasy.
Lord Winston, Professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said Prof Nutt had made a "very reasonable" point about cannabis.
He said: “I think that if governments appoint expert advice they shouldn't dismiss it so lightly.
"I think it shows a rather poor understanding of the value of science.
"Nobody can absolutely say how safe or not safe cannabis is. But the overwhelming evidence is probably cannabis is actually less harmful than tobacco or alcohol, that's what the chief scientist is saying.”
He added: "The risk here, of course, is that the Government may simply lay down the law about something, not based on evidence, and therefore the law tends to be ignored in consequence."
Announcing his own resignation, Dr King, who worked for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) for 30 years and has been associated with the ACMD for 15 years, said Prof Nutt had been denied his right to free speech.
"He (Prof Nutt) may be an advisor but he's still got the right to say what he likes," he said.
He said home secretaries now had a "pre-defined political agenda" and warned: “If sufficient members do resign, the committee will no longer be able to operate."
Prof Nutt said: "I think the position of scientists on the council is untenable, because I cannot see how Alan Johnson, given what he's just said, which clearly indicates he doesn't understand how scientists think, how scientists on council could continue to work with him."
But Mr Johnson, who had earlier hoped there would not be any resignations, insisted he asked Prof Nutt to go for "crossing a line" into politics.
"This was not about Prof Nutt's views, which I respect though I don't agree with them,” he said.
"What you cannot have is a chief adviser at the same time stepping into the political field and campaigning against government decisions. You can do one or the other. You can't do both."
Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris MP, said he had spoken to a number of scientists this weekend and predicted more would step down in support of Proff Nutt.
"I fear there will be many more resignations unless the Government acts to restore confidence among its independent scientific advisors upon which it relies for advice on matters from nuclear safety to childhood vaccination," he said.
The ACMD was set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and has 31 members, made up of scientists, police officers, health workers, drug campaigners and peers.
It makes recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification.
The full council meets twice a year but has working groups meeting regularly.
-------------------- "The weekend has landed...
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