LONDON The government rejected advice from its own narcotics advisory body on Wednesday to lower the penalties for possessing the dance drug ecstasy, raising questions over the relevance of the expert panel.
Home Office Minister Alan Campbell said the government was unwilling to run the risk of increasing use of the drug, which is directly responsible for around 15 deaths a year.
"The government will not send a signal to young people and the public in general that we take ecstasy less seriously," he added.
But Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris said the government had snubbed the 31-member Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs without good reason.
"Scientists must now seriously question whether it is worth them giving up their time to help a government that not only rejects the message, but attacks the messenger," he said.
Last year, the government rejected the council's recommendation to keep cannabis as a class C drug and went on to raise it to Class B on fears of the effects of strong "skunk" varieties.
And last week the government forced its chairman David Nutt to apologise for saying that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse-riding.
Nutt said on Wednesday he was disappointed the government had rejected the recommendation to lower ecstasy to a class B drug from class A, a ranking that currently puts it on a level with heroin and crack cocaine.
"This is the most systematic review of ecstasy that has ever been done," he said.
"We know more about the evidence than any politician ever could know. But at the end of the day these are political decisions."
He said the evidence showed there were very few adverse health effects from taking ecstasy, few people became dependent and the drug rarely caused impulsive, violent or risky behaviour.
Although ecstasy was undoubtedly harmful, it did not cause damage on the same scale as heroin or cocaine and should not be ranked in the same classification.
He said ecstasy had originally been made a class A drug only because of a mistaken belief at the time that it was a hallucinogen like LSD.
A change to class B would have put ecstasy on a level with other amphetamines, with a maximum five years for possession, rather than seven years for class A.
Fellow panel member Leslie Iversen, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, said in an ideal world the advisory council and its recommendations would be independent of government.
"I would support that but it's fantasy land. It's not going to happen," he said.
(Editing by Steve Addison)
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