INTERNATIONAL drug laws have set back key areas of scientific research including potential medical treatments, a controversial former government drugs adviser has warned.
Professor David Nutt, of Imperial College London, said United Nations conventions on drugs have led to some of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times.
Along with another former government adviser, Leslie King, and Professor David Nichols of the University of North Carolina, Prof Nutt argues that psychoactive drugs used in research should be exempted from severe restrictions.
Prof Nutt resigned as the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in November 2009 over the decision to reclassify cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug.
The possession of cannabis, Ecstasy and psychedelics are regulated under national laws and international conventions dating back to the 1960s.
Writing in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Prof Nutt said: “The decision to outlaw these drugs was based on their perceived dangers, but in many cases the harms have been overstated and are actually less than many legal drugs such as alcohol.
“The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe. And there appears to be no way for the international community to make such changes.”
The paper argues that the illegal status of psychoactive drugs hinders research into their mechanisms of action and potential therapeutic uses, for example in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He went on: “This hindering of research and therapy is motivated by politics, not science. It’s one of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times.
“The ban on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration is the only possible contender, but that only affected the USA, not the whole world.”
Prof Nutt and his colleagues argued that the limitations of cannabis research have had a harmful impact on UK pharmaceutical productivity.
Although many of the psychoactive elements of the cannabis plant were discovered in the UK, he said, developing them into medications has been severely hampered by excessive regulation.
“If we adopted a more rational approach to drug regulation, it would empower researchers to make advances in the study of consciousness and brain mechanisms of psychosis, and could lead to major treatment innovations in areas such as depression and PTSD,” Prof Nutt added.
The call for reform has been endorsed by the British Neuroscience Association and the British Association for Psycho-pharmacology.
The researchers are also seeking support from other academic organisations including the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Psychiatrists, and the Society for Biology.