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The Slow Death of the ACMD

2 Apr, 10 | by Iain Brassington

One of the most galling political sights of the last few months – and there’s been quite a range – has been the slow collapse of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the wake of the Nutt farrago.  Ever since David Nutt had the temerity to bring facts to the table in respect of the risks of Ecstasy, the Council has been firmly in the sights of the tabloid press, and – by extension – in the sights of sundry MPs as well.  Predictably, there’s been a wave of resignations since Nutt.

Shamefully, the Government has utterly refused to come out in support of the scientists on the Council; it’s been playing a fairly blatant game of follow-the-headline.

Well, the slow evisceration of the Council continues: the BBC has just reported that Eric Carlin has resigned from the Council in protest at the pressure placed on it in respect of the ban on mephedrone.

In his resignation letter to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Mr Carlin wrote : “We had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour.

“Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure.”

He added: “As well as being extremely unhappy with how the ACMD operates, I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people.” [emphasis mine]

One begins to wonder how much longer the Council can continue to exist; it’s one thing for scientific evidence only to be one factor in policy formation, but what seems to be happening here is that there’s a concerted effort to generate the right – for which, read “electorally popular” – kind  of evidence.  And there’s not much point in having a scientific advisory body where the science isn’t allowed to take the lead.

As a sidenote, I think it’s worth pointing out that, while I have a particular loathing for the tabloid and Murdoch press’ handling of mephedrone, the BBC has not been entirely guilt-free in its reporting of the story either.  Even in the context of the Carlin story, it rehearses the line that mephedrone has been linked to four deaths.  But a link is not a cause, and unless we have more information on the precise cause of death, on the circumstances, and on the number of people taking the substance, to make lazy claims about a link is potentially misleading.  Four deaths out of 20 users, none of whom has any health problems, and none of whom has touched anything else stronger than fizzy water recently, would indicate that the drug might be horriffically dangerous; four out of 20 000 less so.  And I suspect that there’s probably more than 20 000 users most weekends, and that a lot of them will not – let’s be frank – have restricted themselves to one quick sniff of powder.

UPDATE: Carlin’s resignation letter is reproduced here, on his blog.

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  • In the ACMD’s favour, the report on cathinones itself is actually a fine piece of work; detailed, thorough, and balanced (given the minimal research available). In reference to your final point the report notably details the shortcomings of the mephedrone drug death statistics that have been flying around and is very clear to caveat all its conclusions according to the limitations of the data, which are significant.

    The fact that the report is of high quality does not however excuse the procedural anomalies that Carlin has highlighted, nor the failure to consider the potential increase in harms that might follow a decision to criminalise the drug. The council must themselves carry some responsibility regardless of the ministerial bullying or other political pressures they were under.

    Interestingly, and again not mentioned in ANY media coverage, the report also highlights how there was a surge in use last November (which they cleverly track using google trends, supported with annecdotal information from vendors) at the time when the saturation coverage of the first ‘mephedrone linked’ death hit the tabloids. In that particular case (Gabriella Price), when the coroner finally reported a couple of weeks later, it turned out to be an acute lung infection death, and mephedrone was specifically ruled out as a cause – a fact that was barely mentioned in any of the media coverage at the time, or since.

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