The Guardian (UK): Guardian Unlimited
Originally appearing here.
Friday April 14, 2006
James Randerson, science correspondent
“Use more psychedelic drugs,” is not advice you would expect from your GP, but that is the call from an influential US medical journal to researchers.
An editorial in the Lancet says that the “demonisation of psychedelic drugs as a social evil” has stifled vital medical research that would lead to a better understanding of the brain and better treatments for conditions such as depression.
The journal’s editor Richard Horton said he was not advocating recreational drug use, but championed the benefits of researchers studying the effects of drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy by using them themselves in the lab.
“The blanket ban on psychedelic drugs enforced in many countries continues to hinder safe and controlled investigation, in a medical environment, of their potential benefits,” said the editorial, “…criminalisation of these agents has also led to an excessively cautious approach to further research into their therapeutic benefits.”
Dr Horton told Guardian Unlimited that important advances were made by researchers using psychedelic drugs on themselves, but that these studies were stifled by the post-1960s anti-drug backlash. “Our very earliest understanding of the neurochemistry of the brain came from studying LSD-like compounds. Those same researchers were also taking those drugs, not recreationally, but as experiments on themselves. This was immensely important work.”
“The whole taboo around recreational drug use can make the study of these drugs very difficult,” he said, “We need to get a balance between these social taboos and what’s best for patients.”
Dr Horton’s comments echo those from psychiatrist Ben Sessa on the 100th birthday of Albert Hoffmann, who discovered LSD. “It is as if a whole generation of psychiatrists have had this systematically erased from their education,” he told the Guardian in January.
“But for the generation who trained in the 50s and 60s, this really was going to be the next big thing. Thousands of books and papers were written, but then it all went silent. My generation has never heard of it. It’s almost as if there has been an active demonisation.”
Some anti-drug charities and politicians argue that medical research on illegal drugs should remain taboo because it risks sending a confused message to potential users. Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Sarasota, Florida rejects this argument. “The idea that by contradicting the exaggerated propaganda you are somehow sending the wrong message is false,” he said, “Kids know when they are being told something that is way exaggerated, but then they don’t know what is the truth.”
The journal’s call comes at a crucial moment, he said, because several small studies of the medicinal effects of illegal drugs are under way. “I think it is a tremendously courageous step.”
MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, has shown promise in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in cancer patients, while LSD and psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – are being investigated as treatments from cluster headaches. Sativex, a treatment for multiple sclerosis derived from cannabis, is already available in Canada.