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Loosen Rules on Psilocybin to Bolster Mental Health Treatments, MPs Urge

There was an "urgent and medically justified" need to loosen restrictions on psilocybin under UKs drugs laws to facilitate development of novel mental health treatments, an MP has told the Government. 

The call came during a Commons debate on a motion calling for an immediate review of psilocybin's current listing under schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 which Charlotte Nichols (Lab, Warrington North), in her opening speech on Thursday, said was long overdue after more than 50 years of control.

Psilocybin is a psychoactive substance found in over 50 species of fungi. Mushrooms containing psilocybin are sometimes referred to as 'magic mushrooms' and have been used recreationally for their hallucinogenic effects.

Barriers to Research

Under the 2001 regulations, drugs are divided into five schedules, with schedule 1 containing drugs considered to have little or no therapeutic value and subject to the tightest controls. These tight rules mean they may be used for research, but only under licence from the Home Office, which the British Pharmalogical Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences argued in a recent briefing document presented financial and logistic hurdles.

There is some evidence that psilocybin has therapeutic potential to treat mental health problems in a clinical setting, including depression, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy, while research is ongoing into its use for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"The idea that psychedelics, including psilocybin, are dangerous is a myth, created and perpetuated to justify keeping them illegal", and rescheduling psilocybin "would make no difference to the laws around recreational use or supply of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms", Ms Nichols told the Commons.

'Living Hell' of Mental Illness

The MP, who received widespread praise from colleagues across the House for detailing the "living hell" of her experience of crime-induced PTSD, said that Government reluctance to rescheduling psilocybin felt like "institutional cruelty".

Crispin Blunt (Con, Reigate) said he and his colleagues were making a "simple" request "that psilocybin be placed in the same schedule as heroin and cocaine through an urgent review by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs of the evidence of its harms". He said that any argument that psilocybin mushrooms, which grow wild in the UK, "might conceivably cause excessive damage to the population, especially when the ask is for medical use under medical supervision, is nonsense – not least when tobacco and alcohol are already legal".

With the cost of depression estimated to be in the order of £110 billion, or 5% of the UK's gross domestic product, the benefits from psilocybin could be "immense", even if it delivered a fraction of its potential, while the effects for people with depression would be "priceless", Mr Blunt said.

Other countries, including the US, were "way ahead of us in producing medical research", and the UK should not be "placing barriers in the way of research" by allowing the administrative costs of obtaining a licence to intervene, argued Ronnie Cowan (SNP, Inverclyde).

An Absent Drugs Minister

Replying in the debate, Home Office minister Robert Jenrick insisted that the Government agreed with much of what had been debated, but that "rather than developing a bespoke approach for psilocybin alone", ministers wanted to be "more ambitious" and "tackle this issue across all categories of section 1 drugs to reduce barriers to legitimate research". At the same time, the Home Office had to keep "a firm focus" on the need to tackle drug misuse.

In her concluding remarks, Charlotte Nichols said she was "disappointed" by the Government's response, which demonstrated "a real lack of urgency".

Crispin Blunt described as "frustrating, to put it mildly" that instead of the drugs minister answering for the Government in the debate, the Home Office had offered Robert Jenrick, the minister responsible for immigration policy. That the Home Office, and not the Department of Health and Social Care, should be the responsible Whitehall department explained why "drugs policy is in such an unforgivable mess", Mr Blunt said. Consequently, it was the Home Office that "can now be held accountable for the delay in delivering psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and psychiatry as a new mental health treatment in the United Kingdom", Mr Blunt suggested.