For almost 50 years LSD was banned worldwide and under no circumstances was any scientific experimentation allowed. Only now are we starting to take another look at this long neglected area of science. David Nutt is the man pioneering this rediscovery. His LSD brain imaging experiment has been called the discovery of 2016, more important even than the discovery of gravitational waves. His team at Imperial College London are beginning to unlock the many secrets of our brains and are finding new ways in which psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and LSD could be used to cure mental health disorders. These substances remain a mysterious void in human knowledge, and as a society we are perhaps rightfully wary of them. But the thought of venturing into the unknown has never stopped scientific progress before, and David Nutt is one man intent on shedding light in this expanse of darkness.
So you used to work as a government adviser. What did that life teach you about how the government approaches drugs, as opposed to what you’re doing now? There must be a huge gap.
Yes, there is an enormous gap. That was the great dissolution and that’s why I got sacked. I spent nine years chairing a committee that did the most systematic analysis of drug harms that has ever been done. It developed new methodologies, published papers, and that was enormously fruitful. I believe that’s what governments should do if they want to make good laws. But it gradually became clear to me during that decade that I was working there that they weren’t interested in the facts. They were very happy with the facts that justified their preconceptions, but the facts that conflicted with their preconceptions they tried to dismiss, or hide, or ignore. In the end it became too oppressive. I suddenly discovered one day, during an interview with one of the BBC home affairs correspondents that I was actually speaking like them. I suddenly thought – who is saying these things? This is not me. I had to stop the interview and say, no we can’t go on. Then I started telling the truth and within six months I was sacked.
In many of the interviews with you I’ve seen there seems to be an element of hostility towards your work. Why do you think that is?
I think there are several factors. There’s always hostility when someone has dared to say what they wouldn’t have wanted to say, and then there are also people who are angry that the truth has been hidden for so long, one truth being that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis. That’s why I was sacked, because I said that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis and LSD, and the drug laws don’t make any sense. That’s the truth and everyone knows that. Even most politicians know that. There’s a lot of hostility because there is a group of people who really want the status quo to remain. Their jobs depend on it. Customs people, police, there’s a whole industry built around attacking drugs. The whole war on drugs was fuelled in the 1930s by Harry Anslinger and the US government to keep the drug enforcement agency employed. It’s all about a power struggle, it’s not about harms of any kind. That’s a big business and a lot of people are invested in that, not just civil servants and police but also people who provide treatment services.
Images of Magic Mushroom/Psilocybin
Do you think that the idea of the war on drugs has become so entrenched that the bureaucrats and regulators don’t even think about what they’re saying anymore, that they’re just repeating the phrases and statements over and over?
Absolutely. What’s chilling is that since I was sacked there has not been a spokesperson in a government role who has dared to tell the truth. The government actually now avoids any dialog at all. If you ring the Home Office and ask to have an interview about drugs they will not give it to you. As far as I know they haven’t given an interview since 2010. They know that an interview will expose their ignorance, and their prejudice, and that their arguments would be very easy to pick apart. So they don’t. They just say – drugs are bad, and our drug policies are working. I would say to them – that’s funny because we had more deaths from heroin last year than ever before in our history.
If Theresa May was sitting here right now listening to this conversation, what would she say?
She would say what the Home Office says and what she told them to say for the six years that she was Home Secretary. Drugs are bad, drugs are harmful, never use them. She would be clever though, she would say – I don’t disapprove of research on drugs but I do disapprove of drug use. That’s understandable in a way. I never encourage anyone to use drugs.
"You cannot say that LSD fries your brain because we’ve shown that if anything it makes your brain work better."
On the benefits of taking psychedelic substances
Between 1959 and 1965 a reported 40,000 people were treated with LSD therapy. It was legal and regulated, and nearly everyone who tried it swore to its efficacy. But in 1965 it was suddenly banned and since the mid-60s no study has been done in the USA, up until now when some things are starting to change. What damage do you think that period had globally on progress in this area? Did the anti-experiment attitude bleed out to other countries too?
