Scientific research considered illegal?

What are drugs? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as “A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body”. It is undeniable that medicine use has saved countless lives across the globe. But drugs of course have a darker side, the side of illegal drugs, which are substances that are banned by law, but of course it is not black and white, with some prescribed drugs having terrible and damaging side effects, and illegal drugs having potential life enhancing properties.

Some argue that they are mystified by the hypocrisy of the drug laws in the UK. David Nutt professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs is one such person to speak out; he calls it ‘scientific censorship’ (1) with hefty, costly licences on any research with illegal drugs. He calls for the use of drugs in research to be exempted from severe restrictions, with regulation taking a more “rational approach”.

In some respects small gains are being made. The NHS in Wales is the first in the UK to fund GW Pharmaceuticals’ cannabis-based multiple sclerosis drug Sativex, with the publication of real-life data confirming the long-term effectiveness and tolerability of this drug (2). This has been met by praise from the Multiple Sclerosis Trust and other charities, who hope it will serve as a catalyst for the other home nations to follow suit.

However cannabis is not recognised as having any therapeutic value under the law in England and Wales and it seems the UK government is not changing its mind any time soon having recently stated that it would not change its policy on cannabis as there is a “clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health”, and that government has “no plans to legalise cannabis or to soften our approach to its use as a medicine.”

This seem contradictory to the many positive news stories which can be found when typing Cannabidiol or THC-A into any search engine ; the results are a whole host of potential health benefits for its use in anti cancer medication and anti depressants. Indeed one journal found it had antipsychotic effects on schizophrenia-like symptoms (3). It is these chemical compounds found in cannabis that are most interesting to health professionals hoping to treat a whole host of ailments.

It also seems contradictory to what is happening across the globe. In August Australia sought to relax medical cannabis laws, with the ‘The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act’ being amended to make it easier to conduct clinical trials involving cannabis and similar highly regulated substances. Other countries which allow cannabis for medical purposes are France – where cannabis derivatives can be used for the manufacture of medicinal products and Israel where it can be obtained for use in pain relief and treatment of cancer patients.

There also could be some unexpected positive results of medical cannabis, with deaths from pain-killers (optoids) falling where medical cannabis is allowed, by up to 25% in some states (4). Surely it is madness to not explore the potential of not only cannabis, but other illegal substances across the globe. While the rest of the world seem to be relaxing laws on cannabis, for how long can the British Government stand firm in its view that cannabis has no therapeutic value under the law in England and Wales.