Psychiatry “Discovers” Psychedelics and Pot
Looks like the 2020s are the new ‘60s.
Well what do you know! After 50 years of psychedelic drugs and marijuana being criminalized, with prominent authorities trying to scare the living daylights out of two generations of young people about brain damage, addiction, and sloth, behold! The psychiatric research community has discovered that cannabis and psychedelic drugs have a future in treating a wide range of illnesses including treatment-resistant depression, addictions, chronic PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia nervosa, and existential distress resulting from life-threatening illness.
While I, personally, am not partying like it’s 1969, I find it encouraging that scientists now are willing to see drugs that can create alternative consciousness as beneficial for notoriously difficult-to-treat mental disorders.
Until recently, because of government restrictions, all the research on these drugs was informal. I was aware during my college years, for example, that some acquaintances were doing groundbreaking research in the field, literally. They walked through grassy pastures picking the mushrooms that grew on cow dung, then concocting a brew that induced visions - and vomiting. This informal research never really ended, apparently. What’s new is that legitimate clinical research now runs parallel to it.
Let’s look at both.
The New Science
Johns Hopkins University, the first to get approval to conduct research with psychedelics, has been conducting studies since 2000 with psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms. To date they have found the drug has therapeutic effects in people suffering from addiction (to smoking, alcohol, or other drugs of abuse), distress linked to life-threatening illness, and treatment-resistant depression. Future studies will investigate if psilocybin can help patients with opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, and anorexia nervosa.
Dr. Roland Griffiths, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, admits in a podcast interview that he was initially ambivalent about whether the studies of psilocybin could possibly find as much therapeutic value as enthusiasts of the drug were expecting. “But indeed, the results of our initial study were nothing other than stunning to me,” he says.
He also cautions that the studies have been conducted with screened volunteers, who have been carefully prepared for the experience and monitored by trained scientists. For those experimenting in less rigorous conditions – or for recreation – he notes that “the psychedelics have significant risks attached to them. Sometimes those risks get under-emphasized or de-emphasized by psychedelic enthusiasts.”
The Young and the Reckless
Not that such warnings are ever heeded by those determined to experience the wonders of altered consciousness for themselves. Freelance research on cannabis, which has been ongoing for decades, has gotten a boost of interest with 18 states and the District of Columbia legalizing it for recreational use. D.C. and 36 states have legalized cannabis for medical uses.
In the psychedelic arena, two major kinds of out-of-laboratory dominate. The first, microdosing, involves taking one-tenth or one-twentieth of a normal dose of psilocybin, LSD, or another psychedelic drug on a continuous basis, in the belief that this can improve physical and mental health. The dose is not enough to create a high or induce visions, but enthusiasts believe the microdoses can increase creativity, improve mood, and have other therapeutic benefits.
So far the evidence is mostly anecdotal, but studies are emerging. One medical journal report found that microdosing improved creativity and divergent thinking - the ability to create multiple, unique ideas or solutions to a problem – but had no effect on fluid intelligence – the ability to be flexible and respond adaptively to novel situations. A giant study released in November, with 8,500 participants in 75 countries, measured microdosers and non-microdosers on mental health criteria and found that microdosers had lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. However, the data was all self-reported, and some participants supplemented their microdosing with full-strength self-medication. And finally, another study released this fall suggested that the positive effects reported by microdosers can likely be explained by the placebo effect.
The second activity, psychedelic retreats, combines the adventure of destination vacations with the magic and mystery of shamans and psychedelia. In Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, and other more permissive locales, Americans attend these retreats to take drugs powerful psychoactive drugs such as ayahuasca or ibogaine. The drug rituals are usually overseen by a local shaman.
Underground retreats in the U.S. are often organized via social media and held in a rented Airbnb in one of the cities where drug use has been decriminalized. A typical program includes preparation, a psychedelic experience, and then an integration process. The risks notwithstanding, retreat participants often talk about the experiences as activating real changes in outlook and behavior that have been life-changing.
To sum it up, I would not bet on a comeback for bell-bottoms and “groovy” (for which we can all be thankful), but I am fascinated to see white-coated scientists proclaiming the medicinal value of drugs that can blow your mind.
More Positive Aging
My friend Kit Cassingham, whom you may have met in our first “Council of Elders” podcast last week, is hosting conversations about positive aging on a social media platform called Clubhouse. You can join the conversation through your smart phone on Thursdays at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Come add to the exchange of ideas!