In 1971 then-US President Richard Nixon famously declared war on drugs, naming drug abuse ‘public enemy number one’. That war’s now been raging for more than 45 years at an estimated cost of over $1 trillion USD.
However, throughout that time scientists have continuously fraternised with the enemy, conducting research into potential health and medicinal benefits of certain drugs and other psychoactive substances.
With the recent spate of legalisation of cannabis across the US (it’s now legal for medicinal use across 32 states and Washington, DC) and the UK (cannabis was recently legalised for medicinal use following the high-profile cases of several severely epileptic children) a rising number of governments are starting to take medicinal properties of these substances more seriously.
I’ll start off with taking a look at cannabis following its success, before moving onto the medicinal benefits of other substances traditionally seen as a scourge on society.
According to the US National Institute of Health, people have used the marijuana plant to treat their ailments for over 3,000 years. Today, it’s being used to treat chronic pain, muscle spasms and epilepsy.
3,000 years later, GW Pharmaceuticals recently won the first FDA approval for a marijuana plant-derived drug this year. Epidiolex, as it is known, is used to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut or Dravet Syndrome in patients older than 2 years old. These are rare, difficult to control, forms of epilepsy.
The drug uses cannabidiol (CBD) as the active ingredient which doesn’t provide the ‘high’ usually associated with marijuana. That comes from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which also has medicinal benefits but also has psychoactive side effects.
Research into the use of cannabis and the marijuana plant is by far the most advanced, with medicinal (and even recreational) use of the drug becoming more widespread in various countries around the world.
Coca Leaf Extract (Cocaine)
Coca leaves were thought to originate in the amazon rainforest before spreading to the Andes. The leaves were used by indigenous tribes as a stimulant – a source of energy and a way to increase heart rate in the high-altitude mountains.
Fast forward to 1850 and cocaine was first used as medicine when scientists noticed a numbing effect when the leaves were rubbed on the tongue. This was then developed as being useful in eye surgery as the alternative anaesthetics available at the time, ether and chloroform, made patients vomit.
And, if you weren’t aware, it’s very difficult to operate on the eyes of a vomiting patient without causing serious damage. This meant, pre-coca anaesthetic, patients were having cataract surgery without any anaesthetic.
Enthusiasm waned for its’ medicinal use when overdose deaths became more widespread on the operating table and it became evident that, in powdered or crystal form, it was a highly addictive and potent substance.
In today’s clinical setting, cocaine is still used in highly regulated environments as a topical anaesthetic. When applied to skin, there are few other substances that share its’ anaesthetic and vasoconstricting properties.
Traditionally associated with the ‘party drug’ ecstasy, MDMA was first developed by a German pharmaceutical company in 1912 as a parent compound to synthesize medications that control bleeding.
The drug gained a small following from psychiatrists in the 70’s and 80’s as some believed that the effect of the drug enhanced communication and gave patients the ability to achieve insight into their psychological problems.
MDMA has been classed as a Schedule 1 drug in the US since 1985. This is seen as the most dangerous of all drug classifications and have no currently accepted medical use. However, studies have been conducted into the psychological benefits of the substance.
In 1990, the FDA commissioned a study into the effects of the drug as an analgesic for terminally ill patients with no significant breakthroughs. More recently in 2011, the University of Birmingham conducted research into the effects of a modified version of MDMA being used to treat blood cancers. The study found that certain chemical compounds in MDMA had excellent cancer-beating properties, but the doses used in the study would have been fatal in humans.
Whilst there’s clearly a lot more research to be carried out, MDMA could have a part to play in the future treatment of leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring compound found in a variety of species of, often called ‘magic’, mushrooms.
The use of these plants for their psychotropic and hallucinogenic effects has been tracked back to Aztec times. It’s thought the mushrooms were used to induce a trance-like state which would make communication with the Gods easier.
Today research is being conducted into the benefits that these substances can have when treating a variety of conditions, including OCD, addiction and mood disorders.
So the question I have is, has the ‘war on drugs’ gone a step too far and allowed many people to overlook the benefits of these oft-derided substances? Perhaps the medicinal benefits of cannabis would have been embraced much earlier, improving the quality of life for many, many people if public sentiment wasn’t the way it is. Should political policy influence healthcare in this way, if benefits of some of these substances are undeniable?
It’s an interesting debate and one that, with sympathetic governments in place, could finally see ceasefire declared in the war on drugs.
Are you attracting the very best industry talent to your start-up? For expert advice on how to thrive in today’s life science talent market, watch CM Life Science's latest 30-minute webinar. Click to watch.
Small molecules are now able to target previously ‘undruggable’ conditions, such as cancers and neurological disorders, I discuss how we got here and what it means for the market. Click to read more.