The UK Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, fired Professor Alan Nutt – former chief drugs advisor – at the end of last week after he criticised the government for reclassifying cannabis for political, rather than science-based reasons. This sacking is a disaster.
Prof Nutt’s government post was unpaid and, by the sounds of things, demanding of time and energy. You can read about some of his university work and research: biography and research interests of proff Nutt. His approach is rooted in evidence. He clearly saw his job as making sure the government understood and were updated, on what is known about the harms of illegal drugs.
Prof Nutt was accused of “lobbying for change in policy” about the classification of cannabis. He felt that there was no evidence to make cannabis a class B drug, and should have been made class C. But the government disagreed and discharged him of his duties.
Prof Nutt’s sacking is a disaster because it implies, firstly, that debate is unhealthy. If you look in any medical journal, or attend any lecture at a conference, you will find people noisily going on about what the degrees of certainty are and what isn’t known. This is good: this is what can cause progress.
Second, it means that independent experts may only be appointed in future if it is felt they will keep quiet where there is disagreement between evidence and politicians, or will only interpret evidence to suit political masters.
Ultimately, this leads to a loss of confidence in the “independent” evidence government is exposed to. And lastly, it is a disaster for science. There will be incidences where government does not wish to take up the advice of experts for various reasons, and sometimes this might be warranted.
But that gulf should be visible to us, the electorate, as a means to judge our elected representatives. This debacle, frankly, does not do the Labour government any favours.