In 2008, Prof David Nutt was made chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. A year later, Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist, was sacked by the same government after insisting – I paraphrase minimally – that fags and booze were more dangerous than cannabis and ecstasy. Twelve years on, he is still clearly furious about it – not the sacking, but the lack of evidence-based thinking behind it. “I just couldn’t bear to mislead the public … their policies were so wrong,” he says in The Psychedelic Drug Trial (BBC Two). The hour-long documentary follows Nutt’s flagship study with Dr Robin Carhart-Harris into the possible uses of psilocybin (AKA magic mushrooms) as an alternative and potentially better treatment for depression than the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which are commonly prescribed.
For this double-blind trial, 59 carefully screened volunteers with long-term depression are divided into two groups. One group will be given two doses of psilocybin three weeks apart. The other will be treated with escitalopram, an SSRI. Everyone is closely supervised by medical staff and a clinical psychologist at all times. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Under normal conditions, there is nothing more boring than watching or hearing about other people getting high. But the programme-makers take care to mitigate this fact by introducing the participants in a relatively leisurely fashion, and establishing the profound sorrow and suffering they have endured. “I have to find a different way of living with this feeling of joylessness,” says Steve, after a quarter of a century of living with the condition and a decade on medication for it. Paediatric nurse Ali has been on antidepressants for 12 years despite multiple adverse side-effects, but since her best friend killed herself five years ago they have barely been enough to keep her afloat. If the trial doesn’t work it has crossed Ali’s own mind that “I would probably end my life”.
In addition, the participants who do take the psychedelic doses talk about their experiences so beautifully and with such yearning hope that it is wholly different from hearing a friend of a friend’s account of being the first person ever to trip in a field and realise the interconnectedness of all things. Instead, they talk in terms of having burdens lifted, of feeling happiness again, of being free of the obsessive ruminations that dominate and imprison the depressive mind. “It taught me I’m so much more than thought,” says the photographer and film-maker Matt. “I am separate to thought.” “There’s been a fundamental shift in me, that allowed more light in,” says Joe, once the trial has ended. There is a sense that, however vivid the colours of the cathedral Ali felt herself to be walking in, or how energetic the white birds Matt saw flapping in their cages, the experience on the drug was the closest they had come to normality in years. “Talking therapy helps you believe something to be true,” said Matt. “Psilocybin helps you know it.” They don’t talk with the zeal of converts, but with the relief of the damned who have been saved.
Watching the trial unfold is interesting, and the results suggestive of great potential but – like all but the very rarest of research endeavours – neither dramatic nor definitive enough to let us know that we must be witnessing the start of a revolution. By the end of the hour, then, you are left wishing that the wider issues at play had been done as much justice as the individual stories, personal insights and transformational moments.
The programme touched on the history of investigations into the therapeutic power of psychedelic drugs and how progress was paused for half a century when they became inextricably linked with the moral outrage attending their use in the 60s and criminalised thereafter. However, more context, further examples and a deeper examination of how the powers that be categorise substances and why would not have gone amiss. A look at how often societal prejudice trumps provable fact – or even the posing of questions such as whether there would be disadvantages to or a backlash against a drug that appeared to offer a short cut to mental health – would have been welcome. Would, for instance, that “cure” be as lasting, as “real” as that gained only through work with a therapist? Ultimately, issues such as this would have added weight and depth to what, though moving, felt in the end like a fairly lightweight film.