Drug War Blocking Potential Treatments for Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Journal Claims

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Potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and many other illnesses are being blocked by anti-drug laws, according to a new editorial review published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Lead author David Nutt, chair of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, and his colleagues argue that tight restrictions on research on illegal drugs like marijuana and “legal highs” are hindering progress in neuroscience and deterring drug companies from pursuing important leads in major disorders affecting millions of patients. Nutt lost his job as the top advisor to the British government on drug policy in 2009 for publicizing data showing that ecstasy (MDMA) is less harmful than drinking or horseback riding.

Comparing the harm to science to that done by the Catholic Church in banning the works of Gallileo and Copernicus, Nutt says, “People have not even realized how much research and how many possible new treatments have been blocked by drug laws.”

Marijuana research, for example, is still extremely difficult to carry out — despite legalization of medical use by 17 states and recreational use by two. In the U.S., the drug can only be legally obtained for study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and requires a special review and FDA-approved protocols that are not needed to study legal drugs or most experimental compounds. In the U.K., ironically, it is easier to study heroin than marijuana because heroin is a legal painkiller there.

And yet the research that has been done on cannabis suggests significant promise— beyond relief of pain and nausea, where the benefits have already been clearly demonstrated.

For one, several studies now suggest that marijuana might fight diabetes and obesity, two of today’s top public health threats. Secondly, other research suggests that cannabinoids— substances found in marijuana or synthetic versions of them— might potentially prevent Alzheimer’s disease, another leading cause of disability and death. Finally, there are dozens of studies showing activity of cannabinoids against various cancers.

(MORE: How Cannabinoids May Slow Brain Aging)

As a recent review of the cancer research put it:

[Anti-cancer] activities have been demonstrated.. for various malignancies, including brain, breast, prostate, colorectal, skin, thyroid, uterine cervix, pancreatic cancer, leukemia, and lymphoid tumors.

Says Nutt, “Inadvertent consequences of drug laws set up to stop people coming to harm failed to do that and inadvertently really screwed over research.”

The illegality of recreational drugs in combination with the globalization of manufacturing and the internet has also led to the creation of a murky market in “legal highs.” Here, experimental compounds that seem likely to have pleasant effects are copied from pharmaceutical patent applications and research papers, then marketed without safety testing, even on animals. Governments then race to ban whatever gets media attention for becoming popular or doing harm, which sends illicit chemists back to the lab to make new “legal” products.

The arms race means that many substances are banned with little or no study— and there are no published standards to determine what should be illegal. The effect is to hinder legitimate research, making many molecules as hard to study as marijuana. The expense and the hassle deter both academic and pharmaceutical industry researchers.

“It increases the cost of my research by between 5 and 10 times,” says Nutt, who is one of the few who holds licenses to do such work in humans. He notes that the two co-authors on his paper are both retired and says that one colleague wanted to co-write it but didn’t for fear of losing future government funding. “Active researchers are terrified,” he says.

As a journalist who has covered this area for decades, I’ve seen this problem occur repeatedly. Over the years, many researchers, who refused to be quoted publicly, have privately expressed to me their frustration with the barriers on research and one told me explicitly that he dropped a promising line of work on a major disease because of them.

The review notes numerous examples of the laws’ interference with medicine. For one, virtually all psychedelic research was shut down after LSD became popular in the 1960’s, despite data suggesting it was promising for the treatment of alcoholism and useful in therapy. Now, new data from the few small studies that can get funded suggest that psilocybin mushrooms may help treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and MDMA may fight post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

(MORE: LSD May Help Treat Alcoholism)

Another example is the story of methoxetamine, a compound similar to ketamine. Ketamine is legally used for anesthesia and is now showing promise as a rapid-acting antidepressant. But it is also misused recreationally, typically in nightclubs. Long term recreational use— and possibly long term therapeutic use— can cause bladder damage, sometimes severe enough to require the removal of the organ.

Methoxetamine, however, seems to have the positive effects of ketamine, without the bladder risk. But because it has been used as a “legal high” and substitute for ketamine, the British government banned it this year, along with similar compounds that might also have therapeutic benefit.

“That means there won’t be much research on safer alternatives to ketamine,” says Nutt, “People will stick to ketamine and run the risk of bladder [problems]. What’s worse, some of the compounds, which have been banned were never tested in humans or never even made. This is again like locking away science so people will never explore the full potential of these compounds.”

