After more than 50 years of prohibition, scientific and clinical research on medical use of standard psychoactive substances (PAS) such as MDMA, Psilocybin, LSD, Ketamine, as well as classic entheogens like Cannabis, Ayahuasca, Salvia and Ibogaine is once again prevailing throughout the world.
My intention isn’t to thoroughly examine each PAS individually, nor demystify, promote or allude to their use but rather offer an overview on current research in the past decade, particularly in the clinical area of evidence-based medicine.
All psychoactive substances or so-called drugs, without exception, have been used for medical purposes at one moment of their discovery, or even currently are.
From its accidental discovery by A. Hofmann in 1943, until 1968, LSD was a subject of serious scientific research, for medical or military purposes. Although for decades this research was classified as top secret, unbeknownst to the public eye, the counterculture of the 1960s managed to unearth it, only to become mainstream further on. Prohibitions and regulations were instrumental in ensuring that the potential and verified effects of certain classic PAS were closeted.
However, time keeps on moving, with hundreds of new, insufficiently studied PAS having emerged in the last ten years. The moment has arrived for authorities to concede that classic well-studied drugs are far safer for use than new insufficiently researched potent psychoactive substances.
The once again current scientific research of classic PAS, as well as the growing media presence throughout the world, has created the opportunity for changing past prohibitive policies on drug research and its medical potential. Research around the world, at renowned universities such as John Hopkins University, Harvard, Yale, UCLA; NYU, Stanford, University of Zurich, Imperial College London, Norwegian University of Science and Technology have crossed the limits of normative cultural values in the study of substances long considered taboo in the academic and political world.
Currently, the main substances examined in psychedelic research are MDMA (an active ingredient in ecstasy) and psilocybin (an active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms). LSD’s intensive and long-term effects hamper its application clinically, similar to the ayahuasca which is difficult to standardize in therapy.
A 2010 pilot study revealed reduction in anxiety and depression in patients with advanced-stage cancer after several psilocybin therapies, which helped overcome and exceed fear of death. A recent study conducted in 2016 at the John Hopkins University and NYU showed that around 80% of cancer patients clinically significantly reduced depression and anxiety after 1-2 psilocybin treatments, with long-lasting effects of up to six months.
Psilocybin proved effective in addiction treatment as well. In an evidence-based study, research showed decreased cravings for and increased abstinence from alcohol after psilocybin treatment. Benefits of the psilocybin therapy proved potent even nine months after treatment. Similar results were revealed in smoking abstinence in long-term smokers who hadn’t been able to drop the habit. In a 2014 study, 80% of participants quit smoking after only three months of psilocybin therapy, while 60% continued not to smoke 30 months after treatment.
In comparison to classic psychedelics, the approach to MDMA psychotherapy is conversation and discussion between the doctor or psychotherapist and the patient, which proved an excellent treatment for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In current clinical trials, phase 3 in USA, which is FDA approved, but also conducted in England, Israel, Switzerland and Australia, 61% of 107 participants no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms two months after MDMA assisted psychotherapy. A year later, 68% suffered no longer from PTSD. As a consequence, MDMA in the USA is close to being legalized for medical purposes, which requires further clinical trials and finances until 2021.
Researchers indicate that these substances have effect on a deeply emotional and mental level, with patients experiencing transformational states of positivity, kind-heartedness and unison during sessions and therapy for months on.
The medical potential of psychedelic drugs is no magic wand, manifesting miracles out of thin air, in fact, these substances can be dangerous if used incorrectly, but with beneficial potential in conditions where other forms of treatment have led to no improvement or cure.
It has been more than 50 years since some of the standard PAS were discovered. Although still illegal, some of these substances are going through a new cycle of scientific and clinical research. The so-called Psychedelic Renaissance is substantial evidence that PAS are not being used to their full potential, and the influence they have had on pop and mainstream culture secured their continuity.