After the sacking of the Government's chief drugs adviser for criticising cannabis policy, JACK GROVE asks figures in Cambridge's scientific and medical worlds whether he was right to speak out.
AS he set out his controversial argument, that "cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco", Prof David Nutt must have known his time as the Government's chief drug adviser was nearing an end.
Were any leading MP or minister to make the case, it would surely be political suicide, leading to censure from their party and condemnation from the papers and public.
But is the role of scientists - however senior and politically influential - to point out unpalatable truths that politicians might want to ignore? Is it their responsibility to present their findings, no matter how controversial or unpopular the conclusions?
Dr Karen Ersche, a drug addiction researcher at Cambridge University's Department of Psychiatry, believes it is.
She said: "I support Professor Nutt's views and certainly his right to make his opinions public.
"Science is a good way to debate the issue of drugs because it is neutral, based on facts and not concerned with morals.
"It is also free from the stigma that drug users suffer, so it is good place to put forward arguments. Scientific research is all about improving people's lives and it is important that we scientists are able to communicate our findings to the public. If we can't, then it is simply in an ivory tower exercise.
"That is not the case. Our research has practical uses and we need to use our knowledge to improve people's lives.
"We have excellent scientists in Britain and they need to be able to share their knowledge to help those people who need it the most.
"Scientists must remain distant from the politics and be able to give their views."
Cllr Geoff Heathcock, chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council's health scrutiny committee, believed the sacking of Professor Nutt was wrong.
He said: "If you are going to have specialist drug advisers, they must be free to have their opinions.
"He may have said some uncomfortable things, but he needs to be free to say them and to open up the debate.
"I don't agree with his views on cannabis as I think we need to take a robust line on it - there is plenty of evidence that cannabis leads to experimentation with harder drugs.
"But it does not help the debate to sack someone if they have a different opinion to you."
However, Dr Tony Jaffa, a consultant psychiatrist at Fulbourn Hospital, said he had some sympathy with Home Secretary Alan Johnson's position.
He said: "I wouldn't want a world where scientists have ultimate power on policy - you need politicians to put their findings into a wider context.
"But it would be great if we could have a more informed debate. Drug use is still a problem and that suggests we haven't got the approach totally right.
"We might have to admit that the current controls on drugs is part of the problem.
Scientists must be a very important part of that debate, but they shouldn't have the final say."
November 3, 2009
Treading fine line between providing advice - or policy