Prohibition In The Lab

Shaunacy Ferro reveals the dizzying red tape that surrounds scientific research on psychedelics:

Currently, according to the DEA, it takes about 9 months to get FDA and DEA approval for a license to research Schedule I substances, though researchers are a little more skeptical. “The DEA’s not in a hurry to grant these licenses,” according to [David Nichols, one of the founders of the Heffter Research Institute to study psychedelics].

Only 349 scientists have them, and that number is on the downswing: Three years ago, there were 550 licenses in the U.S. Nichols suggests that this could be a result of the DEA cracking down on researchers with extraneous licenses. In the past, Schedule I licenses had been renewed on a yearly basis without much fuss, but in recent years the agency has required Nichols to submit his current protocol and justify why he still needs the license.

The free market hasn’t stepped up because “no pharmaceutical company needs or wants to get involved”:

There’s no money in it for them. Though drugs like LSD and psilocybin are relatively easy to make in the lab, as [ Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] founder Rick Doblin pointed out in a 2012 interview, “psychedelics are off-patent, can’t be monopolized, and compete with other psychiatric medications that people take daily.”

“My colleagues say to me, in these days of nanotechology and targeted therapy, what are you doing?” says Donald Abrams, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who has done research on medical marijuana. “We live in the 21st century. Studying plants as medicine is not where most investigators are putting their money.” And without the outside funding to continue researching, a scientist’s career goes nowhere, so even fewer scientists want to get involved.

E Meets PTSD

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In another sign that the lamentable taboo against "hallucinogenic" drugs is withering, new research shows the potential of Ecstasy for helping those with PTSD:

News that Drs Michael and Ann Mithoefers are beginning to test the drug in veterans is out, in the military press and on veterans’ blogs. “We’ve had more than 250 vets call us,” Dr. Mithoefer said. “There’s a long waiting list, we wish we could enroll them all.” The couple, working with other researchers, will treat no more than 24 veterans with the therapy, following Food and Drug Administration protocols for testing an experimental drug; MDMA is not approved for any medical uses.

The results are striking:

The Mithoefers administer the MDMA in two doses over one long therapy session, which comes after a series of weekly nondrug sessions to prepare. Three to five weeks later, they perform another drug-assisted session; and again, patients engage in 90-minute nondrug therapy before and after, once each week. Most have found that their score on a standard measure of symptoms — general anxiety, hyperarousal, depression, nightmares — drops by about 75 percent. That is more than twice the relief experienced by people who get psychotherapy without MDMA, the Mithoefers said …  The drug does not produce a “high,” but it usually brings some tranquillity.

Let me simply say I am not surprised. This research echoes the promising advances in psilocybin-based therapy. There was nothing wrong with the psychedelic culture of the past; but equally there is nothing wrong in finding medical uses for recreational chemicals.

I wonder, in fact, if the medical uses of MDMA and psilcoybin will become the foot in the door of the end of crude prohibition of hallucinogenics the way medical marijuana was for pot. The idea that they are a priori of no medical use – simply because a few people went overboard in the late 1960s – is simply anti-scientific.

(Gif: Animated picture of the chemical structure of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine.)

Help With Heroin

Jesse Singal reviews a new study supporting the view that treating heroin addiction with heroin is more effective than methadone:

The [North American Opiate Medication Initiative] numbers are striking: A year after the start of the study, nearly 90% of those given heroin remained in treatment, while just over half in the methadone group did. … HAT, also known as heroin maintenance, is based on the premise that while methadone treatment is effective by many standards, most methadone users end up back on heroin or other opiates eventually—either with or without methadone supplementing their habit. Since the search for heroin is, in many ways, more harmful to society than the use of it, methadone may have important limitations as a means of mitigating the damage done by heroin addiction.

“It’s not controversial in either [Switzerland or the Netherlands],” said Peter Reuter, a policy analyst at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, “and in Switzerland it’s been there for so long that people have forgotten that it was once controversial.”

The Village Voice covered a far more controversial approach to heroin addiction:

Taken in sufficient quantity, [root bark from the tabernanthe iboga plant] triggers a psychedelic experience that users say is more intense than LSD or psilocybin mushrooms.

Practitioners of the Bwiti religion in the West African nation of Gabon use iboga root bark as a sacrament to induce visions in tribal ceremonies, similar to the way natives of South and Central America use ayahuasca and peyote. [Claire] Wilkins is one of a few dozen therapists worldwide who specialize in the use of iboga (more specifically, a potent extract called ibogaine) to treat drug addiction. …

Ibogaine and iboga root bark are illegal in the United States but unregulated in many countries, including Canada and Mexico. Wilkins, though, is hardly alone in her belief that iboga-based substances can be used as a legitimate treatment for drug addiction. Researchers at respected institutions have conducted experiments and ended up with hard evidence that the compound works—as long as you don’t mind the mindfuck.

A Dish reader talked about his mindfuck here. More ibogaine testimonials and resources here. Caption for the above clip:

Short sequence from my BBC broadcast documentary Detox or Die. This was for BBC’s “ONE Life” strand. A documentary biopic of my junk addiction that culminates in my attempt to detox with ibogaine. This African visionary drug has, however, been linked to several fatalities and has some rather unpleasant side effects. Heavy stuff but ultimately redeeming.

(Video hat tip: IBO-Radio)

Taking Shrooms Seriously

A new study sheds light on what happens to your brain on psilocybin, the key compound in magic mushrooms:

"Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity,” says [David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist]. "Surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas."

Maia Szalavitz elaborates:

Under the influence of mushrooms, overall brain activity drops, particularly in certain regions that are densely connected to sensory areas of the brain. When functioning normally, these connective "hubs" appear to help constrain the way we see, hear and experience the world, grounding us in reality. They are also the key nodes of a brain network linked to self-consciousness and depression. Psilocybin cuts activity in these nodes and severs their connection to other brain areas, allowing the senses to run free.

The findings bode well for the the therapeutic potential of psilocybin:

Two regions that showed the greatest decline in activity were the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is an area that, when dysfunctional, is linked with rumination and obsessive thinking. "Probably the most reliable finding in depression is that the mPFC is overactive," says Carhart-Harris. … "[Psilocybin] shuts off this ruminating area and allows the mind to work more freely," he says. “That’s a strong indication of the potential of psilocybin as a treatment for depression."

Aldous Huxley remains, I think, the most powerful exponent of what this is about. It is about, in his words, the revelation that "the universe is All Right".

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

If you believe, as I do, that we are at root children of God, trapped, as Pascal put it, between being angels and beasts, then there will be moments in our lives when we are closer to being angels and closer to being beasts. In my view, our beastliness, as it were, is a function of our contingency as evolving primates, having to tackle a terrifying world of death, disease, war, hatred, and fear with intelligence and self-control and self-defense. This is the world of the first half of Hobbes' Leviathan.

But we are also more than that, as Jesus taught us. We are children of God. Our alienation is because something deep within us yearns to come home, a home we do not remember, but we know exists. What psilocybin seems to do is remove the veil from seeing and accepting this wondrous, difficult truth. It does not add something to our consciousness that isn't already there. It simply calms the noise around it so we can hear what is already within us. Hence the parallels between brains in deep meditation and brains on psilocybin.

Of course, we need the veil to survive in our physical, practical lives. As Huxley notes above, we couldn't walk across the street without it. If we were always aware of the staggering beauty of Creation and the overwhelming force of God's love for us, we would be like Jesus – homeless, jobless, possession-less, beyond family or tribe. And that is where the saints are and where we are lucky occasionally, by grace, to find ourselves. Mystics have sometimes strained against their physical limits to see the truth. Jesus starved and meditated for 40 days in the desert. Others, like Julian of Norwich or St Teresa of Avila, had experiences of such intensity they live on in our consciousness even now.

To glimpse this even once – by chemical ingestion – opens up the truth as to who and what we are. It is not a substitute for living that truth, or searching for it every day, or prayer, or the sacraments, or caritas. But it is a sacramental glimpse. And however far into the darkening forest you walk, you never forget the mountaintop.

Or the view, which is eternity. Now.

Psilocybin At The End Of Life

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Dr. Stephen Ross's research uses "psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat end-of-life distress in people with cancer." The results:

In my fifteen years as a psychiatrist, I’ve seen some profound things. Here I’ve seen decreased death anxiety, decreased depression, greater integration back into daily life, improved family function, and increased spiritual states. Half of our patients had classic mystical experiences, and the other half probably had near-mystical experiences. … I think psilocybin is a safe treatment modality that can potentially be a paradigm change within psychiatry and very helpful to dying patients.

If only we can transcend the fear.

(Photo of Psilocybe Cubensis by Flickr user afgooey74)

A Technicolor Lining To The Storm?

by Chris Bodenner

Hurricane Irene could cause a boom of boomers:

[O]ne of the strange aftermaths of a hurricane is an increased amount of mushrooms popping up — especially the psilocybin — or "magic" kind — the ones that cause hallucinations. According to Dr. Casey Simon, an addiction expert based in Orange County, Calif., hurricanes create the perfect climactic conditions for the mushrooms to grow. "Mushrooms are spores and they multiply in moisture and are spread by wind," he told [David Moye].

But a word of caution:

Simon says the real danger of the mushrooms isn't the psilocybin. "Some mushrooms can attract a fungus that makes them more toxic," he said. "It looks like a gray mold on the under side. Just a few differences in temperature can make a difference." 

[Dr. Suneil] Jain says that's why experienced mushroom experts pick mushrooms when they are as fresh as possible. "The optimal time to pick is right after the storm before the other elements can affect them," he said.

Happy hunting.

The Other Side Of Psychedelics

by Chris Bodenner

Sam Harris, who detests the War on Drugs and wants his daughter to try psilocybin or LSD at least once in her life, describes a bad trip:

On my first trip to Nepal, I took a rowboat out on Phewa Lake in Pokhara, which  offers a stunning view of the Annapurna range. It was early morning, and I was alone. Bad-tripAs the sun rose over the water, I ingested 400 micrograms of LSD. I was 20 years old and had taken the drug at least ten times previously. What could go wrong?

Everything, as it turns out. Well, not everything—I didn’t drown. And I have a vague memory of drifting ashore and of being surrounded by a group of Nepali soldiers. After watching me for a while, as I ogled them over the gunwale like a lunatic, they seemed on the verge of deciding what to do with me. Some polite words of Esperanto, and a few, mad oar strokes, and I was off shore and into oblivion. So I suppose that could have ended differently.

But soon there was no lake or mountains or boat—and if I had fallen into the water I am pretty sure there would have been no one to swim. For the next several hours my mind became the perfect instrument of self-torture. All that remained was a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.

These encounters take something out of you. Even if drugs like LSD are biologically safe, the potential for extremely unpleasant and destabilizing experiences presents its own risks. I believe I was positively affected for weeks and months by my good trips, and negatively affected by the bad ones. Given these roulette-like odds, one can only recommend these experiences with caution.

(Photo by Matt Bodenner)