In what is absolutely a sign that the new interest in psychedelic drugs has landed on the other side of The Pond, a new commercial facility has opened for trials in London.
Clerkenwell Health, a British start-up, will begin trials of psilocybin to help terminal patients manage the anxiety caused by this kind of diagnosis starting in August. The intent is to support trial participants through the end of palliative care. The facility will be located near Harley Street—a famed address globally for attracting doctors and firms offering state-of-the-art medical treatments and therapies. The firm will be working in cooperation with North American firms in both Canada and the United States which focus on treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
The move is not unexpected and indeed is likely to be just the next step in a widely anticipated trend. Biotech firms of all kinds, including for psychedelics starting with cannabis, have been eyeing the U.K., post-Brexit, as a haven for this kind of experimental research. This is because Britain is no longer bound by the rules and regulations of the European Medicines Agency and other regulatory bodies necessary to approve such research on a regional basis.
Beyond this, of course, other psychedelic drugs—and psilocybin in particular—are beginning to have a new renaissance in the research community globally. It is undeniable that this is due, in part, to cannabis reform. In many ways it is the ending of Prohibition globally, more than Brexit, which has opened these doors.
Regardless, there is great interest now in exploring all kinds of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions ranging from mood disorders and PTSD to addiction.
The policies of the War on Drugs made research of all of them highly challenging. Getting both approvals and funding was next to impossible everywhere. Indeed, the only reason that Israel developed into a hub of cannabis research is that the U.S. was willing to fund research overseas that was specifically banned at home.
The Great Irony About British Psychedelic Research
As much as this development is certainly a step forward for this kind of treatment, there are multiple ironies present. The first is that the most widely used psychedelic drug involved in such reform discussions—namely cannabis—remains an illegal substance in the U.K. Further, despite efforts on the part of advocates, which at this point include the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recreational legalization has caused a backlash in his own party.
As a result, widespread medical reform is in a strange place here. Despite the U.K. being the largest exporter of medical cannabis in the world, legal access to cannabinoid-based medicine is still out of reach for the average British patient.
It may well be that the first recreational reform in Britain will happen first, if not even more ironically, just off its coast.
Where Drug Reform Is Headed in the U.K.
Given the political climate, it is clear that drug reform politically in the U.K. is not following science but rather profit. GW Pharmaceuticals led the commercial development of cannabis-based drugs outside of Israel for almost 20 years. During this time, the company’s drugs treated more global patients than domestic ones. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why the entire medical cannabis discussion became so heated over the last several years. When GW’s drugs did not work even on children, parents had to import alternatives from abroad.
Tragically, the current divisions in the Labour Party over drug reform will probably split the party, causing the need for a partisan discussion about drug reform, but also slowing it down even further.
That matters little to biotech firms now eyeing a regulatory environment outside of global norms and regulations and a whole new class of drugs to develop and roll out.
There clearly needs to be a general fast forward on these kinds of drugs and the U.K. is poised to be a center of that. But if the British insist on being the Island of Dr. Moreau for the benefit of a few firms, and to the detriment of the vast majority of its citizens, there is nothing to stop them.