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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Science of Psychiatry: Making an Impact


This piece of research was taken from 'Research and psychiatry - making an impact'

Understanding recreational drugs: public, policy and psychopharmacology

Type of research
Basic, clinical
Recreational drugs, cannabis, psychosis
Impact on
Therapy type

Researchers from UCL have been investigating recreational drugs in an attempt to understand exactly which components of the drugs have which effects and why they affect people differently. Their work has influenced how these drugs are discussed by the public and policymakers across the world.

UCL’s Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit (CPU), led by Professor Val Curran, has been pioneering human research on the effects of major recreational drugs, including cannabis, ketamine and MDMA (ecstasy).

Cannabis contains around 100 unique ingredients known as cannabinoids. These cannabinoids have different effects on users, the most famous of which is THC as it’s the component that gets users high. The role of THC has been known for some time, but, in the largest study of its kind the CPU discovered that the second most abundant cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD) actually protects against the harmful amnesic and addiction-related effects of THC. However, not all forms of cannabis contain CBD. Whilst it is present in herbal and resin forms of cannabis it is almost absent in a commonly-used form known as skunk. This means that users of skunk are at much greater risk of suffering harm.

Cannabis is not the only drug studied by the CPU. They are also responsible for over 90% of all research on ketamine abuse and discovered that frequent use of the drug has been associated with both neurocognitive impairment and addiction. More than this, they also discovered that ketamine can produce physical harms such as ulcerative cystitis which damages the bladder to such an extent that users can need a bladder replacement.

The CPU’s innovative use of a laboratory at a rave music event led to the discovery of the ‘mid-week blues’ that followed acute use of MDMA. Since then the researchers have shown that longer-term effects of the drug, including brain function and altered mood, become reduced if not fully reversed, once users stop taking the drug.

Many of these research findings have been used to discuss and debate policy in the UK and abroad. In 2006 Prof Curran presented expert evidence about ketamine to the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and in 2012 Prof Curran joined the ACMD’s working group on a new review of the drug. At the same time the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) commissioned the researchers to write the Ketamine Review. Prof Curran was also asked to give evidence about new psychoactive substances to the All- Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform at the House of Lords. Internationally her evidence was used to guide proposed amendments to the US sentencing laws and in 2013 the Netherlands, using the research on THC and CBD, devised separate laws for high and low- potency THC cannabis.

The scientific advances have also been shared though public events and the national news media. In 2012, ‘Drugs Live: the ecstasy trial’ was funded and broadcast by Channel 4 based on Professor Curran’s live fMRI study of the effects of MDMA. Over two million people across the UK watched the two-part documentary, further prompting discussion including the biggest online debate of any programme on that channel to date.

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