Scientists study possible health benefits of LSD and ecstacy
Growing number of people taking psychedelic drugs to help them cope with conditions such as chronic anxiety attacks
A growing number of people are taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy to help them cope with a variety of conditions including anorexia nervosa, cluster headaches and chronic anxiety attacks.
The emergence of a community that passes the drugs between users on the basis of friendship, support and need – with money rarely involved – comes amid a resurgence of research into the possible therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. This is leading to a growing optimism among those using the drugs that soon they may be able to obtain medicines based on psychedelics from their doctor, rather than risk jail for taking illicit drugs.
Among those in Britain already using the drugs and hoping for a change in the way they are viewed is Anna Jones (not her real name), a 35-year-old university lecturer, who takes LSD once or twice a year. She fears that without an occasional dose she will go back to the drinking problem she left behind 14 years ago with the help of the banned drug.
LSD, the drug synonymous with the 1960s counter-culture, changed her life, she says. "For me it was the catalyst to give up destructive behaviour – heavy drinking and smoking. As a student I used to drink two or three bottles of wine, two or three days a week, because I didn't have many friends and didn't feel comfortable in my own skin.
"Then I took a hit of LSD one day and didn't feel alone any more. It helped me to see myself differently, increase my self-confidence, lose my desire to drink or smoke and just feel at one with the world. I haven't touched alcohol or cigarettes since that day in 1995 and am much happier than before."
Many others are using the drugs to deal with chronic anxiety attacks brought on by terminal illness such as cancer.
Research was carried out in the 1950s and 1960s into psychedelics. In some places they were even used as a treatment for anxiety, depression and addiction. But a backlash against LSD – owing to concerns that the powerful hallucinogen was becoming widespread as a recreational drug, and fear that excessive use could trigger mental health conditions such as schizophrenia – led to prohibition of research in the 1970s.
Under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act it is classified as a Class A, schedule 1 substance – which means not only is LSD considered highly dangerous, but it is deemed to have no medical research value.
Now, though, distinguished academics and highly respected institutions are looking again at whether LSD and other psychedelics might help patients. Psychiatrist Dr John Halpern, of Harvard medical school in the US, found that almost all of 53 people with cluster headaches who illegally took LSD or psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, obtained relief from the searing pain. He and an international team have also begun investigating whether 2-Bromo-LSD, a non-psychedelic version of LSD known as BOL, can help ease the same condition.
Studies into how the drug may be helping such people are also being carried out in the UK. Amanda Feilding is the director of the Oxford-based Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust that investigates consciousness, its altered states and the effects of psychedelics and meditation. She is a key figure in the revival of scientific interest in psychedelics and expresses her excitement about the initial findings of two overseas studies with which her foundation is heavily involved.
"One, at the University of California in Berkeley, was the first research into LSD to get approval from regulators and ethics bodies since the 1970s," she said. Those in the study are the first to be allowed to take LSD legally in decades as part of research into whether it aids creativity. "LSD is a potentially very valuable substance for human health and happiness."
The other is a Swiss trial in which the drug is give alongside psychotherapy to people who have a terminal condition to help them cope with the profound anxiety brought on by impending death. "If you handle LSD with care, it isn't any more dangerous than other therapies," said Dr Peter Gasser, the psychiatrist leading the trial.
At Johns Hopkins University in Washington, another trial is examining whether psilocybin can aid psychotherapy for those with chronic substance addiction who have not been helped by more conventional treatment.
Professor Colin Blakemore, a former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said the class-A status of psychedelics such as LSD should not stop them being explored as potential therapies. "No drug is completely safe, and that includes medical drugs as well as illegal substances," he said. "But we have well-developed and universally respected methods of assessing the balance of benefit and harm for new medicines.
"If there are claims of benefits from substances that are not regulated medicines – even including illegal drugs – it is important that they should be tested as thoroughly for efficacy and safety as any new conventional drug."
Past reputations may make it hard to get approval for psychedelic medicines, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
"The known adverse effect profiles of psychedelic drugs would have to be considered very carefully in the risk/benefit analysis before the drugs may be approved for medicinal use," said a spokeswoman. "These products, if approved, are likely to be classified as a prescription-only medicine and also likely to remain on the dangerous drug list, which means that their supply would be strictly controlled."
Denis Campbell, health correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 October 2009 18.54 BST