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Doctors, psychiatrists and biomedical scientists have highlighted the potentially positive effects on health of hallucinogenic drugs. But do we need laws to change so that research can be carried out more effectively?


A hot topic in political circles and the media, the case for decriminalisation of drugs usually focuses on stamping out the illegal drugs trade. Less widely discussed are the potential health benefits that can be achieved with limited use of certain Class A and Class B drugs, such as ketamine, LSD, cocaine, marijuana and MDMA, popularly known as Ecstasy. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, bowel problems... these are just some of the conditions which, it's claimed, can be alleviated by the controlled use of these so-called 'recreational' drugs.

The use of LSD in mental health therapy goes back to the 1950s, when research was carried out into its use in helping treat patients with deep-seated anxieties or obsessions. However, that research was soon curtailed when the devastating side effects of 'acid' began to be understood following widespread abuse in the Swinging Sixties.

Psychiatrist, researcher and writer Dr Ben Sessa has done much to refocus attention on the issue. In 2006 he gave a presentation on psychedelic drugs to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the first time the subject had been discussed by the College in three decades. "Scientists, psychiatrists and psychologists were forced to give up their studies for socio-political reasons," he told The Guardian at the time. "That's what really drives me."

Dr Sessa is now coordinating the UK's first study to treat PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. In 2008 he became a Research Associate at Bristol University, working under Professor David Nutt, another tireless campaigner for the more effective use of illegal drugs in biomedical research. Currently Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and former President of the British Association of Psychopharmacology, Professor Nutt has long campaigned for relaxation of UK, EU and UN legislation which, he says, has resulted in the 'worst censorship of research in the history of science'.

In an interview with BBC News in 2013, Professor Nutt claimed that 'insane' regulations meant that he couldn't get hold of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug found in 'magic mushrooms', to further his research into its benefits in treating depression. However, the Home Office responded that there was 'no evidence' that regulations were a barrier to research.

Perhaps the medical fraternity's experience with ketamine should be the model for other illegal drugs. Recently reclassified by the Government from Class C to Class A, it has nevertheless been widely used as an anaesthetic and pain reliever for years. In April 2014 medical researchers at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford launched the first UK study of the use of ketamine intravenous infusions in people with treatment-resistant depression.

Meanwhile, Professor Nutt is adamant that law reforms are the way to go. "They [drug laws] really impede medical research," he argued in a recent interview with The Independent."We deal with drugs in a pre-Victorian fashion. We need to move into the 21st century."

Are you a health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, biomedical researcher or mental health nurse, with views on the issues raised in this article? Leave your comments below.

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