The psychedelic renaissance is here. Psychedelic Studies Imperial launched their venture last Wednesday with a mind-expanding talk by Professor David Nutt.
Despite initially being told that psychedelics was too niche a subject to form a society around, the PSI has sprung into life with the aim of promoting interdisciplinary psychedelic learning, pulling together work from scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, authors, and artists. Almost 300 people turned up to hear the legendary Professor Nutt, author of Drugs Without the Hot Air and one of the most important figures in British science. PSI couldn’t have chosen a better person to kick off their series of events — Professor Nutt is as entertaining as he is intellectually fascinating.
Nutt is a powerful speaker and starts his talk with the bold statement that psychedelic consumption by the ancient Greeks made them feel much better and allowed them to get on with the important tasks of inventing democracy, writing plays, and “basically founding Western society”.
Pulling the audience into more recent times, Nutt pinpoints the major breakthrough in the field of psychedelics: Albert Hoffman’s synthesis of LSD for the first time in 1938. He claims this indirectly revolutionised life sciences: the development of PCR was reportedly the result of an LSD trip in which Kary Mullis saw a DNA double helix unravelling and replicating. Nutt has tried to espouse the benefits of psychedelics in psychiatry and help people give up smoking and alcohol. He admits that there are risks of adverse reactions but explains that when taken under adequate supervision, results are “overwhelmingly positive, safe, and effective.” Nutt proves his point by explaining the findings from more recent research, much of it his own. Psilocybin (the psychoactive substance found in magic mushrooms) drastically improved the lives of people with severe treatment-resistant depression. What is truly astonishing however is his explanation of how the drug works. Depression is typically treated with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, which “dampen” activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear, which is commonly over-active in depression). Psychedelics seem to do the exact opposite. Nutt’s theory is that increasing amygdala activity helps people confront their emotions rather than suppress them. He recounts a moving tale of one subject who managed to confront their abusive father for the first time after psychedelic treatment.
But what about the more well known effects of psychedelics? Nutt thinks he can explain trips too. His functional MRI tests show decreased activity in brain regions associated with integration in volunteers injected with psilocybin. He suggests that this allows people to see the “primary processing” that occurs in the brain. He believes that this is responsible for the hallucinations and “ego-disintegration” during trips. In future work he hopes to discover “where people go” after taking psychedelics and is confident that at some point scientists will be able to visualise what users see by ‘reading’ their brain waves.
By this point the audience is well and truly on Nutt’s side and certain of the immense potential of psychedelics. So why isn’t the rest of the scientific community clamouring for more research? The answer lies in politics and what Nutt refers to as possibly the greatest scientific censorship since the days of Copernicus and Galileo.
In 1966 the CIA was deeply concerned about the “drop acid, not bombs” mentality of young people and their reluctance to fight in the Vietnam War. Nutt speaks deeply critically of the media campaigns that ran headlines such as “LSD made me a prostitute” and “Doctors blame LSD/Girl gives birth to a frog” which helped get LSD banned and classified in the UK as a class A drug. He was even more incensed in 2005 when psilocybin was made a class A drug. Nutt blames this on the Daily Mail, which he accuses of pushing Tony Blair to take a more “macho” stance on drugs. He even goes so far as to declare that this action was illegal since the appropriate experts were only consulted two days before the vote. It wasn’t all bad though — Nutt muses that the move probably provoked him into doing psychedelics research.
Criminalising psychedelics has undoubtedly made research much more difficult and expensive. Nutt claims the drugs are treated as “more dangerous than plutonium”. He ridicules the inexorable bureaucracy that means he can write a prescription for heroin but must undergo a police check and constant supervision to ensure he doesn’t slip out a little psilocybin. There has never been a death caused by psilocybin, he claims, but plenty of people die from the alcoholism that the drug could help treat.
It is impossible to listen to Professor Nutt without becoming convinced of the benefits of psychedelic research and decriminalisation. He thinks it’s finally time for a rational and enlightened approach to drugs policy. He hopes that political and public debate will lead to the decriminalisation of cannabis and then psilocybin. And if LSD is decriminalised in Nutt’s lifetime? He’ll take it as he dies.