The Stigma of Psychedelics

8 December 2014
Olivia Malone

“Turn on, tune in, drop out”, “dancing with Molly”, “expanding consciousness”, “dropping acid”, “tripping on shrooms”- phrases such as these have seeped into mainstream culture and tainted the reputation of many psychedelic substances whose original intention was not for partying, but for medicine. New research into the therapeutic advantages of certain psychedelic substances suggests that drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin (the active element found in mushrooms) provide substantial benefits to patients suffering from a variety of diseases and addictions, namely PTSD, alcoholism, and death anxiety (Slater). The problem, however, is that the U.S.’s current drug policy stigmatizes the use of these drugs to the general population by criminalizing the drugs. This impedes researchers from thorough experimentation. In order for scientists to fully discover the broad range of psychological and psychiatric benefits that certain psychedelic drugs possess, the United Nations drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 must first be reformed so that the U.S. government can then legalize these substances for research and medicinal purposes.

Although it is widely believed that psychedelic drugs only contribute to society through rave culture, the history of the existence of psychedelic substances proves that they were never intended for recreational purposes. Anton Köllisch first synthesized MDMA in 1912 while he was searching for a drug to stop excessive bleeding (Mithoefer), and Albert Hoffman discovered LSD in 1938 while he was searching for a central nervous system stimulant (Costandi). Cave murals dating back to 7000 B.C. exhibit the use of psilocybin mushrooms for religious purposes by the indigenous peoples of North Africa and Central America (“Psilocybe”). In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, psychedelic substances were considered to have prominent medical value, and hundreds of clinical studies in psychotherapy were carried out. According to University of New Mexico professor Michael P. Bogenschutz, “There were many studies and considerable clinical use of LSD in the treatment of alcoholism dating to the mid-1950’s” (O’Neill 2). Psychiatrist Robert Sandison opened the first LSD therapy clinic in 1955 in the U.K., and he treated approximately 500 patients with schizophrenia and severe depression (Hill). Before MDMA was introduced on the street as “Ecstasy”, therapists prescribed MDMA to patients in psychotherapy and couples therapy (O’Neill 3). This time period was the beginning phase of psychedelic research. Unfortunately, it was halted in the years leading up to the 1970’s as psychedelic substances entered the mainstream culture of America. During this time there was a dramatic spike in the amount of psychedelic substance users and abusers. Many partygoers excessively overused hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin along with MDMA come the 1980’s. This resulted in an almost immediate reaction from the United States government. LSD was banned in 1967, psilocybin in 1970, and MDMA in 1985. Under President Nixon and the “War on Drugs” administration, all scientific psychedelic research was suspended indefinitely (O’Neill 1). The government refused to fund research, and universities and institutes backed out as well in order to retain credibility. According to Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), “There is this tendency when drugs become criminalized for their non-medical use, their medical use then subsequently also become suppressed” (O’Neill 1). Psychedelics quickly developed into symbols of rebellion and social upheaval, and it is for this reason that there now exists the stigma surrounding psychedelic substances (“Psychedelics”). The U.S. Drug Enforcement Association (DEA) now classifies MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin as Schedule I narcotics, meaning that these drugs are considered dangerous with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use (Slater). The government under Nixon’s administration and the ‘hippie’ counterculture of the 1960’s share fault for the hasty criminalization and stigmatization of psychedelic substances.

Even though the criminalization of psychedelic drugs temporarily closed the case for research, in recent years the benefits of certain psychedelic substances are being acknowledged again. For the first time in decades scientists are discovering more about how psychedelic substances can affect the mind and treat conditions that are unresponsive to traditional forms of therapy (Ginsberg). Psychedelics are more than just a colorful and “trippy” escape from reality. When administered “in a supervised setting with trained therapists”, psychedelic substances incite a new level of consciousness in patients (O’Neill 1). Leading hallucinogen researcher Stanislov Grof says that psychedelics, “allow for a tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process” (Ginsberg). When a patient is administered a psychedelic drug, he is able to retrieve repressed traumatic memories and explore them in a peaceful, safe, and controlled state (Slater). This allows the patient to get to the root of his disorder, compared to conventional forms of therapy that generally focus on addressing only symptoms. The relationship between the patient and therapist also significantly increases in psychedelic-assisted therapy because the patient is more open to discussing previously hidden elements of his life (Ginsberg). The dialogue has been re-opened; scientists have returned to investigating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic substances for the first time since the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

Psychedelic drugs are falsely labeled as highly addictive, dangerous, and mind rotting; however, psychedelic-assisted therapy is proven to be safer and cheaper at treating disorders than legal forms of treatment, such as prescription painkillers (Plevin). Only one or two doses of a psychedelic drug combined with a few sessions of psychotherapy are needed for a patient to be relieved of his symptoms. On the other hand, traditional drug treatments prescribe patients with costly pills that they must take daily for months and even years (O’Neill 3). Psychedelic drugs can cause distress and anxiety when taken in an uncontrolled setting, but psychedelic-assisted therapy produces no adverse side effects to patients. Psychologist Matthew W. Johnson of the John Hopkins School of Medicine says, “There seems to be no evidence of overall negative impact associated with the use of psychedelics” (Hensley). However, a new study from JAMA Psychiatry estimates that the side effects of prescription drugs cause nearly 90,000 emergency room visits each year (Plevin). Lastly, prescription painkillers are physically addictive, while psychedelic-assisted therapy is not (O’Neill 2). Patients who go through traditional drug treatments can grow to be dependent on the pills that they are regularly administered, but psychedelic-assisted therapy only occurs once or twice. As the myths and misconceptions surrounding psychedelic drugs are exposed, it is proven that psychedelic-assisted therapy has several advantages over traditional forms of treatment.

