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 Scientists and doctors are banned from studying many hundreds of drugs because of outdated United Nations charters dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.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.