Over the years, many have speculated on the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin to treat a variety of human health concerns. Even though the risks associated with psilocybin use – and the resulting health and social harms – are significantly lower than those of other types of drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin), existing international drug laws have banned psilocybin and other psychedelics, which in turn has stifled modern research on the potential medical applications of psilocybin.
In their article, David Nutt and colleagues discuss some of the controversies surrounding the psilocybin’s classification as a Schedule I drug, resulting in its controlled (i.e., banned/prohibited) status in most countries. In the US, drugs are classified as Schedule I if they meet the following criteria: (1) Has a high potential for abuse; (2) Has no currently accepted medical use in the US; (3) The safety of the drug, when under medical supervision, is not acceptable. But, the authors of this article argue that the very decisions that were made about which drugs are controlled were made haphazardly; based more so on political than health-related reasons. They note that decisions about which drugs to ban were not evidence-based, because these decisions were made during a time when we did not have sophisticated scientific techniques to accurately study the health-related benefits and harms of these substances – as we do now. According to the authors, it appears that some drugs (e.g. marijuana, psilocybin) were prohibited based not on solid scientific evidence that they are harmful for human consumption, but instead, based on the assumption that these drugs have no medical benefits at all.
After the World Health Organization (WHO)’s 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and later, the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, many drugs, including psilocybin, were prohibited nearly all grounds except for “scientific and very limited medical purposes by duly authorized persons, in medical or scientific establishments which are directly under the control of their Governments or specifically approved by them.” In other words, these substances could only be used for medical or research purposes, but only with the approval of a country’s government agency.
In the United States, this agency is known as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Under the WHO treaty, organizations like the DEA (and its international counterparts) can provide sites such as laboratories and hospitals with licenses to produce or hold controlled substances for research purposes. So, even though researchers could theoretically study these substances after receiving approval for their national drug enforcement agencies, the process is time-intensive, extremely expensive, and full of political and administrative barriers. And because there are currently no process for reviewing and appealing which drugs are prohibited at the national or international (i.e., WHO) level, it is likely that recent momentum towards more psilocybin research will continue to be stifled.
That being said, we’ll soon discuss a new psilocybin study that was approved in the United States, and with the onset of legalization of cannabis, maybe this will spur change in the world of research.
Summary of: Nutt DJ, King LA, Nichols DE. Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2013 Aug;14(8):577.