The Government's hard-line stance on illegal drugs appeared to be unravelling yesterday as two more scientists on its advisory council quit in protest at the sacking of their chairman, Professor David Nutt.
Dr Les King resigned from the 21-member Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, saying Home Secretary Alan Johnson had denied Professor Nutt's right to "freedom of expression".
He was followed by Marion Walker, the council representative from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. There were predictions last night that more departures would follow.
Professor Nutt was forced to resign on Friday after he had repeatedly criticised the Government for ignoring scientific evidence on drugs presented by the council which he chaired. Over the weekend, he predicted there would be further resignations and said most members were "extremely angry" over what had happened. He added that the position of scientists on the council was "untenable".
The row was sparked by Professor Nutt's comments that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes. He also criticised the decision to upgrade cannabis to class B. He has returned several times to these themes in public statements, to the increasing irritation of ministers.
Dr King, former head of the Home Office's Drugs Intelligence Unit, said: "Professor Nutt may be an adviser but he's still got the right to say what he likes. That was being denied."
The Government had the right to reject the council's advice but its attitude towards the council had changed "very recently". The council was being forced to operate to a "pre-defined political agenda", he said.
"It's being asked to rubber stamp a pre-determined position. If sufficient members do resign, the committee will no longer be able to operate."
Lord Winston, the Labour peer and broadcaster and renowned former fertility specialist, said yesterday he was "very surprised and disappointed" at Mr Johnson's decision to sack Professsor Nutt. He accused the Government of a "knee-jerk" reaction and warned it would be ignored if it gave advice to the public that did not take account of scientists' opinions.
Defending his decision to sack Professor Nutt, Mr Johnson said he had "crossed a line" from providing advice to political lobbying. "You can do one or the other. You can't do both," he said.
Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris said he had spoken to a number of scientists over the weekend. He said: "I fear there will be many more resignations unless the Government acts to restore confidence among its independent scientific advisers."
Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, appeared to lend support to Mr Johnson's view when he told BBC TV's Andrew Marr show that Professor Nutt's situation had been "very controversial".
"These things are best sorted out behind the scenes so that the Government and their advisers can go to the public with a united front," he said.
Another member of the advisory council told The Independent: "It is tempting to make a rushed decision or a hasty public statement. But it is best in these situations to step back and take a breather."