In Mullumbimby, Byron Bay and the Northern Rivers Rainbow Region drugs have been debated and experimented with since the hippies moved here in the early 1970s.
Discussion on the healing and life-changing properties of psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) DMT, LSD, ecstasy (MDMA) is par for the course here, but on 17 November at the Byron Theatre you can truly get your head around the science with the keynote presentation on psychedelic therapies by Professor David Nutt, the Head of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London.
This is not about enjoying a few pretty colours flashing through your mind, this is about the science of helping people who are in desperate need. People who are suffering from long-term treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, anorexia, anxiety – people who have been denied help for years, or their entire lives, because of the ‘War on Drugs’.
‘Fifteen per cent of people with depression and anorexia kill themselves. 1,000 people a day commit suicide,’ explained Professor Nutt.
No sensible arguments
‘There are no sensible arguments as to why we’ve denied people access to these life-saving treatments. It’s perverse, it’s sadistic.’
During the 1950s and 60s there were 1,000 clinical papers relating to psychedelic drug use and Professor Nutt says they were able to use that data to demonstrate the safety of using these drugs in medical trials.
‘Psychedelics have had really bad press,’ he pointed out, saying that the ‘War on Drugs’ really evolved because of protests against the Vietman War.
‘The War on Drugs took them [drugs] on, not because they were harmful, but because people who were using them were opposing the war in Vietnam. This is a hangover from the anti-Vietnam War protests. They couldn’t ban the war protests, but they could ban the drugs that people who were protesting were using, like LSD.
‘They didn’t care about the consequences. It was absolutely thoughtless – 40,000 patients, there were 1,000 clinical papers from 1953 to ‘67 – and all this was ignored.’
Professor Nutt said he didn’t go into the study of psychedelics thinking he’d be studying depression but was interested in the neuroplasticity of the brain.
‘We have virtually nothing to treat these patients and the use of psychedelics gives us an alternative treatment.
‘Two trials, of a single “trip” for patients with treatment-resistant depression, overall had better outcomes than current treatments. They got significantly better on a single dose. It is actually transformational. It doesn’t cure it permanently in most cases, but it is extraordinarily powerful.’
The work Professor Nutt has been doing through brain imaging seeks to understand why psychedelics are so effective as a treatment.
‘Why are the effects so enduring?’
He points out that the drugs allow the brain to ‘reset’, to seek ‘new pathways’ that can ‘break down negative thoughts, addiction and internalising disorders’.
‘Sub-psychedelic doses are being used in a trial in the UK with stroke victims’ to assist recovery from stroke – with phase two trials underway.’
‘In fact, the Australian government has done one really good thing, it has given $15m [in 2021] to kick-start the industry,’ said Professor Nutt. But the challenge is getting the clinical work going so that Australia can reach the potential of becoming a world leader in this area of research.
One of the biggest challenges for Australian research is the ‘tension between the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and state legislation,’ explains Professor Nutt, and this is a key reason for his visit to Australia. Currently psilocybin and medical grade MDMA, when used as part of therapy in medically controlled environments, are classed as ‘Schedule 9 (Prohibited Substances)’.
‘We still have the problem [that] it is an illegal drug, even a single molecule is illegal. We need to downgrade the medical use to “Schedule 8 (Controlled Medicines)”.’
This is supported by an independent inquiry ‘which confirmed the conclusion that these medicines were safe and well tolerated by patients when given in a medically controlled environment,’ say Mind Medicine Australia (www.mindmedicineaustralia.org).
Professor David Nutt is here in Australia courtesy of Mind Medicine Australia and he will meet with representatives and stakeholders from government, academia, and regulatory bodies to emphasise the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies to treat a range of mental illnesses. He will present public lectures in Byron Bay, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and will present at high level meetings with federal and state governments. Academic events will be held at ANU in Canberra, Monash University, and University of Melbourne.
‘As far as I know psilocybin and LSD have never killed anybody when they have been used in a medical setting,’ said Professor Nutt, ‘It is ridiculously safe.’