Thinking is at the heart of what makes us human. Innate intellectual curiosity shapes our well-being. A clear example of this potential can be found in mortality statistics. At the beginning of last century in Britain, life expectancy was approximately 50 years. Nowadays, it is closer to 81 years. Some studies suggest that by 2085 our life spans might reach 100 years.
Most of this evolution relates to the accelerated progress of innovation in health technologies and their dissemination through the health care system. Other material reasons, such as a cleaner environment and rising living standards, have also played a major part. But some factors go beyond the material. Better education and reliable information have helped us make better lifestyle choices that translate into a better quality of life. Today we are reminded by product packaging to eat more fruit and vegetables, we boost investment in sports education and we enact targeted regulation to reduce cigarette smoking. Knowledge helps us progress as a society.
This is closer to drug policy reform than it might seem at first glance. When I founded the Beckley Foundation, in 1998, drug policy was not informed by scientific evidence. In its stead, the policies of prohibition developed during the 1960s and 1970s were underpinned by political ideology and expediency. Rigorous research was considered subversive in this area, sacrificed on the altar of the War on Drugs and its 'tough-on-crime' posturing.
This half-a-century old paradigm of prohibition has not borne the fruit it intended, and some of the governments of the world are beginning to wake up to this realisation. The United States, once a champion of a 'drug-free world', has seen four of its states (and even its capital!) regulate the much-feared reefer without any of the foretold madness. Michael Botticelli, the recently appointed US drug czar, recognised this failure at the 58th Session of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), admitting that incarcerating users was costly, cruel and did not reduce the power of the cartels. But acknowledging the problem is just the first step towards its solution.
A similar change of perspective is urgently needed in the field of scientific research. Investigating the potential benefits of currently 'controlled' substances should not be an obstacle course, it should be encouraged. This should be particularly the case for psychedelics, whose low risk-profile and promising therapeutic potential do not warrant the draconian censorship imposed on them. Preliminary research shows psychedelics could be effective as a therapeutic aid to a wide range of debilitating health conditions including anxiety, substance dependence and depression. The Home Office has repeatedly stated the substances' scheduling does not impede the development of this type of research; and yet, time and time again the current system has led us to financial and logistic hurdles: hefty licenses, difficulties to obtain clinical-grade substances and very limited funding.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why the Beckley Foundation turned to crowdfunding platform Walacea to support the completion of the world's first imaging study of the brain on LSD, a study that I have developed in collaboration with Prof David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, at Imperial College. The response from the public has far exceeded our expectations. In less than a week, we have raised over 160% of the initial goal. More funding will allow us to devise research into this compound's effect on the creative process as well as its potential to help treat depression.
This is all very exciting, but we cannot lose sight of what brought us here, and what has motivated my involvement in scientific research for the past 16 years. The policies of prohibition, which deny our basic right to think, to produce knowledge and derive benefits from it, are doomed to failure. The governments of the world should not fear research on psychedelics, they should foster its creation and dissemination. It is impossible to know how much suffering could have been spared with a different approach, but what we do know is that enough time has been wasted.
NB: Schedule 1 substances, such as LSD, psilocybin, cannabis and MDMA, are subjected to the highest level of restriction on the purported basis that they have a high risk of abuse and little or no therapeutic value. Decisions on scheduling pertain to the Home Office and do not require parliamentary approval.