Breakthroughs In Addiction Treatment Could Pressure Government To Legalize Psychedelics

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by Aaron Kase

on April 13, 2015

What would it take to rationalize federal drug policy when it comes to psychedelic substances?

Ayahuasca, psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and ibogaine are relatively safe and bring therapeutic benefits to countless people via clinical trials and personal use. However, they are classified as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act. This officially labels them drugs with high likelihood of abuse, with no known medical benefits and leaves them strictly prohibited under U.S. law.

However, psychedelics are good for far more than just spiritual journeys and recreational use, and it’s their proven utility in treating pernicious mental disorders that may finally force the government’s hand.

As research continues to pile up showing that psychedelics can be used to effectively treat addiction, PTSD, anxiety and depression where other therapies have failed, Uncle Sam may eventually have little choice but to drop its absolutist policies and grant the substances legal status.

That’s the approach that has worked so far for marijuana. Nearly two decades after California first legalized medical usage of cannabis (in 1996), the federal government has finally acknowledged its benefits and could act soon to remove it from Schedule I.

Momentum is building for a similar track for psychedelics. In February, the New Yorker published a long piece by Michael Pollan detailing both the extraordinary potential of psychedelic therapies and the numerous hurdles that researchers must clear to study them because of federal roadblocks.

A number of other studies are adding to the evidence. For example, ibogaine, a substance derived from a shrub that grows naturally in Africa, has also shown immense promise. Patients have used it to successfully beat addictions, most notably opiate addictions. To legally receive treatment, however, people must travel to Mexico or other countries where ibogaine is still legal.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently studying the long-term effects of ibogaine on addictions. MAPS already completed an observational study looking at the safety and long term effectiveness of ayahuasca to treat addiction and substance dependence. The encouraging results of the study were published in June 2013 in Current Drug Abuse Reviews.

A host of other studies have shown that psychedelics can help people come to peace with traumatic experiences, quelling suicidal thoughts and relieving depression even after pharmaceutical interventions have failed. MAPS received a green light from the federal government in March to go ahead with a new phase two study using MDMA to help treat anxiety related to potentially fatal diseases.

A common thread is that psychedelics help people come to terms with themselves, and therefore make them more capable of battling their afflictions.

“Addiction and drug abuse have a function which is to escape from stress and difficult emotions like shame, loneliness, fear, guilt or shyness,” Pål-Ørjan Johansen, co-leader of the psychedelic advocate group EmmaSofia, said to Newsweek. “Recently our colleague, Matthew Johnson, completed a pilot study with psilocybin for smoking cessation, also with encouraging results.”

EmmaSofia is currently raising money in a long-term effort to legalize psychedelic treatments for addiction and other ailments. The group was recently featured in an attention-grabbing piece in the Independent, pushing the notion that the substances are as safe as common activities like riding a bike or playing football. Although there are risks involved with taking psychedelics, particularly for people who are using prescription medications or have existing medical conditions, studies have shown that there is no connection between their usage and acquiring mental health disorders.

“Based on extensive human experience, it is generally acknowledged that psychedelics do not elicit addiction or compulsive use and that there is little evidence for an association between psychedelic use and birth defects, chromosome damage, lasting mental illness, or toxic effects to the brain or other body organs,” Teri Krebs, a neuroscientist and EmmaSofia co-leader, wrote in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal. “Although psychedelics can induce temporary confusion and emotional turmoil, hospitalisations and serious injuries are extremely rare. Overall, psychedelics are not particularly dangerous when compared to other common activities.”

Ironically, prohibition actually causes psychedelics to be more dangerous, because they are unregulated and buyers never know when they are getting something with impure additives.

A change in federal policy could correct that problem, and provide safe, legal access to treatment to millions who need it. The path forward to bring psychedelics into the legal mainstream is clear, although the time-line is not.