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Overcoming Drug Propaganda to Lead Europe’s Largest Medical Cannabis Trial: A Q&A With Dr. Anne Katrin Schlag

A cannabis farm and a picture of Dr. Schlag
Credit: iStock & Dr. Schlag
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Anne Katrin Schlag, PhD, is a chartered psychologist and acting CEO at Drug Science, an advocacy group for drug research and policy. She has a longstanding passion for conducting drug research and working towards more sensible and effective drug laws and policies.

At Drug Science, Dr. Schlag leads the research for the Medical Cannabis Working Group and the Medical Psychedelics Working Group, publishing widely in both areas. She holds honorary senior fellowships at both Imperial College London and King’s College London.


Q: Why did you take an interest in science?

A: I think I’ve always had an interest in science. I’m generally just curious about how the world works, and then, within that, how the mind works. So that’s very fitting for the work I’m doing now. As a child, I was very interested in how people ended up in religious sects. How can their mind adjust to such a different reality, which, outside that, looks completely irrational? I just found it absolutely fascinating, the different realities we construct for ourselves. I think that has continued through my work as well.

Q: Was there any particular inspirational social sciences figure you took inspiration from?

A: No, I was just wanting to understand certain things, even at a very young age. It’s funny because I have a 10-year-old son who asks exactly the same questions that I asked at that time. “Why are some drugs legal and some drugs are not legal?” So, not much has changed in 30 years.

My other son asks, “How come some people become addicted, but most people don’t? Shouldn't it be the same for everybody?” I grew up a child of the ‘80s, where we had these “Just Say No” policies and posters. I remember them really vividly; huge billboards of a supposed heroin addict with a syringe in their arm, and “JUST SAY NO” underneath. Obviously, it was a scare tactic, and as a child, it scared me to an extent. It was harmful communication, which was around a lot in the ‘80s.

When I was younger, I always thought, “OK, who makes these decisions? What’s legal and what’s not legal?” Now, obviously, I know the answers, and a lot of it is not based on science. That’s why I’m still passionate about it.

We’re very much hoping that we’re moving things in a positive direction, away from the criminalization of drug use and users specifically, towards a regulation of drugs and for treating people who have problems with drug use within the healthcare system rather than within the criminal system alone. That is one our key principles; if somebody's addicted to a drug or has mental health issues, you don’t put them in prison, you try to do your best to help.

Q: What other work do you do at Drug Science?

A: Drug Science was started when Professor David Nutt, our chair and founder, was sacked from the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs [in 2009] because he essentially spoke the truth about drugs. He said that, really, when taking a lot of different harms into account, alcohol is much more damaging to the individual and to society than, for example, the consumption of magic mushrooms or MDMA. But the government did not want to hear that. So, he established Drug Science with the aim of telling the truth about drugs and not being influenced by the political agenda, which obviously the ACMD was and still is. This has always been our motto; whatever we do has to be based on the latest scientific evidence.

We know that existing drug policies, for the last 50 years in this Global War on Drugs, are doing more harm than good. They haven’t stopped people taking drugs. Quite the contrary, indeed, a lot of these drug policies are really causing more harm than good; they’re not working. Science says that again and again.

Our overall aim is to have drug use treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue. And then have drugs regulated according to the harm they cause, not according to some moral judgement made by some politicians quite a long time to go.

So, we have our medical cannabis working group. That’s legal here in the UK, since 2018, but still not really accessible on the National Healthcare Service. This is a big issue for patients, so we established Project Twenty21.

We now have over 4,000 patients on the project who are prescribed a broad variety of medical cannabis products at a reduced rate. Our job at Drug Science, as we see it, is to collect and analyze and then publicize the data [from these patients] in the peer-reviewed literature, as well as online and reports, to contribute to the scientific evidence base. This project is running in its fourth year; we hope it’s going to run another year, maybe longer, because that’s really the important thing in relation to managing cannabis to seeing any longitudinal effects, both positive as well as negative. Do they last, and how long do they last? Do the patients need to change the product? Do they need to change the dosage and route of administration? Or, if there are any negative effects, such as development of psychotic episodes or dependence, when do they occur? For whom do they occur?

There’s a lot of exciting work that we’re doing in that regard. And within that comes the education of doctors, healthcare providers, public politicians and decision makers. That’s a key aspect that we’ll be working on for next year, rather than preaching to the converted, basically.

And, similarly, we have a psychedelics’ working group. In the UK, we cannot legally prescribe psychedelics unless you’re in a clinical trial. We’re moving forward in the right direction in that, again, putting the research behind it by collaborating with patient groups with other charities, for example, lots of politicians across the political spectrum, which is the interesting thing. It’s not just a one-party thing; there are some good politicians out here. Things are changing, since, I guess, Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” book and Netflix documentary, and Prince Harry speaking out about taking ayahuasca. I’m not saying that any of this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think public perceptions are changing.

Q: When it comes to medical cannabis psychedelics, it seems that many of the conditions the drugs are sought to treat are more prevalent in women. And here in the UK, it seems most of the key, vocal advocates for medical cannabis access are women, too. Do you think this field of drug advocacy is a space that listens to women?

A: Absolutely. I mean, we have wonderful WhatsApp groups of women in cannabis, and there’s a lot of really exciting stuff happening.

There are quite a few things that patients are telling us cannabis helps, and that they much prefer to over-the-counter, prescribed medication – endometriosis, which affects only people born as female, the menopause or perimenopause, or pre-menstrual issues and so on. It’s these types of areas that are completely under-researched just because women were less involved as the lead researchers. Because of our potential for bearing children and so on, less women have traditionally been used as participants in research, too. There are plenty of studies which only use male mice as well, not female mice.

I think it’s great that we’re supporting women in these particular areas. Quite a few of the cannabis companies are led by women, and they are focusing specifically on these conditions that affect females, which is a great thing.

I took over the CEO role at Drug Science; I’m not head of research at the moment for various reasons. And I was in a recent cannabis meeting; it was 17 men and just another woman and myself, which doesn’t really reflect reality. All wonderful men, but how can it be that within the group of nearly 20 people, only 2 people are female?


Q: Well, with your new position at Drug Science and your work supporting research, it seems you’re part of the change.

A: Absolutely.

Dr. Anne Katrin Schlag was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, Science Writer and Editor for Technology Networks. 

This Q&A was originally published in Technology Networks' Women in Science: Inspiring the Next Generation eBook on February 9, 2024.