Scientists should be gathering information about the effects of new recreational drugs on people who use them, a former government drugs adviser has said.
Studying the effects of the “explosion” of recreational drug use could be “one of the greatest pharmacological experiments ever”, with the potential to find new treatments for diseases such as depression, said David Nutt at an event about the use of academic research in policy decisions.
Laboratory research on these substances in universities is “almost impossible” because of licensing requirements, according to Professor Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London. But scientists should still collect information on the effects of these new drugs, he added.
“With the explosion of recreational drugs tens of thousands, maybe millions, of people each week are using new substances, and we are not gathering any information about the possible benefits of these drugs at all,” he said. “Maybe people who are using drugs recreationally will happen upon changes or effects that may be very useful in a range of different disorders.”
New treatments for depression might be found via these avenues, he added, noting that there has been limited progress in addressing the condition over the past 50 years.
“This may be one of the greatest pharmacological experiments ever done, certainly in terms of numbers, and we are not accessing any information on any of them,” he said. “Gathering information through serendipity is a very important challenge for science today.”
Temporary banning orders on new psychoactive substances leave scientists “in limbo” because the drugs are out there but research on them cannot be done unless scientists apply for a £6,000 licence that takes a year to secure, he explained at the Westminster Higher Education Forum event on 25 November.
The cost and bureaucracy of getting such licences is a “huge deal” for universities, he said. For instance, work on a treatment for a symptom of Parkinson’s disease has been derailed by the restrictions, he said.
Professor Nutt was controversially sacked as chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009. He said his post was terminated because his research found that alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK today.
“That assessment showed us categorically that there is no relationship whatsoever between the harms of a drug and its position in the Misuse of Drugs Act and since the act is supposed to be science-based, the act is wrong; the laws are unjust,” he said.