Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009

Government drugs adviser resigns

Professor Nutt on the resignation of other members of the Advisory Council

An adviser to the government has resigned in protest at the home secretary's sacking of his chief drugs adviser, Prof David Nutt.

Dr Les King quit the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), saying Home Secretary Alan Johnson had denied Prof Nutt's "freedom of expression".

Prof Nutt was sacked after saying cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or nicotine.

He said the drug had been upgraded to Class B against scientific evidence.

The reclassification had been for political reasons and "on the whim of the prime minister", Prof Nutt claimed.

After being sacked via e-mail by Mr Johnson, Prof Nutt predicted there would be further resignations from the government advisory body that he headed.

On Sunday, he claimed the ACMD's member from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society had also resigned.

That post is held by Marion Walker, who is also clinical director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust's substance misuse service. However, she was unavailable for comment.

Prof Nutt said this meant "we have no-one now looking at that vast group of people who prescribe drugs and advise people about drugs, drug harms from the over-the-counter and prescription side".

'Angry feeling'

Dr King was appointed on 3 April 2008 and wrote a book on the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2003. He was previously head of the Drugs Intelligence Unit in the Forensic Science Service.

There was "very strong feeling" among the council's members over Prof Nutt's sacking, Dr King said.

"I'm not going to say just how many I think might resign but there is an extremely angry feeling among most council members.

"Amongst the scientists, I think a number will resign. It doesn't need the whole council to resign for the thing to stop working."

Prof Nutt has told the BBC that the council's position is "untenable".

Dr Les King speaks out in support of David Nutt

He said: "I think the position of scientists on the council's 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."

Confirming Dr King's resignation, the Home Office said in a statement: "We're not going to give a running commentary on the speculation around further resignations. We will not be commenting further."

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Mr Johnson said he thought his ex-chief drugs adviser was "wrong" on cannabis - but sacked him for "crossing a line" into politics.

'Crossed the line'

Mr Johnson had earlier said he hoped there would not be resignations, adding: "This was not about Prof Nutt's views, which I respect though I don't agree with them.

He went on: "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."

Mr Johnson said that Prof Nutt had "crossed the line between offering advice and then campaigning against the government on political decisions".

But Labour peer Lord Robert Winston told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend he was "very surprised and disappointed" by Mr Johnson's actions.

If governments appoint expert advice they shouldn't dismiss it so lightly
Lord Robert Winston

He warned that the government would be ignored if it gave advice to the public that did not take account of scientists' opinions and said Prof Nutt had made a "very reasonable" point about the relative dangers of illegal and legal drugs.

Lord Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, 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."

Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat science spokesman, said: "I fear there will be many more resignations unless the government acts to restore confidence among its independent scientific advisers, upon which it relies for advice on matters from nuclear safety to childhood vaccination.

"If the ACMD - which was set up by an Act of Parliament - becomes unable to function or if advisers on other committees quit, then this act of crass political thuggery by the home secretary will have created a crisis in government policy-making."

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