Sacked drugs advisor launches private panel

The scientist fired from the British government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) last year has launched a privately funded scientific committee to advise the public on the risks of drug use.

David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist from Imperial College in London, was dropped from the ACMD in October after his remarks contradicting the government’s classification of marijuana reached the press. Last month he announced the launch of his group, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD).
The new committee has 14 members, four of whom resigned from the ACMD in protest of Nutt’s sacking. Five remaining members of the ACMD have expressed interest in straddling the two committees, according to Nutt—and the UK Home Office confirmed that ACMD members may sit on any outside organization. Toby Jackson, a manager of Swiss and British hedge funds, has offered to cover operating expenses of around £150,000 ($245,000) for the ISCD’s first three years, although smaller donations have come in from the public. Nutt says he hopes to add more chemists and at least one physician to the group and that he is in talks with sociologists and epidemiologists to examine the social effects of drugs.

“We need more than just a harm ranking or someone saying that this is the effect of methedrone or BZP [benzylpiperazine] on the human body,” notes Danny Kushlick, head of Policy and Communications of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a UK drugs think tank, “it’s a social science, too.”

At its first meeting on 14 January, members of the ISCD agreed to investigate the risks of so-called legal highs such as mephedrone, which have garnered attention recently in the UK, and to reexamine drugs such as ketamine. Instead of drawn out debate over drug classification, the team will incorporate multiple-criteria decision analysis, a risk management system used by nuclear waste disposal experts. The government’s and the public’s perception of the new group will depend both on how delicately the group navigates its first year, and on how media covers it, adds Steve Alexander, a pharmacologist at Nottingham University. “If they’re too iconoclastic, it’s not going to be easy for them,” he says.

In mid-January, Les Iversen, a retired academic at the University of Oxford, UK, was appointed as interim chairman at ACMD. He has reportedly in the past expressed views about marijuana’s safety relative to tobacco that were similar to the statements that put Nutt under fire.

First published by Nature Medicine:  [html] [pdf].