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War on drugs: the use of controlled substances in medicine

Infamously coined America’s ‘public enemy number one’ by President Nixon, are controlled substances a fundamental missing part of modern medicine? By Emma Gorton, Senior Director at Hanover Communications

On 17 June 1971, President Nixon declared drug abuse as America’s ‘public enemy number one’ and launched what has since become known as the ‘war on drugs'.

Controlled substances were from thereon positioned as a common enemy to unite people, and many argue that President Nixon used the war on drugs as a political tool to criminalise certain groups who were viewed as enemies of the Nixon administration.

Nixon’s war on drugs meant that all research into controlled substances’ efficacy on health conditions was halted. These substances were deemed the enemy and that was that.

Now, fifty years later in 2020, we are seeing a rise in the number of clinical trials investigating controlled substances for the treatment of medical conditions; medical conditions such as mental disorders which are now among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

Psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) has shown promise in treating a variety of difficult-to-treat health conditions such as depression and cancer-related anxiety. Ketamine has shown efficacy in the treatment of mental health conditions with the FDA approving a version of it, esketamine nasal spray, in March 2019 for treatment-resistant depression. Earlier this year, the FDA granted application for an Expanded Access Program for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And not forgetting cannabis, a drug which is booming and infiltrating all areas of health and wellness including skincare and beauty treatments. It has shown promise in mental health conditions, skin conditions and a cannabis-based medicine is now available on the NHS for the treatment of epilepsy.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us as in our earliest days as a species, we used controlled substances in a medicinal way. In shamanism, for example, psychedelics would be commonly administered for those with severe medical or psychological problems as part of healing ceremonies.

So why are we in the western world in 2020, only just kickstarting our research into these breakthrough substances now?

Nixon’s war on drugs certainly plays a role and has had a significant detrimental impact on the advancement of treatment for mental health conditions. If Nixon hadn’t launched his war on drugs back in the 70s, we would have an extra fifty years of research into controlled substances behind us and mental health conditions may  be better managed and treated. It is frightening how little we actually know about the brain and the war on drugs has contributed to this lack of progress.

Looking to the future, the rise of clinical trials in controlled substances is something to be optimistic about, however, bringing these medicines to market will have challenges. Most significantly, there are fifty years’ worth of bad reputation to contend with, so ultimately even if these substances are found to be efficacious there will be a huge need to change public perception and to ensure the correct policy is in place so patients can access the treatments. Our speciality of mix of communications, policy and market access at Hanover is designed to do just that.

15th April 2020


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