Shirola: U.S. government should ease legal barriers to research and treatment with psychedelics

Wesley Shirola, Columnist

This is the fourth column in “Failed Policy,” a series examining the history of drugs and drug policy in the United States since its founding.

When many of us think of psychedelics, we think of the 1960s, especially its music. Indeed, psychedelic rock, with its characteristic mix of electric guitars, synthesizers and sitars, was largely intended to simulate and enhance the mind-altering experiences of psychedelic drugs. Psychedelics had been around for many decades, however, before their connection to the “American counterculture” led to their classification as illegal.

In 1938, Swiss chemist and Sandoz employee Albert Hofmann was trying to synthesize a stimulant when he instead created lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Not the stimulant that he had hoped for, Hofmann set aside LSD for five years until he re-examined it and accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips in the process. He experienced a drastic shift in consciousness and eventually decided that the drug would be useful for psychotherapy.

From the 1940s through the early 1960s, research breakthroughs into LSD and psilocybin, another psychedelic, were rapid. Scientists began to better appreciate the brain’s neurochemistry and how therapists might effectively treat mental illness using psychedelics. An astonishing 40,000 patients were treated with LSD and traditional psychotherapy between 1950 and 1965, and more than a thousand research papers on them were published.

By the mid-1960s, though, an increasing number of young Americans were using LSD, and the drug found its way into college campuses and music festivals. As is common with many things popular among young people, stories soon emerged of psychosis and murder as a result of “bad trips.” Supposedly as a result of these drugs, young Americans no longer believed in authorities and the central institutions at the heart of American society; they most definitely didn’t want to enlist and head to Vietnam. Sure enough, by 1966 LSD was illegal in the U.S. Psilocybin was banned in America a few years later.

Today, over half a century since LSD was banned, psychedelics are making a comeback as researchers rediscover their powerful therapeutic effects. Partly as a result of the slow, yet widespread, decriminalization of marijuana in the United States — as policy makers realized that pot did not bring the moral and social destruction that many had predicted and in fact is beneficial therapeutically — detractors have opened their minds to the idea that other currently illegal drugs may be therapeutically effective as well.

In 2008, a team from Johns Hopkins University reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that the “mystical” experiences provoked by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months after initial administration. Furthermore, compared to methylphenidate — a stimulant more commonly known as Ritalin — the psilocybin treatment produced statistically significant increases in positive attitudes, mood, social effects and behavior.

Another study published in the same journal in 2010 found that the psychedelic MDMA was more effective than a placebo in easing the symptoms of treatment-resistant PTSD. Additionally, the researchers wrote that the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be administered to patients with PTSD safely and may be beneficial in patients resistant or tolerant to other treatments.

In early 2015, Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a co-author of the 2010 paper announced that he was hopeful that MDMA would be available as a prescription by 2021. While this now seems unlikely seeing that 2021 is less than two years away, Doblin has stayed at the forefront of establishing psychedelics as legitimate and effective treatments for mental illness.

Since the 1960s when LSD was made illegal, and up until today, the FDA and DEA have been stringent in their approval of clinical studies into psychedelics. While these agencies have increasingly been more receptive over the past decade, the approval process is still horrendous. Earlier this year, The Economist reported that it took Peter Hendricks, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, six or seven years to get approval for his trials on the impact of psilocybin on cocaine addiction.

Acquiring funding has also been difficult. Due to the drugs’ illegality, the U.S. government is loath to distribute money for research into psychedelics. As a result, researchers have had to rely on private donors and philanthropists for much of their funding. Other countries are not much more willing in this regard.

The U.S. government must stand down and loosen these legal barriers to research and treatment with psychedelics. Scientists have realized the powerful therapeutic effects that these drugs hold largely since they were first synthesized. It is time for the U.S. government to realize the same. The longer it holds out and maintains bureaucratic hurdles, the longer it indirectly harms thousands of patients both in the U.S. and across the world each year.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.