Psychedelic Drugs: Beyond The Lights

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Psychedelic drugs have long been a subject of ire and disdain from the general public. Historically misunderstood, they have been labeled such things as Psychotomimetic drugs, meaning “psychosis mimicking”, as well as hallucinogens — both of which distort the truth and paint a negative picture of these substances that simply is not true. Most psychedelics are listed as a schedule I substances alongside such drugs as heroin and cocaine, which means they possess “high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns.” Despite the referendum that the government brought down upon psychedelic drugs, studies indicate that they do not fit the profile of a schedule I substance. Not only do they have a minimal potential for abuse, but they have an abundance of medical benefits associated with them, all with no serious safety concerns. Psychedelics, specifically ones like LSD, Psilocybin/Psilocyn, and MDMA are undeserving of their status as schedule I substances. They should be subsequently removed from the list and utilized by health care professionals for their array of benefits. 

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Psychedelics are defined by Psychedelic Society as “substances that induce a heightened state of consciousness characterized by a hyperconnected brain state.” The most prominent of these include Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and Psilocybin or Psilocyn (Magic mushrooms). While effects vary among these compounds, most users report mystical or religious experiences, visual alterations, euphoria, and “revelations” about themselves or the universe. On a chemical level, most psychedelics operate by activating receptors in the brain, targeting the ones they are chemically similar to, which causes a temporary chemical imbalance. This generally leads to an excess of serotonin being released in the brain, which is responsible for the euphoria and occasional hallucinations.

While scientific studies on psychedelics did not start until the late 1800s, human consumption of these substances’ dates back as far as 3700 BCE. Indigenous groups implemented psychedelics in ritualistic and religious ceremonies. Eventually, chemists in the early 1900s began taking these naturally occurring substances and altering them into new compounds. In 1938, Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman started researching medicinal properties of ergot fungus, which resulted in the accidental synthetization of LSD. Between the 1950s and 60s, a bevy of research was conducted around LSD, much of which showed its potential for treating alcohol addiction and “end-of-life anxiety”. In the 1950s, the CIA began experimenting with LSD. A top-secret program called MKULTRA was formed, which had the sole purpose of utilizing LSD for mind control purposes. When this program was eventually revealed during the Watergate scandal, LSD and other psychedelics became stigmatized due to the fear of mind control, and many studies involving psychedelics were halted or prohibited.

Despite the difficulty associated with having studies on psychedelics approved, resulting in relative sparsity of research, the few have been telling. The main subjects of these studies include DMT, Mescaline, LSD, MDMA, and Psilocybin and have yielded a wealth of information that disputes these drug’s Schedule I status. The criteria associated with Schedule I substances are defined as having “high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns…”. Most psychedelics are listed as Schedule I and few or none meet these criteria. 

Schedule I substances are drugs characterized by their high potential for abuse. Substance abuse is denoted “as a pattern of harmful use of any substance for mood-altering purposes…” as well as an addiction to or dependence on a substance, often affecting work, relationships, and health. This goes against much of the knowledge about psychedelic drugs. Studies show that substances like Psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA are indeed not physically addictive. Unlike many other drugs, psychedelics do not change the chemistry of the brain. Addiction is formed through a reward system in a part of the brain called the limbic. Certain substances or actions trigger a positive sensation, which further reinforces that action. The addiction takes root in the brain, often leading the person to become disinterested in other activities. Most Psychedelic substances do not cause this process to take place, so they are not physically addictive. Further, given its intense mentally challenging aspects, most people have no desire to try it again immediately after the first time. Another force preventing the abuse of such substances is the immediate tolerance that the body builds to them. The dosage required for the same effects on the second day of consuming a substance like LSD or psilocybin would have to be doubled to receive the same effects. And it takes as much as two weeks for tolerance to fade. Given these facts, it is apparent that psychedelics like MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD do not fit the first of the criteria for Schedule I substances, being the high risk for abuse.

The second of the criterion which characterizes drugs listed and regulated as schedule I substances is that the substance has no medical use. However, historically Psychedelics have been shown to possess massive potential in the field of medicine and psychology, the first of which is in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans. PTSD is a condition which is formed through a person experiencing intense or terrifying events, often leading the individual to relive the moment constantly through flashbacks and nightmares. Depression and anxiety, addiction in the form of alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidality are common effects that derive from this disorder; and an estimated 20 percent of veterans suffer from it. Moreover, 20 percent of veterans with PTSD suffer from alcohol and/or drug addiction, often in the form of painkillers, benzodiazepines, and sedatives or sleep medication. Those suffering from PTSD are often prescribed serotonin inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat this condition, but the success rates are low, and the remission rate among recipients is only around 20 or 30 percent. Many have speculated that these medications do not actually work and leave the individual with nothing more than horrible side effects. In fact, studies show that placebos produced the same results as the real thing. These medications change the chemistry of the brain and help suppress the memory of the traumatic event, but do little in the way of helping the patient to change the emotions and thoughts that they experience in relation to that event.

