UK and EU block research on magic mushrooms

Britain’s favourite nutter on mushrooms is once again being stymied by the authorities that once valued his expert counsel. Psychiatrist David Nutt, former UK drugs advisory chief, president of the British Neuroscience Association, and Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, will today tell the Festival of Neuroscience that a Medical Research Council funded clinical trial into psilocybin is being blocked by UK and EU regulations.

Nutt is calling for a change in the licensing of controlled drugs, so that research into the potential benefits of psilocybin in the treatment of depression can proceed without hindrance. Psilocybin is the hallucinogenic ingredient of magic mushrooms, a fungus common to the British Isles and other temperate climes that is popular with music festival goers and devotees of the psychedelic arts.

Previous research by Nutt and others has indicated that psilocybin can alleviate severe clinical depression in those who fail to respond to commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs and other treatments. The problem for researchers as well as self-medicators and recreational users is that the possession of magic mushrooms is illegal, with the drug classified at the same level as heroin and other dangerous narcotics. Scientists who wish to investigate such substances must first obtain a special licence, and the manufacture of a synthetic psilocybin of sufficient purity for clinical experiments is tightly controlled by EU regulations.

“The law for the control of drugs like psilocybin as a Schedule 1 Class A drug makes it almost impossible to use them for research,” says Nutt. “[T]he reason we haven’t started the study is because finding companies who could manufacture the drug and who are prepared to go through the regulatory hoops to get the licence, which can take up to a year and triple the price, is proving very difficult. The whole situation is bedevilled by this primitive, old-fashioned attitude that Schedule 1 drugs could never have therapeutic potential, and so they have to be made impossible to access.”

“The knock-on effect is this profound impairment of research. We are the first people ever to have done a psilocybin study in the UK, but we are still hunting for a company that can manufacture the drug to GMP standards for the clinical trial, even though we’ve been trying for a year to find one. We live in a world of insanity in terms of regulating drugs at present. The whole field is so bogged down by these intransigent regulations, so that even if you have a good idea, you may never get it into the clinic.”

Even if Nutt succeeds in finding a company able and willing to manufacture psilocybin for his experiments, there are in the UK only four hospitals with the authority to hold the drug. Even with an adequate supply of psilocybin, for Nutt and his colleagues to actually carry out the clinical trial will be a challenge in itself. Ethical approval has already been granted.