The problem with banning anything out of a fear of the unknown is that many unknowns will remain. Such is the story of many psychedelic drugs in the U.S. While the government has experimented with various psychedelic compounds (take the CIA’s secret attempts at LSD mind-control between 1953 to 1964) over the years prohibition has become the name of the game. In response to a cultural upheaval beginning in the 1960s that saw more and more people independently experimenting with mind-altering drugs, the U.S. government has cracked down on every psychedelic it can muster, often without first exploring their potential medical uses. The U.S. Department of Justice has demonized psychedelics, listing many of them (including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA) as felony-status, schedule I substances with „high potential for abuse“ and no medical value. The reality the government, and Western world at large, has failed to acknowledge is that psychedelic drugs aren’t just something free-spirited hippies eat to feel trippy and dance naked (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Humans have used psychedelics since before we were painting on cave walls, not just for fun but for healing. Psychoactive mushrooms have been part of human healing practices since before recorded history, and ayahuasca—the brew of various psychoactive plant decoctions that is increasingly popular in the West—remains a medicinal staple for the people of Amazonian Peru. More recently, the psychedelic chemical compounds MDMA and LSD were both originally developed to help treat psychiatric patients.
The Western war on drugs mindset has led most of the mainstream medical world to dismiss psychedelics altogether, but a handful of dedicated researchers have refused to let fear and politics keep them from exploring. These researchers have petitioned the government for permission to conduct research on those highly classified substances, and after decades of scientific drought a few studies have received the go-ahead. Now, the evidence is stacking up to show the enormous potential of psychedelics for treating everything from cancer to PTSD to addiction.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a pharmaceutical research and educational nonprofit based in Santa Cruz, Calif. is at the forefront of psychedelic science. It funds researchers around the world to conduct government-approved, placebo-controlled, clinical studies of various psychedelic drugs. Since its founding in the ’80s, MAPS has gathered a wealth of insight into the interactions between psychedelics and the human mind. This June it decided to share its insights with the masses by offering its first-ever, open-enrollment online psychedelics course.
The live, 5-session interactive video course, „Psychedelic Science: How to Apply What We’re Learning to Your Life,“ brought together experts in psychedelic science, medicine, art, and spirituality.
Here are five key lessons from the course.
Gabor Matè, a medical doctor, speaker and author from Vancouver, has worked with psychedelic medicine among aboriginal people, as well as in contemporary, non-indigenous healing circles. He contends that therapy assisted by psychedelics–ayahuasca in particular–can untangle complex, unconscious psychological stresses.
As a speaker for the MAPS course, Matè said, „The issue of psychedelic healing goes to the very heart of what it means to have illness in the first place.“ According to Mate–and most of the non-Western world–the mind and body are not separate entities, but work in tandem. He believes many illnesses are a result of pent-up psychological and/or spiritual traumas.
„In the Western medical model, illness is something bad that happens to a person usually because of bad behaviors on their part, like smoking cigarettes and getting lung cancer or even having the wrong genes,“ he said. „But for the most part we don’t look at the possibility that the illness is not just misfortune but actually represents something about that person’s life. For instance cancer, or rheumatoid arthritis, or depression, or drug addiction, or ADHD, or whatever form your illness takes, may be a representation of what’s happened to you in life and how you have coped with life.“
Psychedelics, he claims, can help the mind cope with those deep-held, often repressed traumas, which in turn allows the body to heal itself.
„It’s only Western medicine that separates the mind from the body,“ he said.
Much of Matè’s work centers around the idea that many illnesses are the body’s response over time to unaddressed psychological traumas. His main focuses are two illnesses the modern medical model has yet to „cure“: cancer and addiction.
„What I’m asserting is that, whether looking at cancer or addiction, what we’re seeing is impact of life experience,“ Matè said. „We know already that in the womb the emotional states of the mother have significant physiological impact on the physiology of the developing child. … And we know that what happens early in life … has a profound effect on the developing brain of the child. What really happens is that coping patterns child develops early in life show up as diseases later on.“
Psychedelics, Matè contends, have the potential to address diseases like addiction and cancer because they open up the user’s mind to addressing traumas that were otherwise blocked out.
Regarding addiction, Matè said emotional trauma’s impact on the developing brain during childhood, „interferes with brain circuit that later on becomes involved in addiction process.“
„The trauma gives the child a sense of deep emotional pain they will try to soothe later on [with substances],“ he said. „The trauma makes you believe you are isolated in the world without help– no support, no love, no caring. … [W]hich of course goes in the face of the spiritual awareness that we’re all one, it’s all one world and we’re all connected. There’s that sense of separation, pain and disordered brain circuit.“
Matè argues that psychedelics used in the proper setting, with a trained therapist or shaman, can help people address the underlying psychological, emotional and spiritual conditions that are „underneath all these conditions Western medicine thinks are separate and accidental.“
Being hospitalized or incarcerated while under the influence of a psychedelic is a recipe for nightmarish visions, paranoia and an all-around „bad trip.“ Unfortunately, these are the default reactions of most emergency personnel who deal with people experiencing drug-induced acute psychiatric crises.
