Historic: Major Scientific Publication Calls on U.S. to Open Doors to LSD, MDMA, Pot Research

This article was updated with a correction on January 30.


Cannabis, LSD, psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), MDMA (the “ecstasy” drug) and other psychedelic drugs all have significant potential medical uses, as illustrated in the limited research organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science (MAPS) have facilitated over the years. But the war on drugs and resulting classification of those psychoactive substances as Schedule I—meaning with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration—has caused a national research blockade and left that medical potential largely untapped.

The editors of Scientific American—the 168-year-old magazine to which scientists like Albert Einstein have contributed—this week called for an end to the "national ban" on psychoactive drug research, noting that LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and cannabis all “had their origins in the medical pharmacopeia.”

More than 1,000 scientific publications chronicled the uses of LSD for psychotherapy during the mid-’60s, and MDMA similarly complemented talk therapy through the ‘70s, the article points out. And "[m]arijuana has logged thousands of years as a medicament for diseases and conditions ranging from malaria to rheumatism.”

Scientific American lamented the fact that since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 declared these psychoactive drugs void of any medical use by categorizing them as Schedule I substances—and three United Nations treaties extend similar restrictions to much of the world—a catch-22 has arisen: “[Federal research on] these drugs [is] banned because they have no accepted medical use, but researchers cannot explore their therapeutic potential because they are banned."

While the stigma that comes from Schedule I placement of these substances makes scientific research clearance and fundraising difficult, research itself is not prohibited. Scientific American's assertion that there is a "research ban" is innacurate. For example, MAPS has been performing FDA-approved studies on psychoactive substances for years. 

Brad Burge, the director of communications and marketing from MAPS said there is not an explicit ban on marijuana research either, "though there are laws in place that make doing research to make marijuana into a prescription medicine impossible, so far."

The Scientific American article notes that the few privately funded studies that have looked at these compounds have “yielded tantalizing hints that some of these ideas merit consideration. Yet doing this research through standard channels ... requires traversing a daunting bureaucratic labyrinth that can dissuade even the most committed investigator.”

As a result, some psychologists are left wondering “whether MDMA can help with intractable post-traumatic stress disorder [as work with combat veterans has shown], whether LSD or psilocybin can provide relief for cluster headaches or obsessive compulsive disorder and whether the particular docking receptors on brain cells that many psychedelics latch onto are critical sites for regulating conscious states that go awry in schizophrenia and depression,” the article notes.

Additionally, while doctors in 20 states (and counting) can recommend medical marijuana, researchers aren’t allowed to properly study its effects. Scientific American notes that this leaves “unanswered the question of whether the drug might help treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, nausea, sleep apnea, multiple sclerosis and a host of other conditions.”

Like many researchers, therapists and drug policy activists have been saying for decades, it is time to allow scientific researchers to do their jobs and find out what these substances can actually do—and in order for that to happen, the U.S. needs to reschedule these substances and effectively lift its research blockade.

As the Scientific American article concludes, the endless obstrucitons to research caused by current scheduling have meant a research standstill for Schedule I drugs.

"This is a shame. ...  If some of the obstacles to research can be overcome, it may be possible to finally detach research on psychoactive chemicals from the hyperbolic rhetoric that is a legacy of the war on drugs. Only then will it be possible to judge whether LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and other highly regulated compounds—subjected to the gauntlet of clinical testing for safety and efficacy—can actually yield effective new treatments for devastating psychiatric illnesses."

The more trusted publications like Scientific American come out and call for change, the closer we will be to medical research and scientific facts that liberate us from the medical Dark Ages when it comes to psychoactive drugs.

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