Every country in the world signed up to the LSD ban. The only country that didn’t sign up to the complete ban of psychedelics was the Netherlands where they very cleverly forgot to include psilocybin mushrooms in the law. They were smart enough to get around it, but every British drug law has been made at the directive of the USA, every single one.
Why has America controlled this discussion?
Money. The South American countries were forced to comply otherwise they didn’t get loans. I don’t know exactly what the threats were with Britain but when I was working in the Home Office every time our liaison went to the Foreign Office for an international meeting they’d come back and say, the Americans don’t like that we’re doing this. I did it anyway but they would get very angry. The pressure was there. We always try to appease America don’t we? We want to have that special relationship so we do what they tell us.
We spoke to a scientist called Matthew Johnson working at Roland Griffiths’ lab over in the States. They’re doing similar work to you investigating the potential benefits of psychedelics in the brain. (remarkable success in reducing depression and anxiety of cancer patients with Psilocybin) Do you think that’s indicative of an attitude change in America?
I think it is. People like Roland and Matthew have pioneered an interest in the science, and so have we. They’ve looked more at the psychological consequences and benefits, we’ve looked at the brain science. So now I think we have a much stronger narrative. Modern psychological research shows that these drugs do improve people’s wellbeing. You can no longer say it’s all bad. You cannot say that LSD fries your brain because we’ve shown that if anything it might make your brain work better. So we’re in a much stronger position to oppose some of the arguments against drugs.
Lets talk about your research involving alcohol. You’ve noted that since the data was first collected alcohol related diseases like cirrhosis have gone up by 400 percent. Do you think that society is ready to have a serious discussion about alcohol? We’ve definitely been ready to have that conversation about sugar, so why not alcohol?
Because no one sees an alternative. There is an alternative of course which I’ve developed. But the drinks industry has been enormously clever in deflecting any kind of criticism.
Many years ago I started negotiations with a major drinks company about them working with me to develop a safe alcohol. They have hundreds of good scientists. I met a top scientist in one of the companies and he said, “The truth is David, we all know that what we’re doing is immoral. We’re killing people. I want to work with you and find a safe alcohol.” The industry knows that in 50 years it will happen, it’s only a matter of time. This scientist went back to talk to his chief executive and head of marketing and they said, “well why would we bother? In 50 years’ time we’re going to be retired or dead.” Making money from alcohol is so easy. So why would they bother to invest in research just to find something safer. That was very disillusioning to me.
If people never had never tasted sugar in their life it wouldn’t be a problem. If we can develop a society where people never drink alcohol we have an enormous potential.
But if it’s not alcohol surely it’s going to be something else.
Of course the nearest we have to something else is cannabis and you see that in countries where cannabis is relatively easy to get, there’s two cultures, a drunk violent culture and a stoned happy culture. The Netherlands is a good example of that. Actually its much nicer to be in a stoned happy culture because at least you don’t feel threatened.
Let’s talk about your revolutionary investigation of psilocybin and LSD. One magazine called it the experiment of the year, ahead of the discovery of gravitational waves.
Yes! I thought that was right.
It really shows the changing attitude of the media industry.
The media actually are not hard people to win over. Obviously there’s the mindless idiots of the Daily Mail but most media are intelligent people who want to understand rather than just proclaim.
You’ve called the experiment itself a ‘moon-landing moment’.
Yeah I think it is, although a lot of scientists don’t agree. A lot of scientists have spent 50 years preaching and being preached to about drugs and they’re terrified of standing up and saying we were wrong. The scientific establishment is an establishment and it’s hugely powerful in terms of how it controls discussion.
You are very enthusiastic about green-lighting trials in this area and understandably so. We’re talking about people suffering from anxiety and depression. The Default Mode Network is generally overactive in people with those disorders and Psilocybin has been shown to turn off the DMN and allow the brain to behave in ways never seen before. But we still know very little for certain. Isn’t that terrifying?
