Correspondence has been released between various protagonists in the saga of the sacking three weeks ago of Professor David Nutt from his position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
One of the letters is from Professor Nutt to the Science and Technology Select Committee outlining the sequence of events from his perspective. As Evan Harris has already made clear in a very detailed blogpost here the sequence of events and the behaviour of Professor Nutt was in accordance with the rules and regulations he was working under. You can read Professor Nutt's letter for yourself here to see what you think of his comments on this.
Two things struck me about the letter. The first is in one of the things that Jacqui Smith said to him when she called him to discuss the "esctasy and horses" comments he had made:
9th Feb 2009 – I received a phone call from the Home Sec in my out patient clinic, criticising the ‘equasy’ paper and stating that her office had received multiple complaints about the article from parents whose children had been harmed by ecstasy. She claimed it was not logical to compare the harms of an illegal drug with those of a legal activity. I explained that for a drug to be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 there had to be some threshold of harms exceeded so it seemed reasonable to explore what this threshold might be by examining other harmful activities. She did not accept the value of this approach and demanded that I apologised to the parents. I explained that I had not intended to offend anyone and was simply trying to put some balance into the drug harms debate. However, under the pressure of a phone call from the Home Secretary in the middle of my clinical working time, I apologised, through her, to any families that were upset by the article. She also asked if I was a “legaliser” and I replied that I was not and had repeatedly made statements to this effect in public.
This last comment seems almost sinister to me. Is it illegitimate for scientists, having looked through all the evidence to conclude that drugs should be legalised (and regulated)? It is far from an uncommon conclusion for people to draw once they have studied this subject for a while.
It actually seems almost McCarthy-like for this question to be asked. The implication seems to be that is he was a "legaliser" then there would be no way that he could advise the government. If the government is so sure of its case, surely they should welcome robust debate with people who may wish to challenge them? Not that this is what Professor Nutt was doing of course, he was simply presenting the evidence as we know.
The other thing that leapt out at me is the last thing that Professor Nutt says in his letter:
Relevant aspects of the code of practice defining my roles arerepresenting the ACMD to the public or the media as arranged by the secretariatandacting in the public interestsharing in the general responsibility to consider the wider context in which theirexpertise is employed;acting with a presumption of opennessI my view my actions in relation to the Eve Saville lecture and the subsequentreactions of the media and the government have been fully within this remit. Indeedone could take the view, as I have, that many of them are required by it.I also refer you to the Seven principles of public life one of which is:OpennessHolders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions andactions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrictinformation only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
Professor Nutt is right here. He did what was expected of him given his responsibilities. In my view drawing the committee's attention to the "Openness" principle is spot on. He followed that principle exactly.
The problem of course is that despite all the words the government spews out about wanting to be "open", when it comes to drugs policy they are not interested. They just want to close down the debate for fear of the tabloid headlines that could come their way if they are seen to do anything that goes against being seen to be "tough on drugs". So this is a situation where their supposed principles clash with what they actually wanted to do, i.e. ignore the evidence but not be straight with the public about why they are doing so because it would show up their lack of an evidence based approach and also their political cowardice.