What Are the Medical Benefits of Psychedelics?
I sat down with Professor David Nutt to find out.
Photo by Benjamin Shapiro
This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden
After LSD became illegal in many countries in the late 1960s, scientific research into its potential benefits to mental health largely stalled. It's only recently that this topic has become subject to larger scale studies again. That is partly thanks to Professor David Nutt, who has devoted his career to researching the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs. He's published over 400 original research papers, 27 books, and eight government reports on the subject, and is also working on a synthetic booze that aims to reduce hangovers.
He performs his research with the Beckley Foundation, a British NGO founded in 1998 by Amanda Fielding. The focus of his study is how LSD and psilocybin (i.e. magic mushrooms) could function as treatment for issues like depression and addiction. Unsurprisingly, Nutt has repeatedly found himself in media shit-storms because of his work. In 2009 he was sacked as the British government's chief drug adviser after publicly stating that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol. A few years later, Nutt suggested the cause of the financial crisis had been the coke habit of bankers.
Last month, Professor Nutt was invited by the Swedish Network for Psychedelic Science to host a lecture titled "The New Psychedelic Revolution in Psychiatric Medicine" at Karolinska Institutet in Solna. The following morning I sat down with him to discuss the future of psychedelics as medical treatments.
VICE: Can psychedelics trigger the creative part of the brain?
Professor David Nutt: Psychedelics change all kinds of different dimensions of your brain—the aspects that influence you visually, spiritually, and what helps you make sense of your life. I don't think that psychedelics can turn us all into Picassos, but they can make you see that there are different ways of thinking and might help you solve some issues.
What about chronic pain?
I'm trying to encourage pain researchers to study the effect of psychedelics. I think LSD could be the next revolution in pain therapy. The brain processes of chronic pain are very similar to the process of depression, so I think LSD should to be studied for its effect on chronic pain.
If we started treating people for addiction or depression with psychedelics, how do you think that would work, practically?
I imagine that you'd come to a clinic to get your treatment—a single dose therapy that would give you a profound change lasting for months. And if addicted people relapse, they might need to take it again. With depression, people can see how long they can go without feeling anxious and when the depression starts to creep up again, they would come back in, too.
You can use psychedelics repeatedly, but the effect wears off. You build tolerance for it, even if you increase the dosage. We're not sure why, but it's one of the reasons it's not addictive. It's not something people start craving, like cocaine.
These drugs have been banned for so long, how difficult will it be to convince the world that they work as a medical treatment?
We're not talking about about magic here, or a bunch of hippies having some fun. We have the science behind how psychedelics work. The only reason people don't want them as a medical treatment is because they don't want to be proven wrong. People say that psychedelics fuck with your brain. I say, "No, they switch off these parts of the brain that are overactive in depression." That should be enough. What is there not to believe?
Before the ban in the 1960s, LSD was viewed and tested as a promising medical substance. Why wasn't that research continued in some form after it was banned?
That was difficult for several reasons. First of all, there's no money in it. Even if you could fund it, you need the right permissions and pass several regulations, which takes years. And the drug itself became crazy expensive. We get the LSD for our research from Germany. The Germans need a license to produce and export, we need a license to import and someone else needs a license to transport. So we end up paying £1,500 [$1,800] per dose of LSD. It's absurd.
On top of that, there's this perpetuated stigma from politicians and the media. The result is that there hasn't been one single study on LSD in America since the ban. There was one Swiss end-of-life study—and hopefully more to come.
What have been the biggest obstacles over the years?
The big challenges have been the regulations. It took us nearly three years to get through the regulations to even start our studies. If I was studying heroin, it would only take six months. It's crazy that psilocybin is treated as more dangerous than heroin. It makes no sense at all.
The reason the government gives for not funding this kind of research is rather clever. They say, "These drugs aren't addictive, we fund research on addiction." Or they claim that studying recreational drugs might encourage use. So it's almost impossible to fund—all of our funding comes from charities and crowdfunding.
How do you see the future?
I hope the laws and regulations change so I can work with psychedelics without it being so damn expensive. It would be great to get Scandinavia on board, since you guys have a good track record in brain research. There is no research in Sweden at the moment but that's why I'm here—to encourage people.
Do you think that your work will be more accepted in ten years?
Oh yes, in much less than ten years. I think in five years, psilocybin will be used to treat people in the United States. But I think LSD is too politically sensitive for that to happen soon.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.