Medicine hope for psychedelic drugs
LSD was tested on cancer patients in the 1960s
Could illegal hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin ever become credible prescription medicines?
It might sound far-fetched, but just a decade ago it seemed unlikely that the prohibited and mildly hallucinogenic drug cannabis would become a mainstream pain-killing medicine.
But it is happening: Cannabis pain-killing pills and sprays are being developed to help people with multiple sclerosis, cancer and Aids.
Now some scientists and psychotherapists think more powerful psychoactive drugs like psilocybin, found in 'magic mushrooms', could have a future as medicinal agents for a number of conditions.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved, but not funded, a pilot study aiming to see if the euphoria and insight of a mild psychedelic 'trip' can ease the physical and emotional pain experienced by thousands of terminal cancer patients each year.
A significant patient population may gain benefits from these treatments
Charles Grob, Professor of Psychiatry and Paediatrics at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Centre, California, and lead scientist on the cancer-psilocybin trial, said: "There is great potential.
"A significant patient population may gain benefits from these treatments."
Professor Grob will be one of the first scientists in 25 years to administer psilocybin to a person in a therapeutic setting.
He wants to see if people's lives can be improved if psychoactive drugs are used under carefully controlled conditions.
In the past it seemed to work: in the 60s, cancer sufferers reported less anxiety, a reduced fear of death, better moods, and surprisingly, even less pain in the weeks after treatment with LSD, which is similar in structure and effect to psilocybin.
It is right that we look at these chemicals with the same stringent standards as we do for other drugs
So, what will happen during a 21st century psychedelic therapeutic session?
The subjects will lie down wearing an eye mask to screen out distractions and headphones pumping in gentle music to fully immerse them in their journey.
"We are going to let the patients guide their own experience by reacting only to their needs," said Professor Grob.
"We are there to hold their hands and talk if they feel the need, but we will not overtly attempt to take it in any spiritual or religious direction. It is up to them."
The rationale says it is better to let the drug gently lift the veil, divorce the association between mind and body and let the patient enjoy the full-on experience as they wish, than interfere in a way that may be incompatible with the patient's psyche.
Could this ever cross the water? In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Britain and many European countries were active centres of psychoactive drug research.
Dr Kate Law, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "With full, informed consent, we have no problem with it in principle.
"These patients are adults and people make their own choices. It is right that we look at these chemicals with the same stringent standards as we do for other drugs.
"People shy away from the fact that other powerful drugs like heroin are used when caring for cancer patients, many of which have side-effects of their own."
However, Dr Law said Cancer Research UK will only support this type of research if there was an analgesic effect - and the preliminary results suggest the overall procedure did not confuse or harm the patient.
Could the drug experience provide the patient with a greater delusion and a more fantastical escape?
Would it allow patients, perhaps already in denial, to become even more withdrawn, hidden, aloof even?
Dr Ken Checinski is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and senior lecturer at St Georges Medical School, London.
Although he does not represent the RCP, he says his opinions may be typical of many psychiatrists. He says it is a question of balancing the benefits and the risks.
"In terminal care the patient has a right to be pain free, but also has a right to go about their business in the usual way during the final weeks of their lives.
"It's unacceptable to be made psychologically unwell during this period.
"But most drugs also have a medical use - amphetamine and cocaine derivatives, opiates, tranquillisers and now the cannabinols - so there is no reason why we shouldn't consider using the serotonin agonists (hallucinogens).
"However, governments should provide funding for this type of research, not vested interest groups."
The scientific use of mind-altering drugs has often been controversial. But Professor Grob and his scientific allies have fought long and hard for a reconsideration of the hallucinogens as serious medicines.
A not-for-profit collective of like-minded scientists, groups like MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) believe outlawed drugs like MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin have a better chance than conventional treatments of successfully managing many conditions.
A similar study involving psilocybin and the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is nearing completion at the University of Arizona.
And an MDMA (ecstasy) trial for the counselling of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) victims is finally underway after a bureaucratic bad-trip with red tape.
"We are re-opening an area that has been shut down for 25 years," said Professor Grob.
"A couple of groups have established credibility through the formal channels. It may take time but it's possible."
Nevertheless, more state-tolerated than state-sponsored, MAPS and their academic friends know that the eyes of the authorities and a wider scientific community are upon them.
The study is funded by the Heffter Research Institute.