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Why Prescription Ecstasy or LSD Could Happen Much Sooner Than You Think

If a growing phalanx of scientists get their way, prescriptions for psychedelic drugs could be yours within 10 years.

Let's say an abuse-ridden childhood has left you with PTSD that sparks panic whenever you hear shouts, even on TV. Or let's say a bad accident has saddled you with crippling anxiety and chronic pain. Now let's say that you could ease -- or even cure -- these woes with prescription psiloscybin. Prescription ecstasy. Prescription LSD.

If a growing phalanx of scientists get their way, those prescriptions could be yours within 10 years. Research into the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs is booming. An April conference on the subject at Great Britain's University of Kent featured lectures on such topics as "Ketamine Psychotherapy" and "Ayahuasca in the Contemporary World."

Leading this wave is the Boston-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose executive director Rick Doblin spoke at that conference. MAPS researchers have spent 15 years conducting international clinical trials whose results indicate that LSD and psilocybin counteract depression and anxiety and are effective pain-management tools while MDMA (ecstasy) conquers fear. Just this month, the Israeli Ministry of Health approved a new MAPS study using MDMA to treat PTSD.

"Time is on our side," Doblin says. "The world is full of aging baby boomers who are looking forward to psychedelic retirement and psychedelic hospice.

"They had psychedelic experiences in their youth that were useful to them. They gave up the drugs for family and career. Now they're thinking back to those valuable experiences and they want to get re-engaged."

But this isn't about ex-hippies seeking free highs. Rather, it's about mainstreaming these drugs, which MAPS does "by focusing on medical uses, which in our culture is the most likely way to create new legal contexts, because there is a love affair with medicine in this culture. There's a constant interest in whatever's the latest from the scientific lab."

It's not about money. Costing nearly nothing to manufacture, "these aren't the kind of drugs that you need to take every day for the rest of your life." Instead, it's about using cutting-edge technology to prove what millions around the world have been saying for thousands of years: This stuff gets to your head.

As a teenager in the early 1970s, Doblin first learned that psychedelics were being used to enhance art, spirituality and psychology.

"Then it all got shut down."

Those damn hippie freaks.

"People using psychedelics had accidents and did stupid things and ended up dying or going nuts. A bunch of famous people had extremely idealistic views that weren't particularly practical and weren't particularly patient. Timothy Leary and his ilk were making exaggerated claims, saying that if you do psychedelics you're more enlightened than others; if you do psychedelics you're better than others. One of that era's biggest mistakes was Leary saying turn on, tune in, drop out."

Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America. Hello, backlash. Hello, War on Drugs.

"The government came out with its own exaggerated claims, saying that if you took these drugs you'd have deformed babies and brain-cell death. We now know that it isn't true, but back then it launched this huge cultural clash. You might say society had a really bad trip."

Research to the rescue. High-tech brain scans reveal that psilocybin inhibits blood flow in parts of the brain that regulate sensory input. Less blood flow means less regulation. Flooded with perceptions, a psilocybinized brain can help PTSD patients reprogram their fears, Doblin says. New tools also provide new insight into LSD's ego-dissolving "catharsis effect." And the ecstasy chemistry: MDMA reduces blood flow in the fear-processing amygdala while increasing blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, which facilitates our ability to put things into context.

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