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Psychedelics: from poison to antidote


The term psychedelics, or hallucinogens, describes a class of drugs that produce significantly altered perception when ingested. Due to their ability to cause lasting effects on a user’s mood and thought, some researchers believe they have therapeutic potential for treating difficult mental illnesses like depression, addiction, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s, though only a few institutions currently conduct research on psychedelics for this use.

Psilocybin is a chemical found in mushrooms like these that is converted in the body to produce hallucinogenic effects when ingested.  “Psilocybe semilanceata,”, licensed by Alan Rockefeller under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The potential medicinal value of psychedelics comes from their ability to radically shift a patient’s life outlook. While the drugs’ effects can be unpredictable and are largely dependent on the user’s environment and state of mind, the NIH suggests this can be controlled for by a supportive, professional atmosphere. Using this approach, an N.Y.U. study in 2016 treated cancer patients qualifying for antidepressants with a one-time dose of psilocybin and found significantly decreased feelings of anxiety and emotional distress. A follow-up study conducted in January 2020 found these effects to have lasted in the majority of participants, suggesting even one-time psychedelic use could have long-term benefits for patients.
While psychedelic drugs were popular among youth and the focus of numerous experiments in the early 1960s, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 made them illegal in the United States. The statute came with widespread, negative media coverage and campaigns in the late ‘60s to create a culture of heavy stigmatization and fear around the substances. Clinical research involving psychedelic drugs as potential treatments for mental illness largely halted and was discredited at the time.

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This poster was designed for the 1996 film “Timothy Leary’s Dead,” a documentary about Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary who gained fame for conducting experiments with psychedelic drugs, research that has since been discredited.  “Timothy Leary’s Dead”, licensed by Mark Hanau under CC BY-SA 3.0.

However, in 2000, Johns Hopkins University became the first to receive permission from the U.S. government to reinitiate research with psychedelics. Their “Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research” finally launched in September 2019, where they began conducting clinical trials with volunteers using psychedelics as treatment options for various disorders, including depression and drug abuse. Though most research is still in its infancy, they have published research showing one high dose of psilocybin can reduce negative emotions in users for up to a month and found reductions in both alcohol consumption and drug misuse corresponding to psychedelic use. This center follows the establishment of the “Centre for Psychedelic Research” by Imperial College London.

“The center’s establishment reflects a new era of research of therapeutics and the mind through studying this unique and remarkable class of pharmacological chemicals.” Johns Hopkins director Dr. Roland Griffiths said in a press release.

Though Johns Hopkins’s current studies primarily use psilocybin (the chemical found in “magic mushrooms”), other notable psychedelic substances include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), MDMA (also known as “molly” or “ecstasy”), and DMT (found in ayahuasca). All four of these compounds are classified as Schedule 1 substances by the Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning they have “no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” In comparison, opiates, cocaine, and methamphetamines are all examples of Schedule 2 substances, indicating they have recognized medical value in some situations. However, the NIH established that psychedelics do “not lead to dependence or addiction.” They also list no reported deaths attributed to over-ingestion of commonly-used psychedelics, leading to doubts among clinicians for the need for this classification, which significantly hinders the ability to conduct human trials.

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Two researchers help “guide” a volunteer during a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins.  “Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Session”, licensed by Matthew W. Johnson under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Along with legal barriers, interested researchers continue to feel that the common perception of psychedelics makes it difficult to initiate research and obtain funding. Psychiatrist Dr. Boadie Dunlop, who leads psilocybin research at Emory University, believes people’s overall misunderstanding of the drugs leads to their dismissal.

While a dearth in prior research, legal restrictions, and lingering stigma continue to inhibit researchers, there is evidence that the public perception may be shifting. Denver, Colorado became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin in May 2019, while Oakland, California decriminalized all entheogenic plants (naturally-occurring psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms and peyote), allowing researchers and clinicians easier access. A poll in Washington, D.C. showed D.C. voters may also be in favor of decriminalization, while a book promoting medicinal psychedelic research became a New York Times bestseller.

It is not immediately clear if more institutions will soon follow in Johns Hopkins’ footsteps. Yet with this slow shift in public and professional perception of psychedelics from mere drugs to medicine, researchers have potential to find new, legitimate treatment options for a wide range of disorders.




About the Author

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Sahana is an undergraduate at the University of Georgia studying Astrophysics with a Sustainability certificate. When she’s not pretending to do her homework, she can be found playing ultimate frisbee or adventuring around Athens. Connect with her at sahana@uga.edu.

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