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Forty-five years after the federal government criminalized psychedelic drugs, new research into substances such as LSD, psilocybin (aka “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms”) and MDMA (aka “Molly” or “ecstasy”) are showing them to be powerful therapeutic tools in treating multiple forms of anxiety and addiction, three medical researchers told KPCC’s health reporter Stephanie O’Neill Sept. 15 at the Crawford Family Forum.
In fact, research into using psilocybin to treat anxiety in terminal cancer patients has progressed to the third and final phase of study, with trials around the country, and researchers believe it could be approved for use in therapy (with a trained doctor) within five to 10 years, said Dr. Charles Grob, chief of Child Psychiatry and professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
Powerful “psycho-spiritual epiphanies” induced by psilocybin, for instance “eliminated death anxiety” among cancer patients involved in the tests, said Dr. Stephen Ross, associate professor of Psychiatry and Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital, clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, and director of the NYU Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship.
“We see psilocybin as an effective treatment for existential distress,” Ross said. Test subjects who took the drugs reported the “psycho-spiritual” insights as being “one of the most meaningful events of their lives.”
These insights were particularly effective with addicts, who were able to finally understand the anguish their drug or alcohol use was creating with their loved ones. In tests in the 1950s through the 1970s, single doses of LSD were shown to promote sobriety among alcoholics for more than six months, Ross said.
MDMA has also shown great promise in treating war veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and LSD — used in a highly controlled therapeutic setting — has been an effective treatment for alcohol addiction, said David E. Nichols emeritus professor of Pharmacology at Purdue University's Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology.
And Dr. Alicia Danforth, a colleague of Grob’s from LA BioMed, spoke from the floor about the research she’s doing with 12 autistic adults, to see if MDMA can help them better cope with the “crippling social anxiety that holds these individuals back from having satisfactory relationships with others “ or better success in the workplace or schools.
The potential benefits of hallucinogens isn’t news in the medical research community. Doctors reported very promising results from using LSD to treat alcoholism back in the 1950s, Nichols said. But the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people took the drugs recreationally, devastated funding for further tests and research institutions backed away from the subject out of fear that they would lose their credibility.
Even now, Grob said, the lingering stigma has closed the door to government funding for psychedelics research, despite the promising results. Most research money comes from the privately funded Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), he said, and much more is needed.
The researchers emphasized that all these trials are done in a therapeutic setting, with doctors trained in using hallucinogens. And they are optimistic that psychedelics will be considered a mainstream treatment in controlled psychiatric settings in the 10-15 years.
Psilocybin is in the final stages of testing for use in treating cancer anxiety in a therapeutic setting, Nichols said, and once it’s approved doctors will be able to prescribe it for other uses, such as treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among war veterans or addiction to drugs and alcohol, in a highly controlled setting.
“We need to have a training program set up for therapists so they know how to use these drugs, once they’re approved by the FDA and we’ve proved the case that they have medical value,” Nichols said.
Making that case of medical value is half the battle, the researchers said, although they noted that their colleagues have, for the most part, been open minded about their research, and interested in the outcomes.
At present, however, psychedelic drugs are still illegal to possess, except for use in research, which adds to the stigma. They are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, Nichols said, that is drugs with no medical value which are considered unsafe, highly addictive and/or highly likely to be abused.
In reality, Nichols said, the data show the exact opposite. Psychedelic drugs are actually addiction interrupters, not addictive. And a 2002 study that claimed MDMA could cause Parkinson’s disease later in life was actually retracted a short while later, when the researchers admitted that a vial in the study had been mislabeled. The drug that caused concern was actually methamphetamine, he said, not MDMA.
But all three researchers said they are optimistic psychedelic drugs will become an accepted therapeutic treatment for addiction and anxiety. In 10 years, Nichols said, “we’re going to see a branch of psychiatry devoted to using psychedelic medicines with therapy.”
Stephanie O'Neill: health care correspondent for KPCC/Southern California Public Radio
Charles Grob M.D.: chief of Child Psychiatry and professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine
David E. Nichols Ph.D: president, co-founder and director of Preclinical Research, Heffter Research Institute; emeritus professor of Pharmacology, Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, Purdue University
Stephen Ross M.D.: associate professor of Psychiatry and Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital, clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, and director of the NYU Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship.