A ban on the drug mephedrone brought in by the Government this month was a rushed decision that further exemplifies how politics is “contaminating” science and the work of government advisers, according to a leading medical journal.
An editorial in The Lancet strongly criticises the way ministers moved to ban mephedrone and pressured its advisory body to produce the necessary evidence to act.
The former “legal high” drug was given Class B status and banned after reportedly being linked to 25 deaths. Yet the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report that recommended the ban acknowledged that there was no scientific evidence of a causal link between the deaths and the drug.
The editorial describes the decision as motivated more by “political and media pressure” and draws parallels with the ACMD’s troubled recent history.
In October 2009 the council’s former chairman, Professor David Nutt, was sacked for criticising government policy on cannabis and ecstasy. His dismissal triggered the protest resignation of five other members.
Commenting on the latest decision, led by its new interim chairman, Professor Les Iverson, The Lancet notes: “Alarmingly, the report, which was only a draft, was still being discussed by the ACMD when Iverson rushed out of the meeting to brief Home Secretary Alan Johnson of their recommendation in time for a press briefing.”
The editorial also observes that a report on tackling alcohol and tobacco abuse by young people was “conveniently buried” by the furore over mephedrone.
A former ACMD member, Eric Carlin, who resigned over the mephedrone decision, wrote on his blog: “We were unduly pressured by media and politicians to make a quick, tough decision to classify.”
On the same day that the council issued its mephedrone recommendation, it released a report entitled Pathways to Problems that looked at drug use by young people.
The report contained some “potentially unpalatable conclusions”, including the claim that not enough was being done on alcohol and tobacco, said The Lancet. It also called for a review of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
But the report received no media attention and prompted no response from the Home Office. “Instead it conveniently got buried under discussions on the legal status of mephedrone,” said the editorial.
The ACMD did not have sufficient evidence to judge the drug’s harmfulness, the journal added. It said: “It is too easy and potentially counter-productive to ban each new substance that comes along rather than seek to understand more about young people’s motivations and how we can influence them.
“We should try to support healthy behaviours rather than simply punish people who breach our society’s norms.”
The ACMD affair signalled a “disappointing finale to the Government’s relationship with science”, said the editorial.
It concluded: “Politics has been allowed to contaminate scientific processes and the advice that underpins policy.
“The outcome of an independent inquiry into the practices of the ACMD, commissioned by the Home Office in October 2009, is now urgently awaited. Lessons from this debacle need to be learned by a new incoming government.”
April 16, 2010