(MORE: ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Like ‘An Anti-Inflammatory for the Ego’)

Right now, there are no clear answers as to how to solve the regulatory dilemma. Three United Nations treaties limit how countries can change their own laws in relation to currently illegal drugs; and although public opinion is changing on marijuana, federal law in relation to its medicinal uses has been remarkably resistant to change.

The UN will meet to review its drug policies in 2016 and that’s where Nutt would like to see revisions. “We’ve got to have evidence-based drug classifications and policies,” he says.

The problem varies by drug. Marijuana, for example, has not been categorized by the U.N. as entirely without medical use, while MDMA and psilocybin were declared medically useless. This means that America could unilaterally decide to make medical marijuana legal, putting it in a category with drugs like morphine, that are restricted but are not as difficult to study— but changing the status of other drugs would require international cooperation.

And as the “legal high” market grows and chemists become ever more clever, the current system of regulation is being overwhelmed. We all want to prevent addiction and the negative consequences associated with the use of some drugs — but, as this review demonstrates, it is becoming increasingly clear that the main type of experimentation that our drug laws prevent is legitimate scientific research.


I think Mr., err....Dr. Nutt is a nut. Sexy Mexxy!! :p


Nutt has raised a very valid point here..... on the one hand we don't want to open the floodgates and endanger the general public to research chems / synthetic analogues ... but on the other hand we need to allow legitimate research into these compounds by accredited scientist's under license approval etc....

These bans are mainly spurred by media sensationalism and a very small number of deaths worldwide comparable to Alcohol and Tabaco and Prescription Medications, and as such whatever event gets the most media attention sells papers... will obviously get the most political attention and a knee jerk blanket law implemented to safeguard the general public and appease the media. At the expense of legitimate scientific research, and new medicines that are more effective and less side effects ... that will benefit the general publics health... !!

The facts are ..If people want to get intoxicated its their choice for better or for worse and they will seek out legal or illicit means to do so, as we have experienced since the 60s laws have done little to control public demand and consumption .

Its a balancing act... we don't want to open the floodgates to the general public, but people will continue to get intoxicated by whatever means possible ...

Hopefully in the coming years ... people will update their policies.....to allow

1. Legitimate Research to be continued

2. New treatments to come out of this


During the Inquisition, one of the ways of identifying a witch was the women who practiced the herb lore and healed people with the herb's of the forest and field. 

They were said to be practicing the dark arts. The Inquisition is actually the source of western society's general mistrust of nature and herbal remedy and the drug war is just as damaging to society as the Inquisition was in its day. 
This story demonstrates how useless prohibition is in preventing people from getting drugs for recreational purposes while only managing to keep those drugs from the people who really need them. When you consider that some banned substances really have medicinal properties you have to acknowledge that denying medicine to those in great need is no different to beating someone with a stick and holding them under water. It is torture and murder of our loved ones at a time when they are most in need of help, and it happens on a huge scale and happens as the result of wide spread persecution of groups in the community. Prohibition is a "Crime Against Humanity". Let the sick be healed. Let the dying have some comfort. Legalize! Apologize! Compensate! Prosecute the perpetrators! 


Great article! I hope one day there will be no restrictions on any psychoactive substance for the purpose of medicinal research or treatment.


I think Nutt lost his job for trying to publish misleading information. There's no way in hell MDMA is less harmful than horseback riding.

I understand the need for research in drugs, it's how we find cures so it is absolutely neccessary, so if its being severly limited by laws i see the need for change too. But keep in mind that these restrictions are also neccessarily because not too long ago LSD and MDMA were both misused in "reasearch" environments.


Any law, rule or policy which absolutely prohibits natural medicines is repugnant to the constitution. The Controlled Substance Act's scheduling of medical marijuana is unconstitutional. 

A few years ago a person could argue that marijuana is not medicine-- BUT that argument is no longer valid as Washington D.C. currently recognizes cannabis as medicine (as they did 80 years ago). If our Federal leaders intentions were for medical marijuana to remain illegal our Federal leaders would have continued to ban the implementation of DC's medical marijuana law which they did every year for close to 10 years. 

Allowing Washington D.C. citizens to use medical marijuana while Federally prosecuting State citizens for medical marijuana denies American citizens Equal Protection of the laws. That is unconstitutional.