Drug ban chaos after resignation of adviser

Government adviser quits over decision to outlaw mephedrone, as ministers are accused of 'criminalising increasing numbers of young people'

The war of attrition between the Government and its scientific advisers over how to curb illegal drug use claimed another casualty yesterday as an eighth member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) resigned over claims of ministerial interference.

Eric Carlin said he believed the Government's decision to rush through a ban on the dance drug mephedrone had been politically motivated in order for the Government to look tough prior to the election.

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, announced on Monday that the ban on mephedrone would take effect "within weeks". Mr Johnson's decision followed a recommendation from the advisory council delivered under intense political pressure and in the glare of the media spotlight. Mr Carlin, 47, said he was resigning with "regret and sadness" over the council's emphasis on the "criminal-justice aspects" of drug use at the expense of the public-health issues.

Speaking from Brussels, he said: "Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure. As well as being extremely unhappy with how the ACMD operates, I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people."

The resignation of the eighth member of the council in less than five months is a blow to ministers who have struggled to present a united front in the battle to protect young people from the harm caused by drugs.

The fault-lines within the Government and the scientific establishment have been vividly exposed by the row that began last November with the sacking of the council's former chairman, Professor David Nutt. He was ousted after Alan Johnson lost patience with his outspoken comments on the relative harm caused by drugs, most infamously that ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding.

Professor Nutt's sacking provoked the immediate resignation of two other members of the committee, Dr Les King and Marion Walker, followed a week later by three more: Dr Simon Campbell, Dr Ian Ragan and Dr John Marsden. A seventh member, Dr Polly Taylor, the veterinary specialist on the panel, resigned last weekend, ahead of the council's crucial meeting on mephedrone last Monday.

At the heart of the dispute over mephedrone lies a disagreement as to the relative harm caused by the drug and by criminalising its tens of thousands of users. Mephedrone has been linked with 25 deaths but there is as yet no post mortem evidence of its role in any of them.

Although its use has grown rapidly, fuelled by widespread availability over the internet and in shops, critics argue that banning it will cause the price to rise, the purity to fall and the dangers to increase as production and supply are pushed underground. Education about the risks and curbs on its internet sale are preferred by some to the blunt instrument of an outright ban, with the separate risk of collateral damage.

The row has also highlighted a deeper dispute about the nature of the relationship between the Government and the scientists who advise it which some experts think must now be completely rewritten.

Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at Oxford University, said the furore over mephedrone, and the race to ban it, pointed up "a crisis in the Government's use of evidence potentially as serious as that produced by mad cow disease 20 years ago".

On that occasion ministers offered false reassurance on the safety of beef which went beyond the available evidence and led to a collapse in public trust when it emerged some people had contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, known as mad cow disease) from eating infected beef.

Writing in The Independent earlier this week, Professor Blakemore, who is a member of the UK Drug Policy Commission, said Lord Justice Phillips' report on mad cow disease had emphasised the importance of a clear separation of responsibility between advisers and policy-makers and the need to protect advisers from political interference.

Yet when the Government published a new set of principles governing the relationship last week, in an effort to calm disquiet over Professor Nutt's sacking, it included a new requirement that neither ministers nor their scientific advisers should act to "undermine mutual trust", and that contravention of this principle could lead to dismissal.

The implication that advisers could still be sacked if ministers judged they had undermined trust led the ACMD member Dr Taylor to resign in protest at what she said would be a "purely subjective judgement".

Mr Carlin has now followed in disillusion over the way the decision to ban mephedrone was rushed through. Far more consideration and debate was needed into how young people used the drug, he said. "We've not properly considered it – not assessed how young people use it," he added.

Professor Nutt, who now chairs the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, said yesterday the ACMD had been placed under inappropriate pressure. "I think there's been terrible pressure to come to a resolution about mephedrone – inappropriate pressure.

"The meeting this week was rushed through so that the chairman could leave to do a press conference when the Home Secretary wanted to do one.

"It's a travesty of a proper discussion, of the proper way in which you should deal with an important issue like mephedrone."

A Home Office spokesman confirmed that Mr Carlin's resignation had been received, adding that it was "regrettable".

He said: "However it does not impact on our plans to ban mephedrone as soon as parliamentary time allows."

Eric Carlin's resignation letter

Dear Home Secretary

Resignation from Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD]

With regret and sadness, I am tendering my resignation as a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

I was honoured to be appointed to this position and I had hoped that my substantial experience of managing drug prevention and treatment services might help influence the committee, and thereby the government, to think about drugs as more of a public health issue rather than focusing narrowly on the criminal justice aspects. This has not been the case.

My main interest and competence is in the field of prevention and early intervention with young people. I have grown increasingly disillusioned not only with the lack of attention paid to this by politicians and the media but also by the ACMD's apparent lack of interest in the subject (with a few individual exceptions).

At our meeting earlier this week, the update report on Pathways to Problems, published on the same day, received scant attention. Indeed, there was no time for questions on the report due to the haste with which we were being pushed to make a decision about classifying Mephedrone; this so that the chair could come to meet with you later in the day and you could do a round of press announcements.

Re: Mephedrone; we had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people's behaviour.

Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure. The report was tabled to the whole council for the first time on Monday; the chair came to brief you before the whole council had even discussed all of the report. In fact, I still haven't seen the final version.

When, as home secretary, [Charles Clarke] announced that the entire classification system would be reviewed, I welcomed it and was disappointed when the idea was shelved. This needs urgently to be revisited.

We need to review our entire approach to drugs, dumping the idea that legally sanctioned punishments for drug users should constitute a main part of the armoury in helping to solve our country's drug problems.

We need to stop harming people who need help and support.

At the end of last year, I decided not to resign over the sacking of David Nutt, preferring instead to see how things panned out and to hope that the ACMD could develop a work programme which would help prevent and reduce harm, particularly to young people.

I have no confidence that this will now happen, largely though not totally due to the lack of logic of the context within which the council is constrained to operate by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

As well as being extremely unhappy with how the ACMD operates, I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people.

Yours sincerely,

Eric Carlin

ACMD Who has quit – and who remains

*Professor David Nutt

Sacked 30th October 2009

Chief drug adviser, sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after saying LSD and ecstasy were safer than alcohol.

*Dr Les King

Resigned 1st November 2009

Senior chemist; said Mr Johnson had denied Mr Nutt's "freedom of expression".

*Professor Marion Walker

Resigned 1st November 2009

In protest at the sacking of Professor Nutt.

*Dr John Marsden, Dr Ian Ragan, Dr Simon Campbell

Resigned 10th November 2009

After a meeting with the Home Secretary.

*Dr Polly Taylor

Resigned 29th March 2010

Resigned over the ban on mephedrone; said: "I feel the need to express my lack of confidence in the way that government will treat [the ACMD's] advice."

*Eric Carlin

Resigned 2nd April 2010

Said the mephedrone decision was "based on media and political pressure".

*Remaining: Dr Dima Abdulrahim; Lord Victor Adebowale; Mr Martin Barnes; Dr Margaret Birtwistle; Simon Bray; Carmel Clancy; Professor Ilana Crome; Robyn Doran; Patrick Hargreaves; Caroline Healy; Matthew Hickman; Professor Leslie Iversen; David Liddell; Dr Fiona Measham; Trevor Pearce; District Judge Justin Philips; Richard Phillips; Howard Roberts; Dr Mary Rowlands; Monique Tomlinson; Arthur Wing.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments