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Does Banning Psychedelics Hinder Science?

Prohibition of psychedelic drugs is blocking vital medical advances, claims a high-profile neuroscientist.

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Prohibition of drugs such as ecstasy may
be hurting the scientific community. Photo via

By Ariel Nagi

05/31/12

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International prohibition of psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy and marijuana has hindered research on the brain and slowed the progress of medicine—just like George W. Bush's ban on stem cell research, according to high-profile UK neuroscientist David Nutt. "We lose sight of the fact that these drugs may well give us insights into areas of science which need to be explored and they also may give us new opportunities for treatment," he says. "Almost all the drugs which are of interest in terms of brain phenomena like consciousness, perception, mood, psychosis—drugs like psychedelics, ketamine, cannabis, magic mushrooms, MDMA—are currently illegal. So there's almost no [scientific] work in this field." These drugs are banned because most are thought to cause more harm than good, but some may have untapped benefits as well. For example, Nutt's previous study on the effects of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) found that it suppresses brain activity linked to depression. But due to bans, Nutt has said he had to "jump through hundreds of hoops" to conduct his research—an issue that most scientists don't want to deal with.

Nutt is known for his history of going against government regulations; in 2009 he was dismissed from his position as a senior drug adviser to the UK government after complaining about drugs not being classified according to the actual level of harm they cause, and the "obscenity" of prosecuting cannabis users. His latest book, Drugs—Without The Hot Air, aims to clarify understanding of legal and illegal drugs—both recreational as well as medicinal. "If we understand drugs more, and have a more rational approach to them, we will actually end up knowing more about how to deal with drug harms," he says. "It's arbitrary whether we choose to keep alcohol legal and ban cannabis, or make tobacco legal and ban ecstasy. Those are not scientific decisions; they are political, moral and maybe even religious decisions."

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