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Sacked scientist promises impartial drugs advice

| -->15:25 15 January 2010
Andy Coghlan, reporter

The scientist sacked by the British government for allegedly criticising government drugs policy today made good on his promise to set up his own committee to investigate and publicise the science of recreational drugs.

"We will provide the truth about drugs unfettered by any political interference," said David Nutt of Imperial College London, and the former head of the government's asked to leave last October by Home Office minister, Alan Johnson.

Now, true to his promise, Nutt is chairman of his newly created Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, and today proudly announced that its first meeting took place yesterday.

So far it has 14 members, including four of the five who resigned from the ACMD last October in protest at the sacking of Nutt. "This is the strongest grouping of scientists we've ever had in this country [who are experts on recreational drugs]," said Nutt. "The best science will come from us."

Already, the new committee has decided on its first three programmes.

The first will investigate the dangers of "not outlawed but which may be causing serious harm to users who buy them freely on the internet.

They include substances such as mephadrone, described by committee member Les King, an adviser to the government on new psychoactive substances, as a cross between amphetamines, Ecstasy and cocaine. ">not outlawed but which may be causing serious harm to users who buy them freely on the internet.

They include substances such as mephadrone, described by committee member Les King, an adviser to the government on new psychoactive substances, as a cross between amphetamines, Ecstasy and cocaine. "People assume they're safe, but we don't know," says King.

Next up will be a re-assessment of the relative harms of different recreational drugs, both legal and illegal.

Nutt is particularly keen to highlight what he describes as ">legal and illegal.

Nutt is particularly keen to highlight what he describes as "aberrations" in the current UK government classification of certain drugs, with relatively safe ones such as alcohol not classified at all.

"At some point, we will put together an assessment of drug harms which will challenge some of the aberrations," says Nutt.

The third project will focus on ketamine, also known as "special K", a drug that is rising in recreational usage. Val Curran of University College London, who will head the study, says that ketamine is already "showing a clear profile of addiction".

In heavy users, it is also causing such serious bladder damage that some have had to have their bladders surgically removed. Two users died drowning in the bath, she says.

The birth of the new committee does raise some interesting questions. First: can it be trusted to be truly impartial? Does it represent a true consensus, and where does it get its funding from?

Equally, where does it leave the ACMD? Some founder members of the new committee are also on the ACMD.

Nutt did turn slightly prickly when asked by a reporter whether his committee would admit ">are also on the ACMD.

Nutt did turn slightly prickly when asked by a reporter whether his committee would admit "dissident" scientists whose views clash with those prevailing among the founder members. Some scientists, for example, say there's evidence that Ecstasy and cannabis are more dangerous than portrayed by Nutt and other scientists.

In response, Nutt said that, "if the science is good enough, there should be no reason why people shouldn't join us".

And who is funding it all? Not the head of a Colombian drugs cartel, we hope. It turns out to be a wealthy benefactor, Toby Jackson, who is a hedge-fund manager.

"He wants policy driven by scientific evidence," says Nutt. Nutt says that funding is assured for at least three years, costing around £150,000 per year, but the hope is that other sources of funding and public donations will swell the kitty and consolidate the committee.

Another possible source of money could be projects commissioned by the government.

And where does it leave the ACMD? Nutt says that the new chairman, Les Iversen of the University of Oxford, has already sent Nutt his best wishes for the new committee, expressing the hope they can "work together".

But the arrival of the new committee is clearly and deliberately a middle-finger salute to a government seen by Nutt and others as unwilling to grant true independence to its scientific advisers.

Stung by the criticism that advisers could be new principles setting out the ground rules for ensuring independence of advice.

But Nutt today described these as "so watered-down" that they made the situation worse than before he was sacked.

The big worry now, of course, is that the public can never again be sure when the ACMD - or any other of its independent scientific advisory committees - is being leant on to produce advice in keeping with government policy. "The ACMD is now working in conditions that fetter them even more," says Nutt.

More broadly, the creation of the committee could set up a whole new paradigm for providing scientific advice without the burden of political interference. Why stop at recreational drugs? Why don't top scientists set up committees to give the unshackled "truth" on climate change, abortion, evolution, nutrition, food and health, nuclear power and so on.

The difficulty, of course, is that such groups could turn out to be self-selecting, choosing among their number only those who are "on-message". But that may be the lesser of two evils compared with government interference.

"It's a very interesting model, with bottom-up scientists coming together to give politically-free independent advice," says Nutt.

Sacked scientist promises impartial drugs advice Michael Marshall | --> 15:25 15 January 2010 Andy Coghlan, reporter The scientist sacked by the British government for allegedly criticising government drugs policy today made good on his promise to set up his own committee to investigate and publicis ...» more Dogmeat

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