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The Potential of LSD, Heroin, Marijuana and Other Controlled Substances in Brain Research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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no drugs sign

Or is it time for scientists and doctors to change the rules so research and clinical treatments can flourish? Image Courtesy of Pixabay/OpenClips

Imagine being an astronomer in a world where the telescope was banned. This effectively happened in the 1600s when, for over 100 years, the Catholic Church prohibited access to knowledge of the heavens in a vain attempt to stop scientists proving that the earth was not the center of the universe.  ‘Surely similar censorship could never happen today,’ I hear you say—but it does in relation to the use of drugs to study the brain.  Scientists and doctors are banned from studying many hundreds of drugs because of outdated United Nations charters dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the banned drugs include cannabis, psychedelics and MDMA (now widely known as ecstasy).

The most remarkable example is that of the psychedelic LSD, a drug accidentally discovered by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann while he was working for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz to find new treatments for migraine. Once the ability of LSD to alter brain function became apparent, Hofmann and others realized it had enormous potential as a tool to explore and treat the brain.  The immediate effects of LSD to alter brain states offered unique insight into states such as consciousness and psychosis; the long-lasting changes in self-awareness it brought on were seen as potentially useful for conditions such as addiction.  Pharmaceutical company Sandoz saw LSD as so important that they chose to make it widely available to researchers in the 1950s. Researchers conducted over 1,000 studies at that time, most of which yielded significant results. However, once young Americans started using the drug recreationally—partly in protest against the Vietnam War—it was banned, both there and all over the world. Since then, research into the science behind the drug and its effects on the brain has come to a halt. Yet, we have begun to rectify the situation using the shorter-acting psychedelic psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms). In just a couple of experiments, scientists have discovered remarkable and unexpected effects on the brain, leading them to start a clinical trial in depression. Other therapeutic targets for psychedelics are cluster headaches, OCD and addiction.

The drug affected most by this research censorship is cannabis. People have used cannabis as a medicine for 4,000 years; the cannabis plant contains about 100 active ingredients, many of which are likely to be useful medicines. Yet, because UN convention banned research on the drug in 1962, almost none are studied. Even in the U.S. in states that have made medicinal cannabis available it remains illegal to research this drug! To do research on cannabis, scientists need a special license from the Drug Enforcement Agency. But the license costs so much and takes so long to acquire that virtually no American researchers have one!  In the U.K., I work with heroin all the time—I can do this because it is a medicine. Yet researchers need a special license to work with cannabis or psilocybin, which are much less dangerous!

This case of research censorship is the worst since the banning of the telescope. The laws, which do not discriminate between research and recreational drug use—are a relic of another age. Scientists still need a license to work with quantities (typically milligrams) that would have no brain effects at all if taken recreationally. These laws serve no safety value; scientists are very unlikely to sell their research, and why would they when users can get anything they want from the street dealers or the Internet? The licenses and bureaucracy surrounding them can increase the costs of research tenfold, further limiting what is done. It is time for scientists and doctors change the rules so research and clinical treatments can flourish.

David Nutt About the Author: David Nutt is a psychiatrist and the Edmund J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology in the Division of Brain Science, Department of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College London. He uses a range of brain imaging techniques to explore the causes of addiction and search for new treatments.

In 2010, Times Eureka science magazine voted him one of the 100 most important figures in British Science. This year he was awarded the John Maddox Prize from Nature/Sense.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 5:46 pm 11/27/2013

    Well done!
    The epitome of irony:
    “Even in the U.S. in states that have made medicinal cannabis available it remains illegal to research this drug!”

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  2. 2. sauIt 9:54 pm 11/27/2013

    I smoke weed constantly now, having given up all hope on an Earth occupied by other-dimensional unnatural and irresponsible animals that pretend they’re in a position to control Nature, but just drop McDonald’s detrius and carbon emissions everywhere in order to stop the Ice Age cycle in its tracks, and keep Wooly Mammoths from taking their rightful place with Whales as masters of Earth, from the usurping, ivory-gathering Monkeys who’ve been throwing sand in Obama’s gears.

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  3. 3. Squish 10:20 pm 11/27/2013

    I bet that is not sault, but another malignant troll. sault doesn’t use run on sentences and spells “detritus” correctly.

    Regardless, interesting article. I remember doing research on endogenous cannibinoids at school and having a laugh finding out why there was such little research on such a fascinating natural brain system: 1) lipid-soluable and 2) a legal liability. Let’s hope science will prevail.

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  4. 4. sauIt 10:40 pm 11/27/2013

    Gee, the joint got in the way of the second “t” in detritus. My bad, Squish… is that really you? I believe the real Squish knows how to spell “cannabinoids”.

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  5. 5. sauIt 10:44 pm 11/27/2013

    Squish, I think there’s an impersonator afoot – no Squish of mine would spell “soluble” wrong.

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  6. 6. sauIt 10:46 pm 11/27/2013

    Squish, I think I’ll stick with “detrius” just the same. Seems biology is not my thing.

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  7. 7. sauIt 10:50 pm 11/27/2013

    Squish, the real hoot is you didn’t catch the missing “L” in “Wooly”. Horton Has a Hoot. Heh heh. I need more weed.

