Professor David Nutt, chairman of Great Britain’s advisory council on the misuse of drugs, was forced to resign today after he criticized the British government’s decision to toughen penalties for marijuana possession.
Just a few hours prior to his sacking, Nutt had publicly condemned British politicians for “distorting” and “devaluing” scientific research used in the debate over illegal drugs. In an article published Thursday by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Nutt said that illegal drugs such as cannabis, LSD and ecstasy were less harmful than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, and he called for changes in the way such substances are classified in order to better inform the public about their relative harms.
Specifically, Nutt criticized a January decision by British ministers to upgrade marijuana from a class C drug to the higher class B, a change that increased the maximum penalty for possession to five years in prison, and the penalty for dealing to 14 years.
Nutt still maintained that cannabis was “harmful,” but he made an appeal—based on reason and science—for the government to be honest with the public about marijuana and the fact that it causes no major health or social problems:
“I think we have to accept young people like to experiment, and what we should be doing is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives,” Nutt wrote. “We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong.”
To recap: The British Home Office asked Prof. Nutt to reexamine that nation’s drug laws and offer some suggestions based on sound scientific evidence. As requested, Nutt presented his findings and concluded—rightfully—that Britain’s 2004 decision to soften its marijuana laws was correct and should have been maintained. But because those findings contradicted government policy, he was fired. So much for free and open debate in a democratic society.
If you’re wondering if the same thing could happen here in the United States, it already has: Nutt’s predicament is eerily similar to the 1994 firing of then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders (now a member of MPP’s VIP advisory board).