Don’t Trip Over Psychedelics

by Brendan James

A fresh review of US health records by Norwegian researchers reveals yet more evidence that psychedelic drugs won’t fry your brain:

“Early speculation that psychedelics might lead to mental health problems was based on a small number of case reports and did not take into account either the widespread use of psychedelics or the not infrequent rate of mental health problems in the general population,” [researcher Teri] Krebs was quoted in a release from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “Over the past 50 years tens of millions of people have used psychedelics and there just is not much evidence of long-term problems.”

Surely people have had bad trips. And, the researchers report, surely they have. But their population study was looking at more permanent problems; they report that the “adverse effects of psychedelics are usually short-lived; serious psychiatric symptoms following psychedelic use are typically resolved within 24 hours or at least within a few days.” And anecdotal reports of longer-term mental issues or “hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder” they tend to reject as unsupported by further investigation, mistaking correlation for cause, or derived from small studies with suspect methodologies.

After Medical Marijuana, Medical Psilocybin?

Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005

Greg Miller reports from the third annual Psychedelic Science meeting in Oakland, California:

[Brazilian neuroscientist Dráulio Barros de Araújo and his team] found that ayahuasca reduces neural activity in something called the default mode network, an web of interconnected brain regions that fire up whenever people aren’t focused on any specific task. It’s active when people daydream or let their minds wander, for example. The default mode network has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years. Scientists don’t really know what it does, but they love to speculate. One interpretation is that activity in this network may represent what we experience as our internal monologue and may help generate our sense of self.

Last year, British scientists reported that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, like ayahuasca, reduces activity in the brain’s default mode network. The researchers proposed that interfering with the default network could be how psychedelic drugs cause what users often describe as a disintegration of the self, or even a sense of oneness with the universe.

That effect, compounded with “a growing sense of frustration over the lack of promising new psychiatric drugs in the pipeline,” had attendees intrigued:

Several scientists at the conference pointed to findings that activity in the brain’s default mode network is elevated in people with depression. Because psilocybin and ayahuasca seem to dampen activity in this network, perhaps they could help. It’s hard to connect those dots without a strong dose of speculation, but one idea is that the elevated activity in the default mode network reflects too much attention directed inward. People in the grips of depression, the thinking goes, are trapped in an endless cycle of critical self-examination, and a little neural desynchronization might help them reboot.

But it’s ever-so-hard to bring science to bear on these promising compounds when they are still fucking illegal. In Britain’s case, mushrooms with psilocybin were only banned eight years ago. Instead of examining the properties that could help humans, we have decided to ban them because they might cause someone somewhere a modicum of pleasure and even peace.

(Photo: Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005 before such sales became a crime. By Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.)

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.

The Philosophy Of Psychedelics

Raymond Tallis ponders hallucinogens:

Their power to terrify may be in part due to their content, but even the most benign hallucination is deeply unsettling precisely because, as [Oliver] Sacks says, there is no “consensual validation”. Nobody else can see, hear, feel, smell or taste what you are experiencing. To be in the grip of such incorrigibly private experiences, adrift in a world populated with items that others cannot confirm, is to be sequestrated in the most profound solitude. Even before we speak, we will point out things that we see and desperately want to share with others. Joint attention to items that we all agree are before us is the basis of a common human world. The involuntary perceptual dissidence of the one who hallucinates reminds us how frail and transient is our occupancy of this world; and how, even when you and I are side by side in the sunlight, each of us may be sealed in the privacy of our minds.

E Meets PTSD


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.)

Tiny Trips

Tim Doody profiles Dr. James Fadiman, a researcher involved in psychedelic drug research in the 1960s who is still arguing for medicinal uses today. Doody evokes themes the Dish has covered before – the spirituality and beauty many experience on psychedelics, as well as the government’s refusal to acknowledge results – but here he touches on some new territory, including the future of micro-dosing:

Fadiman defines a micro-dose as 10 micrograms of LSD (or one-fifth the usual dose of mushrooms). Because he cannot set up perfect lab conditions due to the likelihood of criminal prosecution, he has instead crafted a study in which volunteers self-administer and self-report. Which means that they must acquire their own supply of the Schedule 1 drug and separate a standard hit of 50 to 100 micrograms into micro-doses. (Hint: LSD is entirely water-soluble.) … “Micro-dosing turns out to be a totally different world,” Fadiman extolled.

“As someone said, the rocks don’t glow, even a little bit. But what many people are reporting is, at the end of the day, they say, ‘That was a really good day.’ You know, that kind of day when things kind of work. You’re doing a task you normally couldn’t stand for two hours, but you do it for three or four. You eat properly. Maybe you do one more set of reps. Just a good day. That seems to be what we’re discovering.”

“After The Ecstasy, The Laundry”

Steve Silberman revisits William J. Craddock’s Be Not Content: A Subterranean Journal (1970), now available as an e-book after long being out of print:

The Haight could have learned a lot from civilizations that have employed psychoactive botanicals for thousands of years without producing generations of burned-out, spaced-out, used-up former psychonauts. One key difference between those civilizations and the first hippies was that psychedelic experience was part of their culture, structured by collective rituals, and sanctioned by the tribal elders as a path to wisdom and healing. The first hippies, on the other hand, took drugs to “transcend” their own culture and put distance between themselves and their fellow citizens, and rejected their elders — other than the gurus smiling mildly down from posters on the wall — as having no authentic guidance to offer (“Don’t trust anyone over 30”).

The problem with seeking Buddhahood through a steady diet of psychedelics is not that you never find it — it’s that you find it and lose it, again and again, while the mundane particulars that you’re too stoned to deal with (like your marriage, job, kids, health) are sliding downhill. That’s why seasoned practitioners of mindfulness meditation like to remind one another, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” One of the practical problems with the Haight was that it was a Nirvana predicated on staying high 24/7 while someone else did the washing and preparation of the macrobiotic stew — such as your girlfriend or your mother. … That’s not a path to supreme enlightenment, it’s a junket on someone else’s karmic credit card.

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)

Chemical Counseling

Brian Earp defends the idea that some couples should take neurochemical "love drugs" to prevent divorce:

In the case of marriages generally, the individuals involved have voluntarily placed themselves under a mutual oath to stick together "for better or worse" and "until death do us part." The relevant duty is simply to honor that marital commitment, by every reasonable effort, instead of abandoning it too easily when things go "worse." As love drugs become safely and cheaply available, and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then using them might, in some cases, fall into the bubble of "every reasonable effort."

Ecstasy (MDMA) was used in part for marital therapy almost as soon as it was discovered. Some studies have shown clear benefits for the depressed, and those suffering from PTSD. I favor its decriminalization and intensified research on its possible medical benefits. But the pursuit of happiness in America does not seem that high on either party's agenda, does it?