This post was originally published on October 14, 2016.
“Magic mushrooms” are apparently living up to their name in recent research studies. According to a recent Vox article, psychedelic substances may very well have magic effects for people struggling with alcohol abuse, smoking cessation, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), cluster headaches, depression and “pre-death anxiety.” Thanks to renewed scientific interest in psychedelics, researchers are finding that psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic agent in mushrooms, may indeed hold the key to treating a wide range of addictions, psychological disorders and emotional conditions.
However, critics are quick to point out that no matter what wonders psychedelics hold, it’s not an easy road to get them to market. “Establishing the therapeutic benefits of using psychedelic drugs poses special scientific challenges,” not to mention financial and legal complications, the Vox article said. When it comes to legalizing psychedelics, people need to be prepared to tumble down more than just an Alice-sized rabbit hole. And while roadblocks exist, the results of psychedelic drug studies are as compelling as they are genuinely promising.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins tested a smoking cessation program on 15 participants—all of whom had tried to quit, time and again, without any success. This time around, their treatment plan centered around carefully monitored doses of psilocybin. The result? A staggering 80% of the study’s participants quit smoking without any trouble. The Vox story, however, notes that follow-up studies haven’t been fast-tracked, despite these staggering results that are “unheard of.”
Several other studies have yielded results that link psychedelics to potential benefits for the body. The journal Neurology in 2006 interviewed 53 patients who dosed themselves with psilocybin and LSD to relieve debilitating cluster headaches. Also known as “suicide headaches” due to the severity of pain and the staggering rate of suicides that plague sufferers, “cluster headaches are notoriously resistant to relief by standard medications.” Not so after taking psilocybin. The journal found that “the vast majority of the patients reported full or partial relief from their cluster headaches after the use of psilocybin mushrooms.” In fact, the dosage required to trigger relief from the headaches was just a quarter the amount of what recreational users typically ingest.
The Vox story contends that “much larger private and public funders focused on smoking and health aren’t yet interested” in treatment programs that throw psychedelics into the mix. “That lack of enthusiasm, among both funders and the broader scientific community, speaks volumes about how edgy the whole topic of psychedelics as therapy remains.” And yet, psychedelic-based therapies don’t require long-term use to get long-term results. Quite the opposite. The Johns Hopkins smoking study, for example, “involved only three guided [hallucinogenic]‘trips’.” Still, mushrooms leave more than just a bad taste in the mouths of regulators—they challenge long-held beliefs about what psychedelics could (and should) be capable of.
Why They’re Not Supported
Psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms were classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances back in 1971. Similarly classified drugs, like heroin and marijuana, were categorized that way because there’s no known medical use for them. As a result, that was the death knell for “research into the potential physiological benefits of psilocybin mushrooms” until the 1990s. Still, as the Vox feature observes, psychedelics are defined as drugs in two very distinct ways: “They influence brain chemistry other than by providing nutrition, and they are covered under international drug treaties and US drug laws.” Critics argue that psychedelics are different in design and don’t neatly fit into the scheme of current US drug policies. One experience with psychedelics isn’t the same as the next person’s. In fact, it’s that relative nature of psychedelics that makes them so unique as a potential treatment.
Even with all the support in the world, though, running the gauntlet with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may prove to be the most challenging of all. It’s not as cut-and-dry as patients simply ingesting the drug. Simply put: psychedelics are high maintenance. “The benefits seem to flow not from the chemicals alone, but from taking them with appropriate preparation, guidance and follow-up. That complicates the research process enormously,” the Vox article said. “It’s much easier to give 1,000 subjects the same dose of an SSRI than it is to give 1,000 people the same preparation for, and guidance in, a psilocybin session.” The article contends that “hard drugs” like cocaine, crack, meth, heroin and other opioids “share a central risk” of being highly addictive. Psychedelics? Not so much. Instances where people get addicted to psychedelics are “comparatively rare.” They’re also not “associated with large, flourishing, somewhat organized illicit markets.” Yet US policymakers will first need to open their minds to not only the possibility that psychedelics can be useful, but that current drug laws are far too forbidding.
Possible Next Steps?
Getting policy makers, experts and practitioners to agree on psychedelics’ role in recovery remains the biggest hurdle. “[It] depends on there being a pot of gold at the end of the research rainbow,” the article claims. “Such a pot of gold probably does not exist for the psychedelics, both because they are well-known chemicals whose composition can’t be patented and because their therapeutic uses will typically involve very small numbers of administrations per patient.” That means the juice isn’t worth the squeeze for the pharmaceutical companies who would have to spend millions on psilocybin research.
The possible benefits are simply far too intriguing to ignore or dismiss out of hand, though. The Vox story outlines several next steps for ushering psychedelics forward in a clinical setting. The first is in driving medical research through “serious funding—millions of dollars per year—from foundations or wealthy individuals” instead of seeking money from pharmaceutical companies. The article also makes a case that researchers should embrace the fact that psychedelics don’t come from a single source or lab, like research marijuana currently does. They also suggest creating a task force of psychedelic guides “for medical and spiritual uses alike, with both adequate training—drawing on the expertise developed in decades of informal experience—and a strong professional ethic, mutually policed.” Moreover, encouraging the FDA to change its practices “to recognize performance enhancement as a basis for drug approval” may be the best strategy for getting psychedelics embraced.
Regardless, a long, difficult road lies ahead for those who are as encouraged by recent study findings as they are motivated to make change happen. One way or another, that road will determine whether psychedelics provide a simple trip, or a greater journey toward recovery.