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September 28, 2011

Flashback! Psychedelic research returns

By: Alexander Zaitchik

Salon

A long and in-depth article on Salon.com sheds light on the wide-open field of medical psychedelic research, focusing primarily on recent and ongoing studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins. The only information that might be added to the piece is that MDMA is probably even closer to approval for medical use than LSD or psilocybin, despite the recent explosion of research into all of these substances.


The following is an excerpt. See the entire original article at http://life.salon.com/2011/09/28/the_new_lsd_cure/.

Four decades after Timothy Leary, LSD shows success in medical trials. Will the right completely trip?

This quickening psychedelic revival was a long time coming. Activists and scientists began laying the groundwork during the second Reagan administration, when their efforts seemed most futile. In 1986, Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies to advocate and educate the public. Not much happened until 1990, when Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico Medical School broke ground with a study on the affects of DMT, the so-called nuclear bomb of the psychedelic family. Then, early in the first Clinton administration, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Food and Drug Administration quietly signaled a readiness to approve new psychedelic research. Encouraged by the signs, a group of scientists founded the Heffter Research Institute in 1993 to fund projects and hold them to the highest scientific standards.

The early naughts witnessed a further eroding of the psychedelic research taboo. The big foundations and government agencies maintained their distance, but groups like MAPS, Heffter and the Council on Spiritual Practices stepped in to underwrite medical school studies involving Schedule 1 drugs such as Ketamine, MDMA, marijuana and psilocybin. Mid-decade, Harvard’s John Halpren finally exorcised Tim Leary’s Cambridge ghost when he won approval for a small cancer anxiety study employing MDMA. The data from these and other studies is now beginning to appear in medical journals and on professional association conference agendas. This year, a chapter on psilocybin therapy for cancer patients will appear for the first time in a standard psycho-oncology textbook.

Much of this activity is centered at NYU, where a vibrant community of therapists and scientists has emerged around an ongoing speaker’s series called the Psychedelic Research Group. In 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Guss, a Manhattan therapist and co-investigator on the NYU study, taught “Psychedelics and Psychiatry,” the first course on psychedelic therapy offered at a modern medical school. Guss also directs the university’s 12-week psychedelic psychotherapy training program, the only program of its kind in the country. “We’re establishing a conversation across disciplines — oncology, psychiatry, palliative care — to reintroduce psychedelics into the medical discourse,” says Guss. “The field is emerging as a doable career, and I’ve started to mentor people who want to move exclusively in this direction.”

For political and scientific reasons, cancer anxiety is the research avenue with the most potential to scale up in the near future. Advocates like MAPS’ Doblin optimistically envision a scenario in which the therapy could be more widely available in a decade. Getting there will require larger trials and a full rescheduling review by the DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services. “Getting a drug rescheduled is very difficult,” says Bill Piper, national director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But by its charter, the DEA is bound to follow the science.”

Establishing psilocybin-assisted therapy as an accepted option for end-of-life care could have some surprising consequences. Among them is a fundamental reorienting of our culture’s relationship to death. It could move discussion on what constitutes a “good death” and how to better provide them. Because Western medicine focuses narrowly on defeating disease with little consideration for how we die, the sick often spend their last weeks and days surrounded by machinery and hospital staff instead of a comfortable hospice setting surrounded by family.

“There is an increasing understanding that there is a paucity of approaches to psycho-spiritual well-being at end of life,” says Anthony Bossis, a palliative-care expert at NYU and co-investigator of the psilocybin study. “Medicine doesn’t talk about how we die. Palliative care brought psycho-spiritual stress into the conversation, and now psychedelic research is enlarging that conversation by exploring the ontological shifts, like that brought about by psilocybin, which can affect one’s outlook on life, death, disease.”

Adds Griffiths of Johns Hopkins: “So much money gets poured into those last few months of life where people are terrified and grasping at anything to prolong life. It’s heartbreaking to see, but our culture has such a disordered relationship to end-of-life issues. Change that, and people will change their utilization of the medical system. They’ll use it more in some ways, less in others. The result would be a huge net decrease in expensive interventional procedures in the final weeks.”

If and when psilocybin enters the larger healthcare debate, it will trigger the mother and possibly deciding battle of the 1960s culture wars. The prospect of Medicare dollars going to psychedelic therapy would send right-wing opportunists into a stomping rage. Sarah Palin would tweet about Hippie Death Panels. The GOP might revive its 1972 battle cry about liberals marching under a banner of “acid, amnesty and abortion.”

But here the history of the medical marijuana movement is instructive. Drug warriors could only deny the medicinal value of marijuana for so long; soon they were forced to beat a retreat before the combined forces of the medical literature, lobbying and advocacy, and the reality of millions of suffering Americans. If the science is solid, it usually wins, if only in fits and starts. This is especially true when the science is accompanied by the moving testimonies of people like Roy, a 52-year-old television news producer and Stage-4 lung-cancer patient who this summer underwent psilocybin treatment at NYU after three years of chemotherapy. Like Krystof Kossut and dozens of others, Roy had grown increasingly anxious and depressed before his revelatory psilocybin session. Today he describes that session as among the most precious and important experiences of his life. His journal is excerpted in a forthcoming chapter in Springer’s textbook, “Psychological Aspects of Cancer,” co-authored by Bossis and Guss of the NYU study and Charles Grob of UCLA.

“From here on love was the only consideration,” Roy writes of his psilocybin session.

  Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. The bliss was indescribable … I took a tour of my lungs. There were nodules but they seemed rather unimportant … I was being told (without words) to not worry about the cancer … it’s minor in the scheme of things, simply an imperfection of your humanity and that the real work to be done is before you. Again, love … [On the day after the session] I felt spectacular … both physically and mentally! It had been a very long time since I’d felt that good … a serene sense of balance … Undoubtedly, my life has changed in ways I may never fully comprehend. I now have an understanding, an awareness that goes beyond intellect, that my life, that every life, and all that is the universe, equals one thing: Love.

It’s true we don’t know much about psychedelic states of consciousness. Are they merely biochemical carnivals producing internal hallucinations, or are they — as people often describe them — “more real than real”? The psychedelic experience has always been just that — the ultimate subjective experience, ineffable and very difficult to account for when over. But those who doubt its power or “reality” might remember that we also have precious little understanding of the neurological basis of “normal” consciousness. And when it comes to bringing comfort to the ill, of giving the gift of “indescribable bliss,” a case can be made for the irrelevance of ultimate metaphysical and scientific questions. The first psychologist to advocate for experimental mysticism also advocated for that most American of thought systems, pragmatism.

Truth, concluded William James, is what works.


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