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Why some therapists are risking arrest to heal trauma using psychedelics

As psychedelics show promise in treating addiction and PTSD, underground therapists can't wait on the laws to catch up

For years, Andreas struggled to let go of the childhood physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. For him, the verbal abuse was the worst.

“I would have taken a beating any day than to be told that, ‘You’re a piece of s—t,’” said Andreas, who asked we not use his last name. “A punch heals; words don’t. Words stick with you for a long time.”

Years of conventional talk therapy did little to help. And as time passed, the traumatic memories became more and more intrusive.

“I found myself in self-destructive patterns – drug abuse, just not taking care of myself,” he said. “I had violent outbursts that would happen a lot, too.”

Then, one of the therapists he was seeing made a surprising suggestion: Andreas would perhaps get more out of therapy if he was under the influence of drugs, specifically psychedelics. He gave Andreas a number to call.

“[I] set up an interview, sat down, talked, and decided that this is something I wanted to pursue,” he said.

Andreas had stumbled into an underground world of therapists and self-described healers who are treating traumatic memories with the help of drugs, like MDMA, LSD and psilocybin. After just a few sessions of treatment with MDMA, Andreas says the anger and resentment he’d felt towards his father for decades just melted away.  

“You realize that you're not that scared kid anymore. All those defense mechanisms that you built up when you were a child, you don't need that anymore,” he said. “You're not under threat from your father anymore. You haven't even seen your father in 40 years, what are you scared about?”

Andreas says the therapy changed his life, and that he is no longer trapped in the past.

“No matter what can get thrown at you, you realize that it's really not that big of a deal,” he said. “As long as you're breathing, it's OK.” 

Building a connection

While Andreas’ sessions have been life-altering, what he is doing could land him in jail. Decades ago, the government placed psychedelics in the same category as heroin and meth — drugs with a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose.

New research, however, is beginning to call the government’s hard line into question. 

Recent research and FDA-approved clinical trials are showing psychedelics to be helpful in treating neurological disorders ranging from addiction to PTSD.
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“It’s education that is important,” said Neal Goldsmith, a psychotherapist who helps to organize the annual “Horizons” conference, a gathering of scientists who are doing research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. “Nancy Reagan famously said, ‘Just say no.’ But the answer, of course, is ‘Just say ‘know;’ get knowledge and information.”

One prominent attendee at the most recent “Horizons” conference was Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization that has poured tens of millions of dollars into psychedelic research. 

“Psychedelics are a way to build a connection with others, to build empathy, to build spiritual experiences,” Doblin said.

A flurry of recent clinical trials done by MAPS and other institutions, such as NYU and Johns Hopkins University, have shown psychedelics to be effective in treating a broad range of neurological disorders, from depression and addiction to anxiety and even autism.

And unlike antidepressants, patients given psychedelic-assisted therapy don’t need to be medicated for an extended period of time.

“It’s not meant to be like a daily medication that changes people’s biochemistry,” Doblin said. “People only get MDMA three times in our treatment process. People only get psilocybin or LSD a few times. The goal is to actually cure the problem.”

One of the most promising applications is one familiar to trauma survivors like Andreas: the use of psychedelics and therapy to take the sting out of traumatic memories.

“The results have been extremely promising in terms of outcomes,” Doblin said. “In fact, so promising that some of the people that have looked at the data said that it’s too good to be true.” 

Nancy Reagan famously said, ‘Just say no.’ But the answer, of course, is ‘Just say ‘know;’ get knowledge and information.

Neal Goldsmith

In one study funded by MAPS, war veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD were given MDMA along with psychotherapy. After just a few sessions, 83 percent of participants no longer fit the criteria for PTSD.

In the case of PTSD, Doblin says that psychedelics appear to work by allowing a patient to recall the painful past, while excising the visceral fight-or-flight reaction that normally accompanies traumatic memories.

“They reconsolidate, or restore the memory, in a different way [so that] it's not connected to the fear,” he said.

‘The beast is there’

Doblin is hopeful that the FDA-approved clinical trials currently underway will lead to the legalization of psychedelic-assisted therapy in the coming decade. He understands why some therapists have chosen to incorporate psychedelics into their practice though the drugs remain illegal.

“I’m not going to recommend [the practice], but I’m not going to condemn it either,” he said. “I think it’s a point of conscience that everybody has to say, ‘I think the laws are immoral. The laws are wrong. We should have been able to do this research 30 years ago.’” 

The latest research being presented at the Horizons conference examines the exploration of psychedelics in science, healing and spirituality.
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It took several weeks of searching and multiple conversations with an intermediary, but a self-described healer who uses psychedelics to treat trauma in his clients finally agreed to speak with America Tonight about his practice. The healer, who we’ll call Simon to protect his identity, says he uses the drugs to help those suffering traumatic memories caused by everything from combat to childhood abuse. 

“A vet that I’ve worked with has had four sessions. And now, I never hear from him … ’cause he’s going to Mets games with his son,” he said. “I’ve seen examples like that over and over. I don’t use the word ‘miracle’ because it’s so loaded, but it is close.”

Simon says he uses the same protocols as those in the FDA-approved clinical trial for treating PTSD with MDMA. While he is not a licensed therapist, Simon uses his training as a spiritual psychologist to help clients revisit their trauma, and with the help of the drug, move past it.

“It’s like looking at a shark in a tank at an aquarium,” Simon said. “The beast is there. It’s only feet away, but it’s not going to touch you.”

Word of his success has spread quickly by word of mouth. He says he’s seen hundreds of trauma sufferers and that the intake of new clients is relentless. He remains acutely aware that what he’s doing is illegal, but as someone who struggled with trauma in his youth, he says it’s worth the risk. 

“I am breaking the law, I totally understand that,” he said. “But it seems to me that with the greatest respect, there are some laws that are so foolish, so misguided and so based on out-of-date information. That’s the tragedy.”

It will be years before the government decides whether to legalize psychedelic-assisted therapy. Until then, this underground movement of therapists, and their clients who have experienced the healing power of psychedelics first-hand, will continue to quietly use the drugs.

For Andreas, he hopes his decision to speak on camera about his experience will help to make the use of psychedelics by others wrestling with the same feelings, more acceptable.

“This needs to be out there,” Andreas said. “All this trauma and all this PTSD and all these problems are going to keep getting passed down. The ripple effects are quite huge.” 

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