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Looking back on the establishment of Drug Science

Colourful pills all over the table

I first came across David Nutt in July 2007, when he spoke at a conference called ‘Criminal Justice and Social Justice’, which the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies held at King’s College London. David spoke on the subject of ‘Why adopt a harm approach in relation to drugs?’.

Here was someone, I thought at the time, who was deeply serious about his work, without taking himself too seriously. His considered, evidenced and accessible explanation of a science-informed approach to drugs was one of the highlights of a conference studded with interesting presentations. When, a year later, we were thinking about who to invite to deliver our forthcoming 2009 annual lecture, David was top of the list.

David gave his lecture on 14 July 2009. He had recently been appointed Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), though he spoke in his Imperial College London capacity. We subsequently published his lecture in October.

I first got an inkling about what was to happen next when I got a call from a well-placed journalist in late October. They told me the Home Office was briefing that David was to be dismissed from his role as ACMD Chair. This would be a good time to mobilise support for David, the journalist said, and quickly. I spoke to David and we agreed to make some calls, but his dismissal was already a fait accompli. The rearguard action failed before it had really got going.

The fortnight following his dismissal was busy. David seemed almost constantly to be on the television and radio, arguing his case. Some 400 people attended the ‘Audience with David Nutt’ we organised in early November.

David, I and the then Deputy Director at the Centre, Will McMahon, also hatched the plan for what became Drug Science. In a sign of the esteem in which he was held, a sizeable group of the ACMD membership had resigned in protest at David’s dismissal. They went on to form the core of the new organisation.

Reminding ourselves of the importance of the issues at stake – standing for evidence and integrity in the policy-making process, in the face of strong political pressures and a degree of ambivalence, indeed fear, among some partner organisations – helped us get through what was an exhausting period.

For the first few years, what was then called the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs operated as a project of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. In those early years it was supported financially, with great vision and no strings attached, by the hedge fund manager Toby Jackson.

We stayed in touch with David and Drug Science after it became a separate organisation a few years’ later. We hosted an event on ‘The David Nutt affair’ in September 2015, at which David spoke.

We also continued to work on drugs issues. In May 2016, for instance, we organised an event examining Portugal’s health-led approach to drugs. The national drug coordinator for Portugal, João Goulão, gave the keynote address. Other speakers included Drug Science Scientific Committee member Niamh Eastwood, and Drug Science supporter Baroness Molly Meacher.

It therefore seemed entirely fitting to suggest to David earlier this year that we host a ‘ten years on’ talk by him. I was delighted when he agreed. The event promises to be a memorable occasion.

Alan Johnson and I live around the corner from each other. I bumped into him at our local train station a while back. We talked briefly about David and the events of ten years ago. Johnson was complimentary and talked about the “excellent” work David had done on the ACMD. It left me wondering why he had dismissed David in the first place. But then, it was always about the politics, not the science, of drugs.

David’s boundless energy and refusal to go quietly was a key factor in the establishment of Drug Science. I also took seriously the Centre’s responsibility to stand firmly with David, and the other members of the ACMD who had resigned, in the face of strong political pressure to go away and shut up.

In dismissing David, Alan Johnson himself also played an unwitting role. He thought he would hinder the development of a more evidenced, rational and informed politics of drugs. In creating the conditions that led to the establishment of Drug Science, he did the opposite.

Richard Garside Director Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

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