The word “psychedelic” can inspire visions of the 1960s — hippies dancing in mud puddles at Woodstock and Grateful Dead groupies packed into Volkswagen buses. But psychedelics may not be as dangerous and addictive as our society thinks.
Many of the negative perceptions we have of psychedelics can be traced back to their prohibition in the 1970s, when The War on Drugs terminated all of the medical research being conducted on them.
Nearly half a century has passed since then, and psychedelic research is only beginning to surge again, but the evidence already suggests substances like LSD (acid), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA (ecstasy) may be able to treat mental health disorders and substance addiction better than what’s currently available. That is, if the law will allow it.
1. Inconsistencies in Drug Scheduling
All legal and illicit drugs are categorized into five groups, called schedules, which are based on available medical uses and potential for abuse. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “ schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” These drugs also have “no currently accepted medical use.”
LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA are all placed in schedule I; however, many psychedelic experts agree that these substances are not addictive and have a low potential for abuse. In fact, they may just be the total opposite.
“The curious property of psychedelics is that they’re anti-addictive,” Dr. James Fadiman, author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide from Santa Cruz, Calif. told Medical Daily. Fadiman has been researching psychedelics since the 1960s, and over the decades, he’s observed that the drugs are difficult to abuse because they are incapable of producing psychoactive effects when used in succession.
“You can take 100 micrograms of LSD, [a typical dose], on Monday and have an experience. Then if you take 100 micrograms on Tuesday, you’ll maybe get one tenth of that experience. Take 100 micrograms on Wednesday, [and you’ll get] no experience. Take even 1,000 micrograms on Thursday, zero experience. It’s as if your system says, ‘this is not appropriate!’”
Meanwhile, many drugs that are widely regarded as extremely addictive or dangerous are placed in less restrictive schedules than psychedelics. Cocaine, for example, has been ranked by a panel of addiction experts as one of the most addictive drugs, yet it is placed in schedule II, along with methamphetamine. And all the way down on schedule IV is Xanax, a highly addictive benzodiazepine frequently prescribed for anxiety disorders.
“I never, ever write a prescription for a benzodiazepine without telling the patient that they are addictive, and that there is a risk that they will become addicted,” Dr. Howard Forman, director of the Addiction Consultation Service at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, told Medical Daily. “My goal is not to have these people on medications for 50 years. Benzodiazepines are essential for the right patients, but it’s a heavy responsibility to prescribe them.”
So why are psychedelics classified as schedule I if they have a lower potential for abuse than some schedule II or IV drugs?
Terrence Boos, chief of the DEA’s Drug & Chemical Evaluation Section, told Medical Daily: “ They are placed there because they do not have a medical use,” adding that this has been supported by ongoing research. However, the DEA did not provide any details regarding this research during an interview with four of the agency’s members, nor did they respond to follow-up requests.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the research, told Medical Daily it would not make information regarding investigational new drugs available to the public.
Independent and small-scale research studies, however, have demonstrated that psychedelics can effectively treat mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Moreover, the research often indicates that psychedelics can be even more effective than the medicines that are currently prescribed.
For example, typical treatments for depression have been shown to fail in some instances among patients; but with psychedelics, they’ll respond well. In a study currently being conducted by the Beckley Foundation, 12 people with treatment-resistant depression were relieved from their symptoms for months after receiving just a single dose of psilocybin.
Antidepressants and benzodiazepines, the most common medications used to treat mental disorders, must also be taken daily, and often over the course of a lifetime. Psychedelics, on the other hand, make long-lasting, positive changes in the brain after as little as one dose.
In 2011, Johns Hopkins University discovered that a single dose of psilocybin could make people more open-minded for up to a year. And in April, research directed by the Beckley Foundation found that LSD creates more flexible patterns of thinking by increasing the communication between different brain networks.
This image compares a normal brain (left) to a brain under the influence of LSD (right). Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed LSD increases the connectivity between different brain regions. Photo Courtesy Leor Roseman (Beckley/Imperial)
“ Normally, a brain operates in a well-defined, organized manner, while still maintaining a degree of flexibility or adaptability,” Anna Ermakova, a science officer at the Beckley Foundation, explained to Medical Daily. “ Certain mental illnesses, such as depression, addiction, or obsessive-compulsive disorder are associated with inflexible or excessively organized patterns of activity. Psychedelics are thought to break down these organized patterns.”
The results of these studies may be promising, but because they aren’t FDA-sanctioned, they cannot be considered for rescheduling psychedelics. The FDA requires a series of approved studies to be conducted in order for a new prescription medicine to be developed. The last step alone, called a phase III clinical trial, requires anywhere between 300 and 3000 participants, and must last between one and four years.
MDMA is among the first schedule I drugs to be tested in a phase III trial; in 2017, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) will test the drug as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If it’s successful, the FDA may move to legalize MDMA-assisted therapy.
Past research has already shown that MDMA-assisted therapy — therapy sessions during which patients are administered a dose of MDMA — is a long-lasting, effective treatment for PTSD. Across a series of studies conducted by MAPS, 136 patients who all suffered from PTSD for an average of 19 years, and were unresponsive to typical treatments, found lasting results from just two MDMA-assisted therapy sessions.
The success rate was 83 percent, compared to just 10 to 20 percent for SSRIs, the class of antidepressants often used to treat PTSD. After four years, nearly all of the patients had remained PTSD-free, and those who relapsed were cured after a single additional MDMA-assisted therapy session.
Unlike the more classical psychedelics, MDMA does not produce hallucinogenic effects. Instead, MDMA makes you “become very aware of the feelings inside your body,” Brad Burge, director of communications and marketing for MAPS, told Medical Daily. Burge explained that MDMA suppresses activity in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for producing fear. This allows patients to be less fearful of recalling their painful memories during therapy.
MDMA also initiates the release of two hormones, oxytocin and prolactin, which can increase one’s sense of connection and trust, helping patients bond with their therapist more easily.
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