June 1, 2012

Expert Says Drug Bans Have Stalled Scientific Research

A leading British drug expert on Thursday said that bans on a number of drugs such as LSD and ecstasy have hindered scientific research on the human brain and slowed down progress on the development of medical treatments for brain disorders and disease.

David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London said the international ban on mind-altering drugs over the last half century has damaged scientific research as much as former President George W. Bush´s moratorium on the use of embryonic stem cells in research has, and has resulted in “perverse” consequences.

At a briefing in London ahead of his new book -- “Drugs - without the hot air” -- Nutt told Reuters that when drugs are prohibited, it becomes much more difficult to conduct experimental research based on those drugs. He compared the issue to the banning of stem cell research under President Bush from 2001 - 2009, which set back research for years.

He said that many of these banned drugs “may well give us insights into areas of science which need to be explored and they also may give us new opportunities for treatment.”

“Almost all the drugs which are of interest in terms of brain phenomena like consciousness, perception, mood, psychosis - drugs like psychedelics, ketamine, cannabis, magic mushrooms, MDMA - are currently illegal,” so research in this field is very limited,” said Nutt.

One drug´s active ingredient -- psilocybin -- has been thought to increase the risk of depression. But on a small study Nutt conducted last year on its effect on the human brain, he found that the psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, actually suppressed activity in areas of the brain linked to depression, suggesting that the drug could be useful in treating people with the illness.

But because of the illegality of the drug, Nutt said he had to “jump through hundreds of hoops” just to be able to conduct the study, having to comply with complex and expensive security and regulations that would keep most scientists from even bothering to move ahead with such a study.

Nutt said he was driven to write the book in the hope of improving understanding of both legal and illegal drugs, and both used medicinally and recreationally. “There is almost no one in society who doesn´t take drugs of some sort. The choices you make in your drug-taking are driven by a complex mixture of fashion, habit, availability and advertising,” he told Reuters.

“If we understand drugs more, and have a more rational approach to them, we will actually end up knowing more about how to deal with drug harms,” he added.

The book seeks to explore the science of what a drug is and how it works, and to determine if the “war on drugs” has actually done more harm than good.

The book also explores the history of cannabis, and its widely popular usage in the treatment of various medical conditions. In a paper, written by J.R. Reynolds, and published in the Lancet medical journal, he said that “when pure and administered carefully, it (cannabis) is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”

Nutt is not trying to take away from the fact that drugs are harmful, but has expressed issue with what he calls unscientific decisions to ban one drug, such as cannabis, while allowing another, such as alcohol, to be freely and available and easily accessible.

“It´s arbitrary whether we choose to keep alcohol legal and ban cannabis, or make tobacco legal and ban ecstasy,” he said “Those are not scientific decisions they are political, moral and maybe even religious decisions.”