Pubdate: Sat, 07 Mar 2015
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2015 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Charlie Cooper


Charlie Cooper Takes a Trip to Meet Professor David Nutt - and Finds 
Out Why the Former Government Czar Believes That Mind-Altering Drugs 
Have a Place on the Prescription Pad

Professor David Nutt has been no stranger to controversy over the 
years. So the psychiatrist and former Government drugs tsar, will not 
have been fazed when he raised eyebrows recently by drawing a 
parallel between the repression of research into the effects of 
psychedelic drugs like LSD with the censorship of Galileo and the 
banning of the telescope.

"It has been the great unanswered question in neuroscience," he 
argues. "What is the nature of the profound psychedelic experience 
that LSD produces, with long-lasting changes in the way people view 
themselves and the world around them?"

Now, he believes, scientists are coming close to an answer.His team 
at Imperial College London, having overcome numerous regulatory 
hurdles, are the first in the world to scan the brains of volunteers 
under the influence of LSD. Professor Nutt announced this week they 
would need to crowd-fund UKP25,000 to pay for an analysis of the 
findings, after funding sources dried up. Not following through on 
their work, he believes, would be a tragedy.

He and a growing number of scientists around the world are beginning 
to revive interest in LSD as a medicine: for addiction, for 
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and for post-traumatic stress 
disorder (PTSD). It could even, some believe, help alleviate the 
anxiety felt by terminally ill people at the end of their life.

"People are very, very frightened of dying. They see it as the end. 
On psychedelics, this sense of self begins to break down," says Professor Nutt.

"People in the psychedelic trip often experience being at one with 
the world or even with the universe. It's as if they have died, as if 
they've gone out to another place. They exist beyond their body. That 
experience can give them a sense of perpetuity, of permanence, of 
being part of the cycle of life, which of course we all are."

A recent study in Switzerland has already looked at the use of LSD 
for this purpose. After two months, a small number of terminally ill 
patients given doses of LSD in sessions with a psychiatrist 
experienced improvements in their anxiety levels - findings which 
persisted for a year among those who survived.

Professor Nutt thinks using LSD in this way, strictly on a voluntary 
basis, should be further investigated. It is, after all, how the most 
famous exponent of psychedelics, the author Aldous Huxley, ushered in 
his own eternal rest.

"The way we deal with death is to poison people with opiates so that 
they can't think," Professor Nutt says. "They're pain-free but 
they're constipated, can't speak, and are numbed before they die. I 
think the idea that there might be an alternative strategy is 
something we should at least explore."

Professor Nutt is one of the leading figures in a recent renaissance 
of interest in psychedelic drugs. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of 
studies were carried out into these substances, and LSD  then legal 
was tested as a treatment for alcoholism, depression, and as 
end-of-life therapy.

Then came the wide-scale, counter-culture use of psychedelics as 
recreational drugs, quickly followed by criminalisation. Research 
into them was, if not banned, regulated almost out of existence.

It is these missing decades that so frustrate Professor Nutt, who 
says that scientists are only just catching up with "50 years of censorship".

Exactly how the psychedelic trip can lead to long-term benefits in a 
person's thinking is one of the mysteries scientists hope to uncover.

"Our work with psilocybin [the magic mushroom compound] points to a 
circuit in the brain called the default mode - where your persona and 
your ego lies. When you're sitting, relaxing, thinking about 
yourself, your past, your future, your family - that's the default 
mode. In addictions and depression and OCD that can become 
disorganised and locked on to different targets. It gets locked into 
thinking negative thoughts, or craving thoughts. We think that 
[psychedelics] could well unlock that, and break that terrible habit 
of thinking inappropriately and let you go back to thinking normally again."

Since being dismissed as chair of the Government's Advisory Council 
on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009, after saying that ecstasy, cannabis 
and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, Professor Nutt 
has maintained a high profile, taking part in Channel 4's Drugs Live, 
in which volunteers have been filmed taking illegal substances, and 
the effects on the brain are explained by himself and other scientists.

Criminalisation of drugs, while appropriate for the most dangerous 
substances like heroin and crack, has been wholly counterproductive 
at the less harmful end of the spectrum, Professor Nutt argues.

Skunk, a high-strength variety of cannabis, which was recently shown 
to be responsible for one in four new cases of psychosis in a recent 
King's College London study, has become common, Professor Nutt 
believes, as a direct result of criminalisation: pushed by black 
market dealers who in a decriminalised system would lose their monopoly.

"We need to accept the fact that most people like to change the way 
they feel," Professor Nutt said. "Most people use alcohol. My view is 
that any drug that is less harmful than alcohol should be made 
available in some kind of regulated fashion because that will reduce 
the harms of alcohol."

Drug reform is back on the agenda after Nick Clegg announced this 
week that the Liberal Democrats manifesto would include proposals to 
soften penalties for drug users. Professor Nutt said the party should 
be willing to use the issue as a deal-breaker in any coalition 
negotiations that may follow the election.

"The drug laws are some of the most archaic and corrupt laws present 
in this country," he said. "They destroy lives through 
criminalisation and they really impede medical research. We deal with 
drugs in a pre-Victorian fashion. We need to move into the 21st century."


Acid test: The dope on LSD

First synthesised by Swiss scientist Alfred Hofmann in 1938, in its 
early years lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was relatively easy to come by.

Between 1953 and 1973, the US government spent $4m (UKP2.66m) on 160 
studies involving LSD to determine its medicinal value and its 
effects on creativity and spirituality. Participants regularly had 
very positive experiences.

By the 1960s advocates of LSD included Aldous Huxley and Timothy 
Leary, who popularised the "turn on, tune in, drop out" philosophy of 
a 1960s counter-culture that was defined by the psychedelic (meaning 
"to manifest the soul") experience.

The imagery and ethos of psychedelia, and the recreational use of the 
drug, soon spread throughout the western world, influencing art and 
music. The Beatles experimented with it, although probably not as 
much as some suggest, and The Doors and Jimi Hendrix also combined 
LSD use with the creative process.

Concerns about the drug's long-term health effects led to LSD being 
included in the list of prohibited substances of 1971 UN Convention 
on Psychotropic Substances.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom