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Can Psychedelic Drugs Treat PTSD?

Kept on hold for close to half a century, especially in the U.S., psychedelic science is now coming back to life.

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Many are the ways to use psychoactive molecules, from the trivial to the profound. For example, these substances can be ingested frivolously (as in excruciating YouTube videos of teenagers chortling at friends "wasted" on salvia divinorum, which in other contexts is used as a sacred herb) or as an aid to dancing all night or to making love, or perhaps to treating the widespread and otherwise intractable syndrome of PTSD, or to reducing the anxiety of dying patients, or to occasioning "mystical-type experiences," which may, to the extent that we accept self-reports and community observations, offer a glimpse of unitive consciousness and subsequently change behavior.

Unofficially, much is known about guiding psychedelic sessions so they are as deep as possible. For example, a new site called "entheoguides" contains a draft manual and links. Next year, Jim Fadiman (who did early research on creativity with Willis Harman) will publish a book, Shattering Certainty, which begins by discussing the best way to guide sessions.

Because of the official and blanket condemnation of visionary molecules, we have been deprived of research that is carefully framed, double-blind (neither the volunteer nor experimenter knowing whether the pill, when ingested, contains a drug or an inert control), and peer-reviewed (checked by other scientists as to design, execution, and the link between evidence and conclusions). Now this deficit is starting to be repaired.

Meanwhile, as the conference made clear, at least two arguments are advanced for making more available visionary and other psychoactive molecules. MAPS advocates that certain drugs should be available for prescription drugs by physicians (and in certain cases, by other professionals). In which case the threshold question is: are these substances as safe and efficacious as others already approved?

Other people have long made the libertarian argument that each individual should have the right to ingest anything he or she chooses on the basis of accurate information, so long as the experience won't harm others (as alcohol may, for example, impair driving). The International Foundation for Internal Freedom advanced a similar argument back in the 1960s , but a rattled governing elite was then not persuaded, in the face of protests against the Vietnam war and demands from blacks, feminist women, and some of the young.

At the conference many papers dealt with a visionary drug called ayahuasca, a harsh-tasting thick infusion often made by boiling Banisteriopsis caapi vine and Psychotria viridis leaves. Not a party drug, ayahausca tends to cause vomiting and diarrhea. Clearly, it must provide benefits that outweigh these physical discomforts. Traditionally used in the Amazon basin for healing, ayahausca also serves in the cause of personal growth and, in a couple of syncretic churches founded in Brazil, in the role of a sacrament.

The churches were founded there but have spread to cities such as Amsterdam and Santa Fe. The latter group gets its ayahausca "tea" from south of the border, and shepherded a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming the right to import its sacrament, provided the tea is safeguarded against "diversion." It won the case, affording U.S. members the right to ingest an otherwise illegal drug, as with the peyote taken by members of the Native American Church.

Which has led people to ask, if the sacramental drugs are okay for these groups, what about the rest of us? Does religious freedom extend only to small or ethnically restricted groups with a Christian flavor, or also to other spiritual explorers?

Craig K Comstock is a book creation coach and former director of the Ark Foundation. He produces and hosts a weekly TV show. He is co-author of books including Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness, with Nevitt Sanford (Beacon) and Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet, both with Don Carlson (Tarcher).