Drug researchers have warned that a bill to ban the sale of all psychoactive substances will be disastrous for brain research in the UK.The Home Office bill, outlined in the Queen’s speech, would ban trade in “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”.
Ministers hope to shut down the emergence of new legal highs, which have been blamed for a number of deaths in recent years. But scientists warned that the measure could pre-emptively ban a number of potentially useful new substances.
“It’s going to end brain research in this country,” said Prof David Nutt, a former chief drug adviser to the government. “It will be disastrous. The ban on legal highs has been very destructive to research into Parkinson’s and into anti-smoking drugs.
“For example, the only drug for Parkinson’s is a cathinone [a class of drugs, including mephedrone, which was banned in 2010]. We’ve already seen massive impediment to research of interesting compounds by current law.”
The government’s plans are the reverse of the route many researchers and campaigners have been urging. A day before the bill was announced, one of Britain’s top psychiatrists called for some psychedelic drugs to be downgraded.
James Rucker, a lecturer in psychiatry at King’s College London, said current laws made research into LSD and magic mushrooms almost impossible, despite strong evidence that they may have therapeutic uses.
“Hundreds of papers, involving tens of thousands of patients, presented evidence for their use as psychotherapeutic catalysts of mentally beneficial change,” Rucker said in an article for the British Medical Journal.
Rucker told the Guardian the government was repeating the mistakes of history. The new law would seriously hinder pharmacological research into the brain, he warned.
“It centres around the self-reinforcing fallacy of legally defining a drug as having no accepted medical use without the evidence that there really is no medical use for it. This happened with psychedelics,” he said.
“UK pharmaceutical research into psychiatric disorders has rapidly diminished over the last decade or so anyway, and this regulation will not help. We derive no benefit from this approach. It stymies research and we are unlikely to be able to discover which of these new psychoactive substances might have medical benefits.”
Amanda Feilding, the director of the Beckley Foundation, which funds research into psychoactive drugs for therapeutic purposes, echoed the fears of Rucker and Nutt. “I definitely think it could be an obstacle to research,” she said.
She is working with Nutt to create a safer alternative to alcohol, which they have labelled alcosynth. The drug would automatically be banned under the new bill.
And although a draft is yet to be published, there has been no indication of how new psychoactive drugs could be moved into its list of exemptions.
The Beckley Foundation recently funded the first fMRI testing of LSD at Imperial College London. But research is restricted by the current class A, schedule 1 status of the drug, which means it is regarded as having no therapeutic effect.
Rucker, who aside from his academic position is also a specialist registrar in adult psychiatry, said this classification meant that clinical psychiatrists were unable to investigate a range of possible therapeutic uses.
The UK banned LSD in 1967 and psilocybin – the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms – in 1971, halting all research. (Freshly picked magic mushrooms remained legal until 2005, but they are unsuitable for clinical tests.)
“Nearly 50 years later, psychedelic drugs remain more legally restricted than heroin and cocaine, which are schedule 2, class A in the UK,” Rucker said in his BMJ article.
However, he added, there is no evidence that they are addictive and little evidence that they are harmful. What research there has been has found they could help terminally ill patients with anxiety, as well as combat addiction and even mitigate the effects of cluster headaches, Rucker said.
But there seems to be little prospect of the government heeding his call. According to a government briefing, the new psychoactive substances bill is intended to “protect hardworking citizens from the risks posed by untested, unknown and potentially harmful drugs”.
It will make it an offence to “produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances”, with a penalty of up to seven years in jail. Possession would not be an offence.
However, it quickly added that “substances such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and medicinal products would be excluded from the scope of the offence”.
Nutt said it could make it almost impossible for scientists working on new medicines to buy chemicals from suppliers.
“If I want to work on a new treatment for Parkinson’s which is based on chemicals similar to Benzo Fury [a formerly legal high], then it will take me a year to get a licence,” he said. “How are they going to exempt scientists? If I ring up a company selling compounds, how are they going to know I’m a scientist?”
The government’s policy towards psychoactive drugs was “not driven by anything about harm. It’s a sop to the right wing,” said Nutt. He was sacked as head of the Home Office’s advisory council on the misuse of drugs in 2009 when he pointed out that research showed taking ecstasy was less dangerous than horseriding.
He said: “It’s ridiculous, unnecessary and will do more harm because the more things that are on the black market, the more harm. We banned heroin and it’s still killing 1,200 people a year.”
Martin Powell, the head of campaigns at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said restrictions on medical research were just one aspect of how the UK’s drug policies were causing a “rolling public health disaster”.
“Rescheduling psychedelic drugs to allow medical research would be a tiny step towards a more rational approach,” he said.
“But only legally regulating a number of illicit drugs, so that doctors and pharmacists control them – not criminals – will minimise harm to individuals and society.
“Because if 50 years of failed prohibition has proved one thing, it is that there is no third option in which no one takes drugs.”