On Tuesday, it was reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration approved the first ever U.S. clinical trial using psychotherapy along with the pure chemical MDMA to treat anxiety in people with life-threatening conditions. The research is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and will take place in Marin, Calif., in a psychologist's office rather than a hospital. Researchers hope the MDMA -- the pure chemical, not the street form Ecstacy or Molly, which often has other chemicals mixed in* -- will help those with life-threatening disease communicate with therapists (and unlike other psychedelics, MDMA does not cause hallucinations). This study is part of a turning point in the use of psychedelics in medical research.
Since the hippie journey to understand consciousness led by Timothy Leary, and the antics of musicians like the Grateful Dead, LSD and other psychedelic substances have gotten a bad rap. The subsequent war on drugs has made researching psychedelics extremely difficult and ruined the lives of many of Americans. But what do these drugs really do to you? What's the deal with psychedelics?
The tides are changing, and psychedelic drugs are the subjects of many new research efforts. For the first time ever, researchers at Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, scanned the brains of people who were on LSD to learn more about the drug’s brain effects. Studies are also being done on the potential benefits of treating PTSD with MDMA. A recent study from the Norwegian University for Science and Technology also suggests there may not be a link between doing psychedelic drugs and mental health problems.
In the study done by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, researchers looked at data from the U.S. National Health Survey (2008-2011), which includes health information for over 135,000 randomly selected adults, nearly 20,000 of them who use psychedelic substances. There was no significant evidence that those 20,000 were more likely to have mental health problems than the other roughly 115,000. "Drug experts consistently rank LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as much less harmful to the individual user and to society compared to alcohol and other controlled substances," said study co-author and neuroscientist Teri Krebs.
One of the authors Pål-Ørjan Johansen,a clinical psychologist, did state that the study did not "exclude the possibility that use of psychedelics might have a negative effect on mental health for some individuals or groups, perhaps counterbalanced at a population level by a positive effect on mental health in others."
There's more: Researchers at New York University have found that psilocybin, an active component of many species of "magic mushrooms,"can help terminally ill people cope with the psychological disturbances related to the end of a life. They also found some people even lived longer than expected. Researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine have found psilocybin treatments may be able to help alleviate drug and smoking addictions.
Of course, these studies are done with medical grade versions of these substances. In the case of the psilocybin trials, they’re often using a psilocybin concentrate, in a controlled environment. The researchers at Johns Hopkins, who published their study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, caution against do-it-yourself administered psilocybin methods to quit smoking."Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors,” author Dr. Matthew W. Johnson explained in a statement. “When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one’s life and spark motivation to change.”
So why have psychedelics remained taboo for so long? Certain evidence suggests drugs like LSD (or cocaine) can have negative effects on people already at high risk for mental health issues like schizophrenia, but there is no solid evidence that those drugs can create such conditions on their own.
Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D., a clinical research scientist for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, told me “the majority of studies claiming long-term adverse effects [of psychedelics] were animal studies conducted at dose ranges and regimens that were inappropriately high and frequent compared to typical human use.” He said even prescription drugs could have negative effects “when used improperly and in uncontrolled settings.”
Let's get rid of some common myths while we're at it. LSD does not stay stored in your spinal fluid for years. Dr. Gabor Maté, an expert on addiction, who wrote the book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” explains that psychedelics typically leave your system after a “very short period of time—gone within hours to a day.” That also dispels the myth that you can have an “acid flashback” because the drug is stored in your body. However, it should be understood that psychedelic experiences that come after a trip are typically related to the fact that “certain neural pathways tapping into deep traumatic but hidden memories can be activated by LSD,” Dr. Maté explained. “These experiences are rare and nonexistent in people who take psychedelics in the context of psychotherapy in clinical trials,” said Yazar-Klosinski.
It is thought that you are just rewiring your brain a little bit – the same way certain experiences alter your brain – and this rerouting can stick around for a while. That same rewiring can be beneficial, according to studies. A recent John Hopkins study suggested that adults with a history of psychedelics usage could have reduced suicidal thoughts over the course of a lifetime.
Much of the misinformation related to psychedelics was a result of the scare tactics used during the height of the war on drugs. The war on drugs also put all psychedelics into a Schedule 1 classification with the federal government, which means they are thought to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Heroin and Quaaludes are in the same classification. The Schedule 1 classification hampered the drive to see if there were any useful applications for psychedelics.
Yazar-Klosinski said the myth that psychedelics can “create an experimental model of psychosis that could be used to study psychotic symptoms” has spread.
“Most likely because of this myth, most psychedelics are now Schedule 1 controlled substances,” Yazar-Klosinki continued. He explained that classification has prevented “investigations to prove or disprove many myths surrounding psychedelics” for a long time.
There is mounting evidence that there may be medical uses for psychedelics, and researchers are continuing to study the substances, despite its Schedule 1 status. That's not to say everyone should be dropping acid every day to open their minds, but we may find clinical purposes that could become more common and accepted. See you at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
*this post was changed to reflect that Ecstasy and Molly are street forms with other chemicals mixed.