Medical MDMA: Radical but reasonable

Recently, British regulators and lawmakers have started to acknowledge the health benefits of certain, previously banned, substances. Cannabidiol (one of the chemical constituents of cannabis but with virtually all of the stuff that gets you high – THC – removed) has been legal since 2017. As of the first of this month, doctors have been able to prescribe cannabis-based products for medical use.

These are moves in the right direction. Cannabidiol has been shown to have anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory and anti-pain benefits. As the evidence currently stands, it seems to have less harmful side effects than many of the medicines already used to treat such problems (e.g mainstream anti-depressants and opiates).

Other, currently illegal drugs have started to show promise too – especially for helping people with mental health problems. Small doses of LSD and magic mushrooms appear to have very much the same effect as antidepressants, but with fewer side effects.

I’ve seen the drugs-related discussion in the Liberal Democrats largely centre on principles of bodily autonomy and whether the government has much business in policing what adults can choose to do with their time, money and bodies.

But in doing this we overlook a much more important reason to support the legislation and regulation of certain types of drugs. As a party serious about mental health and serious about evidence-based policy we should be at the forefront of the case for the medical applications of ecstasy and magic mushrooms. At the very least we should be pushing for more research into the effects.

There has been a long established body of evidence to suggest that MDMA helps people suffering from addiction and PTSD. MDMA releases serotonin and dopamine, thus helping the brain overcome anxiety and a new study shows that it can help men overcome breaches of trust.

In a recent article for the Independent, Professor David Nutt talks about how when MDMA was first discovered it was called “empathy” rather than “ecstasy” and was used in psychotherapy and couples counselling. It was much later that it took off in the dance scene and it was only then that calls to ban it began. As is the way with such things, these calls were met by governments despite protestations from therapists.

If you haven’t heard of David Nutt he is a professor of neuropsychopharmacology who gained a degree of notoriety when he was fired from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for questioning the Labour government’s stance on drugs and telling people that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy. In his book Drugs Without the Hot Air he says “I came to the conclusion that the Misuse of Drugs Act is no longer fit for purpose and needed to be thoroughly revised. The crucial point is that I changed my mind. Being willing to change our minds in the light of new evidence is essential to rational policy-making. As long as our politicians refuse to consider any framework other than prohibition and criminalisation, then science and evidence will be considered dangerous and those who champion them will be sidelined and even sacked.”

As Lib Dems we should be listening more to voices like David Nutt and others who make it their life’s work to champion true and unpopular ideas. With that in mind, if you’re free next Saturday (the 8th) you should attend the ASI’s Forum. It’s an all-day conference in London dedicated to underappreciated ideas and David Nutt is delivering the keynote speech.

* Aria Babu lives in London and is on the Board of Liberal Reform.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thank you Aria for an excellent article. I support a radical reform of our drugs laws for bodily autonomy and medical reasons. When we have over 6000 people per year committing suicide in this country (making it a far bigger killer than terrorism for example), we shouldn’t be limiting any potentially effective treatments for mental health issues. At the moment, the law in this country makes effective clinical research almost impossible.

  • Darryl Bickler 2nd Dec '18 - 9:26pm

    It is absolutely vital to stop referring to drugs as illegal, Legality is a construct that applies to human action not substance. The distinction is everything okay we may not be immediately obvious to you, but you are in advertently recreating probationist binary objectifying Paradigm.

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