Possession of cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics are stringently regulated under national laws and UN conventions dating back to the 1960s.
But in a paper published today in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group argue that banning of the drugs has not only compounded their harm but also set back research in areas such as consciousness by decades, and effectively stopped the investigation of promising medical treatments.
This hindering of research and medicine has been motivated by politics, not science, said co-author David Nutt, the Edmond J Safra professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.
“The outlawing of psychoactive drugs amounts to the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo,” said Professor Nutt.
“The ban on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration is the only possible contender, but that only affected the USA not the whole world.”
The researchers argue that the illegal status of psychoactive drugs makes research into how they work and might be used, for example in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, difficult and in many cases almost impossible.
“The decision to outlaw these drugs was based on their perceived dangers, but in many cases the harms have been overstated and are actually less than many legal drugs such as alcohol,” said Professor Nutt, who co-authored the paper with Leslie King, a retired analytical chemist and former member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and David Nichols, adjunct professor at the Eschelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe. And there appears to be no way for the international community to make such changes,” said Professor Nutt, who was controversially sacked as chairman of the ACMD in 2009 for “campaigning” against government policy on drugs.
The use of drugs in research should be exempted from severe restrictions, with regulation taking a more “rational approach”, the paper argues.
The case should be made for revising the status of these substances under UN conventions, the paper adds, while individual countries should seek to exempt hospitals and other research organisations from the need to apply for the most restrictive licenses.
The call for reform has been endorsed by the British Neuroscience Association, of which Professor Nutt is immediate past president, and the British Association for Psychopharmacology, of which he is also a former president.