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One of the UK’s leading researchers on drugs says the government is blocking ground-breaking research into the positive impact of psychedelics on mental health conditions – a move which is “costing lives”.
Professor Nutt’s work has demonstrated the transformative potential of chemicals like psilocybin and MDMA in treating mental health conditions, including treatment-resistant depression and anxiety.
But strict rules imposed by the UK government have created huge barriers to research and denied thousands of individuals access to potentially life-changing treatments, the leading drug scientist told Byline Times.
Prof Nutt was ousted as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2009 by New Labour’s Alan Johnson, after he published an article showing that risks associated with horse riding were higher than those of taking ecstasy.
But despite tight rules on research into the clinical benefits of illegal drugs, Prof Nutt and his group DrugScience have made significant strides in understanding the mechanisms and impact of psychedelics on mental health. In the absence of government funding for a decade, the group has had to privately fund its research.
That work has now shed light on the brain’s response to substances including psilocybin – the active chemical in magic mushrooms. Prof Nutt says the impact of psychedelics is “remarkable” in tackling mental health conditions like treatment-resistant depression.
One of the key revelations from Prof Nutt’s research is the ability of psychedelics to turn off the parts of the brain associated with forms of mental illness. Through brain imaging studies, his team has helped uncover the profound impact these substances can have on individuals struggling with various mental health conditions.
He didn’t expect it. “When I started doing this research nearly 20 years ago, I had no idea we would be using these drugs to treat mental illness. I knew they had potential, but I wasn’t expecting results like this,” he says.
He went back to the clinic to conduct studies on people who were depressed and not getting better with traditional therapies. “Remarkably, it worked, and it works extremely well,” he adds.
A recent trial of the impact of psilocybin on people with anorexia appears to show that many patients found it beneficial in changing perceptions of their own body image. “We haven’t analysed all the data in detail yet, but it definitely looked as if it was going in the right direction,” Prof Nutt tells Byline Times.
But the potential uses go beyond treating anorexia. It is “unprecedented” for one chemical to have the potential effect that psychedelics possess, he says. While SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors used for treating depression and anxiety – have some utility across different disorders, psychedelics have now been found to be more effective in many cases: “The impact and therapeutic potential of psychedelics are truly remarkable and unparalleled.”
Despite the promising results, obtaining licences to study the effects of psychedelics has proven to be an almost impossible task for many researchers in the UK. The strict classification of these substances as “Schedule One” drugs places them under more stringent control measures than substances like heroin or fentanyl.
Prof Nutt expressed frustration with these regulations, telling this newspaper: “These drugs were put in Schedule One to punish them. They weren’t put on schedule because they were harmful. It was to get people not to use them recreationally. It didn’t work.”
The psychopharmacologist notes the stark contrast between the UK and countries like the United States, where nearly all major medical universities have established psychedelic research groups. He laments the lack of support from the UK government: “There is virtually no research going on in Britain… It’s just too expensive, too difficult, and too tedious to work through all the regulations.”
The consequences of these restrictions are particularly disheartening given the urgent need for innovative mental health treatments. “5,000 people in Britain kill themselves every year… Most of them are either depressed or have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most of them have been failed by conventional treatment…What possible reason could there be that you wouldn’t want to ease access to potential treatment of these people?” he says.
Australia is now leading the way in providing access to psychedelics for those most in need, for conditions such as depression. Its new compassionate access program enables individuals with treatment-resistant depression and PTSD to receive psilocybin and MDMA, respectively.
Prof Nutt is now calling for a similar approach in the UK. He proposes rescheduling psilocybin and MDMA from Schedule One to Schedule Two, allowing doctors to prescribe these substances under controlled conditions.
For him, the government’s recent decision to effectively block drug testing at festivals speaks volumes about the evidence-free approach to policy making on illicit drugs.
“The government is obsessed with the law rather than caring about people’s lives. The system is broken. The Home Secretary clearly is a woman who likes to punish people rather than heal people,” he says.
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Chance for Change
Will the dial move on drug reform? Labour are reluctant to make drug reform a prominent issue by any stretch of the imagination. Prof Nutt attributes their reluctance to the fear of alienating older voters. The solution, he thinks, will come in the event of a hung parliament and a Labour-Lib Dem power-sharing arrangement.
Prof Nutt is therefore urging the Liberal Democrats to prioritise drug reform as part of their agenda in any coalition talks. A royal commission on drug laws could for instance lead to the legalisation of cannabis, and greater freedom for researchers in the UK to look at the positive clinical uses for psychedelics.
Cannabis is already available for medical use on prescription – although nearly all of the 20,000 or so current cannabis patients in the UK are having to be prescribed privately. The NHS, Prof Nutt says, is over-cautious and “backwards” on the issue.
More promising and realistic, perhaps, is the potential for an alternative to alcohol to hit the shelves within the next few years. Prof David Nutt’s research outfit has been attempting to create a hangover-free alternative to alcohol that provides similar psychoactive effects of sociability and relaxation.
His team has, he tells me, now developed three different chemical series which show promise at replicating alcohol without the toxic effects. “I already know one molecule I could take through the works, but I’m looking at the other two series which would have advantages in terms of efficiency of production and so on.”
They are currently awaiting the results of head-to-head comparisons to determine the most effective candidate for trials. Then they will be in a position to seek funding from investors – around three million pounds.
“Once we’ve decided on a molecule, we’re going to make kilos of the stuff to go through the testing and hopefully start that towards the end of the year. And then if it all goes well, it could be two years. If it’s a bit slower, it might be three.” A lot is contingent on the next round of investment.
“This is going to be the last great disruption of any industry, so we have the common sense and vision to go with it, fingers crossed.” Could it be on the shelf in Britain in 2026? “Yes, it could be. I’m not going to promise, but that would be wonderful.”
Professor David Nutt’s new book ‘Psychedelics’ is out now.
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