Psychiatry, Psychedelics, and Propaganda: An Evening with Professor David Nutt

Professor David Nutt

The prohibition of psychedelic drugs is “the worst censorship of science ever”, Professor David Nutt declared yesterday during a lecture at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP). “I don’t think you can understand the brain,” he asserted, “without understanding the psychedelic experience”.

As I sat among some of Britain’s most distinguished psychiatrists, it was odd to think that the information he was disseminating was not common knowledge among those around me. Psychedelic drugs – primarily psilocybin ‘magic’ mushrooms and LSD – have a plethora of therapeutic uses, and research indicates that they can be effective in treating a range of disorders. Despite this, many psychiatrists and other scientific minds are unaware of the benefits. The lack of common knowledge about the utility of psychedelics stems from their illegality, and their illegality – Nutt argues – is due to unsubstantiated scare tactics perpetuated by the government and media.

Nutt, a professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, is also the President of the European Brain Council, as well as the founding chairman of DrugScience, Britain’s only independent and science-led drugs charity. Additionally, he served as the chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), before being sacked by the then-Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, for advocating a drug policy based on scientific evidence rather than subjective morals and political agendas.

 As a keen drug policy reformist, I was eager to hear from, and meet, Professor Nutt. Aside from his palpable intellectual prowess, I found him to be a compassionate and affable gentleman who was intent on using his knowledge and position to improve people’s physical and mental welfare. It was almost unfeasible to think that this grandfather-like figure was once perceived as a threat by the political establishment. In 2009, the Home Office claimed that Nutt was dismissed for “[damaging] efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs”, while Labour MP Jim Dobbin condemned him for spreading “dangerous ideas”.

There was, however, a silver lining to the political class’ malicious attempts to prevent Nutt from promoting science over fear. Sir Simon Wessely, president of the RCP, described the effect of his sacking as “propelling Professor Nutt into everybody’s consciousness… and altered consciousness”. Nutt’s dismissal boosted his fame across the fields of policy and science, and he now adds more credence and momentum to the international drug policy reform movement than ever before.

I was enthralled by Nutt’s account of the history of Lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD; that, aside from its medical uses, it had been used by some of the 20th Century’s most esteemed innovators. Professor Nutt drew attention to the late British neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner, Frances Crick, who established the concept of the double-helix structure of DNA, and later began using LSD. Due to his fear of prosecution in Britain, Crick moved to Arizona;”we lost one of our greatest minds just because of his interest in using LSD”, Nutt said wistfully. And the American biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, Kary Mullis, who claimed that using LSD was “more important than any courses I ever took”, and expressed doubt that he would have made his ground-breaking discoveries without it.

LSD tabs

 Tabs of LSD

Although any reform of psychedelic drugs laws would be a politically revolutionary move, such a change would not be scientifically revolutionary; the medical uses of these substances were studied considerably in the 1950s and 60s, prior to their prohibition, and, several highly regarded scientists have advocated their use in psychiatric treatment. In Britain, Ronald Laing and Humphry Osmond strayed from traditional methods of psychiatry by pioneering and encouraging the use of LSD in psychiatric treatment. Osmond, the creator of the term ‘psychedelic’, claimed to have found a 50% success rate when using the chemical to treat alcoholics. An American, Bill Wilson – founder of Alcoholics Anonymous – corroborated Osmond’s notions, and claimed that ingesting the substance could be a vitally effective treatment for alcoholism. He once stated that using LSD gave him “an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depressions”.

During his brief but comprehensive lecture, Professor Nutt also described the effectiveness of using psilocybin – the natural psychedelic compound produced by ‘magic mushrooms’ – in various medical treatments. Through the use of brain imaging techniques, evidence has been found to suggest that psilocybin can be effective in “switching off certain regions of the brain” that are particularly active for individuals suffering from depression. There is a huge potential for psilocybin to be used in life-changing psychiatric therapy, yet scientific research and developments are being blocked by government legislation. Professor Nutt spoke despondently of his attempts to conduct further research into the subject; he began preparing a study into the medical effects of psilocybin in 2012, but the study is yet to begin due to the numerous legal and bureaucratic hurdles that must be cleared to acquire the substance and undertake an experiment. “No one has died from psilocybin, there are few side effects, yet it’s treated as a drug more dangerous than heroin,” he remarked, “it’s ridiculous!”

“Talk to the Home Office and ask them why these drugs are illegal and they’ll tell you ‘because that’s the law’. Then ask them, ‘Why is that the law?’ and they’ll retort ‘Because that’s the law’”.

– Professor David Nutt

Banning the use of psychedelics in psychiatry, Nutt argued, is akin to banning the telescope in astronomy, or banning the microscope in biology; psychedelics are major tools of discovery, and contemporary humanity is limiting itself by restricting its use. So why does the British government, and governments around the world, continue to implement the prohibition of psychedelics?

The prohibition of LSD can be traced back to U.S. suppression of the social change and counter-war movement that began blossoming in the 1960s. Late comedian, Bill Hicks, who was a vocal proponent of LSD and psilocybin use, once asserted that psychedelics can “make you realise that everything you learned is, in fact, just learned, and not necessarily true”. Consequently, the U.S. government, accurately understanding that LSD was making young Americans question the blind patriotism and xenophobia being domestically perpetuated during the Vietnam War, quickly outlawed it in an attempt to quell dissent. This domestic legislation was then pushed into international law via the United Nations, and the rest is history.

Of course, no such policy could work without having some support from the population. Professor Nutt describes how, at the time that LSD prohibition was introduced, the U.S. media began running wildly unsubstantiated stories, such as ‘Girl Gives Birth To A Frog – Doctors Blame LSD’, to garner support for legislation. Such methods can still be seen in modern Britain, with sensationalist and false claims about drugs in the headlines of the Daily Mail and the Sun.

Anti-drug propagandaAnti-drug propaganda, over four decades apart

The situation is in dire need of change. Not just to prevent the criminalisation of thousands of young people, but also to allow for further research into valuable and powerful medication that can positively change the lives of millions.

“Governments can do what they like. You can’t reason with these people”, Professor Nutt cautioned. I felt disheartened hearing this, because if we can’t use reason and rationale, how can we bring about change? I questioned him on what he meant by this. He decidedly blamed a lack of open-mindedness in the current generation of leaders; “young people need to challenge the status quo”, he proclaimed.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Nutt displayed a quote that may offer some guidance for people like myself who want to create change but may not know how to, or where to, start:

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

– Albert Einstein

 Avinash Tharoor is the founder and editor of The Prohibition Post. This article was written following the lecture ‘Time to put psychedelics back into psychiatry?’ by Professor David Nutt at the Royal College of Psychiatrists on Jan. 20th 2015.

Professor David Nutt and Avinash Tharoor

Professor David Nutt and Avinash Tharoor


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