The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) has published a new report with the Adam Smith Institute outlining the potential medical benefits of psilocybin and urging the UK Home Office to reschedule the compound for research purposes.
The CDPRG, which was founded by MP Crispin Blunt, highlights how psilocybin has the therapeutic potential to help people suffering from treatment-resistant disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and end-of-life anxiety. The not-for-profit group also urges the Home Office to reduce regulatory restrictions on the compound to allow for research into its medical efficacy.
The report, ‘Medicinal use of psilocybin: Reducing restrictions on research and treatment’, has been written by Dr James Rucker, Dr Jesse Schnall, Dr Daniel D’Hotman, David King, Timmy Davis, and Professor Joanna Neill.
Speaking to Health Europa editor, Stephanie Price, Blunt said that there has been a “prohibitionist approach” to narcotic laws since the UN Drug Convention of 1961 and the introduction of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
“We are now living with the consequences. One of the consequences is that for 50 years it has been extremely difficult and nearly impossible to do medical research into the potential benefits of these drugs as pharmaceutical products.”
The problem with Schedule 1 restrictions
Psilocybin and other psychedelics, such as Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), are currently placed under Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – making scientific and medical research into these compounds extremely difficult due to high licensing costs. The paper calls on the UK Home Office to remove these restrictions, which have recently been described by leading drug specialist Professor Nutt, of the UK’s new Medical Psychedelics Working Group, as “the worst censorship of research in the history of the world.”
Professor Nutt said: “Higher levels of security than Schedule 2 are not needed – psilocybin and MDMA would be just as safe if held alongside heroin and other Schedule 2 opioids. The extra safekeeping requirements add several thousands of pounds costs, and the licence costs are over £3,000. It takes up to a year to get, which severely slows research, and then there are the costs of renewals and the new cost for each clinical study. Most universities won’t pay this, so it’s a great deterrent to research.”
Co-author, Professor Joanna Neill, of the Medical Psychedelic Working Group and Pharmacologist at The University of Manchester, said: “One clinical trial costs approximately £20,000 as six separate Controlled Drug (CD) licences are needed for each stage of the drug delivery process. Each CD licence covers one building only so collaboration is inhibited, and the scientific process is held back. Trained personnel are required to dispose of the drug and the CD licence holder has to have a DBS check, another delay and layer of bureaucracy. Furthermore, an inspection is required from the Home Office before the licence is granted, adding to the delay. If another is needed prior to renewal, the licence holder pays.
“All universities have a Schedule 2 licence, and none of the restrictions for Schedule 1 substances apply to Schedule 2 substances, and these are potentially more harmful, such as ketamine and opioids. Researchers are clearly quite capable of keeping all kinds of drugs and dangerous chemicals safe, including those that have never been tested on humans. The CD licence requirement for Schedule 1 research makes no sense.”
MP for Manchester Withington, and founder of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, Jeff Smith, said: “While technically possible, it is extremely slow, difficult and expensive to attempt medical research into psilocybin while it remains in Schedule 1. Despite what the Home Office may claim, this scheduling is undeniably a huge barrier to research, as evidenced by how few studies have been able to take place over the last 50 years.
“It just does not make sense to classify psilocybin in this way. I have heard powerful testimony and emerging evidence about how psychedelic medicine can help with a range of health issues, particularly acute mental health issues. I am convinced that there is real potential to use these drugs for good, and that they could help a significant number of people who are currently suffering. The Home Office must rethink its position and take steps to allow this research to happen unhindered, so that we can better understand and build on the evidence.”
Dealing with the mental health crisis
In the UK one in four people suffers from a mental health condition. In 2018/19 2.7% of the UK armed forces personnel were diagnosed with a mental disorder, and in the same year, PTSD accounted for 7% of all mental disorders diagnosed in armed forces personnel, with the highest percentages in the Army and Royal Marines. In a recent report, the British Medical Association has also highlighted the exacerbating impact that COVID-19 will have on the mental health of the nation, noting that ‘Mental health services continue to be under-resourced and under-funded, but their ability to respond to the needs of the population will be crucial for preventing any post-COVID mental health crisis.’
Blunt said: “In the UK we have people with depression, PTSD, and at least 7,500 veterans that have come back from serving in Afghanistan, many of which are beyond treatment and with these compounds, we may be able to help them – we owe a huge debt to them. What we now find is that psilocybin in particular looks as though it is able to reset connections inside the brain. This research needs to be accelerated and quick because it seems that, in conjunction with proper psychotherapy, there is huge potential for pharmaceutical intervention which makes it likely that current psychotherapy treatments have a better chance of working.
“There is a huge opportunity for effective treatment of depression and trauma amongst other mental health conditions, and we should do our level best to research in the UK and not obstruct it. There is also the economic opportunity for a country that prides itself on supporting the pharmaceutical industry and science sector, why on earth have we got the home office stopping it all from happening?”
The societal consequences of current drugs policy
Blunt says he saw the devastating impact of drug policy on society during his time as Prisons Minister and hopes to change attitudes to this policy through evidence-based research.
He commented: “As these drugs were being formed, they were given a poor reputation – quite regardless of the evidence or their possible benefits to society – simply because of the opinion held at the time, putting them in the most restrictive category. Famously, for example, cannabis. For 50 years we have been treating people for pain relief with opiates which are extremely addictive when there could have been alternatives available, and we have been seeing people suffering from PTSD who probably could have benefitted from a pharmaceutical intervention to assist the psychotherapy.
“I came to this having being Prisons Minister for two and a half years and seeing the awful consequences in the UK. First of all, dealing with drug users who would cycle in and out of the justice system, the inability of the justice system to get these people better, and the inadequacy of the public health approach. My eyes were opened to the terrible costs of having a drugs policy based on the criminal justice system and not on the public health system. Peoples’ use of drugs is a health issue, but currently it is seen as a criminal issue.
“That approach has been global now for 60 years and as a consequence we have not changed humanity’s demand to feel better and to have the products that make them feel better. We have now created a global criminal industry where the demand for these drugs can only be met criminally. That industry is worth around €500bn a year and we wonder why we have got problems. This industry has armies, can buy governments, and we are seeing an unmitigated public policy disaster as far as drugs policy is concerned. It is everywhere and we cannot protect our children because it is easy for our children to get class A drugs and high strength cannabis for example, that nobody in any legal environment would sell.
“There is also the tragedy of the opiate scandal in the United States, which could have been avoided if pain killers had been based on cannabis. What is the basis of this policy, to put cannabis in more restricted policy than opium? The basis was that black Americans smoked it. That is the shocking, racist basis of the world’s policy towards drugs; is part of the utter immorality of the ‘War on Drugs’.
“It is my determination to use the rest of my time in politics to help reveal that and open these discussions up. The establishment has to take this case on and deliver it and I am working to get people to reassess the evidence as our drugs policy needs to be based on evidence rather than ideology, rhetoric, or fear of touching the subject.
“The demand for those drugs and effects exist and we have left it to criminals to satisfy that demand. We have fought a war on drugs for 50 years and it has just made things worse.”