Tune in: psychedelic drugs are back

No, you are not having an acid flashback. For the first time since the 1960s, psychedelic drugs are again the subject of legitimate research. Doctors at top hospitals and universities in Canada, the U.S. and abroad are experimenting with LSD, MDMA (“ecstasy”) and psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in “magic mushrooms,” as treatments for, variously, tobacco addiction, cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidal thoughts — as well as anxiety and depression in people with end-stage cancer. Other research is being conducted with the prescription sedative ketamine, known on the street as “Special K.” Doctors are testing these drugs because effective treatments either don’t exist or simply don’t work for some patients. “It’s basically an unmet need in medicine,” says Dr. Pierre Blier, Canada Research Chair in Psychopharmacology at the University of Ottawa. He’s been conducting pilot studies with ketamine which have so far proven successful with the severely depressed who might otherwise be subjected to electroconvulsive — or shock — treatments. “A ketamine infusion is so much more benign than using ECT,” he says, adding that a small dose helps most patients, at least for seven to 10 days. Now he’s seeking ways to prolong that effect. At Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, researchers are also working with ketamine as well as looking at MDMA as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. And at Harvard, researchers have studied the use of LSD for those who suffer cluster headaches, known as “suicide headaches” for their excruciating pain. Meanwhile, in Torrance, Calif., a single “trip” on psilocybin has had transformative psychic effects on the dying. “Psilocybin is a great compound to study,” says Dr. Charles Grob of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he has worked with a dozen cancer patients. “It doesn’t carry the political and cultural baggage that LSD has. “When you say LSD, everybody has this knee-jerk reaction to all the wild times of the ’60s.” His double-blind study, just published in the online version of Archives of General Psychiatry, shows that mentally stable, end-stage cancer patients had significantly improved moods after taking psilocybin in a “pleasant environment” and in the company of researchers. The results were so encouraging it’s on to more research. “We’re establishing that we can work with psilocybin safely,” Grob says. “No one had an adverse medical event. No one had an adverse psychiatric event — and these were people who were highly anxious to begin with.” What a long, strange trip it’s been for psychedelic drugs. These substances went from lab experiments to recreational drugs to media-sensationalized killer poisons to illegal substances in one Baby Boomer generation. They escaped from the laboratory at Harvard, in the early ’60s, when Dr. Timothy Leary inspired countless youths to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” — a phrase he came up with after Marshall McLuhan suggested he coin “something snappy” to promote the wonders of LSD. That that’s what many kids did — drop acid and drop out — rocking the culture and the social order. And so LSD and psilocybin were banned just about everywhere by the late ’60s. “That’s the demonization of an entire tool kit of unknown potential,” notes Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist, and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. “The use of psychotropic substances to change ordinary consciousness in the goal of spiritual understanding and medical rescue and therapy has been something that our species has been doing since the dawn of time.” Between the Second World War, when Dr. Albert Hoffman accidentally got high with his invention LSD, and the late ’60s, there were thousands of studies conducted by medical and psychiatric researchers looking into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs. MDMA, for example, was being used in Germany as an adjunct to psychotherapy. During the 1950s in Weyburn, Sask., Drs. Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer had overwhelmingly positive outcomes using LSD to treat schizophrenics and alcoholics. “They had remarkable results that really ought to be looked at again because, to date, we still don’t have effective treatments for alcoholism,” notes Grob. But there were also tragedies, notably the CIA-backed ’60s Project MK-ULTRA conducted at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron. This illegal and covert experiment, which subjected unsuspecting patients to LSD and powerful shock therapy, inflicted permanent physical and psychological damage But, by then, hallucinogenic drugs already had a media-hyped reputation for causing paranoia, “chromosome damage” and even suicide. And, while it’s true that some people suffered from “bad trips,” today’s researchers insist most of those users were likely emotionally troubled to begin with. This bad rap now means U.S. researchers find it tough to secure anything but private, and non-drug company, funding for their work. “Things are starting to move but it’s been excruciatingly difficult because there’s a long memory of the ’60s,” says Grob. His work , as well as similar studies of psilocybin at New York University and Johns Hopkins, have received most of their financial backing from the New Mexico-based Heffter Research Institute. According to its website, it is named after Dr. Arthur Heffter, a turn-of-the century German pharmacologist who was the first scientist to systematically study naturally occurring hallucinogens. And there are plenty of them: some 120 known plants and at least one animal. What’s made psilocybin so attractive for research is that it works very fast; other anti-depressants can take weeks to kick in. It also has a lasting effect — after just one dose. In a crisis situation, that could be a lifesaver. “The question becomes: What is the mechanism?” asks Dr. Stephen Ross, clinical Director of New York University’s Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction. “Is it a psycho-spiritual mechanism or is it in the biological realm, having to do with neurotransmitters and parts of the brain that are activated or deactivated? “Within medicine it might sound foofy to talk about mystical stages of consciousness, but there are standardized psychometric scales to rate the experience.” Ross’s research on the matter has just begun but so far, he says, so good. What all the experts emphasize is that these studies involve the careful monitoring of patients and, as well, smaller doses than recreational users might take. And they all occur in controlled environments unlikely to provoke the kinds of negative reactions some users might have suffered back in the daze. Cautions Grob, “If somebody is going into this like, you know, like we did 40 some odd years ago, in a college dormitory as a way to kick back on a Saturday night and have a fun, recreational experience, that’s an entirely different phenomenon — and I would say that’s a much riskier phenomenon. “I remember in my dorm some people had difficulty.” Indeed, says Davis, some people simply can’t cope with the “non-linear experiences” caused by hallucinogens. “People who would be reflexively against these substances would most likely be people who either personally had a bad experience with them or never had a personal experience and are judging them on what they think they are, which are bad drugs,” he says. “Those who have experienced the wonder of these substances tend to recognize that it’s not the drug per se, but that the drug releases a kind of ambivalent potential for good or evil, for positive or negative. “People who have not taken these substances and have no experience of the
m, it’s like trying to explain to a blind man what it is to see.” Well, there’s no evidence that hallucinogens can cure blindness. But, based on what’s emerging from studies and medical journals, they’re giving off good vibrations. This article explores the recent increase in psychedelic research of compounds such as MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine for a wide range of disorders including depression, PTSD and cluster headaches.