The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs is an example of the role of scientific advice in British government. ACMD, which consists of thirty-one experts who are not themselves officials, has no formal power but historically has wielded enormous authority; by tradition, its advice is not ignored. The U.S. has always been more comfortable with politicians over-ruling experts.
That has changed under the New Labour government, which has also taken a number of other steps to “Americanize” British governmental practice, for example by building up the power of the Prime Minister’s office vis-a-vis the ministries, in which the ministers are famously captives of their civil-service officials. In some ways, this is a “democratizing” step, elevating the importance of the beliefs and values of elected politicians over those of unelected experts. But that doesn’t mean that those of us in the business of being, and training, experts have to like it, and insofar as expert beliefs track objective reality more closely than do voters’ prejudices, it also means making decisions with a weaker connection to the actual phenomena.
When the head of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs gave a careful, analytic lecture arguing that cannabis and LSD were over-controlled compared to more harmful drugs such as alcohol, the Home Secretary promptly sacked him on the grounds that for a scientific advisor to express an opinion touching policy made it impossible to have confidence in the adviser’s objectivity. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullsh*t. What the Home Secretary clearly means is that the Government is committed to the War on Drugs and isn’t interested in any advice that might get in the way.
This clash had been brewing for some time. Under pressure from law enforcement, the Government, having acted on ACMD’s advice to downgrade cannabis, then reversed itself and upgraded it again. The status of MDMA (ecstasy) is another point of tension. Reportedly, the strong personal anti-drug sentiment of bothh Tony Blair (or, more precisely, Cherie Blair) and Gordon Brown have played a strong role in driving policy.
New Labour, after siding with GWB over Iraq, seems to have picked up rather Bushian attitudes about the role of scientific advice. From this side of the Pond, we can only look with admiration at a political system where the forced resignation of a scientific adviser makes headlines.