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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7 Responses to “New drug laws will be disastrous for medical research, say experts”

  1. uglyfatbloke

    Let’s remember who have been the most significant barriers to sensible drug policy; Wilson, Callaghan, Blair Brown, Smith and May. To be fair, only Brown actually told direct lies about it. The others just avoided being truthful…so that’s OK.

  2. JoeDM

    Ah yes. That Nutty Professor again !!!

  3. davidraynes

    Sadly Professor Nutt is not taken seriously by many people who study drugs policy. His remarks and activities, in my view, have become increasingly bizarre

    His confessions to his own illegal drug taking (Daily Telegraph), his campaigning for drug legalization, his association with Amanda Neidpath (who bored a hole in her own skull it. can be found on the web-gory). None of this is very rational behaviour surely, for a serious scientist?

    Most substances that we take into our bodies are regulated in one way or another. through food, to pharmaceuticals, even the FMCGs we buy are regulated. Is the Professor suggesting that almost uniquely, these high street substances should not be? That we allow their use to be normalized without controls? Even when they cause serious illness, addiction and even death?

    Other countries have, with fair success, brought in regulations not unlike those proposed, namely Portugal, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

    If Professor Nutt wants to do something useful he should contribute a paper to the Home Office on controlling and licensing genuine research on controlled substances for medical purposes. It ought not to be impossible to combine retail regulation of these substances with licensing of genuine research. Is Professor Nutt’s research on a substitute for alcohol (probably based on a benzo), serious research

    Is he a fit and proper person to have such a licence, given his own admission of illegal drug taking?

    As for genuine researchers getting access to chemicals, if I want to buy a shotgun, i produce a licence.

  4. Dave Stewart

    Firstly 1 in 3 British adults have taken an illegal drug according the the British Drug Survey 2014. So by your logic a third of the population shouldn’t be taken seriously? Do you see a problem here?

    He campaigns for drug legalization because it has been shown that legal REGULATED markets reduce harm to both drug users and to society as a whole. This is based on the scientific evidence so is a reasonable position for a scientist to take.

    The home office are not talking about regulating these substances they are talking about banning them. There is a difference. Codine for instance is regulated. Except in very small quantities the public cannot buy it with out a licence (or prescription which is effectively a licence). Heroin however is ban and it is a criminal offence to possess or sell it. The problem here is they are going to ban all substance until proven not guilty (as judged by who?) making it a criminal offence to sell these chemicals to anyone both the public and scientists with no possibility to get a licence. This will greatly inhibit scientists ability to investigate these substance for potential beneficial uses or to assess the harm they cause.

    Finally 1 last point Portugal does not have laws like this. Portugal decriminalised possession of all drugs while keeping selling and manufacture illegal (in the vast majority of cases). It is a very different approach which coincidentally is working extremely well at reducing harm.

  5. davidraynes

    You are wrong on everything as a moments Googling would establish for you. If you Google Portugal + NPS you will find the law, two years old now.
    AND decriminalisation in Portugal is limited, is being reviewed and has caused a great deal of concern.
    I have visited several times and held discussions with parliamentarians there

  6. Dave Stewart

    I am wrong on everything and yet you only comment on 1 point I make. Sure.

    I was unaware of the the NPS law, it is only 2 years old and qute frankly not being Portuguese I don’t tend to follow the minutia of their drug policy.

    You are also right that the changes have caused a lot of worry…..amongst certain groups but the evidence for harm reduction is overwhelming and there is no evidence of drug usage increasing. Unfortunately there will always be people who wring their hands about such policies based on their prohibitionist views irrespective of the evidence. Reviewing such forward thinking legislation is perfectly sensible under any circumstances.

    Also of course the decriminalization is limited, anything that is not unlimited (ie full legalization) is by definition limited. Having said that the vast majority of typical recreational drugs are decriminalized.

  7. davidraynes

    You are again wrong. If you choose to post so emphatically, you ought to check your basic facts. You are wrong in every respect but not worth bothering with.
    If you do not know. Do not post. It just makes you look ridiculous. Goodbye

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