Photo: Richard Vogel/AP
Restrictions on the use of psychedelic drugs in research should be relaxed to help find new treatments for conditions including mental health disorders, the former government adviser Prof David Nutt has said.
Nutt was sacked as chair of the advisory committee on the misuse of drugs in October 2009 over his views that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol.
He said the potential benefits of psychedelics – first suggested from research in the 1950s and 60s – were failing to be properly explored because of draconian regulations imposed for political reasons.
While heroin and psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) are both class A drugs, only the latter is a “schedule 1” controlled drug – a category of drugs deemed to have no medical value.
“The implication is if you want to use [psychedelics] you must be doing something naughty, even though it is research,” said Nutt.
He said the upshot was that research into drugs such as psilocybin involved an expensive and lengthy bureaucratic process to gain licenses, and it was also difficult to gain ethical approval.
“You’ve got to get permissions, multiple permissions from the Home Office, and they include inspections,” he told the Guardian, adding that transporting such drugs required special couriers and extensive documentation, and higher levels of security were required than for other drugs that are more harmful.
“A lot of research isn’t done because people just can’t be arsed to go through the rigmarole of getting the license,” he added.
Despite the tight restrictions, some new research is being conducted, including by Nutt and his team who have conducted brain scans on people who are tripping on LSD.
Writing in the journal Cell, Nutt and colleagues outline evidence suggesting that psilocybin could be a powerful form of therapy for conditions ranging from depression to anorexia.
“Both the depression and tobacco smoking trials have shown that in some people psilocybin can produce clinical remission, in some cases persisting for years,” the team writes, adding that they are now working on a trial comparing psilocybin with the antidepressant escitalopram in major depressive disorder.
Nutt and colleagues say psychedelics are thought to produce such results by disrupting activity in the brain involved in habits of thought and behavior, possibly by interacting with a receptor predominately found in the cerebral cortex of the brain called 5-HT2A.
They say that disruption can not only help individuals gain insights into their conditions during the trip but also provide a window of opportunity in the days that follow, while the participant is experiencing an “afterglow” and thinking differently, for them to engage better with psychotherapy.
However, the team notes many questions remain, including how long a trip needs to last for benefits to be seen, whether so-called “microdosing” with the drugs – where levels are so low that there is no trip – could be beneficial, and why some patients relapse after psychedelic therapy.
In the meantime, with psychedelics legal in some parts of the world, the team are hoping to collect data on people’s experiences through an online survey.
Nutt cautioned against people using psychedelics for self-medication, noting that participants in trials were prepared for the trip, and the psychedelics were administered in the presence of therapists.
“Our depressed patients almost always have a very tough trip and we don’t think they’d be safe having a trip like that in the middle of a field or in their own bedroom without professional care,” he said, adding the psychotherapy afterwards was also important to gain benefits.
Ultimately, said Nutt, the schedule 1 restrictions on psychedelics need to change. “We have been arguing for years there should be an exemption for research,” he said. “That magic mushrooms can be alongside crack cocaine in [class A] is absurd, but even worse is the putting it in schedule 1 so you can’t use [psychedelics] for research.”
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