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  8. 8. bernardpalmer 5:04 am 11/28/2013

    Yes the stupidity of governments. I look forward to the day that the UN either changes its attitude towards drugs or collapses. Any organization that promotes a human rights charter that does not allow people to decide what they can consume has to fail at some point from the weight of the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

    Here is the answer Dr. Nutt.

    “The Primary Fundamental Right is the most basic of all human rights. It is the innate right of a person to the ownership of their own body and the right to do what they want to that body.

    People who don’t believe that the Primary Fundamental Right exists should ask themselves this question; can you do anything you want to your body and not have the possibility of going to jail for doing so? The answer is definitely no. Because of legal constraints we are all slaves. We are not a free people, regardless of what we may think. Therefore all the freedoms we think we have are really illusions unless we own our own bodies. Remember, only slaves cannot make decisions about their own bodies.

    Every one of us, including the politicians, are now owned by our respective governments because of numerous iniquitous laws, including the drug prohibition laws and statutory rape laws that they the politicians have enacted supposedly on instruction from the majority of voters. In reality we have all been caught up in a swirling Socialism torrent sliding downwards towards Totalitarianism for over 100 years. The drug prohibition laws are a symptom of that progression, but not the root cause.”
    continued @

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  9. 9. vapur 3:00 pm 11/28/2013

    Cannabis has been shown to prevent the brain from being a reservoir for reinfection for HIV, where AIDS medication cannot. This has been attributed to the size of the ARV molecules being incapable of passing the blood-brain barrier to stop replication in macrophages, where cannabis does so easily.

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  10. 10. Percival 2:47 am 11/29/2013

    Is it necessary to point out the parallel rise and growth of violent drug cartels- and violent government drug control agencies- since the UN charters banned marijuana during a period of violent international confrontations?

    Is it necessary to point out the non-violence of typical end-users of marijuana?

    If I were more cynical than I am, I might imagine governments being against the general availability of marijuana because its users make poor soldiers.

    If I were more optimistic than I am, I might think that we could elect leaders more interested in promoting learning and understanding than fear and paranoia.

    I have to wonder though- why are thoughts of a peaceful world considered “pipe dreams”? Hmm…

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  11. 11. tuned 12:27 pm 11/29/2013

    Such research is all well and good.
    My highest hope is in genetic research to permanently cure and prevent maladies. “Band-aids” are not a cure.

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  12. 12. cannabiskills 12:06 pm 12/3/2013

    Many cannabis users are delusional psychopaths.

    Several prospective population-based studies have found that cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of developing psychotic disorders later in life. Among those who have developed psychotic disorders, cannabis use is associated with an earlier age of onset of such disorders.
    Koch brothers conspired to turn 20 million Americans to mentally impaired cannabis addicts and ruin small businesses by forcing the employers to pay for their rehabilitation.

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  13. 13. thixotropic 9:11 pm 12/3/2013

    There’s a reason they’re shutting the door on this sort of research: these chemicals would be treating illness in a way that would not require daily consumption of highly remunerative pharma products. Pharma doesn’t want cures, it wants customers. Preferably lifelong ones.

    Additionally, people often experience a tremendous amount of personal growth and tend to become less interested in consumerism after experiencing psychoactives. They’re less susceptible to the blandishments of media on a fairly global level.
    This is anathema to a nation that has enshrined the doctrine of constant growth, that wants us feeling incomplete, seeking ever outward for what we lack rather than inward… where it may more truly be found.

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  14. 14. thixotropic 10:05 pm 12/3/2013

    “Many cannabis users are delusional psychopaths.”

    Many CEOs are psychopaths. Many commenters preaching the “evils of cannabis” are delu… monetarily compensated.

    Cannabis contains CBD (cannabidiol), a substance that, unlike the neuroleptics currently used to treat delusional people, is truly antipsychotic. Also unlike neuroleptics, it’s actually safe and effective, with no risk of creating its own psychosis (or killing you in a myriad of ways fast and slow).
    CBD counteracts the high of THC, so high-CBD strains (or 100% CBD extract) would negate the risk of even a schizophrenic person becoming delusional via cannabis. CBD also stops pain, ends nausea, and can safely treat bipolar I, II and schizophrenic patients. Most of the conventional drugs used for this purpose cause outrageous health problems, especially over time. CBD has zero health risks. It can be used safely in neonates. Neonates with cancer.

    Cannabis is such a treasure trove of beneficial health effects that to list them here would take too much space. A fun example: the very government that claims it has “no accepted medical use” has a patent on its neuroprotective and antioxidant effects.

    Please take your “reefer madness” madness back where it came from: Seagram’s, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Philip Morris, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, GSK et al. (There’s some delusional psychopaths for you.)

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  15. 15. JunkCarsFL 4:34 pm 01/30/2014

    My grandmother is of Native American descent. I recall her smoking her peace pipe when I was playing Megaman 5 on the NES. She is in the best health, has unlimited intelligence, and is extremely caring and gentle. It is a beautiful plant and I will always be an advocate.

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  16. 16. authentic8 8:45 am 02/3/2014

    As far as I know, the telescope was never banned. Can you reference this claim? Thanks.

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  17. 17. authentic8 9:17 am 02/3/2014

    It is worth pointing out that, despite the egregious abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy at various points in time, the history of the telescope includes significant contributions by a number of catholic clerical-scientists.

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