Many of us American millennials were raised in the post-Reagan D.A.R.E. generation of “Just Say No” and “This is Your Brain on Drugs.” But within the past decade, the national discourse on recreational drugs has been changing. Harper’s Magazine recently published an article in which a Nixon aide revealed that their administration created the War on Drugs as a political tool to vilify black people and the antiwar left. If this was the case, how can we know what we were taught as children was true, and that the dangers of illegal drugs were based on scientific evidence?
Truth is, most were never given a chance. According to U.S. law, schedule I controlled substances are drugs classified as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”. This puts marijuana, “magic mushrooms”, LSD, and MDMA in the same category as heroin — and in a stricter category than cocaine.
Conclusive, large-scale clinical trials had not been conducted prior to these four drugs’ scheduling — and since their scheduling, daunting regulatory hurdles halted research on psychedelics for decades. However, in this new age of challenging preconceptions about drugs, scientists are starting to explore new frontiers in research.
Public opinion on marijuana has come a long way within the 21st century alone. What was once attributed disparagingly to niche communities of hippies and burnouts is expanding its target audience, and business people, politicians, and doctors are now coming out in support of medical marijuana.
In states where medical marijuana is legal, it has been prescribed for chemotherapy-induced nausea, appetite stimulation in patients with debilitating chronic illnesses, muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, nerve pain, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, and more. However, since marijuana is not approved by the FDA, many of these uses have not been formally tested on a national level.
Some progress has begun: this past April, the DEA approved the first-ever national drug trial for marijuana for PTSD. And just this past month, The Salk Institute published research showing that compounds in marijuana may help promote the removal of amyloid-beta, a toxic protein present in Alzheimer’s disease, allowing nerve cells to survive.
2. Psilocybin mushrooms
Psychedelic therapy is an even fresher frontier. Psychedelics — by definition, “mind-manifesting” — are a group of drugs (LSD, MDMA, mushrooms, and others) that induce states of mind different from ordinary consciousness. It is believed that they may be used to explore the psyche on a transcendental level — which is why psychedelic plants, including mushrooms, have documented historical use in the religions of cultures globally.
Potential for use in modern therapy is evident from understanding the brain with mental illness: in depression and OCD, for example, an area of the brain involved in perception of self and sense integration is thought to be overactive, leading to rumination. With psilocybin mushrooms, the part of the brain associated with emotional thinking instead becomes more active and self-consciousness areas less active.
These hypotheses have lead to some successful preliminary research. A clinical trial in the Lancet Psychiatry journal has shown mushroom’s effects on lifting treatment-resistant depression, but larger, randomized control trials have yet to come. A Johns Hopkins trial has demonstrated psilocybin‘s efficacy in helping smokers quit. Studies conducted on patients through NYU and JHU showed improvement in end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients who took psilocybin mushrooms. According to some patients’ first-hand accounts, it broke down their fears of death by reducing their self-conscious attachments and increasing their empathy towards others.
Though LSD is human-made, it too has a history of therapeutic use. In middle of the 20th century, before the FDA ban, psychotherapists started using LSD to break down boundaries and get their patients to open up. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, deemed LSD beneficial for alcoholics in treating their addiction by helping a recovering addict reach their “moment of clarity.”
Now, just like with psilocybin, LSD has had some success helping those suffering from severe depression due to terminal illnesses. Positive trends have been observed in trials in the reduction of anxiety during LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions.
MDMA is sometimes called an “empathogen” for its promotion of empathy, emotional openness, and connectivity with others. In fact, it was used in couples therapy until it became a schedule I drug in 1985. It is now being re-explored for use in therapy sessions with professionals, wherein a therapist or psychiatrist gives a small amount of MDMA to a patient and then has the patient discuss topics relevant to their life. MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, predicts that with current research underway MDMA-assisted therapy could be legal by 2021.
Many of these drugs sound scary to us on first mention because of what we’ve learned in school. But these perceptions need changing, because truth is — for marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, and MDMA, a lot of it is fear of the unknown. Scientific exploration is all about inquiry into the unknown, and for now, we are seeing potential for good use of these drugs in the healthcare world.