By Simon Hazelwood-Smith, MSc student in Science & Technology Policy at the University of Sussex. Tweets as @simonthazelwood
It’s high time to re-evaluate laws and attitudes to psychedelic drug research. There is a gigantic, hulking elephant in the UK policy room. Attempts to curb and reduce recreational drug use through strict criminalisation laws have failed. Vulnerable people are sent to jail, take substances of unknown quality and origin and support an often hyper-violent, caustic and predatory global underground drug trade. More than this, the ranking of severity of punishments for drug related crimes defies logic and evidence, pandering to fear and misinformation. These arguments are familiar tropes in the popular media, yet decriminalisation remains a taboo topic. And although there are a few encouraging voices beginning to make themselves heard, UK policy continues to be frustratingly stubborn to reform.
There is another, perhaps less obvious consequence of the UK’s attitude to drugs: it is incredibly difficult to conduct research to investigate precisely how psychedelic drugs affects the body and brain. Researchers hoping to study these effects will invariably meet twin barriers of excessively cautious funding bodies and prohibitively restrictive licensing and procurement regulations. Although there is massive potential for these drugs to be used medicinally, the fear of damaged reputation by both scientists and research councils is significant.
In spite of this there are still some who are attempting to probe this potential to combat mental illnesses; and with good reason, a recent publication showed depression to be more costly to human productivity than any other condition, mental or otherwise. Professor David Nutt of UCL is one such scientist, who has for many years been a champion of the value in researching drugs traditionally used for recreational purposes.
It is a great shame that research in this area is so restricted; the Human Brain is one of the most intriguing and mysterious objects in science, yet researchers have only scratched the surface of its complexities. By studying the way psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and ketamine affect the brain in controlled settings, there is a good chance that some of the mysteries of the fundamentals of consciousness may be revealed. This in turn could pave the way for new mental health interventions.
Research into psychedelic drugs as medicinal therapies, in particular to combat mental illnesses such as depression shows great promise. In recent years research into ketamine’s uses as an antidepressant have been a revelation with symptoms being lifted in a matter of hours in some cases. It is hoped that research into the properties of LSD may prove as fruitful, yet the difficulties of studying this drug are magnified significantly. Where ketamine is a class B drug, LSD is class A and schedule 1, making it more dangerous in the eyes of the law and more difficult to obtain for research than heroin. The upshot of this is that just 4 laboratories in the UK have a licence to work with the drug, stymieing progress hugely.
The scientific crowd-funding concept as is being developed by Walacea.com has tremendous potential to be positively disruptive in science funding. The UK is placing ever more emphasis on ensuring that research has impact outside of academia. What better way to demonstrate public interest and support for a project, than through crowd-funding in which the public choose those projects that they feel are needed.
The world is in great need of a re-think in its approaches towards the regulation of drugs. The possibility of appropriating these drugs as treatments is tantalising, but will be far easier if restrictions are relaxed. With a little luck, projects like Prof Nutt’s Walacea study will be a red flag to government that the UK demands change.