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Scientific Research into Illegal Drugs May Aid Policy Reform

Recent medical research into MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD has improved understanding of their effects, and may aid progress towards policy reform.

There has been a wave of recent attempts by scientists to fill the gap in knowledge of how certain illicit substances affect the human brain. These trials, of well known and currently illegal drugs, sought to discover any medicinal benefits they may offer for psychiatric conditions. These experiments could serve as the starting point for the medicalisation of these drugs.

Clinical trials into MDMA, commonly referred to as “ecstasy”, have demonstrated significant therapeutic potential. A 2015 US study of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that, following MDMA-based psychotherapy, 83 per cent of participants no longer met the criteria of having the mental illness.

In the UK, researchers at Imperial College London undertook a small scale study into the healing effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”. Results indicated that the drug could be highly useful in treating depression. Twelve participants with “treatment-resistant depression” engaged in the trial; “all patients showed some decrease in symptoms of depression for at least three weeks. Seven of them continued to show a positive response three months after the treatment, with five remaining in remission after three months”.

Whilst some recreational users may claim to have known it for years, few anticipated the results of the ground-breaking LSD trials in April. In this UK-US collaboration, scientists used MRI scanners to observe the brain activity of 20 volunteers who had been injected with LSD, and discovered that previously segregated regions "spoke to one another". Other parts of the brain that would normally be joined in a network became separated – thought to be indicating the loss of subjective self-identity, or the sense of merging with nature, that some people who use LSD report experiencing. Professor David Nutt, former chairman of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, emphasised the significance of the findings; “this is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics”.

The reason such experiments have only recently begun to take place, according to Professor Nutt, is because “scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous [legal] hurdles to get this done”.

Indeed, for decades, researchers were legally unable to research popular illicit drugs on human subjects, restricted instead to animal testing. Now, in the US and UK, once researchers have navigated a minefield of paperwork, they are able to legally purchase and utilise certain prohibited drugs in experiments.

The medicalisation of illegal drugs has a precedent: cannabis. The introduction of “medical marijuana” in California in 1996, and its success, helped pave the way for similar laws around the United States and the world. This, in turn, may have led to the wider acceptance of cannabis’ medical and recreational use, and the recent recreational cannabis laws introduced in several US states.

The positive results of the recent scientific experiments may help influence public perception and public policy pertaining to MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and other drugs. There is no suggestion that these drugs will be regulated as medicines any time soon, let alone sold for recreational purposes, but these trials indicate a crucial turning point in scientific exploration.

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