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Studying The Effects of Drugs on the Brain: A Possible Route to Drug Recovery?

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Recently, The Guardian has been the host of a conversation between scientists and the British government. The talk concerns researchers’ rights to study the effects of psychodelic drugs on the human brain. Why do scientists want so desperately to do this, and why is the government making it so difficult to do so?

The foremost objective of studying the brain while on illicit drugs is to understand it: to better comprehend how exactly drugs alter the brain’s chemistry. More evidence-based knowledge could be useful outside of the laboratory: it could be used to treat mental illness and to inform drug rehab programmes and other treatments for drug and alcohol users.

The British government stands in the way. Because of drug categorisation, described as arbitrary, illicit drugs such as LSD and cannabis are extremely difficult to use as subjects in a human study. There are expensive licences that scientists must procure, in addition to the negative stigma that could fall upon a lab that chooses to study ‘party drugs.’ In the 1950s and 60s, the laws were relaxed and scientists could more easily study the effects of drug use. With this freedom, scientists discovered that LSD might be one possible treatment for alcohol abuse – for better or worse though, they haven’t been able to organize more studies since LSD was outlawed on a global scale in the 1970s.

Scientists argue that now, because of more advanced imaging devices, results from studies of illicit drugs will be conclusive and revelatory. Certainly, this is difficult to argue with – technology affords science greater discoveries each decade. But I think this conversation’s core problem is the complete disregard for the person (the addict) at hand; hard science-based research will result in hard science-based conclusions, and a focus on drug recovery that treats drug abuse with more drugs. Scientific research often does not allow for a holistic understanding of substance abuse, and will not guarantee a drug rehab programme that addresses all the needs – emotional, mental and physical – of a recovering addict.

Though the conversation is interesting, I think in terms of drug recovery and the rehabilitation of a substance abuser, the exchange is misguided.

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