For tireless drugs campaigner Amanda Feilding, the past 45 years feel almost as though they’ve been frozen. While there were a vast number of research studies into psychedelic substances such as LSD between the 1950s and 60s, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 imposed such strict regulations that even heavily supervised lab testing became almost impossible.
“The prohibitionist approach has completely obstructed the exploration into the potential use of these substances for almost 50 years,” the 73-year-old Countess of Wemyss told The Huffington Post UK. “The legal restrictions brought in after 1971 meant all the experimental approach and exploration of medicinal uses ended.”
But now after close to a decade of painstakingly slow progress in establishing research of psychedelics, studies published just this month have shown strong potential for medicinal use. Two landmark projects have found that a single dose of psilocybin, the key chemical in magic mushrooms, relieved terminal cancer patients of crippling anxiety and depression for more than six months.
Participants in the studies, run by John Hopkins University and NYU Langone Medical Centre, said that when combined with psychotherapy, psilocybin increased their sense of wellbeing and made them rethink life and death.
More than six months later, 80 percent of participants still felt their quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance and optimism had improved. The drug research community has been motivated by the studies’ findings.
“What’s truly remarkable is that [the studies] have an eighty percent success rate in the reduction of anxiety and depression in terminally ill cancer patients,” Feilding, who runs drugs research think tank, the Beckley Foundation, said. “The amazing thing is that the reduction in anxiety and depression from one single session with psilocybin lasted six months.”
The potential benefits are clear for those suffering from anxiety disorders and depression - and are especially heartening for those struggling to come to terms with a terminal diagnosis.
“This use of psychedelic therapy has found just one session can bring about a lasting change,” Feilding added, comparing the results with traditional antidepressants. “Many of those need to be taken every day and have quite a lot of side effects.”
Feilding describes a “turning point” in research into psychedelic substances in the past two years. But this perhaps does little to undo the years of stagnation the field has experienced. “From the evidence we’re getting now, we could have had much more successful treatment for conditions like depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Yet rather than a radical change in drug policy lying behind the studies into psilocybin, and others on drugs like LSD and even MDMA, it is dogged perseverance and generous donations that has led to the recent findings.
The government classes both psilocybin and LSD as Class A, schedule one drugs, alongside crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. And the government maintains drugs are illegal where scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health.
Their classification requires a Home Office licence for their use in research costing up to £4,700 - a fee level set by Parliament and which the government said covers the cost of processing applications. “By putting these substances in schedule one, the research regulations are so difficult they won’t be assessed easily,” Feilding’s colleague at Beckley, Professor David Nutt said. “There is enormous lack of insight from the Home Office.”
Nutt himself has said these licences can take a year to obtain and require advance criminal record checks, specialist pharmacy safes as well as police inspections - all of which, he has argued, can impede research. But the Home Office has said it supports research into new medical treatments.
“The Government fully supports research into new medical treatments and arrangements have been in place for many years to enable scientific research into substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act,” a spokesperson for the Home Office told HuffPost UK. “Our licensing regime allows research into Schedule 1 substances where appropriate.”
Nutt, who was sacked as a government advisor on drugs policy in 2009 by then Home Secretary Alan Johnson, has long argued for a radical overhaul in how drugs are policed.
This year, the government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act, which makes it illegal to produce and sell any psychoactive substances - regardless of its known potential for harm. The act was known more commonly for its provisions against so-called legal highs.
“It is a moral law, it is outrageous,” Nutt said.
The Home Office told HuffPost UK: “This Government banned new psychoactive substances because they are not safe, they can devastate lives and we will not tolerate them in this country.”
Yet in light of the latest research into psychedelics Nutt believes public opinion could well be the route to liberalisation in drugs policy. “The public are going to be much more sensible than the politicians,” he said, referencing the latest psilocybin study. “Why would you deny someone who is dying access to something that could actually make their death more humane and less dreadful?”
“The only reason we do it is we’re trying to send a message to young people to say these drugs are recreational,” Nutt added. “That is wrong. We don’t ban morphine for people in pain. So why don’t we do exactly the same thing for psychedelics and MDMA?”
And there is a belief that the recent research could prove useful in encouraging further projects on illnesses affecting many millions of families in Britain and across the world. “It’s been a long struggle but I think now a tipping point has been reached,” Feilding said. “Research is really showing a lot of very positive results in these areas and conditions that are causing great suffering in the world and indeed great expenditure.”
“Depression is a significant expenditure and so too dementia and Alzheimer’s,” she added.
Feilding remains focussed on Beckley’s approach to research into psychoactive substances, many of which were banned under last year’s legislation. “I would say that the UK has dropped right to the bottom of the queue in terms of drugs policy,” she said. “We need to fully research these substances to explore how we can optimally use them to treat a variety of conditions.”