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Magic mushroom depression trial tripped up by ‘absurd’ drug laws

Published time: April 07, 2013 14:23
Edited time: April 08, 2013 11:18
Boxes containing magic mushrooms are displayed at a coffee and smart shop in Rotterdam. (Reuters / Jerry Lampen)

Boxes containing magic mushrooms are displayed at a coffee and smart shop in Rotterdam. (Reuters / Jerry Lampen)

A potentially revolutionary clinical trial using magic mushrooms to treat depression is being held up by ‘absurd’ British and European laws which restrict the use of illegal drugs in research.

Following previous experiments which found the psychotropic substance in magic mushrooms helped allay signs of depression in people who had failed to respond to other treatments, the British Medical Research Council awarded David Nutt and his team at Imperial College London an $844,000 grant to conduct a full clinical trial.

For the trial, 60 patients who had otherwise failed to react to at least two other forms of treatment would be administered a synthetically-manufactured form of psilocybin – the naturally occurring compound in some 200 species of mushrooms.

The problem: psilocybin is considered a Class A drug in the UK, meaning it is designated as having a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use.  

David Nutt. (Reuters / Suzanne Plunkett)

"The trial hasn't started yet because the big problem is getting hold of the drug. We're not allowed to go and pick the mushrooms anymore and finding a company to provide this illegal drug in a way that can be prepared for trial use as yet has proved impossible,” Nutt said on the eve of the British Neuroscience Association's Festival of Neuroscience in London.

"We are between a rock and a hard place, and that's very unfortunate because if this is an effective treatment, as it may well be for some people, then they are obviously being denied that possibility." Under British law, academic researchers are not allowed to manufacture their own Class A drugs and are therefore forced to obtain them from outside sources.

Companies must clear stringent regulatory hurdles to obtain the necessary license to supply the drugs. The process can take up to a year and triple the cost, the professor maintained.

Restrictive EU guidelines on Good Manufacturing Practice further impose strict stands for potential suppliers.

"We live in a world of insanity in terms of regulating drugs,"  Reuters cites him as telling the neuroscience conference on Sunday.

 “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.”  

Saying that a group in Colombia unhindered “by the baggage of drug laws” and “drug controls” might beat his team to the punch, Nutt insisted that even a successful trial would not clear the way for medicinal psilocybin.

Currently only four hospitals in the country have a license to hold the drug, making it impractical to use it for treatment on a broad scale, the professor continued. A spokesman for the UK Home Office maintained current drug laws did not hinder valid trials from being conducted.

“Our licensing regime enables legitimate research to take place while ensuring that harmful drugs don’t get into the hands of criminals,” the BBC cites him as saying.

 “We have no evidence to suggest that the current listing of psilocybin as a Schedule 1 substance is a barrier to attracting funding for legitimate research.” 

Nutt, who is president of the British Neuroscience Association and professor of neuropsychopharmacology, is no stranger to controversy.

In 2009 the professor was asked to resign from his role as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for publishing a pamphlet which claimed alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.