[h1]Modern Psychedelic Scientists Find Data in Countercultural Past[/h1]
SAN JOSE, California — A sprawling Holiday Inn by the San Jose Airport does not seem like the right place for a conference on the new science of psychedelic drug therapies.
Yet, last week, the stucco-walled hotel played host to a mèlange of playful scientific researchers, serious drug self-experimenters, and roving bands of hippies in handmade-looking clothing. The scene was as strange as you’d expect at a conference called “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century.”
Scientists and doctors studying the medical uses of psychedelics are trying to figure out what to do with the cultural heritage of their drugs. There is a lot of baggage associated with LSD, for example, that new pharmaceuticals don’t carry: There are no Jay-Z songs about Zoloft. On the other hand, the vast numbers of experiences drug users have had with psychedelics could be a dark dataset that, with the right filters, helps aid the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
For the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which organized the conference, the event was the most visible result of their attempt to meld the world of Jerry Garcia with that of the Surgeon General.
“Things were so polarized in the ’60s. I think over the 40 years, the counterculture and the culture have changed. The culture is more receptive and the counterculture is more patient,” said Rick Doblin, a Harvard public policy Ph.D.-holder and the president of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. “I think the vast majority of the people at the conference appreciate the scientific model and want to see the research move forward and think it’s a vehicle for change. There are a few that are into crystals and astrology, and then there are the vast majority, who are more scientific thinking.”
Outside the scientific sessions, there was more than a whiff of grooviness around. Outside the main ballroom, beyond a slatted fence, a “smoking area” and traveling tea room sat in a parking lot. Three young hippie women in classic garb wandered barefoot around the psychedelic art exhibits, and two young guys wandered around asking “Anyone know where the greens are?” There was software for tracking astrological phenomenon for sale and various herbal drinks that came in vials. People played the didgeridoo next to hot tubs under the intoxicating San Jose sun. It did not seem as if it would be difficult to conduct an uncontrolled experiment or two with a little help from some friends.
But inside the PowerPoint-illuminated conference rooms, people spent their days listening to scientific sessions. While there were hundreds of sessions, the lead-off hitter was Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist, who delivered an update on his work with MDMA, the main ingredient in the street drug ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Mithoefer, supported by a few million dollars from MAPS, has a plan to push his drug-assisted therapy techniques through the lengthy clinical trial process. By about 2012, they hope to enter the last phase of clinical trials on MDMA. If that study works out, they’ll emerge on the other end with the same Food and Drug Administration stamp of approval given to Cialis and antibiotics and protease inhibitors.
The results look good, although they have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Patients who underwent two eight-hour therapy sessions and took MDMA showed much better short- and long-term clinical outcomes than people who just received a placebo and the therapy. At least in the early study, MDMA did much better than Zoloft in treating PTSD, Mithoefer said.
Based on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, Mithoefer’s work is the test case for the re-medicalization of psychedelic drugs. Mithoefer remarked that psychedelic research presentations are usually confined to tiny rooms in back hallways of scientific conferences. But there were hundreds watching him talk Friday. “This does mean something,” Mithoefer said. “The tide is turning a little bit.”
In 1970, Richard Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act, which grouped the psychedelics and marijuana with heroin as drugs that had no medical value and had a high potential for abuse. It had a chilling effect on research in the area, though it didn’t seem to slow down the supply of drugs for amateur experimenters.
With official research lagging, unorthodox information networks grew up to spread the word about psychedelic practices and theory. The vast numbers of psychedelic drug users created enormous amounts of vernacular knowledge about how and why they work on the human mind. And a lot of that knowledge sits on the website, Erowid.org, where tens of thousands of people have posted their experiences with a bewildering array of substances.
Doblin, it turns out, went to college with Fire and Earth Erowid, the couple that runs the website. MAPS has supported Erowid financially and Doblin considers the site a valuable source for which psychedelics are most likely to be approved by the FDA for medical use.
“How do we decide which ones are the best? There are people who have tried all the drugs and they send in their reports to Erowid, etc,” Doblin said. “We have drugs we believe work, we just have to prove that they work.”
It’s exactly that knowledge that Doblin said was going to enable his small nonprofit to push MDMA through the FDA clinical trial process, which pharmaceutical companies say can cost $500 million, by their own accounting, which includes the high cost of the many failures.
“For us the advantage we have is this 5,000-year history with psychedelics and this whole underground work with MDMA. We have identified the successes through these unusual processes because the drugs are being used outside of medical knowledge,” Doblin said. “There has been a filtering of which drugs are the best,”
Fire Erowid agreed. She noted that researchers like Mithoefer are working with at most a couple of dozen people. Erowid has many thousands of reports. “The public knows so much more that’s not in the current scientific literature,” Erowid said.
The Erowid-MAPS connection provides a conduit for the informal knowledge of the psychedelic scene to enter the official record.
“It’s not about leaving the counterculture behind, but weaving it in,” said Brad Burge, a Ph.D. student at the University of California at San Diego who is studying the way MAPS works. Burge argued in an editorial for the group’s magazine that MAPS “exists somewhere between the sterile objectivity of clinical psychopharmacology and the passionate creativity of psychedelic counterculture.”
Both Burge and a fellow Ph.D. student, University of California at Berkeley’s Katie Hendy, are interested in how the use of psychedelics in clinical settings might change medicine itself.
“How is this research changing what pharmaceuticals are?” Hendy asked. To her, the very way the drugs operate could challenge the notion of what medicines are appropriate for treating our brains. Unlike Prozac or other pharmaceuticals that take weeks to work and often have subtle effects, psychedelics like psilocybin produce powerful and acute states of consciousness.
Burge had a similar perspective on the possibilities of psychedelics to change psychotherapies. “What MAPS wants to do is not so much to erase the line between spiritual growth and psychotherapeutic treatment, as to point out that there may not have ever been a difference in the first place,” Burge wrote.
But how to incorporate those elements of the counterculture remains a political, legal, and strategic question. What’s interesting about this conference is that most of the people are not self-styled counterculturists. They are wearing department store pants and dresses and wearing high heels. People take pains to indicate that this is a field that dots its i’s and crosses its t’s. It’s what makes this weird suburban location makes sense: If a Holiday Inn is good enough for podiatrists, it’s good enough for psychedelic researchers.
Mithoefer himself is a good symbol of the conference itself. From the front, his round glasses and stolid demeanor seem to make him the model of prudence and good sense. But when he turns, you notice a sly ponytail flicking around the neck of his sports coat. At the psychedelic science conference, there is a party in the back.
Even if the psychedelic researchers are now trying to go through official routes, many of them have their roots in a decidedly more adventurous camp.
“When I started at New College of Florida in ‘71, there was a nudist colony at the pool. That’s what I walked into as a college freshman,” Doblin said. “I have an appreciation of the responsible, beneficial use outside of medical contexts.”
Even Grof, an impeccably dressed Czech researcher with caterpillar eyebrows, who is considered a godfather of the more scientific side of psychedelic research, has a decidedly existential take on the potential of psychiatrics.
“The human drive for transcendence is even more powerful than the urge to have sex,” Grof said.
For him, the resurgence of psychedelic science is a welcome corrective to what happened during the Timothy Leary-led rise of LSD use. Leary’s and his followers’ attitudes sparked a backlash that robbed psychiatry of some of the best tools that they had for understanding consciousness and helping people.
Now, a couple of generations later as Grof nears 80 years of age, they might finally get a chance to use them again.
Images: Alexis Madrigal/Wired.com.
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