Leading article: Playing the man and not the ball

There are times when all the disinterested observer can do is to stand and stare open-mouthed at this Government's ability to tie itself in knots. The sacking by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, of Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is a case in point.

What was intended as a short sharp shock to a scientific adviser whom the Home Office felt had got out of line is now threatening to grow into a full-scale confrontation between the Government and the scientific community. Two other members of the 28-member Advisory Council have now resigned in protest at the summary dismissal of their chairman. The Council has demanded a face-to-face meeting with the Home Secretary. Past and present scientific advisers have rushed to the airwaves to protest at what they fear is a symbol of a more general downgrading of their position and advice.

It need not have been like this. Whatever the pros and cons of the particular dispute, the Home Secretary was perfectly within his rights not only to reject the advice on drugs classification by the Council but to express his disapproval of a figure he felt was exceeding his brief in pushing in public the case for a downgrading of particular drugs.

Professor Nutt's argument that ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding may have been technically accurate but by lumping the two together he implicitly suggested that taking drugs was the same thing as getting on a horse. In the same way, his more recent assertion that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco has a great deal of sense in strict terms of the harm it causes. But the public at large doesn't necessarily see it that way, and an elected government can hardly be blamed for feeling that its main adviser was being thoroughly unhelpful in pushing the analogy.

A wise minister would have raised an eyebrow at Professor Nutt's language but let him have his say. But this is not a wise government. Instead Mr Johnson has made a martyr of the man to a cause of scientific independence it was most unwise to bring into play. At the heart of this furore is a real question of how we classify and criminalise particular drugs. But there is also a fundamental issue of how advice should be given and used.

The scientific community feels that, having asked for its services, ministers should not just listen to their advice but act on it. The Government feels that its advice is just that, and that it is up to elected ministers to decide on actual policy. It's a debate that is not going to go away as the country faces up to pressing issues of climate change, energy supply and food provision. But, by playing the man and not the ball in this instance, the Government has immeasurably weakened its own case.