The Mainstreaming of Psychedelics

August 28, 2016

“What brings you to Canada?” the Border Patrol asked Dr. Michael Mithoefer in the spring of 2015. Mithoefer, a psychiatrist, and his wife Annie, a psychiatric nurse, are pioneers in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Mithoefer had been invited to Toronto to address the largest gathering of psychiatrists in the world—the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association—on the results of their research into treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using MDMA.

Needless to say, if there’s ever a time to avoid ruffling feathers with the mention of psychoactive substances, international border-crossing fits the bill. Mithoefer succinctly explained that he was presenting his PTSD research at the APA conference.

“PTSD? Did you know that researchers are using MDMA now to treat war veterans?” the border agent asked him incredulously.

Mithoefer recounts this story to me with delight after he arrives at the APA conference. It’s a sign of how much the times are changing: Not only is the famously old-fashioned APA hosting a panel on the use of psychedelics, but a recognition of their therapeutic value seems to be seeping into the public consciousness.

Minutes later, we notice that the tagline for this year’s conference embraces the concept of holistic medicine and sounds quite psychedelic: “Integrating body and mind, heart and soul.” The APA’s president. Dr. Paul Summergrad, even hosted a conversation with Ram Dass, the legendary spiritual teacher and psychedelic pioneer.

Formerly Richard Alpert, Ram Dass conducted research with Timothy Leary at Harvard in the 1960s, which spurred him to embark on his lifelong spiritual journey. But in the decades since the backlash against Leary’s countercultural incitement to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” psychedelics have been shunned by mainstream psychiatry.

So we were further amazed when, during his conversation with Ram Dass, Summergrad openly credited an early LSD trip with setting him on his life’s path in the field of psychiatry.

The mainstreaming of psychedelics, a goal often pronounced by Rick Doblin, PhD, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), seems to be well under way. MAPS is working toward that goal by developing medical, legal and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful use of psychedelics as well as cannabis.

Doblin founded MAPS 30 years ago, in 1986, right after MDMA was criminalized in the United States. Known at the time as “Adam,” MDMA was administered almost exclusively in therapeutic contexts when it first emerged in the 1970s.

Thousands of therapists used Adam in their work; it was especially popular for couples therapy and treating phobias. In 1983, a distribution network in Dallas decided to rebrand the drug as “Ecstasy” and target the club scene. Not surprisingly, MDMA has become increasingly popular ever since.

At the time, the War on Drugs was just beginning to escalate, and its accompanying mentality of fear and criminalization loomed large. When the Drug Enforcement Administration saw the growing use of MDMA, it immediately launched a campaign to make it a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, criminalizing its use and distribution. (A Schedule I substance is defined as one with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.” Other current Schedule I substances include cannabis, heroin, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline.)

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