Policy in the area has been a political battlefield for at least the last 40 years, and it shows no signs of getting any simpler, writes Ben Quinn
The sacking of Professor David Nutt as the government's chief drugs adviser again underlines the sheer toxicity surrounding even the very debate surround the reclassification of illegal substances – an issue that has dogged Labour governments in particular.
Policy in the area has been a political battlefield since at least 1970 when a special class B category was created for cannabis as a compromise between the Labour home secretary, James Callaghan, and others in cabinet who disagreed with his view that it was as dangerous as heroin.
Another Labour government later resisted recommendations from the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 1978 that cannabis should be further downgraded, before another Home Secretary, David Blunkett, finally accepted the reclassification to class C in 2002
His decision led to the resignation of the government's former "drugs czar," Keith Hellawell, who quit his role as a government adviser, claiming the move would damage communities and lead to more drug use.
Last year, the issue fizzled to life once again when Jacqui Smith rejected ACMD advice, following a review, to keep cannabis in class C.
The terrain on which the case for reclassifications – whether it be for cannabis, ecastasy or any other substance – has been made all the rockier by the relentless pressure directed at the government from sections of the press.
On Thursday, the Sun's Jon Gaunt wrote that Nutt – described inevitably as the "Nutty Professor" – "must be sacked immediately" over a declaration that ecstasy is safer than alcohol and tobacco.
At the other end of the scale, voices calling for an entirely new drugs policy on the basis that prohibition does not work have grown louder.
"It is time to admit the obvious," wrote Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil, in the Observer last month. "The 'war on drugs' has failed."
Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable now heavily involved in the global debate surrounding drugs policy, also weighed in weeks later when he described police anti-drugs operations as "pointless" and wrote approvingly of Swiss-style heroin prescription programmes.
Separately, the latest row is also a symptom of the increasingly fraught role of government science advisors who are asked to advise on politically sensitive issues.
The government's chief scientist, Prof John Beddington, warned in August that ministers risk alienating science advisers and squandering their experience by dragging them into public rows. On that occasion, he was referring to Jacqui Smith's very public admoniton of Nutt for his comments in an academic journal comparing the risks of ecstasy to horseriding.
However, the timing of today's sacking is all the more awkward given that it comes just a week after the government responded to a report by the Science and Technology Select Committee by giving a commitment that the independence of members of scientific advisory committees would be respected.
Reacting tonight to news of the sacking, Dr Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP on the committee, said: "This news will make it much less likely that the Government will, in the future, receive the best advice – unfettered by the fear of retribution of politicians who don't like what they hear."
October 31, 2009
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Professor Nutt's sacking shows how toxic the drugs debate has become