The point is we don’t know about it because no one has done it before. It’s quite fascinating. Getting some of this stuff published has been quite difficult. A lot of scientists would prefer if this whole thing went away. It raises challenges to philosophies and theories of science. It is like Einstein. We had a nice theory of physics and then suddenly relativity comes along and we have a different theory. Similarly we had a nice theory of consciousness but then our work comes along and says actually there’s another kind of psychedelic consciousness and that’s associated with very different brain activity. All the scientists working in the area of consciousness are saying, “Hey, get out of here. You’re a fucking psychiatrist.” But the truth is we’ve challenged things and shaken things up.
Images from groundbreaking study courtesy of David Nutt & the Beckley Imperial Research Programme
So what are the implications of such a radical breakthrough?
I think it’s going to revolutionise the treatment of many psychiatric disorders. I’m sure that within ten years psilocybin will be an accepted alternative treatment for depression.
The irony of course is that it may have been drugs that contributed to these mental health disorders.
That’s a complicated thing. I give lectures on the potential value of psychedelics in the treatment of addiction and people say, “I’m an alcoholic but I’ve taken a lot of LSD.” To that I say, okay fine, but there are without question people who are alcoholics who haven’t taken LSD who might benefit. There’s never going to be a perfect treatment for everyone, but there are some people who I’m sure will benefit from these drugs, if we use them in the right way. We’ve shown that the brain works in a different way, that there are these centres in the brain that regulate brain function and you can switch them off. When you do that the brain is much more liberated and more flexible.
"I met a top scientist in one of the companies and he said, 'The truth is David, we all know that what we’re doing is immoral. We’re killing people.' "
David Nutt talks about the questionable ethics of the alcohol industry.
I know scientists prefer to stay away from this area but something Matthew Johnson said to us which was fascinating was, “if you have a subjective experience of God, was that really God? We have zero ability to address that question.” To what extend can you study these kinds of existential questions?
It’s a fundamental area, and we can study it. We have known, probably since the Buddha or the first religious leader who had a transcendental experience, that we can change the way that people think by going through periods of deprivation. Those things change the brain. Now we can change the brain with drugs and produce similar outcomes. So I think what we’ve done is show that religious experiences do exist in the brain, they’re probably not imposed from outside. But maybe not. Some people would say that you can liberate the brain using psychedelics and that allows you to communicate with the universe. These are interesting questions and we don’t have the tools to study them all yet.
What we’ve also shown is that there are different elements of the psychedelic experience that come from different brain regions. Clearly the visual hallucinations come from a hyper connectivity of the visual system, but the sense of oneness with the universe comes from a different part of the brain. We’re beginning to dissect these fundamental elements of consciousness.
It sounds like there are several emerging disciplines here, and that you’re going to have to get involved in neurophilosophy in order to understand even more.
I would love to get neurophilosophy involved. This is the next step. I’m writing a book at the moment called Revelation, and I’m expecting a torrent of abuse from neuroscientists, and philosophers, and priests who are going to say I’m wrong, but I think we need to have a very serious discourse about this because it’s fascinating intellectually.
What I find the use of psychedelic drugs by indigenous communities fascinating. We know that they’ve been used effectively for hundreds of years and yet we still condemn them.
It’s pretty interesting how western societies have tried to destroy all non-western attitudes to drug use. It’s all part of this horrific western Christian authoritarian philosophy that we want to impose on everyone. We’re the only culture that has not tried to use psychedelics. Most other cultures have embraced them because they add value and new dimensions to their insights, as well as being quite fun to take.
What is the next step with your work and these trials?
