A few privately funded studies of these compounds have yielded tantalizing hints that some of these ideas merit consideration. Yet doing this research through standard channels, as psychopharmacologist David J. Nutt of Imperial College London and his co-authors noted in a recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, requires traversing a daunting bureaucratic labyrinth that can dissuade even the most committed investigator. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) It can take years to receive approval for a clinical trial from both regulators and hospital ethics committees, even while tallying thousands of dollars in licensing fees and tens of thousands to obtain drugs that are, of course, unavailable from a chemical supply catalogue.
The endless obstructions have resulted in an almost complete halt in research on Schedule I drugs. This is a shame. The U.S. government should move these drugs to the less strict Schedule II classification. Such a move would not lead to decriminalization of these potentially dangerous drugs—Schedule II also includes cocaine, opium and methamphetamine, after all—but it would make it much easier for clinical researchers to study their effects.
If some of the obstacles to research can be overcome, it may be possible to finally detach research on psychoactive chemicals from the hyperbolic rhetoric that is a legacy of the war on drugs. Only then will it be possible to judge whether LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and other highly regulated compounds—subjected to the gauntlet of clinical testing for safety and efficacy—can actually yield effective new treatments for devastating psychiatric illnesses.