Australian government backs psychedelic drug clinical trials to treat mental illness

$15m grant comes despite TGA’s failure to reschedule MDMA and psilocybin from a prohibited substance to a controlled medicine

The use of magic mushrooms, ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs to treat mental illnesses, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, may be a step closer in Australia, with clinical trials given a $15m grant.

Despite international evidence suggesting the medicinal effectiveness of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions, the Australian Therapeutic Drug Association last month made an interim decision against rescheduling MDMA and psilocybin from a prohibited substance (schedule 9) to a controlled medicine (schedule 8).

The reclassification would have allowed them to be used in clinical therapy for treatment-resistant patients suffering from depression, PTSD and other debilitating mental illnesses.

So why, on the one hand, is the government looking to fund research into the medicinal uses of these drugs while the TGA has refused to reclassify them for use in clinical settings?

Dr Nicole Lee, professor at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, said that while international trials have looked into the safety and impacts of these kinds of drugs on users, we still need to conduct research into whether psychedelic drugs are more effective than existing treatments, work that Australia could pioneer with this funding for large-scale clinical trials.

“When the TGA looks at this, or I look at this, there needs to be those clinical trials in place so we can be sure that these are actual medications that are going to be effective before we reschedule them for use.”

The Mental Illness Grant Opportunity, announced on Wednesday, represents a marked departure from the government’s prohibitionist approach to drug use.

Lee said the funding could help Australia catch up internationally in this field of research.

“Australia used to be leaders in the world when it came to drug and alcohol policy, but in the last 10 to 15 years we’ve slipped back to a zero-tolerance, prohibition approach and we are way behind the rest of the world, who are decriminalising and revolutionising these types of drugs,” Lee told Guardian Australia.

“The sector itself, the research and clinical practice, is really underfunded compared to other areas, so it’s hard to move it forward. It’s one of those things where, because there is a stigma around illicit drug use, it’s easy to cut funding or not increase funding because there is community stigma around it.”

Tania de Jong AM, co-founder and executive director of mental health charity Mind Medicine Australia, said it was time for Australia to move beyond the stigma and prejudice from the past.

“Australians are suffering and dying and these treatments offer an opportunity for true healing ... We need to put aside the politics from 50 years ago and start putting people’s lives first,” she said.

It is estimated that four million Australians suffer from a mental health disorder every year, and almost half of all Australians will be affected by mental illness during their lifetime.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting more than 14% of adults each year, along with depression and substance abuse disorders. Up to 12% of Australians experience PTSD during their lifetime, evidence suggests.

Researchers say this funding represents an opportunity for Australia to develop revolutionary treatments that will not only be more effective at curing some mental illnesses, but won’t see patients becoming over-reliant on medication.

Dr Arthur Christopoulos, dean of Monash University’s faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, said the government had realised the “achilles heel to treating the mental health tsunami is the lack of truly new and effective medicines to treat mental illness”.

“Every single psychiatric drug on the market is based on research that is at least 50 years old,” said Christopoulos, who specialises in drug discovery and neuropharmacology.

“We have had enormous advances in the destigmatisation of mental illness, in support systems, in mental health advocacy, but there have been effectively zero new additional therapies.”

Unlike existing medications, such as antidepressants – which have to be taken for a long time to be effective, can be difficult to wean off, and can cause unwanted side effects – psilocybin and MDMA are fast-acting treatments that may only need to be taken three times over a couple of months under clinical supervision to be effective.

Whereas the success rate of existing medications to treat psychiatric conditions is around 30% to 40%, small international trials using psilocybin and MDMA to treat depression and PTSD have found remission rates ranging from 60% to 80%.

“We have evidence that it’s working and we don’t know how, so we are going to take the lead in doing proper trials at scale with something that can change the way you treat mental illness with medicines,” Christopoulos added.

While the government’s funding gives hope for new psychiatric illness treatments, Lee said anyone struggling with mental health shouldn’t wait and should access treatments available now.

“This is a great intuitive and another string in our bow but this research doesn’t negate all the other great treatments that we’ve already got,” she said.

• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636


Justine Landis-Hanley

The GuardianTramp

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