A recently published editorial in the Lancet supports research into the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs and calls for a new legal structure that makes this research easier and less burdensome to conduct. The Lancet editorial was likely inspired by a commentary published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. This editorial was then covered by the British newspaper, the Guardian.
That psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and MDMA (ecstasy), can be effective treatments for various psychiatric illnesses is an old idea. Once considered wonder drugs for their effects on anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and other mental illnesses, they have been effectively banished from medical practice after legal rulings banned their sale and use. Although such bans were largely put in place to quash concerns about rampant recreational drug use fuelling the counter cultures of the 1960s and 1980s (LSD and MDMA, respectively), criminalisation of these agents has also led to an excessively cautious approach to further research into their therapeutic benefits.
So do illicit drugs have therapeutic benefits that outweigh their substantial social harm? The evidence is scant. But the case of a man who emerged from a decade-long period of intensive MDMA use—during which he is estimated to have taken 40,000 pills with no signs of the profound neurotoxicity that has long been feared to result from even limited consumption of ecstasy, has re-energised calls for more research into the real side-effects, and therapeutic potential, of psychedelic drugs. Although some small-scale research projects using LSD, MDMA, and the active components of cannabis are now underway, the blanket ban on psychedelic drugs enforced in many countries continues to hinder safe and controlled investigation, in a medical environment, of their potential benefits.
Exaggerated risks of harm have contributed to the demonisation of psychedelic drugs as a social evil. But although this dangerous reputationgenerated and perpetuated by the often disproportionately stiff penalties for their useis helpful for law enforcement, it does not correspond to the evidence. Rather, the social prescription against psychedelic drugs that hinders properly controlled research into their effects and side-effects is largely based on social and legal, as opposed to scientific, concerns. To maximise research into therapeutic benefits without exacerbating real social harms a legal structure that recognises this distinction is sorely needed.