High Society exhibition: can dope give us hope?
The ban on hallucinogens is holding back vital research into their medical benefits, says Jake Wallis Simons.
By Jake Wallis Simons 7:30AM GMT 09 Nov 2010
Last week, the news took on a decidedly trippy tinge. First, Professor David Nutt, sacked as an adviser to the Labour government for criticising its policy on drugs, sparked controversy when he published research suggesting that heroin was less damaging than alcohol. The following day, Californians went to the polls to vote on a proposal to legalise cannabis. In a dramatic move, President Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, threatened to intervene if the outcome was a "yes" (it wasn't).
It is timely, then, that this Thursday, the Wellcome Trust will open the doors on High Society, an exhibition exploring the history of mind-altering drugs. In keeping with the Wellcome ethos, the exhibition blends a scientific and cultural approach, with curiosities such as a 20 metre opium pipe – an installation by the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping – sitting alongside more scientific (if no less bizarre) exhibits, such as a Nasa experiment that studied the strange webs spiders spin after they are given different types of drugs.
Amid the debate about drugs, one thing is often ignored: their surprising potential in medicine. Most people are familiar with the idea that cannabis can be used therapeutically, chiefly in relieving pain or the nausea caused by chemotherapy, but also to moderate autoimmune and neurological disorders. But according to Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and director of the Beckley Foundation – a charity that promotes research into drugs and consciousness – we have not fully harnessed its potential. "The prohibition of the past 50 years has dramatically slowed the advancement of knowledge in the area," she says. "In combating the recreational use of cannabis, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water."
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More surprising is the fact that harder drugs may also have therapeutic potential. Class A substances such as LSD and ecstasy, Feilding claims, may have a wealth of health benefits. "We need to wash these substances of their taboo by using the best science," she says. "Opium and heroin are already widely used in hospitals. Hallucinogenic drugs, however, are victims of a prohibition that came into place in the Sixties."
Feilding is something of a fringe figure, having earned the nickname "The Cannabis Countess" from the tabloids, and pioneered the art of trepanation, or drilling a hole in the cranium (in order to expand one's consciousness). But hers is not an isolated view: the past five years have seen an increase in psychedelic research, to the extent that a full scientific conference is being organised on the topic in April.
"The potential of Class A hallucinogens for clinical use is tantalising," says Mike Jay, curator of the exhibition. "Psychedelic drugs have been subjected to the most stringent legislation. Yet when administered clinically, they are non-addictive, non-toxic and effective in the smallest quantities."
LSD was discovered in 1943 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist. Hofmann, the story goes, was carrying out experiments and got a tiny amount of LSD on his fingers. As he was riding his bicycle that evening, the world "transformede_SLps dissolving into a flux of kaleidoscopic spirals and fountains".
"In the 1950s, the advent of LSD sparked a furious interest in psychedelic psychotherapy," says Dr Ben Sessa, a consultant psychiatrist involved in organising the conference. "Then the substances leaked to recreational users, the drug revolution started, and the government halted the supply, even for therapeutic use."
These may sound like the views of a crank. But Dr Sessa points out that he is not "a fringe figure in a wacky tie", but a "serious, grey-suited scientist" who has "no interest in decriminalisation". There is, he adds, particular excitement over research into MDMA, the active component of ecstasy. "MDMA is an incredibly clean substance when administered in a controlled setting. It's very unlikely to cause a bad trip. There is no evidence that it is physically addictive. And it is extremely effective in psychotherapy, and to ease the anxiety experienced by cancer sufferers."
This doesn't mean that we should dispense MDMA over the counter at Boots. But the drug, which was developed in 1976, has proved its mettle in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist from South Carolina, has carried out extensive research in this area. He found that for the 30 per cent of PTSD sufferers who were too traumatised to talk about their experiences, therapy was useless. The administering of a small amount of MDMA, however, enabled them to talk freely about their trauma, allowing them to "move on".
The British Government maintains that its rules on drugs do not mean that legitimate research is being curtailed. "The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 recognises the importance of research into drugs such as MDMA," says a Home Office spokesman, "and allows it to take place under licence."
Anecdotal evidence, however, points the other way. "It can be frustrating," says Dr Celia Morgan, a psychopharmacologist at University College London who is engaged in research into cannabis. "Our work is funded by the Medical Research Council, but it was hard to come by. I'd like to see fewer restrictions and more scope for real research."
The Government's restrictive attitude, she says, is highlighted by a proposed amendment to the 1971 Act that will give ministers the power to ban "legal highs", without any scientific evidence that they are harmful. "Prohibition should be based on proper evidence," she says. "Science should not be circumvented or curtailed."
Morgan and her co-researcher, Professor Val Cullen, have found that an element of marijuana called cannabinadol, or CBD, which has a beneficial effect on psychosis, anxiety, inflammation, nausea and cancer cell growth, is being bred out of commercially available cannabis. "Only 30 per cent of cannabis on the street contains any CBD at all," says Prof Cullen. "That makes it far more dangerous."
From the point of view of the Wellcome Trust, the societal forces that influence drugs policy must also be taken into account. According to Mike Jay, every drug has its own history. "Traditionally, we tend to be suspicious of drugs associated with other cultures, while being tolerant of those identified with our own," he says. "For example, we don't take alcohol very seriously, despite its dangers. Cannabis, however, with its historical links to Caribbean immigrant communities, has been viewed as far more dangerous."
This is illustrated in the High Society exhibition by two pre-war posters. One reads, "Guinness is good for you". The second states that "marihuana" is a "weed with roots in hell" and leads to "weird orgies, wild parties and unleashed passions".
"Another good example is kava, a narcotic drink that has a central role in cultures across the South Pacific," says Jay. "It encourages cordial conversation and comfortable silence. Yet in 2001, the EU banned it, on the flimsiest of evidence." The ban has now been lifted.
"Every society is a high society," he says. "The question is, what are we going to do about it? If illegal drugs can be used as effective medical treatments, it would be wrong not to research that rigorously."
'High Society' is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1 from Nov 11; wellcome.ac.uk