Ed Miliband recently stated on the program Bite the Ballot: ‘while I haven’t taken drugs, I’ve got a pretty clear view at least on the legalisation/decriminalisation question’. The extent of his knowledge was a rather feeble statement saying that although he’s never taken drugs he’s not totally unaware of the issues surrounding them – in his own words he’s ‘read about it.’ Are we meant to be reassured that a potential leader of our country who could be in charge of the legislation that puts thousands in prison every year has no experience or knowledge of the matter whatsoever? Miliband’s recent drive to impress young voters seems have pointed out something that’s been plainly evident for a number of years: politicians are often extremely naive about drugs and their effects on society.
As many remember, David Nutt, a respected professor at Imperial College London and field leader in the development of Neuropsychopharmacology (how drugs affect the mind), famously claimed in 2009 that horse-riding was more dangerous than taking MDMA (ecstasy). In fact not just more dangerous but almost 30 times more dangerous! (horse riding: 1 serious adverse event every ~350 exposures compared to MDMA: 1 serious adverse event every ~10,000 exposures). This controversial statement subsequently led him to being fired from his post as the chair of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Nutt has made it his careers work to study the effects of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA, and Psilocybin (the active component in magic mushrooms), to understand what they can show us about the human mind. The problem with the government’s decision to fire Prof. Nutt is that it showed a complete disregard on the part politicians regarding the scientific evidence about the potential harmful effects of psychoactive compounds (and horse-riding for that matter!). This disregard was just exemplified by Miliband’s supposed ‘knowledge’ about the effects of cannabis when he argued that there are ‘mental effects of cannabis that people maybe didn’t realise a decade ago’, (a vague statement to say the least) and said he ‘worries about what message we send if we decriminalise [harmful drugs]’. Instead of worrying about the message we might be sending maybe our politicians should be looking into the science behind these claims.
David Nutt argues that the banning of LSD and other hallucinogens was based on a ‘concoction of lies’ about their effects on the health of users along with a complete denial about the potential benefits and treatments for a variety of mental disorders. He has been quoted as saying that the government’s decision to ignore this evidence ‘unquestionably one of the most effective pieces of disinformation in the history of mankind, […] It led to a lot of people believing these drugs were more harmful than they were. They are not trivial drugs, but in comparison with drugs that kill thousands of people a year, like alcohol, tobacco and heroin, they have a very safe track record and, as far as we know, no one has died.’
The majority of the stigma attached to psychedelic drugs in particular has been based on the social misconceptions and propaganda from the late 60s and early 70s where drugs such as LSD were associated with the counter culture and anti-war movements that were gaining popularity among many young westerners. In 1971 the UN convention on psychotropic substances declared LSD, other hallucinogens and cannabis as schedule 1 drugs. A classification reserved for extremely dangerous substances with a lack of any potential medical benefits.
Whereas Heroin, a well known, severely addictive, and (when excessively used) extremely dangerous drug was classed as a less restricted schedule 2 drug because it had potent pain-killing effects. Heroin and other opiates such as morphine had a place in hospitals whereas LSD was pushed as a substance that drove users to psychosis. Everyone has heard of the stories of people taking LSD and jumping out a window because they think they can fly, or the stories that LSD can stay in your brain years after ingesting it causing terrifying unpredictable flashbacks. These are highly exaggerated fabrications.
In fact, LSD, after it’s initial conception, was used throughout the 50’s and 60’s as a treatment for a variety of psychological disorders including alcohol addiction and depression among other things. It’s effects had been tested in clinical conditions on over 40000 people. However now it is infamously difficult to get hold of substances that are classified in the most dangerous categories, often taking years and thousands of pounds of investment to obtain a research grant. Nutt and his fellow Neuropsychopharmacologist Dr. Robin Carhartt-Haris argue that the work that was started over 50 years ago was a good starting point but was rather unscientific by today’s standards. There has been half a century’s worth of scientific study missed out on, and millions of potential patients not treated on the basis of government intervention with a lack of any scientific evidence. Now is the time for government’s to start listening to the science when it comes to the potential benefits of psychedelics.
However, there seems to be some light at the end of the Tunnel. Prof. Nutt and Carhart-Harris have published a variety of studies into the effects of Psilocybin, one of which showed that the compound helps suppress the medial prefrontal cortex; the part of the brain often hyperactive in depression. Another study at Johns Hopkins University ‘gave 15 people trying to give up smoking two to three rounds of the drug. Six months later, 12 remained off cigarettes – a success rate of 80%. The best smoking cessation drugs are 35% effective.’ Next year there will also be further study by the Imperial College researchers on the effects of psilocybin on 12 patients with clinical depression. Similarly there have been two papers published this year on the effects of LSD, the first since the 1970s. One by Nutt and Carhart-Harris, the other by a team of Swiss researchers looking at the effects of the drug on anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients, both with very positive results [see links below].
Of course, many of the drugs categorised as psychedelic (LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, even cannabis) have been used recreationally and as a means of self-medication since their inception. This is something that is unlikely to change. The problem is how out of touch our current politicians are with their potential benefits. For any real progress to be made, progress that could potentially help thousands of people, politicians need to listen to the findings of experts rather than stick with preconceived notions that are rarely backed up by fact.
The current persecution of users in the US and UK is by no means stopping their use on a personal level. However it is hindering the research of the scientists who are trying to look at these substances objectively, as cures and treatments for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. What is needed is a rational, open debate about the effects of these substances without politicians favouring 50 year old misconceptions in the place of real scientific research. It’s time for a serious discussion about psychedelics.