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QED: Coming to your chemist: heroin, LSD, Ecstasy...
Many of today's banned drugs - once hailed as medical miracles - are starting to emerge from counter-culture notoriety, as doctors dust off old research into their potential benefits. Robert Matthews reports
When the film version of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting came out in 1995, its portrayal of an addict singing the praises of heroin was condemned by some as glorification of drug abuse. Anyone who has seen the film will know it is hardly a promotional video for junkies. Even so, the results of the United Nations survey published last week suggest that there is no shortage of people living out Welsh's novel in real life. According to the survey, the UK has the third highest number of heroin and Ecstasy users in Europe, and tops the table for amphetamine use.
The mandatory hand-wringing and outrage that follow such statistics hide a few awkward facts about drug addiction. First, many people use such drugs on a regular basis with no apparent ill-effects. Indeed, some great minds appear to have positively benefited from their habit, notably the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, famed for his unique combination of originality and sheer output. By the time of his death in 1996, he had written or co-written almost 1,500 papers with almost 500 collaborators. Only after his death did it become clear that he spent the last 40 years of his life propelled by amphetamines.
Oddly enough, many of today's banned drugs were once hailed as medical miracles. What we now call heroin was first made by the English chemist C R Wright in 1874, and then commercialised by the German company Bayer in 1898 as – of all things – a cough remedy. Tests suggested it was both powerful and safe, and when some patients claimed it made them feel positively heroic, it didn't take the marketing department long to come up with a brand-name.
Initially, heroin seemed to be a breakthrough in the search for a replacement for the notoriously addictive morphine. Yet within a few years, reports emerged of patients becoming tolerant of ever higher doses of the stuff. Doctors in America claimed the drug was being used recreationally with disastrous results. In 1913, Bayer ended production, and the drug was outlawed shortly afterwards.
It has been a similar story with many other drugs. MDMA – better known as Ecstasy – was originally developed in 1912 as an appetite suppressant. During the 1950s, the ability of the drug to reduce anxiety and boost feelings of empathy led some psychotherapists to use it with patients during counselling. It may be no coincidence that the use of MDMA reached almost epidemic proportions among young people during the "fill-yer-boots" 1990s. When reports of deaths began to emerge, a ban on possession and supply swiftly followed.
Even the notorious drug of choice of 1960s hippies, D-lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, was once thought to have huge medical potential. Created by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz in 1943, its powerful hallucinogenic effects initially led many doctors to regard LSD as insanity in pill form. Yet some insisted the drug brought relief to patients with a wide range of conditions from alcoholism to schizophrenia. Among those advocating the therapeutic use of LSD was the Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. His academic work was soon overshadowed by his famous call in 1966 to students to "turn on, tune in and drop out", giving LSD a reputation that ensured its prohibition shortly afterwards.
Yet now it seems LSD and several other banned drugs are starting to emerge from counter-culture notoriety, as doctors dust off old research into their potential benefits. Last month, New Scientist reported that several medical scientists in the United States are setting up clinical trials in which patients will be given special permission to take the proscribed drugs for a variety of conditions.
Dr Michael Mithoefer, an expert on Ecstasy based in South Carolina, has begun a study to find out if the drug can help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, Prof John Halpern at Harvard University has been given approval by the US Food and Drug Administration for a study of whether cancer patients suffering from anxiety can benefit from moderate levels of Ecstasy – below those suspected to cause brain damage in regular users. Prof Halpern also plans to study the effects of LSD on – of all things – drug addiction.
After reviewing dozens of studies carried out decades ago, he uncovered hints that hallucinogenic compounds like LSD can reduce the cravings felt by drug addicts for weeks on end.
No one knows why the drugs might have this effect. Even so, the prospect that they might help those trapped in the world of Trainspotting is, as the late Dr Leary would doubtless have put it, mind-blowing.