Psychiatrist Dr Ben Sessa was on Prof David Nutt's team when Nutt reported the findings of the relative harms and safety of ecstasy to the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs to the Labour government in 2009. Nutt was summarily fired because independent research clashed with the opinion of politicians.
Speaking to him, Sessa says the feedback from the government of the day was "the findings may stand up scientifically but clash with the political climate."
Political clashes with hard science infuriate Sessa. "In the 1950's and early 60's there was a lot of good research being done into the therapeutic benefits of LSD by scientists. Essentially the hippy movement got hold of the drug which annoyed politicians who banned all research into LSD."
Sessa wonders what would happen if a government took a 'moral stance' on opiates in medicine? "Doctors wouldn't have much they could use, such is opiates' proven efficacy. They'd be up in arms!"
"Psychiatry is crying out for innovative new treatments. The drugs and treatments on the market are not very effective in many cases, and a 'thinking outside the box' approach is sorely needed". This view is privately held by many practitioners in the field.
A raft of research has been carried out lately into LSD, Ketamine, mescaline and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms). A 2011 study into psilocybin found that it can improve personality characteristics in patients - something Sessa says could help people with Personality Disorder. "Personality characteristics can only be changed by intense, sometimes religious experiences. The research you mention gave such experiences to the patients." The paper in question suggests that those who tripped on mushrooms had certain personality characteristics changed for the better for up to 12 months after the event.
Personality Disorder is widely regarded as almost untreatable in psychiatry. The UK went as far as passing new laws on detention without trial for people who had dangerous forms of PD.
Sessa wouldn't go to prescribing psychedelics immediately, nor would he consider a full blown trial giving people with PD a trip on the drugs. "More research needs to be done. We need to apply the same scientific principles to these drugs that we would anything else. None of them are even close to being licensed, so it would not be legal to try it out. Indeed, all I'm calling for is this research to be done. I'd be happy if they were found to cause more problems they solved, and they were thrown on the scrapheap from diligent scientific research".
The Daily Mail is full of the risks of taking these drugs. Sessa counters "In the 50 years since they have been used recreationally, the prevalence of schizophrenia has not increased at all in the world population. If someone is predisposed to schizophrenia they should not take LSD as it will likely send them over the edge. Most people aren't predisposed so it won't cause the illness. That has been proven by their widespread use."
For my part, I have had a bad trip on mushrooms. I believe that that really bad experience in 1996 finally gave me schizophrenia after 2 years of psychedelic drug abuse and intense stress. I do have a lot of anecdote from family history that I am predisposed to the illness. I looked at predisposition in my family in an article for Community Care Magazine a couple of years ago. One of my group of student trip heads is now a senior Army officer and found no ill effects. Of 5 of us only I lost the plot. Statistically if 100 of us were tripping as much as the 5 of us did at university, based on international prevalence, only I would have would have been tipped over the edge.
The real obstacle to such research is the political climate. "I don't want the hippy movement discussing the pros and cons of therapeutic psychedelics. The Daily Mail is the conscience of the public and it is that paper I want to draw in. If we had its readers supporting, then the cause to research the therapeutic benefits would be well on the road to achieving our goals. Hippies just rub them up the wrong way!
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