By Phillip Smith
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group of leading scientists argue that global drug prohibition has not only compounded the harms of drug use, but also produced the worst censorship of research in centuries. They likened the banning of psychoactive drugs and the subsequent hampering of research on them to the Catholic Church banning the works of Copernicus and Galileo.
The paper, Effects of Schedule I Drug Laws on Neuroscience Research and Treatment Innovation(abstract only), was written by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and Leslie King, both former government advisors, and Professor David Nichols of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The possession of marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics are stringently regulated under national laws and international conventions dating back to the 1960s, but those laws are not based on science, and the global prohibition regime is rigid and resistant to change, they argued.
"The decision to outlaw these drugs was based on their perceived dangers, but in many cases the harms have been overstated and are actually less than many legal drugs such as alcohol," said Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. "The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe. And there appears to be no way for the international community to make such changes."
In the paper, Nutt and his colleagues argue that the scheduling of psychoactive drugs impedes research into their methods of action and therapeutic potentials and sometimes makes it impossible.
"This hindering of research and therapy is motivated by politics, not science," said Nutt. "It's one of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times. The ban on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration is the only possible contender, but that only affected the USA, not the whole world."
Research in psychoactive drugs should be free of severe restrictions, the scientists argued.
"If we adopted a more rational approach to drug regulation, it would empower researchers to make advances in the study of consciousness and brain mechanisms of psychosis, and could lead to major treatment innovations in areas such as depression and PTSD," Nutt said.
Nutt headed Britain's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs until 2009, when he was forced out by the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nutt was sacked after publicly criticizing the government for ignoring the committee's scientific advice on marijuana on ecstasy. He then became chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, which aims to review and investigate the harms and benefits of drugs free from political interference.