Medicinal Uses for Psychedelic Drugs

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Photo By Bruno Borges
You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it.

Ric Godfrey had the
shakes. At night, his body temperature would drop and he’d start to tremble.
During the day, he was jumpy. He was always looking around, always on edge. His
vibe scared the people around him. He couldn’t hang on to a job.

He started drinking and drugging, anything to numb out.

Years passed before a Department of Veterans Affairs
counselor told him he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The
former Marine had spent the early 1990s interrogating prisoners in Kuwait. Years
later, he was still playing out the Persian Gulf War.

Counseling helped a little, but the symptoms continued. He
went to rehab for his substance abuse, then tried Alcoholics Anonymous. “That
went on for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I hit rock
bottom.”

Then one of his Seattle neighbors–a woman who also suffered
from PTSD–told him about a group of veterans who were going down to Peru to try
a psychedelic drug called ayahuasca, a jungle vine that is brewed into a
tea. Indigenous Peruvians called it “sacred medicine.” A wealthy veteran had
started a healing center in South America and
would pay all his expenses.

The next thing Ric knew, he was crawling into a tent on a
platform out in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The sun went down. The shaman
gave him the tea, a blessing, and a pail in which to vomit.

“Your body will not keep it in you,” Ric recalled. “At
first, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. Then all of a sudden
you blink your eyes and you are not there anymore. You get out of your body and
look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I
didn’t want to be and stepped out of it. It was the most amazing thing. I’ve
taken lots of drugs before, but I never remembered. I think this is the key.
You actually gain knowledge from this. I don’t even consider it a drug. It’s an
eye-opener. It makes you think about stuff. Your deepest, darkest secrets,
stuff you have been holding on to since you were eight years old–it washes out
of you, and you feel like a totally different person. People look at you
differently. Your whole world changes before your eyes.”

Three years later, Ric Godfrey says he hasn’t had a single
symptom of the shakes or night terror since he came back from the jungle. He’s
relaxed and holding down a great job.

“I’ve always been afraid that someone was out to get me, but
I don’t have that fear anymore,” he says. “I still like to sit with my back to
the wall. I still have certain military idiosyncrasies, but I’m not afraid
anymore.”

Psychedelic drugs
are back. Not that they ever really went away. You could always find
them on the street, in the psychedelic underground, and along the more
enlightened edges of the drug culture. What’s new is that these powerful
mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back
into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities
and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins,
Harvard, Purdue University,
and the University of California, Los
Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and
healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal
for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university
administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once
again giving the stamp of approval–and the money needed–for research into
beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.”

“This field of research is finally coming of age,” said
David Nichols, a veteran researcher and recently retired professor from the
Purdue University College of Pharmacy and the Indiana University School of
Medicine. “As Crosby, Stills, and Nash said,
it’s been a long time coming.”

Leading the campaign in the new wave of government-sanctioned
research is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS),
an independent nonprofit that has raised millions of dollars to fund an ongoing
study into the use of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, to treat returning war
veterans and rape survivors suffering from PTSD.

In the first phase of that study, MAPS researcher Michael
Mithoefer, a psychiatrist from South
Carolina, treated 21 patients. Some participants were
given MDMA with psychotherapy, while some got a placebo along with their
therapy. Researchers hoped to show that MDMA’s ability to enhance trust,
empathy, and openness would make it easier for patients to recount a traumatic
event. It did. Over 80 percent of those who received MDMA had no PTSD symptoms
two months later, compared with around 25 percent of those who got the placebo.
Patients with MDMA-assisted therapy did better than those treated with
traditional prescription drugs, such as Zoloft or Paxil.

In November 2012, Mithoefer and his colleagues released more
results in a paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
It showed that the benefits of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were sustained over
an average of three and a half years from the time the drug had been last
ingested, an exceptionally lengthy period for a follow-up study. Furthermore,
there were no reports of lasting harmful effects from exposure to the drug.

Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS, envisions his
organization as a self-supporting nonprofit that will train therapists, run its
own clinics, and distribute Ecstasy to doctors and psychologists.

MAPS now controls 960 grams of Ecstasy that was legally
manufactured in 1985 by Nichols, the Purdue
University chemist.
That’s enough for between 4,000 and 5,000 doses, and it has not lost its
potency. “It’s still the world’s purest MDMA,” Doblin said.

The use of
psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes is not without controversy, however.
In the 1950s, writer Aldous Huxley warned that psychedelics can take users to
“heaven or hell”–for some, a path to enlightenment; for others, the spark for
psychosis.

Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions who was another
early explorer, noted the drugs can mimic “authentic religious experience” but
questioned whether altered states of consciousness actually change the way
people live their lives.

Smith also issued early warnings that today’s “ayahuasca
tourists” might consider. While “sacred medicine” may be helpful for someone
who was raised in a Native American religious culture, it may prove disastrous
for an outsider unprepared for a mind-blowing trip. “History shows that
minority faiths are viable, but only when they are cradled in communities that are
solid and structured enough to constitute what are in effect churches,” Huston
writes in an essay titled “Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life.”
More recently, the dangers of using psychedelics without medical supervision
were illustrated when a man died after ingesting ayahuasca at the same Peruvian
retreat center where Ric Godfrey had his life-changing experience.

