“Hundreds of papers, involving tens of thousands of patients, presented evidence for their use as psychotherapeutic catalysts of mentally beneficial change in many psychiatric disorders, problems of personality development, recidivistic behaviour, and existential anxiety,” writes James Rucker, honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, in last week’s British Medical Journal. “This research abruptly ended after 1967, when psychedelics were legally classified as schedule 1 drugs under the UK Misuse of Drugs Regulations and as class A drugs under the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 ... This classification denoted psychedelic drugs as having no accepted medical use and the greatest potential for harm, despite the existence of research evidence to the contrary.”
Rucker goes on to say that psychedelic drugs, more legally restricted than heroin and cocaine, are not habit forming, and not harmful in controlled settings. They could play a crucial role in alleviating psychological distress.
Meanwhile, across the pond, other great minds are thinking alike. Researchers in California have been given permission to experiment with the party drug Ecstasy to see if it could enhance psychotherapy and help alleviate anxiety for terminally ill patients. According to a report in The Science Times, Ecstasy or MDMA, banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985, “is known for creating feelings of euphoria, empathy and heightened energy. According to co-researcher Julane Andries, MDMA has the ability to help an individual ‘experience awe, and that eases anxiety and depression.’ She adds that ‘later, you can hold onto that memory of feeling vital, alive, happy and full of awe.’ ”
Participants in the research, conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, will have psychotherapy sessions after taking the drug, while some will unwittingly be given placebo capsules instead. At the end of the trial, participants will undergo psychological testing and counselling and the mental health of the two groups will be compared.
After decades of just-say-no prohibition, psychedelic drugs seem to be making something of a comeback, helped along by people like psychopharmacologist David Nutt, a latterday Copernicus or Galileo who idiotically was fired as the drug-policy adviser to the Labour Government, in 2011, for suggesting that psychedelic drugs could be beneficial. Or Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, whose Beckley Foundation in Oxford was set up to investigate the therapeutic possibilities of psychoactive substances. Research shows that psychedelics aren’t particularly dangerous—less so than alcohol—and may indeed prove profoundly beneficial to mental health. Already, Ecstasy is starting to be used as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In other studies, psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic muhsrooms, has been used to reduce anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients; in Switzerland LSD has been used to treat anxiety.
In an excellent overview in The New Yorker, Michael Pollan writes: “Many of the researchers and therapists I interviewed are confident that psychedelic therapy will eventually become routine. Katherine MacLean hopes someday to establish a ‘psychedelic hospice,’ a retreat center where the dying and their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them all let go. ‘If we limit psychedelics just to the patient, we’re sticking with the old medical model,’ she said. ‘But psychedelics are so much more radical than that. I get nervous when people say they should only be prescribed by a doctor.’
“In MacLean’s thinking, one hears echoes of the excitement of the sixties about the potential of psychedelics to help a wide range of people, and the impatience with the cumbersome structures of medicine. It was precisely this exuberance about psychedelics, and the frustration with the slow pace of science, that helped fuel the backlash against them.”
Intimations of immortality
Many ancient civilisations placed great importance on the use of psychedelic experiences derived from plants like water lilies, acacia, magic mushrooms, or peyote cacti, and the lure of altered states of mind continues today. Miley Cyrus was filmed in 2010 smoking Salvia divinorum from a bong—the plant has long been used by the Mazatecs of Mexico. Ayahuasca is an ancient concoction used in traditional healing ceremonies in the Amazon rainforest—today seekers from around the world congregate there on spiritual retreats to experience its long-lasting psychological effects. Apple founder Steve Jobs described taking LSD in his youth as “a positive life-changing experience.”
“Many of us find Wordsworthian ‘intimations of immortality’ in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises,” writes celebrity neurologist Oliver Sacks, who spent his weekends in the 1960s taking drugs on an industrial scale. “But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand. These shortcuts are possible because certain chemicals can directly stimulate many complex brain functions.”
Huxley argues that drugs can offer a kind of liberation from the confines of our nervous system, a voyage beyond Plato’s cave out into the unknown, into intense, chromatic other worlds that we can otherwise only glimpse, worlds that offer heightened experiences of love, creativity, understanding and transcendence.
He writes: “To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value.”
On his deathbed, in 1963, Huxley had his wife inject him with LSD.
We have explored, mapped and catalogued every inch of our planet. We have walked on the moon, sent spaceships to far-away stars and studied ever-distant galaxies. Perhaps, however, the final frontiers are within—what Huxley calls the “antipodes of the mind.” It can be a difficult journey, fraught with peril, the dangerous ravines of madness never far away. But with exploration—whether through self-reflection, therapy, meditation, religious practice or hallucinogenic drugs—it’s possible that we can discover new realms, expand our consciousness and become ever-richer, fuller, truer versions of ourselves.
• Ecstasy and Acid in your medicine cabinet? Doctors explore psychedelics (Newsweek)
• Magic mushrooms should be used to treat mental health problems, psychiatrist says (Telegraph.co.uk)
• The Trip Treatment (The New Yorker)
• Could Ecstasy be the next big anti-anxiety medication? (Science Times)
• FDA approves Ecstasy-assisted psychotherapy in Marin County (KQED—a 52-minute radio show)