The ACMD in meltdown: a brief history

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was established under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) to give scientific advice to the government regarding drug harms, and specifically on the classification of drugs under the act. The resignation of a seventh member in just a few months is yet another damning indictment of the government’s attitude towards the role of scientific advice in making drug policy decisions.

One can argue that relationships between the ACMD and the Home Office first got onto rocky ground when in January 2009, the then chairman Prof. David Nutt released his “Equasy” paper comparing the harms of horse-riding (with 1 serious event in every 350 exposures) to taking MDMA (with 1 serious event in every 10,000 exposures). He was criticised by the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who demanded an apology for his comments.

Things got heated once again in July 2009, when Nutt gave a lecture repeating his view that drug policy should reflect the harms of the drugs in question, according to present scientific understanding. Nutt objected to the reclassification of cannabis from Class C to Class B, as it lacked scientific reasoning or evidence to back it up. When a pamphlet containing the lecture notes was published in October, the Home Secretary Alan Johnston sacked Nutt, with Johnston stating in a letter: “I can’t have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. This, as you can quite imagine, opened up a can of worms.

Nutt’s dismissal trailed a wake of protest; pickets of Downing Street by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, outcry from the scientific community and resignations from the ACMD. Dr. Les King, the senior chemist on the council, was the first to resign, followed by Marion Walker, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s representative. King was later to say in an interview that “[the council’s principles] had been distorted by the government to their purposes”.

The ACMD then met with government officials to discuss the role of scientific advise in policy making. Home Office officials did little to reassure the ACMD, and a further 3 members resigned – Simon Campbell, Dr John Marsden and Dr Ian Ragan. The Home Office set to revise its guidelines and principles on how it expected its scientific advisors to behave, which set out to give sanctions to advisors who the Home Office did not share “mutual trust” with, regardless of whether the advisor had broken any of the official Codes of Practice. Shortly afterwards Dr. Polly Taylor resigned from the council saying that she ‘lacks confidence’ in the way the government will treat the ACMD’s advice and that she felt “that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day’s press”.

On April 1st,  another member of the ACMD, Eric Carlin, resigned. Disillusioned with the lack of emphasis placed upon harm reduction efforts and the Home Office pushing through the ban of mephedrone under pressure from corporate media before the ACMD had chance to properly discuss the matter, he said in his resignation letter: “I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people”, and that the ACMD’s recent decision regarding mephedrone was “unduly based on media and political pressure”.

In the next few weeks, as politicians try to push through that mephedrone ban, it is likely that more members of the ACMD will resign in protest. The ACMD cannot legally operate with less than 20 members, and the ACMD recently appointed 3 new members; Hew Mathewson (a dentist), Gillian Arr-Jones (a pharmacist) and Prof. Simon Gibbons (a phytochemist). This has been construed by some as a cynical attempt to keep the ACMD functioning with the increasing threat of more resignations.

The ACMD is in meltdown. We must ask ourselves; does the government have any scientific credibility anymore? If drug policy isnt badsed on scientific evidence then what is it based on?

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