New drug laws will be disastrous for medical research, say experts

Current laws have already hindered research into treatment of Parkinson's disease


Drug researchers are warning today that the new government bill banning legal highs could be ‘disastrous’ for brain research. The Psychoactive Substances Bill published today enforces a blanket bank on all legal highs and will make it illegal to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances.

In recent years, the government says, there has been a proliferation of new drugs on the market that resemble those traditionally prohibited. There are legitimate concerns about these substances; between 2009 and 2010 there were at least 29 deaths from mephedrone, a drug in the class called methcathinones which briefly became the substance du jour for young people because of its cheapness and ready availability.

In 2009 40 per cent of clubbers reported having used mephedrone; it was reclassified as a Class B drug in 2011.

But also in the methcathinones class is a drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Professor David Nutt, a former chief drug advisor to the government, told the Guardian today that reclassification had already harmed research into treatment:

“We’ve already seen massive impediment to research of interesting compounds by current law.”

Professor Nutt, who was sacked in 2009 for highlighting research that showed ecstasy to be less dangerous than horse riding, warned that the new bill could pre-emptively ban substances which could be medically useful in the treatment of brain diseases. He said:

“If I want to work on a new treatment for Parkinson’s which is based on chemicals similar to Benzo Fury [a formerly legal high], then it will take me a year to get a licence.

“How are they going to exempt scientists? If I ring up a company selling compounds, how are they going to know I’m a scientist?”

The new bill is counter to the advice of many experts in psychiatry and drug use, who had recently been calling for psychedelic drugs to be downgraded. James Rucker, a lecturer in psychiatry at King’s College London, said that the new measures would seriously hinder pharmacological research. Meanwhile, a US study recently suggested that MDMA could be useful for helping autistic adults overcome their social anxieties.

The new law is especially controversial because it goes against centuries of British law-making in which people have been free to consume whatever they wish unless expressly prohibited. The new law works the other way round; everything is banned unless expressly exempted (as caffeine and alcohol have had to be.)

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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