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MAPS Bulletin Summer 2014: Research Edition
Media > Recent and Archival
April 24, 2012

Doctors Consider Using Street Drugs to Ease Suffering of Dying Patients

By: Dr. Keith Ablow

Fox News

Fox News comes out with a refreshingly sober article about the promise of psychedelic-assisted therapy for helping people overcome anxiety related to life-threatening illness. As psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, a member of “the Fox News Medical A-Team,” cleverly points out, “Stigmatizing miraculous substances which we then relegate to the exclusive domain of drug pushers and addicts makes precisely zero sense. Let’s open our minds to the possibilities [sic] that many perilous drugs also hold much promise.”

Originally appearing here.

Recent studies at Harvard, U.C.L.A. and my alma mater John Hopkins have now made it plain that doctors should—as soon as proper safeguards can be put in place—be free to offer illicit drugs to patients who are terminally ill, in order to ease their emotional suffering and potentially offer them new perspectives—fueled by drug-induced insights—into issues like their own mortality.

At Harvard, Dr. John Halpern (as reported in The New York Times) tested MDMA (the street drug Ecstasy) to determine if it would ease the anxieties in two patients with terminal cancer.  At U.C.L.A. and Hopkins, Drs. Charles Grob and Roland Griffiths used psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms) to help cancer patients past their paralyzing, debilitating fears.

The results are reportedly consistently good.  In many cases, patients are able to cope with their physical pain and psychological turmoil better than before.  Some, no doubt, feel the drugs opened doors of perception previously closed to them, allowing them to make peace with their lives and the impending end of their lives.

The truth is that the likelihood of creating an MDMA or psilocybin addict out of a terminal cancer patient is exactly zero.  And, while we all know the obvious risks during early and mid-life of using drugs to excess (including driving under the influence), those risks aren’t really present in substantial measure in the population of folks ending their days on this earth.  And, I would argue, they are at the time when experimenting with what they can “see” and feel when freed from their anxieties and preconceptions and routine by hallucinogens or mood-altering substances like Ecstasy makes sense.

Not long ago, I debated with former talk show host and motivational speaker Montel Williams.  He is a proponent of physician-assisted suicide, and I am entirely, irrevocably against it.  One of my arguments was that—short of killing patients who are suffering—much more needs to be explored about how to make the end of their lives tolerable, and, dare I say, even enlightening.  And now, data is pouring in:  We have substances available to us that can do just that.  And we should be using them.

Terminal conditions and final days are, in fact, but one of the settings in which chemicals considered “street” drugs may be Godsends.  Recent data also shows that low doses of the street drug Special K (ketamine), when slowly infused via IV, can instantly crush major depression—possibly for extended periods—in many patients.  And opiates like oxycodone, while obviously dangerous given their addictive potential, are also extremely useful for those patients who are reliable and who suffer with unwieldy anxiety that cannot be addressed, seemingly, in any other way.

Stigmatizing potentially miraculous substances which we then relegate to the exclusive domain of drug pushers and addicts makes precisely zero sense.  Let’s open up our minds to the possibilities that many perilous drugs also hold much promise.

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