Research has been rejuvenated for the first time in almost 50 years
Psychedelics have long been a source of controversy and identified with a perceived antisocial counterculture. But times change, and today psychedelics are at the centre of a revival of privately funded mental health research.
Research into controlled psychedelic substances has been banned for almost 50 years. But before drugs like ecstasy, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid,) and magic mushrooms were declared illegal, they were the subject of a wealth of experimentation in a medical context. Their potential as treatments for stubborn mental health issues like addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were explored, resulting in a lot of promising results.
Today, a small global community of researchers is once again investigating these powerful mind-altering substances. The newest round of tests, which has occurred over the past decade, is offering tangible and, in some cases, drastic results.
“The more we looked into research, the more we realized psychedelics have a low potential for harm, and a significant potential for benefit,” says Mark Haden, an addictions counsellor, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, and president of the Canadian chapter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS Canada.
Research is progressing so quickly and favorably that MAPS is predicting the legalization of MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) for medical use by 2021.
'This treatment saved my life'
As recently as February 2015, Phase II clinical trials were completed on six human subjects suffering with severe, acute PTSD. Their specific afflictions were proving extremely difficult to manage with conventional therapy alone.
A 2004 study yielded an 83 per cent success rate when combining MDMA with psychotherapy, compared to the 25 per cent success rate offered by conventional psychotherapy.
Rachel Hope participated in the 2004 trials, as well as in the 2011 follow-up trials. Hope was sexually abused as a child and also was critically injured in a car accident.
“I was hit by a truck and I needed extensive reconstructive surgery. Parts of my skull were used to rebuild my face, and I needed a spine replacement,” she says. This combination of trauma left her with acute PTSD. Treatment was a literal nightmare.
“I was living in this private hell where I’d relive my worst nightmares over and over again. When I first underwent CAPS (clinician-administered PTSD scale) testing for PTSD, I had almost 90 per cent of the symptoms,” she says.
But after the first trial in 2004, which involved two sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, Hope noticed her symptoms were basically gone.
“After the first session, I was 80 per cent cured. After the second, 90 per cent of my symptoms were gone. I didn’t question it — I just ran.”
Proponents of using MDMA believe it increases levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. This includes serotonin (responsible for happiness and well-being); norepinephrine (adrenaline); and dopamine (responsible for pleasure and feelings of reward). Not only does MDMA increase the amount of these neurotransmitters in the body, it also effectively prevents the body from regulating them, resulting in higher-than-normal amounts of these floating around in your bloodstream.
Effectively, MDMA fosters a sense of love, confidence and openness in the patient. This allows for the patient and the therapist to have a more frank discussion about their symptoms, which makes it easier for the therapist to treat these symptoms.
Even 20 years after her accident with the truck, Hope still needs surgery on a regular basis. An operation in 2010 resulted in a return of her symptoms.
“I was sending email after email to MAPS, begging them to give me my life back. And I was so fortunate that they were running relapse trials that year.”
After the third session, Hope described herself as “cured.” Four years later, she’s living in Berlin with four children, supporting research on the use of psychedelics that she says gave her the life she never had.
“The body count’s rising every day,” Hope says, referring to the dozens of American veterans committing suicide. “I’m pissed off that this treatment is being withheld from people. I’m pissed off that I had to suffer every day for over 20 years, simply because of the stigma and lack of research.”
The birth of a movement
“The huge potential for healing cannot go unnoticed,” says Mark Haden. His first brush with psychedelic medicine involved a heroin addict who from one week to the next kicked his habit through the use of ibogaine — an extremely powerful psychoactive substance, derived from plants native to Africa, that has a recorded history of use spanning hundreds of years.
“He came into my office and told me he stopped using, and hanging out with his friends who used. He told me he was going to get a job, and sure enough, within a few weeks, he was on a completely different track,” Haden explains.
Haden then pitched the idea to his superiors at Addictions Services in British Columbia of using psychedelics to treat addiction. They rejected his suggestion and it wasn’t until he helped establish MAPS Canada many years later that he began to explore that idea in depth.
MAPS’ American chapter has been leading the charge in pushing psychedelic research forward. Since its inception in 1984, founder Rick Doblin and a team of researchers have been campaigning for the loosening of regulations on MDMA and other psychedelics.
Dr. Richard Yensen, a sub-investigator and chief administrator of MAPS’ PTSD studies, has had a tumultuous experience with psychedelic research — his life’s work. Yensen was in the midst of completing his doctorate in philosophy and psychology at the University of Maryland when psychedelics were being discussed in the U.S. Congress.
“My dissertation was the first serious scientific look at phenethylamines — the family of drugs that includes MDMA — as adjuncts to psychotherapy. It demonstrated a significant treatment effect for the use of MDA, [an analogue of MDMA] in psychotherapy with 10 neurotic outpatients,” he explains.
“Then, there were articles about the CIA and [its psychedelic weapon research program] Project MKULTRA. This guy had jumped out of the window of a hotel room in New York City. Frank Olson was his name.”
“It came to light that Olson had supposedly been given LSD without his knowledge. His death was ruled a suicide by the New York Police Department,” Yensen says. The Olson incident and resulting cascade of controversy resulted in psychedelic research being banned from the Maryland University Psychiatric Research Center.
“So my career, which was just beginning, seemed to come to an end. But I went on to try and resurrect it with other people, and we were able to work with cancer patients in the early 80s.
For the next few years, Yensen and his wife, Donna Dryer, were able to secure permission to import LSD from Switzerland. But the effort wasn’t meant to last. Yensen’s research was cut short again.
For a time, it seemed like psychedelic research was doomed. But Rick Doblin and his team planted a revolutionary seed in 1984, as they slowly and deliberately assembled a response to this perceived injustice.
The turning tide of public perception
Canadian clinical psychologists face a dilemma when considering psychedelic medicine. On one hand, the potential for treatment is unparalleled; on the other, there’s the issue of getting these substances tested to an acceptable degree.
Dr. Brian Bigelow, a medical psychologist and member of the Canadian Psychological Association, says that while the research is promising, he isn’t convinced that there’s enough evidence to support the legalization of these powerful drugs.At least not yet.
“In an ideal world where there’s a wealth of evidence supporting the treatment of alcoholism with LSD, or PTSD with MDMA, then we do a lot of good things with it,” says Bigelow. “We save lives. That seems to me like a very good goal.”
Dr. David Nussbaum, a colleague of Bigelow’s, is intrigued — cautiously so — of the potential of psychedelic medicine.
“We’re not quite at a point where we can pass judgment yet,” says Nussbaum. “But with the right evidence and trial runs, and with positive results, I’d seriously consider using MDMA in my practice.”
Richard Yensen wants MAPS to be extremely meticulous in its execution of the trials. “We want to be able to move forward in a careful way.”
“We want to be able to apply science in the best way possible to the field to demonstrate the results it can produce. But it’s not a panacea. It’s not going to fix everything. It’s not an automatic cure. But it’s a process.
This story is part of a greater project on psychedelic medicine and its revival. For more information, visit PsychedelicMed.com
Thumbnail image courtesy of MAPS
Graphic provided by Max Foley and Paul Brooks
- By Max Foley and Paul Brooks