How Criminalizing Drugs Is Hurting Neuroscience Research

Stories from New Scientist.
June 17 2012 9:12 AM

The Agony of Banning Ecstasy 

A former adviser to the U.K. government says the ban on drugs is hampering neuroscience.

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How drug laws effect research

U.S. Customs.

David Nutt, former adviser to the U.K. government, says the ban on drugs like ecstasy is hampering neuroscience.

How do the drug laws in most countries affect scientific research?
One of the things I find very disturbing about the current approach to drugs, which is simply prohibition without necessarily any full understanding of harms, is that we lose sight of the fact that these drugs may well give us insights into areas of science that need to be explored and may give us new opportunities for treatment.

In what way?
Almost all the drugs of interest in terms of understanding brain phenomena such as consciousness, perception, mood, and psychosis are illegal. And so there is almost no work done in this field.

How bad is the impact?
The effects these laws have had on research is greater than those caused by the U.S. government hindering stem cell research. No one has done an imaging neuroscience study of smoking cannabis. I can show you 150 papers telling you how the brain reacts to an angry face, but I can't show you a single paper that tells you what cannabis does.

Any examples of missed opportunities?
There were six trials of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism, the last one in 1965. The evidence is it's as good as anything we've got, maybe better. But no one is using it for this. I wonder how many other opportunities have been lost in the past 40 years with important drugs, like MDMA (ecstasy) and its empathetic qualities or cannabis for all its possible uses and insights into conditions like schizophrenia. All those opportunities have been wasted because it is virtually impossible to work with a drug when it is illegal.

How do you see change coming about?
The scientific bodies in the U.K. are the ones that should really be challenging the government. I will try to get the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to support my campaign for a more rational approach to the regulation of drugs for research.

You were sacked as a U.K. government adviser for comparing the risks of horse riding with taking MDMA. Do you still take this line?
It is still a very important discussion. It raises the question of what the appropriate comparisons are. Where do you draw the line on harm? Should it be drawn equally across all sorts of endeavors and activities that humans engage in?

Should recreational-drug laws be relaxed?
If you are using a drug less dangerous than alcohol, that is a rational choice. If you are using drugs that are more harmful than alcohol, essentially heroin or other forms of opiates and crystal meth and cocaine, then that's different.

As head of the U.K. Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs you've written a book, Drugs: Without the Hot Air. Who is it for?
Parents and those with no scientific background can read it, children can read it, and hopefully the media and politicians will read it. I hope we can start having more of a discussion about drugs.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.