Respected medical journal attacks drug ban

The Lancet attacks political 'contamination' in scientific process over mephedrone

The breakdown in relations between the Government and its scientific advisers over the control of illegal drugs is criticised today by the international medical journal The Lancet, which describes it as an example of "politics... contaminating scientific processes".

In its lead editorial the journal attacks the rushed decision to ban the recreational drug mephedrone two weeks ago and says the terms of engagement between ministers and expert advisers endorsed by Home secretary Alan Johnson have been "blown apart".

In the past six months the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, has been removed for criticising Government policy on ecstasy and seven members have resigned.

Now his successor as chairman, Professor Les Iverson, is under fire from the scientific community. Referring to the council report produced at the end of last month, The Lancet says it documented the "very scanty evidence" on mephedrone, including the "absence of a direct causal link" between the reported deaths and the drug, yet nevertheless recommended a ban.

"Alarmingly, the report, which was only a draft, was still being discussed by the ACMD when Iverson rushed out of the meeting to brief Home Secretary Alan Johnson of their recommendation in time for a press briefing," it said.

The former "legal high" drug was given Class B status and banned after reportedly being linked to 25 deaths.

Later, former ACMD member Eric Carlin, who resigned over the mephedrone decision, wrote on his blog: "We were unduly pressured by media and politicians to make a quick, tough decision to classify."

Although the use of mephedrone had grown rapidly, fuelled by widespread availability over the internet and in head shops, critics argued that banning it would cause the price to rise, the purity to fall and the dangers to increase as production and supply were pushed underground.

On the same day that the Advisory Council issued its mephedrone recommendation, it released a report entitled "Pathways to Problems", a detailed look at progress on recommendations made by the council in 2006 on hazardous drug use.

The report contained some "potentially unpalatable conclusions", including the claim that not enough was being done on alcohol and tobacco, said The Lancet. It also called for a review of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

But the report received no media attention and prompted no response from the Home Office. "Instead it conveniently got buried under discussions on the legal status of mephedrone," said the editorial.

The Lancet says the council lacked sufficient evidence to reach a judgement on the harmfulness of mephedrone. "It is too easy and potentially counter-productive to ban each new substance... rather than seek to understand more about young people's motivations and how we can influence them. We should try to support healthy behaviours rather than simply punish people who breach our society's norms."

The disagreement at the heart of the dispute is over the relative harm caused by the drug and by criminalising its tens of thousands of users. Some drug experts believe education about the risks and curbs on its internet sale would have been preferable to the blunt instrument of an outright ban.