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Advisory drugs panel is losing independence, says academic who quit

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5913 (Published 07 October 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l5913
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. London

A senior member of the independent panel that advises the government on drug related issues has resigned amid what he says is “political vetting” of members.

Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, said that the exclusion of suitably qualified applicants meant that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was losing its independence.

In June it emerged that a government minister had vetoed the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, a highly respected lawyer and executive director of the drugs charity Release.1 Victoria Atkins, the minister for crime, safeguarding, and vulnerability, vetoed Eastwood on the basis of tweeted disagreements with government ministers.

Announcing his resignation on Twitter, Stevens said, “If ministers take decisions on who can join the ACMD on the basis of whether or not they agree with government policies, then it is no longer an independent body. Which is why I have resigned.”

He said that ministers were vetting applicants’ social media content, including any statements on Brexit and the Windrush scandal, as well as drug policy. Stevens asked the Home Office for clarification on the number of people this applied to and the process for excluding suitably qualified applicants, but this has not been provided, he said. He also said that ministers had not provided any assurance that this sort of exclusion would not happen again.

Ten years ago David Nutt, then chair of the advisory council, was dismissed after he publicly criticised the then Labour government’s decision to reclassify cannabis from class C to the more serious class B. Nutt, a leading expert on the relative risk of different drugs, said that tobacco and alcohol were more harmful than cannabis, ecstasy, and LSD. His dismissal led to several other council members resigning and an outcry from leading scientists.2

In 2011 a working protocol was put in place to protect the independence of the council from any further ministerial interference.3 Stevens said that the council’s independence was a big factor in his decision to apply to join in 2014.

Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, told The BMJ, “In the last 10 years since my sacking things have gone backwards. Niamh Eastwood is a lawyer and has every right to criticise government policy on issues such as Windrush. It is absolutely outrageous that the government can try to stifle any sort of discussion, and it exposes their prejudices. It just shows that the Home Office doesn’t want anyone who isn’t going to toe the line.”

Nutt added, “I believe it is a breach of the ministerial code.” He said that the independent body he chairs, Drug Science, is seeking legal advice and may mount a legal challenge to the decision to veto Eastwood.

Drug related deaths in England and Wales rose to a record high of 4359 last year, the highest number and biggest annual increase (16%) since the time series began in 1993.4

Nutt said that it was time to put the responsibility for drug policy under the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care, which at least understood the meaning of evidence. “The Home Office is not interested in harm reduction—it is only interested in criminal sanctions,” he added.

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