UK: Web: The Trip of a Lifetime
by Katy Hickman, Producer, All in the Mind, (05 Apr 2006) BBC News United Kingdom
Before 1960s' Flower Power, LSD was a medical wonder drug - a supposed treatment for mental illness. Then it became outlawed and discredited. But now a new generation is researching the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs.
"You realise that your feelings are beginning to change. You have to understand these drugs don't put things into your mind. You're very aware and in a subtle way this drug begins to change your perception - you're able to look at your same problem and feelings in a very different way."
Pam Sakuda, 58, is dying of cancer. Last year she took part in a controversial pilot project which uses psilocybin ( pronounced sil-o-cybin ), which comes from magic mushrooms, to help patients cope with the anxiety of being terminally ill.
"It became paralysing," she says of the stress caused by confronting her mortality. "It came to the point where you feel that you don't have anything left to do. And I was hoping in this study to be able to get some relief from that."
Pam spent several days talking to the psychiatric team at Harbor-UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles, before agreeing to the trial.
When using hallucinogenic drugs in a medical environment, volunteers are subjected to a regime known as "set and setting" - knowing what might happen, and feeling safe in one's environment.
The hospital room in Pam's case was specially decorated with beautiful drapes and vases full of flowers. Pam lay down wearing eye shades and listening to her favourite music, waiting for the drug to take effect.
"Physically you begin to feel a tingling warmth and a flush to your head," she says. "It's physical but it's more than physical."
Psychiatrist Professor Charles Grob, who is leading the project, says individuals "appear to have much diminished anxiety, improved mood regulation and also more acceptance" of their condition.
Professor Grob believes the psilocybin, like LSD, gives an insight into one's sub-conscious.
"Individuals can have very deep, very personally rewarding experiences" he says. "[They] can have beautiful aesthetic experiences, powerful autobiographic experiences, where they review aspects of their lives. There's something about that experience that seems to have an intrinsic capacity to heal."
Professor Grob's study is a small pilot - just eight volunteers. It is, however, one of a number of new research projects into psychedelics sanctioned over the last few years: psilocybin is being studied for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy, is being used alongside psychotherapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD ).
There's even a tentative step to get permission to use LSD for cluster headaches - a debilitating condition that involves months of severe migraines.
If it sounds familiar, that's because hallucinogenics - in particular LSD - used to be the wonder drugs of psychiatry back in the 1950s and 60s - used to treat addiction, depression anxiety and other mental illnesses.
But LSD soon became the drug of choice for hippies and those involved in the 60s counter-culture, and was outlawed.
For Professor Grob, like many of this new generation of psychedelic researchers, LSD remains their ultimate goal. He chose to work with psilocybin because the mere mention of LSD still provokes extreme reactions.
"We could more easily glide under the radar and do our work without attracting the negative attention that I think would happen with an LSD study."
In Britain LSD was used widely in hospitals - Powick in Worcestershire even had an LSD block. But ignorance about its powerful effects resulted in some disturbing experiments.
Diane is one of many former patients who sued her health authority for the harm she says LSD caused her.
A rape victim, she was treated with LSD because "they wanted me to discuss it, and I couldn't... in those days you just didn't."
She remembers being given something to drink and then left in a hospital room, not knowing what would happen. She suffers recurring flashbacks of being smothered and huge crawling black spiders.
"I always have, I don't know whether they're nightmares or trips at night which wake me up and I'm too frightened to go to sleep then," she says. "I'm just generally frightened of everything and everybody."
Diane now lives quietly with her full-time carer, but believes LSD is a dangerous drug that doesn't deserve a second chance.
"There were terrible mistakes, terrible lapses in judgement of individuals doing treatment," admits Professor Grob. "But I think we're seeing more serious, sober, scientific medical investigators getting interested in this area. There's a growing recognition that a psychedelic experience can have a therapeutic profile which might be extraordinary particularly in patient populations that do not respond well to conventional treatments."
It's far too early to say whether psychedelics do have a role in modern psychiatry. But Pam Sakuda is convinced her experience of psilocybin has helped her face death.
"It was a dramatic difference from the morning to the afternoon," she says. "I came to see that being so afraid and so negative about all the things I wouldn't be able to do was really limiting the time I do have left. I started to live fully and richly and intensely."
- - All in the Mind is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1630 BST on Wednesday 5 April, or you can hear it through the BBC Radio Player.