HMS will Give Ecstasy to Terminal Cancer Patients

the Harvard Crimson
January 5, 2005

HMS will Give Ecstasy to Terminal Cancer Patients


[MAPS comments and corrections, in brackets, by Ilsa Jerome]

More than 40 years after Harvard dismissed Timothy F. Leary for using undergraduates in his LSD experiments, Harvard scientists are reopening the door to psychedelic drug research.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a study looking at the potential therapeutic effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) – an illegal hallucinatory drug also known as Ecstasy – in terminally ill cancer patients at McLean Hospital, a major teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School (HMS).

[Many researchers place MDMA in a unique pharmacological class, the entactogens, and do not class it with other psychedelics.]

Until 2002, the FDA had not approved a study involving the therapeutic impact of psychedelic drugs since the 1970s. The Harvard study is the fourth such study to be approved in the past two yearsthe other studies examine the drugs potential salutary effects for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

[There appear to be several points of confusion concerning the history of FDA granting permission to conduct studies with entactogens and psychedelic drugs. The first such study to receive this permission or approval is the study of psilocybin in people with OCD, with permission granted May, 2001, followed by the study of MDMA in people with PTSD, granted in November 2001. The study of psilocybin in people with advanced-stage cancer was next given in October 2002, followed by permission for the study described in this report, on December 2004. This also means that the FDA approved two of these studies three years ago, and not two years ago. There is currently no study of MDMA in people with OCD; as noted above, that study involves giving people psilocybin, one of the major active ingredients in magic mushrooms.]

This has the potential to be the base to coordinate psychedelic research going on around the country, said Richard E. Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the organization sponsoring the Harvard study.

Normally, MDMA induces feelings of empathy, decreased anxiety, and decreased tension in users. It is this aspect which renders MDMA a potential therapeutic drug, according to John H. Halpern, associate director of substance abuse research at McLean Hospital and leader of the study.

Terminally ill cancer patients experience extreme anxiety due to their medical condition, said Halpern. In [a drug-induced] state, a person would be better able to talk about matters that are causing them to have an anxiety attack.

Halpern said MDMA has more therapeutic potential than other hallucinatory drugs because it rarely results in a bad trip.

MDMA, unlike traditional hallucinogens that can make a person lose their sense of self, lets a person keep their identity, said Halpern, who is also a HMS instructor of psychiatry.

Whats important, Doblin said, is how patients build a bridge from that experience into your daily life. Doblin, who is a graduate of Harvards Kennedy School of Government, said that MDMA has already helped patients. He cited his work with a friends father, who was dying of cancer in his 50s.

He was focusing all of his attention on the time that he didnt have, Doblin said. MDMA made him appreciate the time that he did have.

[Interested readers can find and read other anecdotal accounts of MDMA in people with cancer.]

Doblin stressed that MDMA is not a miracle drug.

It does not take you away from the pain, but rather through the pain, he said. You go through a more fluid emotional state.

According to Doblin, it was this unrealistic set of expectations that threw public opinion about psychedelic drugs wildly into disfavor in the 1960s, after the fiasco with Learys research at Harvard.

Socially, it swung too far in each direction, he said. I wish for a more moderate approach.

In 1963, Leary, then a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard, was dismissed along with then Assistant Professor of Clinicial Psychology Richard Alpert amidst a flurry of controversy involving their studies of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin mushrooms.

Doblin said that Learys dismissal effectively shut down psychedelic drug research.

Charles S. Grob, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, said that the Harvard study marks significant progress in the development of psychedelic drug research, although he maintains that there is still much to be done.

[Dr. Grob is also the principal investigator conducting the study of psilocybin in people with advanced stage cancer.]

Getting approval for the study is significant insofar as getting work going in the area, he said. Progress has been very slow and halting, because very few psychiatrists have expressed their interest in looking at this area.

Staff writer Risheng Xu may be reached

Read “Letter to Crimson from Leary, Alpert” Dec 13, 1962.

Read more about MAPS’ support for medical research with MDMA and with psychedelic drugs.

The Harvard Crimson reported on the MDMA/cancer anxiety study that will be taking place at McLean Hospital. Principal Investigator John Halpern MD is quoted, as well as MAPS President Rick Doblin PhD. The on-line version of this article has a link to a letter written by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and published in the Crimson in 1962.