Doblin and other advocates of psychedelic-assisted therapy
acknowledge that these powerful substances–while not as addictive as drugs like
alcohol, heroin, or cocaine–can be abused by recreational users. They propose a
system in which they can be prescribed by doctors and administered by trained
therapists.

Nevertheless, researchers and advocates contend that
psychedelic drugs, used under close supervision, hold great promise for a
deeper understanding of the connection between the brain and human
consciousness.

“Where does our capacity for consciousness come from?” asked
David Presti, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in neuroscience at
the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s still a huge mystery. It’s the biggest mystery of all in science, and
psychedelics are the most powerful probe to study that connection.”

In an interview in his office in the Life
Sciences Building
on the Berkeley
campus, Presti held up a large piece of dried ayahuasca vine. He said brain
scientists are confirming what shamanic cultures around the world have known
for millennia. “These substances have a profound capacity when used under
appropriate conditions to be catalysts for real transformation in people, for
real healing.”

A Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin and mystical experience
is a good example. Follow-up surveys of 36 “hallucinogen-naive adults” who took
psilocybin under the supervision of Roland Griffiths, a professor in the
departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, found that
two-thirds of them rated the sessions as being “among the five most spiritually
significant experiences of their lives.”

Griffiths’
work on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs has been
largely supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Along with
Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA, he has studied
the effects of psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients–their research
found that low doses of psilocybin improved the patients’ mood and reduced
their need for narcotic pain relievers. Another Johns Hopkins researcher,
Matthew Johnson, has begun a new pilot study to see if the active ingredient in
psilocybin mushrooms, commonly called “magic mushrooms,” can help people
overcome their addiction to tobacco.

Griffiths’
personal interest in meditation inspired his study of psilocybin-occasioned
mystical experience in healthy volunteers. One research subject, Brian, who
asked that his last name not be used, recalled, “I was unified with everything.
I still had enough awareness to get up and walk to the bathroom, but everything
was so incredibly beautiful that I laughed and cried at the same time. I was
one with it. It was just incredible–one of the top five experiences I have ever
had in my life.”

The experience was so spiritually profound that Brian
recommitted himself to his study of meditation and Buddhism and in late 2012
was scheduled to be ordained as a monk in the Soto Zen tradition.

For Presti, outcomes like Brian’s are not surprising.

“One of the ways psychedelics work is by reducing our
psychological defenses. They allow the person to become aware of uncomfortable
feelings and thoughts so they can come to the surface and be therapeutically
processed,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly how these things work, but there may
be some kind of hard rewiring that goes on in the brain. They may increase neuroplasticity–make
the neurons more susceptible to forming new connections.”

He believes the substances should also be studied as a
possible treatment for depression.

“But there is a lot of resistance to this from the
pharmaceutical industry. The last thing it wants to see is a substance people
only use once or twice. They want us to use something every day for the rest of
our life. That’s how they make money.”

Other researchers are troubled that the new wave of
psychedelic research is blurring the lines between spiritual experience and the
hard science of medicine.

“We are not purveyors of spirituality. Having an epiphany is
not a part of medicine,” said John Mendelson, a senior scientist at the California Pacific
Medical Research
Center in San Francisco. “Most of medicine is not
predicated on making you better than you are. It’s getting you back to where
you were. There are lots of people and things out there can make us feel
better, but our job is to diagnose and treat and fix diseases.”

That view is no longer going unchallenged.

A new generation of dedicated psychedelic drug
researchers has emerged on university campuses across the nation. Many of them
gathered last September at a “Psychedemia” conference at the University of Pennsylvania
in Philadelphia.
They see their mission as “integrating psychedelics into academia.”

“Psychedelic studies are entering the mainstream,” said Ne?e
Devenot, a young graduate student at Penn and a lead organizer of the
multidisciplinary conference. “You can talk about this now at the dinner table
without coming across as some kind of fanatic.”

During a lunch break at the weekend conference, one of the
wise elders in the field of psychedelic drug research, Johns Hopkins
psychologist William A. Richards, sat in the cafeteria in the basement of
Houston Hall, surveying the buzz of intergenerational excitement. Richards has
been exploring these realms since the early 1960s with such luminaries as
Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow, Walter Pahnke, and, yes, Timothy Leary.

Richards knows there could be another backlash against
psychedelic drug research, not just by those who are still fighting the “war on
drugs” but also by academics who resist the idea that scholars should seriously
study something as slippery as spirituality.

“But if mysticism is to emerge from silent monastic cells
into the bright light of scientific discourse, I see no alternative,” Richards
says. “We have arrived at that frontier where the growing edge of true science
meets the mystery of the unknown. Here faith takes over, either belief in something or belief in nothing. These experiences are not in any
drug. They are in us.”

Don Lattin’s latest
book is a memoir titled
Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. Reprinted from Spirituality & Health, (January/February 2013), a
bimonthly magazine that reports on the current spiritual renaissance.

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