The benefits of psychedelics have become a hot topic across the world. Psilocybin, the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has become the leading star in the psychedelic renaissance, tipped as a radically successful treatment for a number of debilitating conditions, from drug-resistant depression to cluster headaches.
However, in the UK, research into the myriad of potential held by the compound is being stifled by legislation. Currently, psilocybin is classed as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has ‘no therapeutic value’ in the eyes of the law, even being deemed less useful than heroin. As a result, access to the compound by scientists can be incredibly challenging. To use and study Schedule 1 drugs, researchers first have to apply for a controlled drugs licence. Storage, use and record keeping are carefully controlled and monitored, creating a large amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that can hinder access, supply and progress. All of this additional admin not only creates a time cost but also increases the financial burden. According to one article, obtaining the license alone can cost anywhere between £3000 and £20,000 while the cost for licensed psilocybin can be up to £100,000 for a gram.
The Psilocybin Access Rights (#PAR) campaign hopes to capitalise on psilocybin’s watershed moment and improve patient access. The group has launched a petition on the official UK Parliament website, which calls on the Government to “reschedule psilocybin for medical research on untreatable conditions”.
The petition focuses on the mental health benefits of psilocybin, highlighting that antidepressant use in England has doubled over the last decade, and that a staggering 1 in every 10 pounds spent by the NHS is for mental health treatments. The petition also states “One single dose of psilocybin has been shown in studies to reduce the distress of those with terminal illness and treatment-resistant depression. No other intervention has been shown to have such significant long-term benefits after just a single exposure.”
This isn’t the first petition launched to reschedule or decriminalise psilocybin in the UK. Previous attempts have fallen woefully short of their target, but this time around, the campaign is gathering momentum. Timmy Davis is the Psilocybin Rescheduling Project Manager at the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) and is leading the project. He believes the people are already accessing psilocybin regardless of legality, and this is driving support for reform. “We know that there are increasing numbers of people looking to access, or breaking the law by already using, psilocybin and other psychedelics for medicinal purposes. We have launched the campaign to provide a platform for the voice of this public to be amplified and brought to the attention of policymakers. We have been quietly discussing the need for rescheduling within parliament too, we think it’s time to make some noise about it.”
We know that there are increasing numbers of people looking to access, or breaking the law by already using, psilocybin and other psychedelics for medicinal purposes… it’s time to make some noise about it.
Unlike cannabis, the campaign for greater access to psilocybin is generally well supported across academia and politics. In July 2022, a group of 15 leading psychiatrists signed an open letter to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, supporting the campaign for rescheduling. David Badcock is the Chief Executive of Drug Science, an independent scientific body on drug policy and drug research. He agrees that the rules are stifling progress. “The current scheduling of psilocybin has actually had a perversely harmful effect on research and clinical treatment, rather than reducing use and harms from a broader perspective. Placing psilocybin in Schedule 1 means it is deemed to be very harmful and has no medical value – we know that this simply isn’t true. Just like other banned drugs, psilocybin has huge potential to be a very effective treatment for life threatening conditions like Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety, and Treatment Resistant Depression.”
One of the most vocal politicians supporting psilocybin reform is the Chair and CEO of the CDPRG, MP Crispin Blunt. Often at the forefront of the discussion, in 2021 Blunt called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “cut through” barriers to research, claiming the then PM agreed in private to reschedule psilocybin and other psychedelic substances, however, this never came to light.
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt urges the prime minister to "cut through" barriers to research into psilocybin – the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms – which "has potential to help people suffering with depression, trauma and addiction"#PMQs https://t.co/txBJvNx4gp pic.twitter.com/yvq4ingdk4
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 20, 2021
Support amongst the public is also widespread. A 2021 YouGov poll asked 1,763 adults, representing all demographics, political leanings, and regions of the UK, questions about their thoughts on psilocybin-assisted therapy. The survey found that only 13% of respondents were against relaxing restrictions.
With 2.7 million people in the UK believed to be living with treatment-resistant depression, it is the personal testimonies from those who have benefited from psilocybin which provide the most compelling argument for rescheduling.
“After my first treatment, everything changed, and literally within the same day. The experience transformed the way I thought; it put a whole new perspective on things. I felt alive, joyous, wanting to engage with everyone, and everything… I felt about 40 years younger. I don’t just mean while having the experience, I mean afterwards.”
Michael Bourne, Imperial College Psilocybin Trial Participant
However, while psilocybin remains a Schedule 1 drug, testimonies like Michael’s remain rare. Similar to cannabis, psilocybin remains locked in a frustrating catch-22 position. The Government maintains its position that the drug should remain in its current schedule unless the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) suggest otherwise, and the MHRA maintains more research is needed. Research that is stifled by regulation and the Schedule 1 status of the drug.
Without change, research can’t move forward. “We hope that psilocybin and the other psychedelics with medical potential are moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the misuse of drugs regulations 2001 so that research can be more easily conducted by UK scientists,” Davis says. “The rescheduling would translate to increased and expedited knowledge of who psilocybin can help, how it can most effectively be used, and how it works, as well as reducing costs of bringing the drugs to market and raising the likelihood that these treatments can be accessed on the NHS.”
Ultimately, government inaction is leaving patients with a difficult choice: Break the law or continue to suffer. Signing the petition could solve this problem and change thousands of lives.
For more information on the Psilocybin Access Rights campaign visit https://www.par.global/