I have two major ambitions really. One is to resurrect the use of LSD to treat addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by a man called Bill Wilson. He was one of the pioneers of LSD use in America. He was the man who gave LSD to Aldous Huxley. He pioneered six trials of LSD for alcoholism. Alcoholics can’t think of anything other than the next drink, and that’s why they can’t engage in therapy. Wilson said that LSD will open up their minds so that they can see that there’s more to life than a bottle of booze, and his trials showed enormous benefits. But when LSD was made illegal Alcoholics Anonymous had to abandon that. Now it’s coming back and people are going for ayahuasca retreats. Wilson was right. LSD in some cases will transform people’s attitude towards alcohol and will allow them to stop being alcoholics. His six studies showed that it was true. So why don’t we reinstate that? That’s my main ambition.
My second ambition is to use psilocybin to treat obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s a disabling disorder that destroys people’s lives and current treatments are not very good. Some of those people will undoubtedly get better on psilocybin.
Why does the brain remain such a wonder? I mean why is the brain the central hub of all this perceptual activity and not the knee or arm?
The brain is very very flexible. Humans are particularly adapted because we’ve got a brain that can harness the power of language. The process where the brain has grown to do things it doesn’t need to do is fascinating. It must be something random about evolution.
What really important to know is that our brains have more psychedelic receptors per neuron than any other brain in the animal kingdom. These receptors are in the brain in high densities, in parts of the brain that make you human and also involved with mental flexibility. Why are they there? Terance McKenna and others will say that they’re there because the aliens put the mushrooms here and you’ve got to go and find the mushrooms. It’s a tough hypothesis. Terence Mckenna even believed that the chimp brain developed into the human brain because chimps started eating mushrooms in the rift valley.
When I started my PHD I was looking at serotonin receptors in the brains of rats to explain how antidepressants work. Serotonin receptors are really important. There are 14 of them and this one is the most interesting one because it changes mental flexibility. I think its there to allow the brain to learn from major experiences.
"I’m sure that within ten years psilocybin will be an accepted alternative treatment for depression."
David Nutt on illicit substances being used for treatment with mental health issues
I feel that people like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary to some extent have really damaged the discussion around drugs. I don’t mean that they’re bad people, or even bad scientists, but they’ve taken the pragmatism out of the discussion.
Exactly, and that’s what I’m putting back in. My role is to be the scientist of psychedelics. I’m a psychiatrist, I treat people and try to heal people. I’m a neuroscientist, I try to understand the brain. Psychedelics bring those two worlds together in a way that nothing else does. This is the first time I’ve been able to target a receptor to find not only wonderful insights into neuroscience but also insights that can change people’s lives. It’s a real privilege to be in this position.
Have you taken psychedelics?
I don’t answer that question because whatever I say I will be vilified for it.
Through all this research and investigation, has there been a discussion or will there be a discussion with pharmaceutical companies?
That’s an excellent question. Psychedelics are of very little interest to pharma companies because you only take them once. A single dose can cure you. We’re thinking for depression maybe three times a year you will go on a retreat and have this experience. But you would use very low doses so unless they were really expensive, companies wouldn’t be interested. The other thing of course is that they are illegal. The regulatory burden of trying to develop a drug that is illegal is massive, it adds tenfold to the price, so then it becomes the question of, will it ever be cost effective? It may turn out that you can get the good effects without the psychedelic effects. If a drug turns out to do that then a big pharma company would be very interested. I’ve talked to one company that I know has made some interesting LSD like compounds for other purposes and I’ve tried to persuade them, but the higher levels have just said no.
All original images of David Nutt by yevkazannik.com
It’s a book about the future of psychiatry, and psychology, and humanity. It lays out a pattern of potentially how humanity could actually use a rational knowledge of science to improve human life.
He was one of the very first human experimentalists. He tried to understand the regulation of the human body by taking a lot of drugs himself, sometimes when he was nearly dead. I am a believer that scientists should try to engage in what they do. I’ve been in situations myself where I’ve messed with my brain to the point where I’ve wondered if I’m going to survive, in experimental situations, throwing up all night for instance. Haldane was great thinking scientist.
Saunton Sands in North Devon
Wonderful sand dunes, an enormous beach, beautiful surf. I think it’s probably where I’ll have my ashes scattered.