October 22, 2021 - 3:45pm

In one of the stranger moments in the Commons this month (even year), Crispin Blunt — the decidedly un-dreadlocked Conservative MP for Reigate — urged Boris Johnson in PMQs this week to “cut through” legal restrictions on psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to enable further research on its “exciting potential” for “depression, trauma and addiction”.  

Johnson responded that he’d consider a coming round of regulatory advice and get back “as soon as possible”. 

It’s not the first time psychedelic reform has been raised in the Commons. But it’s certainly the most momentous. 

This is, after all, a High Tory (sorry) making a push for drug reform that has strikingly cross-partisan appeal. The All-Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, for example, of which Blunt is Co-Chair, draws together the likes of Caroline Lucas, Neil Kinnock, the SNP’s Alison Thewliss, and Labour’s Jeff Smith; others like David Lammy, Norman Lamb and even Nigel Farage have expressed support for change too. Their reasons may differ (libertarian anti-statism, harm reduction [as with Scotland’s concerning opioid overdose problem], and economic opportunity post-pandemic), but political momentum is gathering, albeit slowly.

So how did we get here? As some readers may have encountered, psychedelic drugs have shown (what’s usually called) ‘great promise’ in clinical trials for various mental health conditions. While led largely from the States, the UK’s own ‘psychedelic renaissance’ is powered through Imperial College London and King’s, which are currently recruiting for studies on psilocybin’s capacity for treating anorexia and depression. Also involved are influential dedicated think tanks like the Beckley Foundation and Drug Science, advocacy groups, and an active underground with surprising variety. It is therefore a potential boon for de rigueur mental health concerns. 

But for all their promise, the problem for psychedelics is predictably legal. The drugs are all Class-A and Schedule-1-listed by regulators, which requires researchers to obtain costly ‘product licenses’ to do psychedelic work. 

That Johnson couldn’t put a name to psilocybin yesterday — “controlled drugs such as, uh, the one he describes” — may suggest his ‘sign-off’ was another soon-made-soon-forgotten promise the PM is fond of making. Kit Malthouse remembered the name, but any “hallucinogenic compound”, he underlined, wouldn’t be mass-available for anyone soon without more serious research. This has dampened enthusiasm that anything will happen any time soon.

The emphasis on ‘more research’ creates a kind of Catch-22: on the one hand, regulators and the government want more credible papers, and on the other they’re damming the workflows that get them out. For all the expense and red tape associated with Schedule-1 treatment, the Home Office has previously-clarified there’s no need to make any change. 

Indeed, while the British public doesn’t yet seem ready to countenance broader change — 43% of Brits polled in 2018 believe that anyone who’s ever taken magic mushrooms should be restricted from office — just over half of Tories and three-fifths of Labour and Lib Dem voters would support re-scheduling, according to YouGov polls from earlier this year. Even strongly-prohibitionist publications like The Daily Mail have shown sympathy to psychedelic therapy. 

Again, as with cannabis, there may be an ‘Alfie’ moment for psilocybin that accelerates the process: certain exceptional cases, like veterans afflicted with PTSD or terminal cancer patients facing death anxiety, may be afforded legal loopholes for treatment and build further legitimacy. It’s hard to see how the government could stand in their way. 

With the government seeking to expand Britain’s £80 billion life sciences sector after Covid-19 — however odd it sounds — the British psychedelic sector promoted by Blunt may not be too far off. 

Ed Prideaux is a freelance journalist and MSc Psychology student.