Illegal Drugs: Time for a Re-think?

(February 17th, 2015) In the 1960s and 70s, the United Nations compiled a list of chemicals harmful to health if used by self-medication. Criticism starts to grow among the medical community who sees this legislation as a barrier to research.

For over 50 years, chemical compounds considered sufficiently dangerous if consumed on a regular basis for non-medical reasons have been classed as illegal and their sale prohibited to the general public. Use or possession of, for instance, cocaine or cannabis, is punished with a prison sentence or even death in some countries. The original list is mainly the result of the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971, with a few subsequent updates. Currently, under the UN’s radar are “legal highs”, a new wave of chemicals - the latest craze to hit pubs and clubs - with similar effects to those already controlled but with different chemical structures.

The public accepts these restrictions as an attempt to limit the recreational use of these drugs. However, legislation is often very broad, including not only the chemical in question, but also all its analogues. For researchers, this blanket approach has created significant restrictions to pharmaceutical and therapeutic research. This is particularly frustrating as some of the illegal drugs showed promising medical applications previous to the ban: amphetamines for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ketamine analogues for pain and depression, LSD for alcoholism and cocaine for anaesthesia, to name just a few.

Cannabis is another example. Despite its medical use for over 4,000 years, since the UN included it in the Schedule 1 list of illegal drugs – those with no recognised medical value – this compound is subject to the toughest and most stringent level of regulation. In practical terms, this means any research group wishing to use cannabis must be willing to go through a complex "regulatory jungle" to obtain all the necessary licences to hold and use the drug. All this means extra costs. In the UK, for example, obtaining a Schedule 1 licence takes about a year and can cost up to £5,000 considering the licence and all extra security needed. Currently, only four hospitals are holding such licences.

“The law makes it more or less impossible to research. They want the ban because people have started using [these chemicals] recreationally, but this only denies access of researchers across the world,” defends David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist based at Imperial College London. The researcher is only too familiar with the difficulties after trying to use psilocybin (present in magic mushrooms) for 10 years. Eventually, the team jumped through all the hurdles and managed to run studies with very interesting findings, suggesting a potential use to treat depression. But this took considerable time and money. From the initial research studies to the clinical trials it took over two years just to get through all the regulations, increasing the cost by at least 10 times.

This is the sort of time and money most research groups cannot afford. Getting funded to do research with illegal drugs is virtually impossible and this inability to conduct research has resulted in limited data, allowing this legislation to remain unchallenged for the last 50 years. “It’s a vicious circle of no activity, no knowledge and no funding,” says Nutt. To counteract this generalised inertia among most of the medical community, the researcher is planning to launch a campaign targeting all those involved in this process, from physicians and patients to researchers and policy-makers. The idea is to create a strong united front aware of the potential benefits of working with illegal drugs and willing to stand for a change in the current legislation.

Some may argue allowing use of illegal drugs in research labs would create a weak point in the system, opening an easy door for these chemicals to reach recreational users. However, there are no known instances of diversion of Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 substances from research labs.
For Nutt, the benefits largely outweigh any potential problems and the solution is remarkably simple: transfer all Schedule 1 drugs to Schedule 2. The drugs would remain illegal for the general public, but research labs and hospitals could investigate potential applications. After all, drugs listed in Schedule 2 have a recognised potential medical value, and their use in research is not as strict as for Schedule 1 drugs. “All these rules do is stop research, they don’t do anything to stop recreational use. It’s the worst censorship of research that's ever been in life sciences. I think it is the worst censorship of research ever, when you think of the opportunities that were lost in the past 50 years,” concludes Nutt.

Alex Reis

Photo: Van de Velde

Last Changes: 03.27.2015