For most of us it’s difficult to imagine the overwhelming stress and anxiety that comes when you’re told your days of life are numbered. The psychological issues associated with terminal diagnosis are some of the most severe and difficult to treat via the traditional psychotherapy model. In recent years, a series of studies have shown that the use of various psychedelics, coupled with therapy, has unprecedented potential to relieve anxiety for people facing death.
For example, the first study looking at the potential medical use of LSD in more than 40 years concluded last year that LSD-assisted psychotherapy is effective in easing anxiety in terminally ill patients. A 2008 study showed the ability of psilocybin (the active component in more than 100 varieties of psychedelic mushrooms) to ease fear of death in 12 end-stage cancer patients. Research involving ayahuasca has also turned out encouraging data showing its ability to reduce psychological traumas and anxieties, and several studies involving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy have shown it to be statistically significant in reducing anxiety and PTSD symptoms in study participants (some of whom were at the end of their lives).
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) gave final approval this week to a new study looking into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to ease anxiety and reduce psychological symptoms associated with life-threatening illness.
The research, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) will “gather preliminary data” about the safety and efficacy of using MDMA, alongside psychotherapy, to ease anxiety for people grappling with illness and the reality of death.
Researchers hope to eventually break new ground in end-of-life psychological therapies.
“Given that in this situation, spiritual, familial, psychological and existential concerns all take a position of primary and imminent importance for many people, the development of new treatment modalities to meet these needs is a clear imperative,” the study protocol states. “Enabling individuals to face life-threatening illness and all of its concomitant difficulties with dignity, creativity, love, support and kindness is the primary impetus of this research study.”
MDMA, most commonly known as the active ingredient in “ecstasy” or “Molly,” was put on the Schedule I controlled substance list by the federal government in 1985. The listing by definition categorizes it as a substance with no medical value, which makes it difficult to get permission to use it in studies. However, in this case the DEA granted principal investigator Phil Wolfson, M.D. a Schedule I license, allowing him to conduct research in Marin, California and gather data on 18 people suffering from serious illness. Wolfson is a psychotherapist who lost his 16-year-old son to leukemia more than three decades ago. He wrote the book Noe: A Father-Son Song of Life, Love, Illness and Death about the experience.
The study was previously approved by an Institutional Review Board, the Research Advisory Panel of California and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Obtaining DEA approval was the last step in the complex, arduous, and lengthy process of getting approval for our study,” Wolfson said in a press release.
Wolfson used MDMA in his psychotherapy practice in the 1980s before it was outlawed and saw encouraging results. “MDMA psychotherapy was a great boon,” he said to Reset’s Editor in Chief, April Short, last fall.
But the psychedelic gained a reputation as a party pill, and due to a drug war mentality that has swept the nation for decades, it was outlawed. The substance has been illegal for three decades now, its therapeutic benefits ignored or denied by the federal government.
However, a global series of studies into the safety and benefits of MDMA are refuting the conventional wisdom, showing success in combating PTSD and other mental health disorders with extremely low rates of negative side effects.
“I loved [MDMA-assisted psychotherapy] and thought it was very helpful, so my motivation is to try and bring it back and move it from science to a prescription pad,” Wolfson said to Short. “We need a different approach to dealing with substances. People use them, and the fact is the year they made MDMA illegal, it went from thousands of users to tens of thousands and then millions. Large populations of people have been using psychedelics for long periods of time, and the amount of harm is low.”
If studies continue to show that psychedelic therapies have low risks but important benefits, they could revolutionize hospice practices and help people come to grips with their mortality. For now, researchers are left to ask the government permission to perform their work, one study at a time.