Possible medical benefits of psychedelic drug use
LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs may be staking out a new role in society. Once known only for casual tripping experiences, psychedelics have been shown to help both recreational users and patients suffering from mental illnesses and terminal diseases gain perspective and overcome obstacles in their own lives.
Scientists have been testing the new possibilities for psychedelic drugs in medical practice and clinical research. In one study at Harbor-UCLA, psilocybin (the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms) has been found to help terminal cancer patients cope with their prognosis and ease anxiety and depression. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) published a study on LSD-assisted therapy in March 2014, which “found positive trends in the reduction of anxiety following two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions.”
LSD and MDMA (also known as ecstasy or Molly) hold the power to help patients by unlocking new patterns of thought in a user’s mind. Dr. John Halpern of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital explained in a New York Times interview why psychedelics are so powerful for patients with terminal illnesses in particular. “On psychedelics, you have an experience in which you feel there is something you are a part of, something else is out there that’s bigger than you, that there is a dazzling unity you belong to, that love is possible and all these realizations are imbued with deep meaning,” Halpern said.
Psychedelics have been able to help ordinary recreational users overcome personal issues and emotionally-trying times. Emily*, who has used both psychedelic mushrooms and LSD, said her first experience with shrooms helped her overcome a difficult event in her life.
“The first time I did shrooms was after a pretty life-changing event for me personally. That day was still one of the most beautiful days I’ve had and it made me step outside of the personal and see the world and nature as a larger thing outside of myself. It created a more holistic view of mine in regard to the universe,” she said.
Ryan* believes psychedelics have had a similarly positive impact on his life.
“It adds a sense of stillness to the world. It lets me see beauty in the world and lets me see things in a new way,” he said. “Looking at yourself and your body while tripping helps you see yourself in a new way. I have talked to friends who said this has helped them overcome [things like] body image issues.”
Emily thinks psychedelic experiences can be especially enlightening when it comes to working through personal issues.
“Because it completely changes your state of mind for a span of 8 to 12 hours, you are imbued with this understanding that everything ends. When you can see an end to something that strong and tangible, it’s easy to apply that to the rest of your life, if you’re going through a change or hard times,” she said.
Like any substance, psychedelics need to be approached with caution. For those experimenting recreationally, Emily emphasized the importance of knowing what you are getting into beforehand.
“People really need to know their stuff. You have to weigh the pros and cons because it is much easier to have a stronger experience on shrooms, one that can irrevocably change how you see the world, but there is a chance you could have a bad experience on the drugs,” she said.
The known effects of psychedelics may prove hopeful in opening up a world of new mental possibilities for patients who could benefit from these mind-altering experiences. According to MAPS’s website, “MAPS is undertaking an eight-year, $18.5 million plan to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021, and is currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.”
Currently, psychedelics are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, which means they cannot be prescribed, only used in research.
Dave Nichols, medicinal chemist and president and director of preclinical research for the Heffter Research Institute, said that the setbacks in psychedelics research comes from a lack of government funding. Nichols thinks that conducting research on psychedelics is difficult.
“If you were an academic, you couldn’t research psychedelics because you couldn’t get any funding,” he said. “[We] focused on bringing psychedelics into medical practice. We wanted to make sure that anything we did wouldn’t get dismissed as nonsense.”
Nichols’s work has included making research-grade DMT and MDMA for clinical studies. One such study involved using MDMA on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, which “got really spectacular results,” he said.
Nichols knows that the research in psychedelics is fast growing.
“This area has been repressed for 50 years, and now people are coming out of the woodwork because there is a huge interest in these kinds of drugs,” he said. “We are all optimistic that we are going to get there. It’s the beginning of a psychedelics renaissance and the field has changed enough that people aren’t as reluctant to get involved.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity
Rachel Konkler is a senior sociology major who thinks a mushroom a day keeps the doctor away. Email her at rkonkle1[at]ithaca.edu.