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Psychedelic Renaissance: LSD, Ecstasy and Magic Mushrooms Are Helping People Face Death, Cope with Trauma and Quit Booze and Smokes

Four decades after the counter-culture’s widespread recreational use of hallucinogens led to criminalization, there's new interest in their therapeutic potential.

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Patients in these trials may be the best source to judge the drugs’ effects and how they translate a brief trip into a longer-lasting transformation. “I now have the distinct sense that there’s so much more, so many different states of being,” a mother of three and former Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist, who enrolled in a psilocybin and cancer anxiety study after being diagnosed with leukemia,  told the New York Times. “I have the sense that death is not the end but just part of a process, a way of moving into a different sphere.”

Yet skepticism abounds. Psychedelics operate on the principle that mental illness and addiction can be “radically healed,” which is in direct conflict with medical assumptions; indeed, to the scientific ear, that sounds less like medicine than magic. Some critics suggest that the trials themselves have a high placebo effect: Patients in extreme emotional pain are primed to believe that this class of drugs may have mysterious powers. In addition, the hallucinogenic experience is so intense and disorienting that these effects alone can seem beneficial. In cultures where use of psychedelic medicines is common, it is not thought that each experience will be revelatory or even especially powerful—lending credence to this criticism.After taking MDMA,  a veteran with PTSD recounted a spiritual experience not unlike Bill Wilson’s: “I saw a vision of God. And, by seeing this vision, I knew that I was in God's hands and had nothing to worry about. This happened in just a flash. I also felt a movement in my head—it was as if my brain jerked. At that point, I completely relaxed.”

The only way to persuade the skeptics is with hard science. But to get a single study of a psychedelic up and running requires overcoming formidable challenges. Funding is scarce. “There’s no money in it,” John Halpern, MD, head of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital, who is running an MDMA cancer study,  told The New York Times. “What drug company is going to invest millions in a substance widely available in our flora and fauna?” Government regulations are predictably tight. Also, stigma looms large for interested scientists.

Yet there are signs of a new openness. The FDA has licensed a small number of labs to produce high-quality hallucinogens for experimental purposes. It has also approved a study by Rick Doblin on the psychological effects of MDMA for therapists in a MAPs training program on how to guide patients through psychedelic trips. Similarly, the Department of Veteran Affairs has said it will fund larger MDMA trials for vets with PTSD if the current study pans out.

It is as  a treatment for alcoholism that hallucinogens may hold the greatest addiction-related promise. A recent meta-study of  six LSD research trials conducted in the ‘60s and ‘70s and involving over 500 people found that those taking even a single dose of LSD had a 59% reduction in drinking at six months, compared to the control groups’ 38%. “Curing alcohol dependency requires huge changes in the way you see yourself. That's what LSD does,”  David Nutt, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Imperial College of London and leading psychedelic-based addiction researcher, told the BBC. (Nutt made a dramatic entrance to the debate over these experiments after he was sacked as the head of a panel of scientific advisors to the British government on drug policy, for publicly  stating that tobacco and alcohol are more dangerous than LSD, MDMA and marijuana.) But the positive effects tended to disappear after one year, leading Nutt to suggest that the drug be re-administered at regular intervals.

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