Can LSD Be Used for Medical Purposes?

Playboy publishes an update on the growing field of research into the medical potential of LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, highlighting recently published research results into psychedelic-assisted treatments for alcoholism, nicotine addiction, and PTSD. Virginia Wright of MAPS shares her perspective about the challenges of finding government funding for psychedelic research and how stigma sometimes prevents the advancement of science.

Originally appearing here.

In 2012 the nation’s largest underwriter of medical research—the National Institutes of Health—doled out $30 billion on research. But none of that money went to study the use of psychedelic drugs to treat human suffering. Consider the lot of smokers who hope to quit. The most effective smoking-cessation medication is Chantix. As in most addiction programs, the drug is combined with counseling. Nearly a quarter of Chantix users go a year without smoking—if they attend at least 12 counseling sessions. If patients use the medication alone, fewer than 10 percent will quit. But Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggests psilocybin can be much more successful than any known nicotine-addiction treatment. If psilocybin is administered in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy, 80 percent of smokers refrain from using tobacco for six months. According to Johnson’s study, 83.3 percent of patients said psilocybin changed their orientation “toward the future so that long-term benefits outweighed immediate desires.” A 2012 analysis of six clinical trials found that LSD sessions doubled the odds that alcoholics would be alcohol-free at their first follow-up and for up to six months afterward. A pilot study also showed that MDMA, when integrated with psychotherapy, cured 83 percent of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, versus 25 percent of those who had been given just therapy.

Such studies are part of a psychedelic-research renaissance that has been going on for the past quarter-century. But support from the federal government and major nonprofits remains absent—even when data suggest psychedelics can be useful. “They have the drug war and misinformation in the back of their minds,” says Virginia Wright, director of development at the Santa Cruz, California–based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “It’s difficult to say yes when funding psychedelics diminishes their standing in the community.” The association’s studies are approved by the FDA, but preconceptions are inescapable. “The public doesn’t know how drug development works,” Wright says. “It’s dangerous. All prescription drugs are. But if you compare prescription-drug development with psychedelics, what we’re doing is not so harmful.” MAPS is currently conducting five trials for MDMA-PTSD treatment, after which it will pursue a $16 million Phase 3 trial, the first of its kind. Researchers need that data for further trials. When asked why their work still faces such resistance, Wright says, “I think it’s cultural, because if you look at the science, it doesn’t make logical sense.”