Everyone has heard about the “War on Drugs”. Most Americans of my generation have sat through D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes in middle school learning how to “just say no”. In addition to their intended effects on rates of drug addiction and, perhaps, unintended effects on the size of the prison population, the laws regulating psychoactive drugs are having a less well-recognized effect.
In a special section of Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Neuroscience and the law-Science and Society) there is an interesting editorial about how Schedule I drug laws are stifling neuroscience research and the development of new treatments. I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Are these guys just old hippies or do they have a good point?”. David Nutt, Leslie King, and David Nichols may be old hippies, but they also have a point.
The legal control of psychoactive drugs comes from three United Nations treaties: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. These treaties state that a list of substances is prohibited except for scientific and limited medical purposes. The list seems to include many drugs that may have been on the public radar at the wrong place and the wrong time (MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin, and LSD). There is no established protocol for removing a drug from this list once it has been added.
Studying any of these Schedule I drugs in the lab is, in a word, difficult. First, you have to find a company to synthesize your drug of choice. Companies that make these substances are few and far between due to the high costs of manufacturing illegal drugs and the red tape applied by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Second, you have to be able to pay for these drugs which can be extremely expensive even for small amounts. Third, you also need to be able to secure these drugs in the lab. You also need protocols that ensure the drugs aren’t stolen or mishandled.
Officially, many of the Schedule I drugs have no known medical use. The key word there is known. These drugs certainly have psychoactive effects and are banned due to those effects. However, it’s possible in addition, there could be a therapeutic benefit in specific contexts, or these drugs could simply help us better understand how the brain operates at a basic level. Because they have been banned for so long and research is so highly impeded, we are very unlikely to discover any therapeutic effects (or basic information) that might exist.
There is, however, some knowledge that using cannabis can help with pain and loss of appetite during cancer treatment (hence medical marijuana). There is also preliminary evidence that MDMA can help people with PTSD to have more effective cognitive therapy sessions. These situations suggest that more research on these drugs could uncover new treatments or deepen our understanding of how the brain functions.
The article maintains that neuroscientists should advocate for the right to use these drugs in research and push for more workable restrictions in the lab. The number of researchers investigating these drugs continues to shrink. On one hand, if you want to keep your job and get funding, it’s easier not to fight that uphill battle. On the other hand, study of these drugs cannot be ignored due to the potential for truly novel neuroscience and therapeutic discoveries. Those in charge of the “War on Drugs” did not consider the far-reaching secondary consequences of banning these drugs. Will a push from the neuroscience advocacy community have any impact on the policies surrounding illicit drug research?