Scientists released a paper on Wednesday condemning the current drug policy in Britain and most other countries, saying that the illegal status of cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy), and psychedelics has severely restricted research into their potential benefits. According to a press release, the authors, two of whom are former advisers to the British government, argue that the "outlawing of psychoactive drugs amounts to the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo." The paper was published to coincide with an upcoming conference on scientific research with psychedelics at Imperial College London.
While it is unclear exactly what benefits psychoactive drugs would yield, restricting their use in research for fear of their perceived dangers represents a blinkered approach to drug policy, especially given that some studies have argued that the harm caused by drugs such as cannabis, MDMA, and LSD is less than that caused by alcohol and tobacco.
The paper, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, is authored by Professor David Nutt, Edmond J Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and former drugs adviser to the British government, Leslie A. King, also a former government drugs adviser, and Professor David Nichols of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In their abstract, they argue that:
"The possession of cannabis, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA; also known as ecstasy) and psychedelics is stringently regulated. An important and unfortunate outcome of the controls placed on these and other psychoactive drugs is that they make research into their mechanisms of action and potential therapeutic uses — for example, in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — difficult and in many cases almost impossible."
Nott was previously dismissed from his position as the head of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which King also worked for, in 2009 after writing a paper in which he argued that the harm caused by many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and cannabis is often exaggerated when compared to the harm caused by alcohol and tobacco. In his paper he said "alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco is ranked ninth. Cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, while harmful, are ranked lower at 11, 14 and 18 respectively." At the time Nott also criticized politicians for "distorting" and "devaluing" scientific research into drugs. A 2010 paper authored by Nott, King, and Lawrence D Phillips, also made the same argument, adding that "the findings correlate poorly with present UK drug classification, which is not based simply on considerations of harm."
Following the publication of the latest paper on Wednesday, Nott reiterated that the current drugs policy in Britain is being driven by "politics, not science." He added that the decision to ban drugs such as cannabis, MDMA, and psychedelics was based on their "perceived dangers" rather than the actual harm they cause which is "overstated." Despite this, he continued, drug laws have never been updated to reflect "scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe."
The paper claims that current drug regulations, based on UN conventions on drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, have not only compounded the harm caused by drugs, but have also severely restricted important research. Nott says that:
"The laws scare off funders and most scientists are scared because they think if they break the law, they might get arrested. I’m sure at some point someone’s going to arrest me. There is a sense of repression to the point that most people won’t do it."
The researchers are not calling for psychoactive drugs to be legalized across the board, but rather for the use of such drugs in research to be exempted from the severe restrictions that it currently faces.
Given the British government's reaction to Nott's previous work and advice, it is unlikely to be changing anything soon. However, it is one thing to make drug policy based on evidence, but it is another to severely hamper further research into the potentially beneficial properties of drugs based on their image and perceived danger. It is hard to say exactly what the potential benefits of psychoactive drugs might be, but then that is precisely why further research would be helpful.