Psychedelics, contrast, exhibit the ability to treat and cure PTSD in a way that conventional methods are unable to. Researchers have employed MDMA and psilocybin in several studies testing potential to treat PTSD, with astounding results. A 2013 study at the University of South Florida showed that psilocybin can stimulate neurogenesis, which is the repair and growth of brain cells. This takes places in the hippocampus, which is the center for emotion and memories. The study involved playing an auditory tone for mice, then preceding to shock them. This conditioned the mice to fear the tone and each time they played it the mice would be struck with panic, which is similar to how many veterans with PTSD might react when encountering stimuli that might bring about traumatic memories. After receiving small doses of psilocybin, however, the mice overcome their fear of the tone and did not react to it.

Another such study conducted by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), incorporated the administration of MDMA to 26 first responders with PTSD, following each session up with psychotherapy. This resulted in 68 percent of the participant’s PTSD symptoms being eliminated. Due to MDMA and many other psychedelics substance’s abilities to bring certain memories and emotions to the surface where they can be dealt with, they have impacted and helped a variety of individuals living with PTSD. One veteran who participated in one of these MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials, Virgil Huston, detailed his experience. He discusses how MDMA helped him to take control of the memories that were causing so much distress and talk about them in a way that he could not before.

“It seems that part of the magic of MDMA is that it allows traumatic memories to be brought into the open and looked at and discussed in a neutral and non-threatening manner. Then, when you restore the memories to the crevices in the brain, they no longer bother you as much. For me, no more nightmares, no more laying awake at night reliving the trauma over and over. I could sleep again. You don’t forget, I didn’t want to forget. But, I can now function. Those memories no longer rule my life. This is a wonderful thing.” (Huston)

Huston recounts the ability of MDMA to bring about negative memories in a safe and calm environment. Usually, those with PTSD do not get to choose when these memories come flooding back, and when they do, it often causes panic attacks or severe anxiety. In this case, he was able to talk about the memories with a therapist and take away the power they held over him so that they would not adversely affect him next time he dealt with them.

Another medical use of psychedelic drugs involves addiction. Not only are many psychedelic drugs not addictive, but they can cure addiction. Addiction is formed through a reward system in the brain in which certain substances or actions trigger a positive sensation, reinforcing the action and creating the drive to engage in whatever it is. The addiction takes root in the brain, often affecting other aspects of the individual’s life, like work, school or family. This creates an almost altered reality, where the addict is unable to think rationally where the addiction is concerned. Former Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary described these mind states as “reality tunnels”. He described psychedelic’s ability to break these down, often through a humbling process called “ego death”, in which a person’s subjective perception of themselves is lost. As a result, psychedelics have a unique ability to eradicate addiction. 

An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from substance abuse, and another 40 million are harmed from the trickle-down effect. And this does not count the variety of other individuals that suffer from addictions to numerous other activities. Psychedelics like LSD and Psilocybin have been used to great effect in treating opiate, nicotine alcohol addiction. While most of the studies involving LSD were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, there is still a wealth of evidence of their curative nature. In one study in the 1960s LSD was given to chronic alcoholics. This led to long-lasting, beneficial effects and a significant reduction in alcohol use in nearly 60 percent of participants — twice the estimated success rate of conventual rehab clinics. Moreover, participants in the trial reported more positive outlooks, including heightened awareness and spirituality, as well as inner peace. Similar success was found in studies involving opiate addiction. In 1973, incarcerated heroin addicts were given LSD, then put through an abstinence program. While the study did not yield astronomical numbers, it did increase abstinence from 5 percent to 25 percent. Nicotine addiction has also been shown to be cured at high rates psilocybin. Fifteen smokers who tried to quit multiple times received psilocybin 3 times over the course of 15 weeks. This led to 80 percent of the participants remaining abstinent after 6 months and 60 percent after 18 months – twice that of any other treatments. Given the wide array of studies showing positive and tangible effects of psychedelics, it is difficult to argue that they lack any medical uses.

The last major qualification for schedule I drugs is the accompaniment of severe safety concerns. When considering the potential safety concerns for a drug, there are two separate categories to consider: short-term and long-term safety concerns. Where substances like opioids have the potential for high risk in both the short term and long term, most psychedelics have neither. Psychedelic substances are placed aside drugs like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine which contribute to thousands of deaths as a result of an overdose each year. Psychedelics, on the other hand, generally have incredibly high thresholds for overdose. LSD has a very safe drug profile and is quite non-toxic to humans. In its history, there is only one known case of death from an LSD overdose. But the individual consumed around 320 mg of acid, which is over 3,000 times as strong as the average dose of .1 mg. The LD-50 (The dose at which 50 percent of people would die) of LSD is estimated to be around 15 mg. Still, there are instances of people surviving doses of up to 40 mg. Given the difficulty of even getting these volumes of LSD, the chances of overdose are minimized even more. It is similarly difficult to overdose on psilocybin mushrooms; the LD-50 for humans is somewhere around 6000 mg. Given that one gram of these dried mushrooms contain an average of three milligrams, one would have to eat well over four pounds of psilocybin mushrooms to have a 50 percent chance of dying.

