Psychedelic Drugs: Harmful or Therapeutic?

The Stream explores the current status of research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. MAPS Founder Rick Doblin shares promising results from completed psychedelic research and Rachel Hope speaks about how being a study participant in MAPS’ study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped her overcome treatment-resistant PTSD Originally appearing here. Download the episode: Audio | Video | HD Video

In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Bertha Madras
Professor of Psychobiology at Harvard Medical School

David Nutt
Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs

Rick Doblin
Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)

Rachel Hope

From LSD to MDMA, a recent editorial published by Scientific American has ignited a heated discussion regarding the research of psychoactive drugs. The article calls on the US government to “end the ban on psychoactive drug research”. It goes on to say:

“New thinking is desperately needed to aid the estimated 14 million American adults who suffer from severe mental illness. Innovation would likely accelerate if pharmacologists did not have to confront an antiquated legal framework that, in effect, declares off-limits a set of familiar compounds that could potentially serve as the chemical basis for entire new classes of drugs.”

The editors believe that by making it easier to do research on drugs like MDMA (a compound found in ecstasy) and LSD, scientists can explore whether these drugs can help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia.

Netizens had a mixed response to Scientific American’s article.

Many scientists agree that more research needs to be done on these drugs, but some argue that Scientific American’s article is misleading. “While the stigma that comes from Schedule I placement of these substances makes scientific research clearance and fundraising difficult, research itself is not prohibited”, writes April Short on

In 1970, the US government passed the Controlled Substances Act. The legislation classifies drugs into one of three categories, Schedules I, II, III. Schedule I includes drugs that meet the following criteria:

“(A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse. (B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. (C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”

The Controlled Substances Act does not explicitly prohibit the research of Schedule I drugs, but there are several guidelines for gaining approval to do research. The United Nations also has three treaties, including the The Convention of Psychotropic Substances that similarly classify these types of drugs. 

A blog by David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist at the Imperial College London, echos Scientific American’s call to end the restrictions on the research of Schedule I drugs:

“Drugs get sucked into the black hole of Schedule 1 all too easily, but no evidence of medical value seems enough to get them out. We need to resist the scary fairy-tale that removing drugs such as cannabis from Schedule 1, or reforming the Regulations, will open a Pandora’s box. There’s much more reason to believe that we’ll unleash a Neuroscientific Enlightenment, making new discoveries about the brain and consciousness, developing new treatments for debilitating disorders like PTSD, depression and chronic pain, and giving a boost to our economy along the way.”

A few recent studies have examined the use of these types of drugs. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is currently studying the effect of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on healing psychological and emotional damage from war, violent crimes and other traumas. In the video below, participants and therapists describe the MAPS study: 

Online, some said they would take psychoactive drugs to treat disorders like PTSD and schizophrenia. Others, however, feel it may be too risky.