Rebooting psychedelic science

Several studies are underway exploring the therapeutic potential of mind-altering substances

Humans have been experimenting with psychedelics in religious and therapeutic settings for thousands of years, but scientific research really didn’t take off until the 1950s. At that time, there was a community of therapists and scientists exploring the use of psychedelics to treat a range of neurological conditions – from alcohol addiction, to schizophrenia, to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thousands of studies were published, but for political and cultural reasons, government intervention put promising clinical research on hold.

An entire generation has passed, and today, scientists are picking up where the research left off. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, holds the title for the most syllables in the drug policy reform world and is one of the leading nonprofits behind this renewed scientific inquiry. They are working diligently to get approval from the DEA & FDA to study the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and sponsor clinical trials. There’s ongoing research looking into LSD to treat cluster headaches, psilocybin for end of life anxiety, ketamine to treat depression, and MDMA to enhance the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to Dr. Charles Grob, one of the first to study MDMA in a clinical setting and is currently running a trial using MDMA to help treat social anxiety in autistic adults, “what we’re trying to do is not new – it’s basically going back to the remarkable findings of our predecessors and putting that approach within the context of the current state of the art research methodology.”  

TechKnow spoke with a roundtable of experts from the psychedelic science community about bringing this research through the system and why MDMA shouldn’t be a “take two and call me later” prescription at the local pharmacy.  

Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS

“1985 was my first law suit against the DEA, and we ended up winning. The administrative law judge said that MDMA should be schedule 3: available for therapeutic use and that criminalization would harm the research effort… The administrative law judge gave [that] recommendation to the head of the DEA…and that recommendation was rejected by DEA administrator John Lawn…it became apparent to me that the only way back into legal use of MDMA would be through the FDA to medicalize MDMA through scientific research and so in 1986, I started MAPS. These drugs were off patent, the pharmaceutical companies were not interested in them, they couldn't really make much money from them because they are not meant to be given on a daily basis, they are only meant to be given a few times to enhance the efficacy of psychotherapy.”

“I decided to put the word psychedelic in the title of MAPS. Most people told me don't do that because you're going to encourage people to bring up all their fears and you're going to turn people off. I thought, well I don't want to use different words, [because] then they don't really know what I'm doing. And then if I say the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychoactive Drugs, and then they hear its really about psychedelic drugs, then there's this feeling that maybe I’ve been trying to trick people…. I’ve learned that if you go straight ahead for what you want and as direct as possible, it might be extra exercise at the beginning, but at the end its the shortest way.”

Courtesy: MAPS

“I met Dr. Michael Mithoefer who was a psychiatrist who came to me and he said that he wanted to see about setting up an offshore clinic where people could go and do psychedelics for a range of psychiatric conditions, and I told him, I’d really rather change from the heart to the center out. Instead of trying to find some obscure little country… let's go directly to the FDA." 

Michael Mithoefer, MD Lead Clinical Investigator and Medical Monitor, MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD

“Treating PTSD almost always involves re-visiting the trauma in a therapeutic setting…if they are not emotionally engaged enough then the therapy doesn’t work. So, we think MDMA has this increasing combination of helping decrease fear and defensiveness at the same time so people aren’t numb by their emotions but they are not overwhelmed by them either…there is something about the MDMA that seems to help a lot happen in a short period of time.” 

Charles Grob, MD, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor UCLA Medical Center

“We need to do very careful, meticulous examinations of the range of effects of MDMA, we need to establish very carefully effective safety parameters, and then we need to explore whether or not there is a therapeutic payoff…If we can continue to demonstrate positive results within the context of ensuring safety, then I think over time there will be provisions to allow this treatment to be accessed in a far more effective manner than is currently the case.”  

“No doctor is every going to be able to write a prescription and say here, take one of these, and when I see you next week, tell me what it did. No, this would have to be in the context of trained facilitators who are credentialed to conduct this kind of treatment and doing so in centers that have certification to conduct this treatment.”

Alicia Danforth, PhD, co-investigator on the use of MDMA to treat social anxiety in autistic adults 

“I think for science to really provide the maximum benefit of MDMA, we need to balance different ways of knowing. While the quantitative data is valuable, they tell us so much about our world and all that we can measure…there are other areas of the human experience that quantitative areas don’t touch. When you blend the qualitative with the quantitative data and see a more comprehensive picture about how these substances can change lives, it can be remarkable.”

“People have challenged me saying ‘by doing this research don’t you think more people are more likely to do this substance’, and I do fall back on the sort of rationale that, the data available suggests people are doing these substances, and I think it’s unsafe and unwise to withhold information that may help keep people safer.” 

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