As weed goes mainstream, hallucinogens are making a scientific and cultural comeback.
Cannabis has passed the tipping point toward widespread social acceptance (and probable legalization). Even prominent judges in states where marijuana is illegal are coming out as users and advocates. And now, if pop culture and scientific inquiry are any indicators, it would seem that psychedelics are re-entering the national dialogue with a marked separation from their perceived hippie past—and that’s probably a good thing.
Today, scientists throughout the country are delving into the trippy world of psychedelics to finally provide some concrete data and potential uses for the long-illegal drugs. Most notable, perhaps, is the work of Charles Grob at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, which was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine. Grob has been administering psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, to terminal cancer patients, with the hope of alleviating their understandable end-of-life anxiety. And it’s been working.
Harvard’s John Halpern conducted recent research that indicates LSD is an effective treatment for debilitatingly painful cluster headaches, even at sub-psychedelic doses. He started a company, Entheogen Corp., around manufacturing and distributing a non-trippy LSD derivative known as BOL-148 to treat the disorder.
Even Oprah Winfrey’s mag wrote up a story last year detailing a doctor’s use of MDMA, Ecstasy’s main ingredient, as a treatment for PTSD in rape victims. Results from that study indicate that some 83 percent of subjects felt that the use of MDMA helped them overcome their traumas. The same doc is also behind the most recent round of MDMA testing on Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans suffering from the disorder. LSD has also been used to treat the disorder as recently as last year.
Even pop culture’s getting on board. Recently on Mad Men, Roger Sterling’s LSD adventures portrayed a fairly even-handed, hysteria-free experience. Comedians like Joe Rogan, Doug Stanhope and others have come out in support of the use of psychedelics for personal growth and creativity. Even Steve Jobs, hero to millions of geeks and businessmen around the world, gushed about his love for LSD in his recent authorized biography, saying dropping acid was “one of the most important things” he ever experienced.
Of course, humans have used psychedelics essentially since the dawn of humanity to treat a host of medical, mental and spiritual ailments. Noted scientist and philosopher Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” theory even posits that the addition of low doses of foraged psilocybe cubensis mushrooms into the Homo erectus diet was a prominent force behind the evolution of Homo sapiens and modern society due to the vision enhancement, sexual stimulation and empathy increase caused by low doses of the drug.
It wasn’t really until the early 1960s that psychedelics, specifically psilocybin and LSD, began to be demonized en masse. Timothy Leary’s initially admirable attempt to spread information about psychedelics devolved into cult-of-personality-based recreational drug use. The Leary contingent’s rabble-rousing from their Millbrook, NY estate, coupled with Leary’s egotistical quest to become a countercultural icon (remember “turn on, tune in, drop out”?), ultimately helped to contribute to the poor perception psychedelics have faced historically by providing reference material for the Drug War propaganda machine.
Prior to the Leary Hour in psychedelic history, scientists enjoyed years of unfettered study and experimentation with drugs like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. With the discovery of LSD in 1938 by chemist Albert Hoffman and its subsequent mass production by Sandoz Laboratories in 1947 as a psychiatric drug, the psychedelic study floodgates opened. Scientists examined psychedelics as treatments for everything from alcoholism and addiction to anxiety and depression. So popular was the study of hallucinogens that throughout the ’50s and ’60s, scientists administered psychedelics to some 40,000 patients across 1,000 clinical studies.
By 1970, however, many psychedelics were named Schedule I drugs by the DEA, meaning that they have a high potential for abuse and no real medical value. Federal funding subsequently dried up, and the drugs themselves were made nearly unattainable if funding did exist, which led to the essential dissolution of science’s look into psychedelics’ effects on humans for decades afterward. Psychedelics, as a result, were not studied properly enough to develop concrete therapeutic processes behind their use.
The psychedelic faucet began to drip again in 1991 with the start of Rick Strassman’s famous Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) study at the University of New Mexico, which served as the first human trial of any psychedelic since they were made Schedule I. From there, the full-blown psychedelic renaissance that we now find ourselves in began to develop.
These “serious, sober scientists,” as Grob says in the NYT article, are doing important work that will give us a better idea of how to use these substances effectively in a medical capacity in the future. The undeniable lack of extremist views and pseudo-science in today’s psychedelic research will speed hallucinogens’ acceptance into the general public sphere, thereby getting treatment to those who need it faster.
The notion that altering one’s consciousness is inherently wrong has apparently reached its final days, if this rekindled medical and cultural interest is to be taken seriously. The Drug War is losing its grip, making mistakes and running out of “reasons” for the illegality of a number of otherwise-beneficial drugs in a society that prides itself on personal freedom. Perhaps rationality has finally taken center stage over fear mongering, paving the way for the U.S.’s first sustained, honest look at psychedelics—not as instruments of rebellion and madness, but as viable treatments for a number of problems we as individuals, and indeed as a society, face today.
May 18, 2012