David Nutt, Chief Research Officer at Awakn, on the prohibition and potential of psychedelics


Professor David Nutt is the Chief Research Officer at Awakn Life SciencesA former Director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit at Imperial College London, Professor Nutt performed the first MRI scan on a human brain that was under the influence of LSD, and previously advised the UK government on drug policy. 

Nutt spoke on The Andy Rowe Show about the potential benefits of psychedelic medicines, including MDMA, LSD and psilocybin. The full conversation can be listened to via Spotify. 

With regards to MDMA, Nutt discussed the compound’s high safety profile, its origins in popular culture and the transition from MDMA to ecstasy. 

‘The reality is that more people die from horse riding than they do from ecstasy,’ declared Nutt. ‘Originally when MDMA was rediscovered in 1960 by Alexander Shulgin, he said that it was a more special kind of amphetamine than other drugs he tested, with more warmth and more clarity of insight. He introduced it to his wife, who was a psychotherapist, and she said, “Wow, this is amazing! This will be very helpful for couples whose relationships are breaking down’’, as happens over time as you grow layers of hostility. They used it, and many therapists used it, and they called it empathy. It was legal and it was fine. 

‘When the rave scene and the club owners realised it was a legal amphetamine, they started selling it and changed the name, from empathy to ecstasy. Ecstasy was initially MDMA, but has since been corrupted because, due to attempts to stop MDMA production, people started putting other things in it, like PMA… a lot of the ones still being sold now are strong, in fact are very strong MDMA.

‘The rave scene was remarkable because the police loved it. For the first time, young people were not using alcohol, the police were going to raves and would be hugged, instead of beaten up. Everyone was happy with the raves except for the media… they created hysteria and goaded politicians. The politicians did what the media told them because they thought they could win votes by banning it.’

Moving the conversation to other tryptamines, Rowe switched the discussion to the classic psychedelic compound LSD. Nutt explained:

‘When LSD was discovered in 1943 and made available in the fifties to researchers, it was seen as a revolution in psychiatry and revolution in neuroscience – it was going to open up consciousness and all sorts of mental processes. In the 1950s and 1960s it was shown to be the most effective drug we have ever had to treat alcoholism. 

‘Six trials with LSD, one or two doses, showed LSD to be twice as effective as the best treatment we have today. It has been banned since 1967, fifty years, and why was LSD banned? It was banned because some of the anti-Vietnam War protesters in America took LSD. The government didn’t know what to do with the anti-war protestors and it associated them with LSD. It didn’t like the fact that music was changing, going from Buddy Holly to the Grateful Dead. LSD was changing everything, and it was terrified that all young people would be anti-war, anti-establishment and anti the American way of life. So they decided to ban the drug, thinking that would stop its use.

‘Of course, it didn’t stop its use at all. It stopped doctors like me using it. I have estimated that since LSD was banned, over 100 million people have died prematurely from alcohol use – over two million a year. If LSD had only helped ten per cent of them, that is ten million lives saved. The disproportionate loss to medicine is so much greater than the gain from protecting people from LSD. I think it is the greatest censorship of medicine that there has ever been.

‘If you take LSD on the edge of a cliff, it can be dangerous. If you take it in a therapeutic setting, the harm is trivial. Forty thousand patients were treated with LSD in the 1950s and 1960s – they had lower rates of suicide than people who weren’t treated, and they had lower rates of psychosis than people who weren’t treated.’ 

Rowe asked Nutt if LSD had been used to treat depression, which provided the researcher with the opportunity to discuss the trials he has conducted with psilocybin.

‘We have done two big trials with psilocybin into depression, and a group at Johns Hopkins has done the same, so there have been three trials which show the very powerful effects of psilocybin to treat depression.

‘If you’re interested in the use of psychedelics to treat depression, then go to the BBC iPlayer – there is an hour-long documentary where they have followed patients who have been in our trial all the way through the treatment and they give extremely beautiful descriptions on the impact psilocybin has had on their depression. It is very moving and I recommend everyone who is interested to watch it.’

The documentary referenced is entitled The Psychedelic Drug Trial and was conducted by Professor Nutt, Dr Carhart-Harris, Dr Watts and their team at Imperial College London. UK residents can watch the documentary through BBC iPlayer.

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