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Media > Recent and Archival
April 30, 2012

Can the Government Mix Drugs and Post-Combat Stress?

By: Melissa Bynes Brooks

Politic365

This in-depth article from Politic365 explores the recent surge in psychedelic research, highlighting successful studies of MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin as treatments for various conditions.


Originally appearing here.

A broad debate over the use of Schedule I drugs is taking place as political views evolve and regulatory postures soften. Schedule I drugs are classified as having a high potential for abuse, present an unacceptable safety risk, and have no acceptable medical use. Drugs in this category typically include marijuana and psychedelics.

Last year, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) sponsored H.R.2306 or the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011. The bill would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that marijuana would no longer be considered a scheduled drug, allowing states to establish their own laws and regulations. The only federal authority that would remain would be prevention of marijuana traveling over state borders in violation of the individual states’ laws.

Recently on April 25, during an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine about the War on Drugs, President Obama made clear his position on medical marijuana saying: “I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.” What I can say is, “Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.”

As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes. He also said: “I do think it’s important and useful to have a broader debate about our drug laws.”

At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in the scientific community, considerable thought is being given to the potential legitimacy of psychedelics which have come out of the past and into the present.

In the past, researchers conducted extensive investigations of psychedelics or hallucinogens in the 1950s and 1960s. But political and cultural pressures forced the termination of all projects by the early 1970’s.

The heightened focus on psychedelics can be attributed to contemporary research which validates the therapeutic benefits of administering psychedelic drugs in unison with psychotherapy – that is when other conventional treatments fail. Further support of psychedelics has been garnered because of transparency and applied ethical standards to the research methods being used.

The FDA recognizes the fundamental risk of psychedelic drug treatment is no different than the risk associated with other drugs reviewed before. “They decided they would put science over politics and permit research to go forward,” says Rick Doblin, director of the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). MAPS is a drug development firm that funds FDA-approved clinical trials to examine the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics.

What are psychedelic drugs?

Psychedelics or hallucinogens are mind-altering drugs capable of inducing distorted perceptions of thought, often including intense sensual input with diminished control of the induced experience. The experiences are commonly known as daydreams, hallucinations, and fantasies. These drugs have profound benefits based on research findings in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcoholism, cluster headaches, depression, and anxiety in dying patients.

Three commonly known psychedelic drugs are 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) whose street name is Ecstasy; LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide); and Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine).

It is worth noting, the composition of pure MDMA is not the same as the street drug Ecstasy. Ecstasy usually contains MDMA in addition to ketamine, caffeine, BZP, and other narcotics and stimulants and its safety for use in humans is questionable. On the other hand, MDMA has been proven to be adequately safe for human consumption when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses.

A flashpoint has been the approval of clinical trials with MDMA for the treatment of PTSD in war veterans by the FDA.  Medications such as sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) seem ineffective.

First, Dr. Michael Mithoefer conducted clinical trials using MDMA and a placebo. He found the drug, when administered in tandem with psychotherapy, helped patients recall traumatic, but long-buried, memories. “So what we are seeing with MDMA is it seems to allow people to access the trauma, revisit it with a sense that they are not going to be overwhelmed by the fear and anxiety,” Mithoefer says, “but at the same time, helps them to overcome whatever emotional numbing they have so they can connect with the emotions, and process the trauma that way.”

Two months after their sessions, 83 percent of the subjects who had been given MDMA had significantly fewer PTSD symptoms or none at all, while 25 percent of subjects in the placebo group showed such improvements. And the benefits lasted more than three years.

This is encouraging considering, since 2005, 89,000 deployed veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD.  It also affects nearly 7.7 million American adults in a given year.

Second, a recent study regarding the use of LSD in alcoholism treatment was conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and published in the March 2012 issue of Journal of Psychopharmacology. The findings showed about 58% of the participants, who were alcoholics, became less likely to relapse due to a spiritual sense of self-acceptance they experienced while on LSD. This spiritual “trip” led them to more honestly confront the issues that caused their alcoholism and take the steps necessary to overcome their addiction.

Third, Dr. Torsten Passie, a psychiatrist at the Hannover Medical School in Germany and expert on LSD, along with Dr. John Halpern, a Harvard Medical School researcher and noted expert in the long-term effects of drug use with colleagues decided to test 2-bromo-LSD (BOL). Six patients with severe cluster headaches were given BOL once every 5 days for a total of three doses. All patients reported a reduction in frequency of attacks, and five patients reported having no attacks several months later up to a year.

Fourth, Dr. Charles S. Grob, Department of Psychiatry, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center led a study using psilocybin which is obtained from certain types of magic mushrooms. The study demonstrated that the careful and controlled use of psilocybin may provide an alternative model for the treatment of conditions that are minimally responsive to conventional therapies. These include the existential anxiety and despair that often accompany advanced-stage cancers. The data revealed a positive trend toward improved mood and anxiety in terminally ill patients.

Finally, Roland Griffiths, a behavioral biologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, is investigating the influence of psilocybin on smoking cessation. He says psychedelics sometimes give rise to distinctive, insightful experiences that can produce enduring positive changes in attitude, mood and behavior.

There is much hope and anticipation as the future of these drugs seems promising based on proven outcomes for improving the quality of life and diminishing fears associated with perceived emotional threats. However, more research is needed in order to access the safety and efficacy of medicinal marijuana and psychedelics before completely integrating them into legitimate medical treatments.


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