Op-ed: Below, British politician Crispin Blunt discusses an apparent mismatch between the UK’s public perception of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy and Government policy that is stifling research and development in the field. Readers can learn more about Crispin Blunt by reading his bio at the footer of this article, and the underlying survey can be found on Drug Science‘s website.
It is surprising what you can find out from asking a random sample of UK citizens about psilocybin, given that it is by no means a term familiar to everybody.
Nevertheless, 58% support law changes to permit terminally ill patients to access it with therapy—a demographic for which it is already clinically evidenced to offer otherwise-unattainable solace and peace-of-mind. Tellingly, this rose to 68% with education on clinical research and similar policy advances elsewhere in the world, and opposition shrank to just 9% – the remaining proportion just not having enough information to make a decision.
We are overwhelmingly empathetic towards those in distress. That is why the proportion who would actively vote to deny those facing their end-of-life a chance of otherwise unattainable solace is vanishingly small, even when we are relatively ignorant as a population about the natures of various conditions that others face, or why they need access to “psilocybin-assisted therapy,” or what exactly that entails…
A vague understanding that “magic mushrooms” have something to do with ‘60s counterculture is far more common than knowledge of its clinical utility, which includes the treatment of depression, anxiety, and substance-dependency, as well as in the treatment of eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches and end-of-life distress. If people have zero familiarity with the strange-sounding substance (beyond its association with festival-goers and fractals), these likely combine with the garish preconceptions and rightly steer the thinking voter away from an uneducated ‘yes.’
Hearing from those who have been able to access psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy irrevocably establishes what access can do for the people that need it—it is hard to forget the vitality with which stage iv cancer survivor Dr. Lauren McDonald conveys her determination to facilitate access for others to the therapy that got her through it. The ostensibly complex puzzle of psilocybin’s regulation reveals itself in these survivors’ lived experiences to have a single, inalienably appropriate solution: Reschedule Psilocybin – Move it to Schedule 2 for clinical research purposes.
That a level of uncertainty exists about whether various population groups in acute psychological distress should be provided with psilocybin is perhaps an inevitability, given its inexplicable situation within the work-in-progress that is UK drug policy. It was placed in Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 on the basis of a Home Office evaluation for which the paperwork can no longer be found, decades before the creation of the vast body of clinical research that now affords us a scientific understanding of its psychopharmacological profile, negligible toxicity and low potential for abuse. Over and over again, without exception, psilocybin is found to be safe and well tolerated in healthy and clinical populations alike. When used appropriately, in controlled, psychotherapeutic contexts, the potential power of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to heal otherwise untreatable wounds is simply stunning.
The clamour for access to psilocybin-based treatments presaged by the survey data does not yet come from the entire population simply because so few who might benefit are aware of what it entails, and even fewer having been able to access it for themselves. I am a trustee of Heroic Hearts UK, which assists veterans accessing legal psychedelic-assisted treatments abroad in the absence of domestic services that meaningfully support recovery from combat-induced trauma—a travesty which surely need not continue now that we have evidence of majority public support for relaxing restrictions on research which could in turn facilitate access to this transformative treatment for our troops, on home turf.
While psilocybin remains in the deadlock imposed by its Schedule 1 status, we lose loved ones to now apparently treatable mental health conditions, 18 people commit suicide every day. We also lose researchers, research opportunities. Our homegrown psychedelic science world expert, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who produced the flagship research on psilocybin for depression at Imperial College in 2016 that has led to the development of the international psilocybin-assisted treatment industry, and the neuro-imaging data that lead to the hypothesis that it could possibly work in the first place, is bound for the United States.
Jurisdictions where regulatory permissions have been refined to actively facilitate psychedelic research and patients are furthermore legally able to receive it understandably beckon to those in the business of advancing psychedelic healing; over 6 US states have lifted criminal sanctions relating to psilocybin between 2019 and 2021, with the FDA granting ‘breakthrough therapy’ status to psilocybin in 2018, fast-tracking it through the approval process. The psychedelic treatment sector is likely to grow to £10 billion by 2027—it would be an even greater public health tragedy than the UK Government currently has on its hands if our commitment to a flagging economy proves so strong that we continue to send the clearest possible message to our remaining psychedelic scientists that their innovations are unwelcome, by keeping a death-grip on outdated, unfounded and easily-amendable regulations that continue to block their research without reason or public support.
Today we live with five decades of research handicap from psilocybin’s enduring placement in Schedule 1. This must surely end soon. However if its licensing oversight and sponsorship of its opportunities remain solely in the hands of the Home Office, the department whose role is to protect us from drugs, the lesson from cannabis is that they will continue to do so and most of the opportunities to conduct the calibre of research necessary to develop treatments that would alleviate the suffering of millions will be lost to the U.K. The cost of our current national oversight of Drugs Policy is now horrifyingly apparent. Rescheduling psilocybin will happen at some point as the evidence is entirely one-sided and the official explanations for the status quo are without foundation. But unless we get serious about enabling health, science and economic opportunities for our country we will continue to leave too many desperate people looking to criminals to supply them their medicines. Rescheduling will be welcome, but it’s fundamental regulatory reform that is required.
About Crispin Blunt
Crispin was elected MP for Reigate in 1997 having formerly served as an army officer. In Parliament, Crispin has served in the Shadow Cabinet with briefs including trade and energy and security and counter-terrorism. He has served as both Minister for Prisons and as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is currently the co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform. In January 2019, Crispin set up and launched the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) whose objective is to promote evidence-based drug policy reform on the centre right. He is currently the Group’s unremunerated Chair and Chief Executive Officer.