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It seems as if you can’t open a psychological journal or a scientific magazine recently without hearing about how psychedelics are going to radically revolutionise how we treat mental illness. Drug-induced therapy promises to create breakthroughs seldom thought possible by traditional psychiatric medicine. In the last few years, a number of different researchers and institutions have been experimenting with the idea of using powerful psychotropics to help people enhance their mental states. From the classic night-out-enhancers of MDMA and ketamine, to hallucinogenics such as LSD (favoured by both ageing hippy artists and silicon valley entrepreneurs alike), currently prohibited drugs are increasingly on the radar of the psychiatric industry. Is it possible, then, that the days of the SSRI are coming to an end? Moreover, can traditional psychiatric medicine really be replaced with acid tabs and magic mushrooms?
At the time of writing, the substances mentioned are currently listed under some variant of heavy state regulation, being cited to have ‘no medicinal value’ by most countries. In the UK, all of the drugs mentioned above fall into either the Class ‘A’ or ‘B’ categories: the most heavily prohibited, with no reason the loosen regulation. However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating that notion to be patently false. We all know that people who have taken psychedelic drugs certainly talk about ground-breaking experiences and even life-changing insights they’ve had, and that these psychoactive substances have been the essential ingredient to numerous ancient culture’s spiritual beliefs the world-over. Indeed, these factors make sense when accounting for why these drugs are so popular – they must do something for us, right? So surely they have some medicinal value?
Then again, heroin and cocaine are well known for their (to put it mildly) very more-ish nature. Should they be used for therapy too? The last time a well-respected psychologist was suggesting drug-assisted psychotherapy involved Sigmund Freud heartily recommending his patients take cocaine. In reality, psychedelics are in fact significantly less harmful and addictive than cocaine and opiates, while often providing all of the benefits that will be described. In fact, one potential use for LSD is in pain relief. Hopefully, in the near-future patients will less often be prescribed dangerous opioids and more often psychedelic compounds to treat their conditions.
The big question is, ‘why now?’ It isn’t like these substances are new, after all. LSD, for example, was first synthesised (by accident) by Albert Hoffman in 1938. After an intense trip caused by accidentally ingesting over 5x the regular dose through the skin in his arm in 1943, Hoffman realised he had a powerful substance on his hands (quite literally). After some CIA-funded illegal human experimentation in the form of MKULTRA, the US government banned LSD in 1968 and the rest of the world soon followed suit.
But LSD didn’t stay dead for long in the scientific community. Since the turn of this century, more and more psychologists and neuroscientists have been turning to psychedelics to help shed light on the human mind. The main reason for the sudden flurry of interest in drug-assisted therapy lies in gradually relaxing prohibition laws, which are in a feedback loop with the results: as research develops and their benefits were proven, these laws are likely to continue to relax. New neuroimaging equipment such as fMRIs are also able to show how these drugs affect the brain in real-time. Indeed, there are even theories that LSD can help us better understand the elusive nature of consciousness. Due to the previously excessive regulation of psychedelics, their deregulation is likely to give us a huge wealth of information on the human brain which has been untapped for decades.
Let us briefly overview the substances that have most frequently been in recent experiments, and how they might be able to improve your mental health.
LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms:
LSD has been shown to have a very substantial psychiatric value. It can effectively treat anxiety, addiction, migraines, and can also help sufferers of terminal diseases come to terms with their condition. Indeed, those who have anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases “have their STAI state-anxiety significantly reduced” (Olson 2016). Additionally, LSD has been shown to increase the personality trait ‘openness’. This is a trait linked with intelligence and creativity, and the increase seemingly stays with people for their entire lifetime.
Users of the drug often report profound, revelatory experiences. Many of these are perceived as spiritual in nature and can often change the course of people’s lives for the better. Hoffman himself described his first experience as follows: ‘On the right-hand side, a row of shed roofs suddenly appeared; I thought of an evening ride homeward during military service. Significantly it involved a homeward ride: there was no longer anything like departure or love of adventure. I felt protected, enveloped by motherliness, was in peace.”
Similarly, Cahart-Harris (2017) states the following from his experiments with mushrooms: “Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment, and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’”.
So, although we’re not quite sure of exactly how the brain is affected yet, it certainly doesn’t appear to be negative. It seems that psychedelics can produce deep, profound changes that remain long after the initial trip has ended and are continuing to be investigated for these purposes.
Another substance of interest to psychological researchers is MDMA, or ‘ecstasy’. A research organisation known as MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study) is already developing a ‘MDMA Therapy Training Programme’ which “seeks to train approximately 300 therapists before 2021, for chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. Although your therapist giving you an ecstasy tab may seem like some kind of dystopian nightmare, there is good evidence backing MAPS’ initiative. MDMA has been found to increase empathy, self-awareness, and an ability to access previously inaccessible memories. Leavitt (1995) claims ‘although MDMA is illegal, many psychiatrists endorse it as a means to enhance openness, empathy and compassion’. What may have taken months of therapeutic intervention can now be achieved within a single session. As such, the development of MDMA-assisted treatment is already underway; although we currently have no specific date as to when it will be a ‘mainstream’ form of therapy.
Although ostensibly a horse tranquillizer, the drug has become popular for recreational use. However, like LSD, ketamine has recently been proven effective in treating heroin addiction. It has also been utilised to treat previously treatment-resistant forms of depression. Oxford psychologist Dr Rupert McShane, claims the drug can be effective in depressed patients “where nothing has helped before”, while Cardiff University psychiatrist Dr Keedwell said: “Ketamine in the treatment of depression is one of the most exciting discoveries in psychiatry for years”.
So, here are four currently illegal drugs which may well join cannabis in being legalised for medicinal purposes. Of course, when taken on the street, all of the above mentioned can be a significant hazard. Purity is perhaps the biggest risk the free-lance drug user is going to take. Another is the setting in which it is taken. All drug researchers advise against self-medication, however; a professionally synthesised product coupled with a safe and controlled therapeutic environment should eliminate the vast majority of safety concerns most people have surrounding these drugs. Experiencing profound hallucinations in a controlled but relaxed clinical atmosphere is worlds apart from doing so squashed in between two hairy, sweaty armpits in an underground nightclub that has the same room temperature as a Libyan greenhouse. The best part about such drugs is they often appear to work where all other forms of treatment have failed.
Finally, there are the cultural implications. LSD and other drugs were seen as the lynchpin of the 1960s counter-culture movement, which is perhaps the reason why they were banned. It’s possible that removing the mind-expanding drugs from the left was what reduced it to little more than an ever-encroaching bland, human resources department for the world. Perhaps the knock-on effect of large amounts of the population taking mind-expanding drugs will culminate in a better political atmosphere. Who knows, right?
So, in light of the current news-cycle consisting of seemingly never-ending terror, there may well be some real hope in sight. Psychedelic-induced self-actualization with the direction of a trained therapist may very soon become a reality. After that, perhaps new chemicals, specifically altered to influence the brain in a targeted way to enhance oneself, will follow. Maybe humanity will realise your dopey neighbour’s dream of every world leader getting high together and acknowledging that all conflict is pointless and unnecessary. Moreover, any country that’s first past the post in actually legalising popular psychedelic drugs will suddenly find themselves with a hell of a lot of extra tourism cash. So, if you’re feeling the need to experiment with some highly potent hallucinogenic compounds you may only have a few years to wait. If you can’t wait for that, you can always try to join one of the recent experiments.
 Hoffman, LSD: My Problem Child, 2013
 Robin L Carhart-Harris et al, Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms, Scientific Reports (2017)