If a bill under consideration in the United Kingdom (UK) goes into effect, the sale and use of all psychoactive substances will be outlawed — an outcome that some scientists say will bring brain research to a screeching halt.
Last week, UK government officials introduced the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which would ban the production, distribution, sale, and supply of new psychoactive substances. While the legislation mirrors laws implemented in Ireland and Poland, it goes further by covering a wide range of common substances under a broad definition of what’s considered to be “psyschoactive.”
Supporters say the legislation will allow law enforcement agencies to more effectively combat the circulation of “legal highs,” defined as substances with intoxicating side effects that aren’t banned or prohibited by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Legal highs include alcohol, laughing gas, salvia, the synthetic cannabinoid known as “spice,” and “poppers,” an alkyl nitrate that gives users a massive head rush. Deaths from legal highs have been on the rise over the past several years.
However, some people think an all-inclusive ban on these substances would do more harm than good. David Nutt, the UK’s former government chief drug advisor, counts among the most the bill’s most vocal opponents, saying that that the government’s efforts to restrict drugs have brought some areas of scientific research to a standstill.
“It’s going to end brain research in this country. It will be disastrous,” Nutt told the Guardian. “The ban on legal highs has been very destructive to research into Parkinson’s and into anti-smoking drugs. For example, the only drug for Parkinson’s is a cathinone [a class of drugs, including mephedrone, which was banned in 2010]. We’ve already seen massive impediment to research of interesting compounds by current law.”
The latest showdown between government officials and scientists is just the latest installment in a decades-long drug policy battle in the UK that started in the 1960s, when LSD, a popular synthetic psychoactive drug, received a class A, schedule 1 substance classification. Despite little evidence of LSD’s addictive properties, and increasing research about its potential to treat brain disorders, its current designation precludes scientists from assessing its healing properties, even as heroin and cocaine — substances that have proven to be harmful — are classified lower on UK’s drug scheduling list.
Other potentially useful substances can face the same scrutiny. A few months before the announcement of the new ban, Drug Minister Lynne Featherstone temporarily banned five “legal highs” for 12 months during which officials assess their harm. One of the drugs on the list, ethylphenidate, has been on pharmacy shelves for four years and is emerging as an alternative to cocaine. Another drug that has recently caught the attention of government officials, methylphenidate, has been licensed for use against ADHD in children and narcolepsy. Despite its potential for abuse as a recreational drug and study aide, scientists say that research has shown signs of its ability to improve working and episodic memory in humans.
If the wide-ranging legal drug ban goes into effect, scientists will have to jump through hurdles to research those substances’ potential to cure diseases, more than quadrupling the cost of research. Right now, only four hospitals in the UK hold the expensive license needed to conduct research on schedule 1 substances.
That’s why drug reform advocates have joined the chorus of the proposed bill’s opponents, arguing that lawmakers typically act reactively to create policy that isn’t based in logic or scientific evidence, but rather on preconceived notions about drugs. Some opponents also say that the legislation incorrectly assumes that people will stop using drugs once a ban goes into effect, citing black market drug economies that opened up during previous bans.
“It centers on the self-reinforcing fallacy of legally defining a drug as having no accepted medical use without the evidence that there really is no medical use for it. This happened with psychedelics,” James Rucker, a professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, told the Guardian. Earlier this year, Rucker called for some psychoactive drugs to be downgraded.
“UK pharmaceutical research into psychiatric disorders has rapidly diminished over the last decade or so anyway, and this regulation will not help. We derive no benefit from this approach. It stymies research and we are unlikely to be able to discover which of these new psychoactive substances might have medical benefits,” Rucker added.
Scientists in the United States face similar problems when it comes to research involving illegal drugs. In recent years, attention has turned to marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug, which has led to a lack of federally regulated studies about the plant, ultimately impeding researchers’ efforts to understand its potential as a healing agent. There is some evidence that marijuana can help kill tumors.
It may be a long time before the American public sees any federally-funded research on marijuana’s potential benefits, however. To the chagrin of medical marijuana advocates, federal government researchers only conduct studies on marijuana’s negative effects on a Mississippi-based campus, the only government-approved marijuana research facility in the U.S.
There has been some recent progress, however, toward expanding scientific research into psychoactive drugs here in the United States. In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) gave researchers permission to conduct a clinical study to test whether MDMA may be able to treat psychiatric disorders, the first sign that the government might eventually reconsider the drug’s Schedule I classification. Scientists have repeatedly called to lift the ban on psychoactive drug research, saying that more innovation in this area could have huge implications for mental health treatment.