Psychedelics and research part 1: What’s all the fuss about psychedelics?

This is part one of a two-part blog series by our guest author Associate Professor Fiona Hutton, teacher and researcher of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington

For those of you who enjoy the recreational use of psychedelics you might have been a bit surprised by the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ that is happening in mental health around the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD, autism, anxiety and trauma, among other things.

You might also be surprised to learn that research into the use of psychedelics in western medicine dates back to the early 1900s – although psychedelics such as ayahuasca have been used by indigenous peoples across the globe for millennia.

Read Silencing indigenous pasts: critical Indigenous theory and the history of psychedelics by Ens, 2021 on Taylor Francis Online

In the beginning…

Psychedelic research has a long history. In the 1950s and 1960s it was government supported and funded in places like the US and Europe. In fact, Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD published the first research paper on LSD in 1947. Early clinical research showed promising results for treating depression, anxiety, autism, alcohol dependence, existential angst among the dying, and psychosomatic disorders. In the US before LSD was banned more than 130 studies exploring the clinical usefulness of LSD were funded, studies that showed promising results in the treatment of alcoholism, anxiety and depression (Nutt & Carhart-Harris, 2021).

Read the pdf version of LSD — My Problem Child by Albert Hoffman on the MAPS website

Read about the use of LSD in treatment of mental health in Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered by Grinspoon and Bakalar on the NCJRS website

Early studies exploring MDMA as a therapeutic tool also showed promising results – for example, in a 1988 Swiss study that included a group of over 100 people with a range of psychiatric issues, over 90% described improvements at 19-month follow up.

Read about the use of MDMA in psychotherapy in A Review of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-Assisted Psychotherapy by Sessa, Higbed, and Nutt on the US Library of Medicine’s website

What happened to all this amazing and highly promising research?

And why have most people never heard of it before?

Well, sadly, enter the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA) 1971 in the UK, 1975 MoDA in New Zealand, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in the US, and similar legislation prohibiting particular substances in many other countries globally. Since then, research funding, drug production and the study of psychedelics as clinical agents has virtually stopped.

Read The Current State of Psychedelics in Psychiatry by Nutt and Harris on the National Library of Medicine website

Under MoDA 1971, LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA are all often categorised as Schedule I/Class A. The main problem with this categorisation is that Schedule I/class A drugs are seen as having no medical use, a high potential for abuse, and as being unsafe for use under medical supervision.

As you can imagine this made research into such substances all but impossible and until recently no companies would manufacture medical-grade psychedelics, further hampering research efforts.

Read Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation by Nutt, King, and Nichols on Researchgate

In the US prior to 1988 MDMA was not included in the 1970 CSA, and in hearings to consider its scheduling the recommendation of the Judge was to place it into schedule III. Sadly, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ignored the evidence of the experts and the advice of the judge and placed MDMA into schedule I instead.

Despite this, phase I, II and III studies exploring MDMA as a treatment for PTSD have been so successful that MAPS is aiming for MDMA therapy to be available to the general public in the US in 2023 – no mean feat and one that should be applauded.

Check in next week for part 2 of Psychedelics and research where Associate Professor Hutton will discuss contemporary research in psychedelics and psychiatry

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