Colin Blakemore: In a mess over mephedrone

Decisions need to be made free of political and media pressures

The furore about mephedrone, and the race to ban it point up a crisis for the government's use of evidence potentially as serious as that produced by mad cow disease 20 years ago.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is charged with making "recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs". This is a heavyweight committee, whose authoritative advice ought to provide the government with a shield against the screaming demands of newspapers and the multitude of pressure groups on all sides of the argument about drug abuse.

It is perverse, then, that drug control has become a testing ground for the government's commitment to the principles for the use of evidence that were so intelligently laid out in Lord Justice Phillips's report on mad cow disease.

Lord Phillips emphasised the importance of a clear separation of responsibility between advisers and policy-makers. The report concluded that advisers must be protected from political interference, that there should be a clear distinction between the expert assessment of evidence and policy-making, and that the whole process should be as open to public scrutiny as possible.

Last week, the Government published its own version of these principles including a new requirement that "Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust." Motherhood and apple pie, you might say. But the document makes clear that contravention of these principles could be grounds for sanctions, including dismissal and the reputational damage that might go with that.

The concern that advisers could still be sacked as a result of a purely subjective judgement that they have "undermined trust" was cited by Dr Polly Taylor in her letter of resignation from the ACMD yesterday. The ACMD is required to have a vet on its panel, and Polly Taylor is the only vet. The Home Office is denying the suggestion that her resignation makes it impossible for mephedrone to be made illegal, if that is what the ACMD recommends.

Even without the saga of the ACMD, the way in which drugs are controlled is in desperate need of review and revision. Mephedrone is only the start: new synthetic drugs will constantly come on to the market, aided by the internet.

Of course the public, especially the parents of children apparently at risk, will want immediate action. But we forget Lord Phillips at our peril. In order to make the best decisions, the Government needs the most robust and accurate information, assessed by real experts, free from political and media pressures.

When the uproar around mephedrone has subsided, a new government, of whatever colour, needs to look dispassionately at the ways of using evidence, and especially at policies for the control of drugs.

Colin Blakemore is Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University and a member of the UK Drug Policy Commission