Unlike Psilocybin and LSD, MDMA has a fair amount of deaths attributed to it each year. Studies estimate that there are around 50 MDMA related deaths per year in the United States. While this seems high, the statistics are misleading. For one, the usage rates are high, with well over 500,000 users in 2014. Given that many of these people are probably not one-time users, out of millions of instances of MDMA a year, well below .01 percent result in death. Moreover, very few of these deaths are a result of MDMA toxicity/overdose. Many of these deaths are labeled MDMA related if it is found in the toxicology report, irrespective of the cause of death. Studies in the United Kingdom focusing on MDMA use in 2001, which was around the apex of MDMA use, found that out of the 81 MDMA related deaths, only nine involved MDMA by itself and 6 were caused by overdose. This puts the rate of death at around 2 in every 100,000 users, which is significantly lower than that of alcohol and cigarettes, which is 50 and 400 in 100,000 respectively.

Studies have discovered little about negative long-term effects of these substances, because as discussed earlier one of the properties of many psychedelics is the immediate tolerance that a user builds against them. So, even if there are adverse effects associated with habitual long-term use, they would be difficult to achieve. Compounding on this idea is the psychological properties of psychedelics. Most people find the experience to be powerful and mentally challenging and need time to integrate the experience before having another.

One supposed negative effect from long-term use of psychedelic substances has been purported to be psychosis. This idea gained traction after Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett appeared to gradually lose his mind after years of experimenting with LSD. However, this theory has been debunked with numerous studies, showing that while psychedelics many bring out mental illness slightly sooner in those who are already predisposed, it cannot cause psychosis or mental illness in someone that is not predisposed. However, these risks are mitigated or eliminated in the presence of health care providers. They can provide safe doses which reduce the risks of overdose to zero, as well as screening for preexisting mental disorders. 

All the studies surrounding like psychedelics LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA prove that they have been mislabeled schedule I substances. They do not exhibit any of the three major criteria that distinguish such controlled substances, which is the high potential for abuse, lack of medical use and severe medical risk. The potential for abuse is low, due to both the immediate tolerance that an individual builds to them, as well as the mentally challenging nature of psychedelics. There is also resounding evidence for the positive uses in medicine that these drugs can have. Because of their powerful and ego-shattering nature, they have a massive upside for helping to cure a wide array of addictions faster and more effectively than conventional methods. Moreover, they have been shown to cure PTSD in veterans, when many other methods and medications have fallen short. Finally, there few significant health concerns that accompany these substances. LSD and psilocybin’s threshold for overdose are incredibly high and have only one death attributed to either of them. Pure MDMA is a relatively safe substance, with very low fatality rates much lower than that of alcohol and cigarettes.

If removed from the list of Schedule I substances, the difficulty of having studies that focus around psychedelics would be greatly lessened. More research could be conducted on these drugs, and more possible unique uses could be gathered. Also, it would allow them to be utilized in medical settings under the supervision of health care professionals. Clinics constructed with these substances at the forefront could serve to combat the rising rates of addiction, as well as psychological disorders such as PTSD. All in all, these could have widespread positive impact on individuals and society. It is time to put past preconceptions about psychedelics drugs in the past and see them for what they are: a tool for positive change.

Bibliography

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  • Hartney, Elizabeth. “How Psychedelic or Hallucinogenic Drugs Work.” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, 5 Apr. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-psychedelics-22075.
  • “Interested In Using Psychedelics To Treat Addiction? Here’s How To Do It.” The Third Wave, 13 Sept. 2018, thethirdwave.co/treat-addiction-psychedelics-overview/.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967j.
  • Nichols, David E. “Psychedelics.” Pharmacological Reviews, The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Apr. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4813425/.
  • “Psychedelic Experience.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychedelic_experience#Visual_alteration.
  • Smith, Matt. “Psychedelic Drugs to Treat Depression, PTSD?” WebMD, WebMD, 18 Sept. 2018, www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20180918/psychedlic-drugs-to-treat-depression-ptsd.
  • “The Medial History of Psychedelic Drugs.” MAPS, 2007, www.maps.org/images/pdf/history_of_psychedelics.pdf.
  • “What’s the Success Rate of Alcohol Recovery?” Beach House, Beach House, 8 Mar. 2019, www.beachhouserehabcenter.com/learning-center/whats-the-success-rate-of-alcohol-recovery/.
16 December 2021

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