MDMA, commonly known as “Molly” or “Ecstasy”, is usually associated with ravers looking to dance all night; however, recent studies show that the drug can effectively treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (O’Neill 3). Individuals who suffer from PTSD are unable to overcome painful memories and find it difficult to function in society as a result. MDMA is effective in treating PTSD because, according to journalist Lauren Slater, “while taking the drug, [patients would] be able to retrieve terrifying memories without feeling terror, effectively disentwining the memory from the dark emotions that saturated it” (Slater). In 2010 the non-profit organization MAPS completed the first-ever study done on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD (Mithoefer et al.). In this study, 20 patients with treatment-resistant PTSD (from assault and sexual abuse) were administered MDMA along with psychotherapy sessions. The follow up study completed 3 ½ years after the original experiment concluded, “89% of those who received MDMA had long-term improvement in their PTSD symptoms” (Mithoefer et al.). After the project, 17 of the 19 patients (one of the original patients decided to stop treatment) noted that their general well being and self-awareness increased, and 13 of the 19 patients said that they had fewer nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories and an increased ability to feel emotions. The MAPS study also resulted in no reports of neurocognitive decline in patients. Seven of the 19 patients reported no change in their cognition, memory, or concentration after the experiment, and 13 of the 19 patients reported that these areas had improved after the study (Mithoefer et al.). The results of the MAPS study indicate that MDMA has much more to offer the general population than just a good time. If MDMA were legalized for research purposes, millions of victims of PTSD across the world who do not respond to traditional therapy could be helped.

Psilocybin is the component found in “magic mushrooms”, and new research provides evidence that psilocybin-assisted therapy can treat the anxiety harbored by terminally ill patients (Slater). After ingesting psilocybin, patients are able to reorient themselves away from focusing heavily on their illness. Instead, patients focus on remaining present in their daily life. Psilocybin-assisted therapy allows patients to resolve their depression and anxiety about death by gaining perspective through the spiritual state of psilocybin. UCLA professor and researcher Dr. Charles Grob conducted a survey in 2011 using psilocybin to treat cancer anxiety in 12 patients. Afterwards he said, “They reported improved mood and anxiety regulation, improved quality of life, improved relationships with their partners and close family and friends, it was actually quite dramatic” (O’Neill 4). The results of this study were published in The Archives of General Psychiatry, and they proved that the subjects of the experiment showed a substantial decrease in anxiety one month and three months after treatment (O’Neill 4). Society portrays psilocybin as being just a part of the hippie counterculture, but in reality, psilocybin offers a significant alternative to terminally ill patients.

Although it appears illogical to treat one drug with another, substantial research shows that the controlled, close-monitored, and therapeutic use of LSD can treat alcoholism along with a variety of other addictions (Ginsberg). Traditional addiction treatment focuses on altering the drug-using behaviors and tendencies of an abuser instead of targeting the underlying psychological problems that causes an abuser to abuse (Slater). LSD-assisted therapy works very similarly to MDMA and psilocybin in the way that it allows a patient to gain a wider perspective on his life in order to get down to the root of his addiction. Patients who have been administered LSD through therapy have also noted that the experience forced them to recognize the suffering that they had put loved ones through because of their addiction. The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Bill Wilson, has even stated on the record that he has used LSD in a medical and therapeutic setting in order to obtain, “the spiritual awareness considered key to the 12-step addiction recovery program” (O’Neill 2). Although the DEA classifies LSD as a dangerous substance with a high risk of addiction, studies and evidence show that LSD can be an effective tool for treating alcoholism in a therapeutic setting.

Significant research and evidence into the benefits of psychedelic drugs is changing the dialogue for substances such as MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin. Society must transition from focusing on these drugs as agents of entertainment and rebellion to understanding that psychedelic drugs possess great potential for benefiting millions of lives. In order for scientists, institutions, and universities to receive the funding necessary to carry out experiments with psychedelic drugs, the U.S. government must decriminalize psychedelic drugs and legalize the drugs for medicinal and research purposes only. In order for this to happen, the international drug control system and policies must first be reformed. The United Nations drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 constrain governments in nations across the globe to adhering to a set of provisions about controlled and uncontrolled substances that is severely out of date (Room). These UN conventions require governments to forbid regulated domestic drug markets and criminalize the possession of controlled drugs (Room). These strict and restrictive components of the international drug code make it impossible for local, regional, and national governments to experiment with any changes that they wish to make in their drug policies. If a country wants to remain in agreement with the UN, that country is stuck and cannot move toward decriminalizing psychedelic drugs, even if it wants to. A publication by the Beckley Foundation entitled “Roadmaps to Reforming the UN Drug Conventions” proposes several different ways that the international drug code may be altered (Room). The approach that I believe to be the most effective is the denunciation and reaccession with reservations approach. If a country disagrees with a particular provision of one of the three treaties but still wishes to abide by the regulations of the UN, the country can withdraw from whichever treaty it is in disagreement with and then reaccede to the treaty with reservations (Room). This approach is easier than amending any of the treaties because denouncing a certain part of a treaty subtracts material while making an amendment to the treaty requires adding new language. Bolivia used the denunciation and reaccessions with reservations approach in 2009 by withdrawing from the 1961 drug convention, removing the practice of chewing coca leaves from the scope of the treaty, and then reacceding to the convention (Room). After international drug policies are reformed, individual countries and governments will be able to more easily tailor drug policies to their own needs. Reforming the UN drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 is the first step to the legalization and decriminalization of psychedelic substances. Only then will researchers be able to make further advancements into the potential of psychedelic drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin for treating disorders and diseases that millions suffer from. As evidence of the benefits of these drugs becomes more widely publicized, the stigma surrounding psychedelics will also be reevaluated. The purpose of psychedelics will soon revert to its original scope – medicine.

Works Cited

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