Linnae Ponté, harm reduction coordinator for MAPS, works to shift the way we deal with psychedelic drug users to a more practical, public-health-oriented system that won’t land people with debt-inducing hospital bills or dark marks on their permanent records just because they were tripping. Often, as MAPS has learned, all that’s required to make this happen is to provide a safe space where people can essentially trip out in peace.
Her job is to travel to places where people are using psychedelics en masse, e.g. festivals and raves, and help reduce the potentially negative effects of recreational psychedelic use. She does this by providing safe spaces, away from the noise, where people are surrounded by support.
The Zendo Project provides a tent-like structure designed for relaxation, complete with pillows, lamps and hammocks to be used at festivals and raves. Ponté and a team of volunteers set these structures up at various events so people can visit if they’re overstimulated. They coordinate their efforts with emergency personnel and law enforcement, who are usually happy to cooperate.
„The overall mission of the Zendo project is to provide a safe space for anybody having a difficult experience to transform it into one that can offer valuable learning and some personal growth,“ Ponté said during the course.
Similar to the way MAPS trains its psychedelic therapists, all Zendo volunteers complete training in how to to oversee people on psychedelics and sit with them during their experiences. They are also trained in how to help people talk through their experiences.
„Psychedelics are an incredibly powerful tool,“ Ponté said. „They’re nonspecific amplifiers: they bring to the surface whatever is at the depths of our psyche, and sometimes we’re absolutely unaware of it at the time. And that is why … the psychedelic experience is all about set and setting.“
Ponté outlined the four basic principles of psychedelic Harm Reduction, which she uses to train Zendo volunteers. The principles are largely derived from MAPS’s training guides for psychedelic therapists. While the principles are designed for harm reduction event volunteers, they are helpful lessons for anyone interested in using psychedelics.
„There are many ways to do this, but basically it’s just any space a person is able to relax into their experience,“ Ponté said. „Ideally [they’re] in a place to close their eyes, lay down, and not be stepped on or talked at, so they can just really feel safe.“
„What we’re actually doing is just holding space and being a non-directive guide for people,“ Ponté said. „I do believe psychedelics open us up to being more in touch with this inner healing capacity we have.“
Ponté said when helping someone, the tendency is often to talk down to them or attempt to tell them what to do. This principle reminds us to help the psychedelic user by, for example reminding them that they are safe rather than telling them to calm down.
To explain this principle, Ponté quotes Carl Jung: „There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.“
MAPS has sponsored several government-approved MDMA studies to date, which looked at the drug’s ability to help treat people with severe PTSD and anxiety. For all studies, participants took placebo-controlled doses of the „ecstasy“ drug and therapists talked them through their experiences. So far, Doblin explained, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Doblin predicted that within the next decade MDMA-assisted therapy will be legal and doctor-prescribed.
„We’ve been working for 28 years and have another seven or so to go before MDMA is available as a prescription medicine,“ Doblin said, noting that MAPS was founded as a response to the government outlawing MDMA. „We have clearly got outcome data that will enable us to develop MDMA into a prescription medication.“
MAPS’s first pilot study, which looked at MDMA’s potential to treat people with PTSD, had such successful results in helping „people who had been stuck for a long time with PTSD,“ that it looked like the FDA would approve it as a prescription drug, Doblin said.
Every participant’s PTSD diminished significantly, and the study showed that MDMA was contributing more to the therapy than the therapist.
„For people who are so stuck in the fear reaction they have to their trauma, psychotherapy alone can only take them so far,“ he said. „The addition of MDMA makes much more progress. When combined with supportive psychotherapy, people can make great progress.“
Even more encouraging than the initial results was a long-term analysis of those pilot study participants. It showed that an average of 3.5 years after treatment, the benefits of MDMA assisted therapy were sustained.
„This really solidified our view that MDMA deserves to be a medicine for PTSD,“ Doblin said. „If we can continue to get results even half as good as this, we thought, this will be made into a medicine.“
A second MDMA-PTSD study in Switzerland turned over impressive results as well. Neurocognitive studies done in the first study that showed no effect on memory, and neither study resulted in any serious adverse events.
MAPS also completed phase one of a pilot study looking into MDMA to treat combat veterans with PTSD. The second phase of that study is still ongoing.
One of the biggest takeaways following the varous studies, Doblin said, is that MDMA-assisted therapy can apply to everyone with PTSD, regardless of what caused their trauma.
„What we’ve learned so far is that the cause of PTSD is not related to the treatment method,“ Doblin said. „What that means is that—whether its childhood sexual abuse, adult rape and assault, combat, military combat, accidents—something about trauma, regardless of what caused it, when it turns into chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, the treatment that we offer works regardless of the cause.“
Doblin said this also means when MAPS completes its phase three studies–the final step before government approval of a medicine for the market– they won’t have to limit them to people with a particular trauma.
In addition to PTSD, MAPS has hypothesised that MDMA could help with anxiety.
Alicia Danforth, a psychiatrist, is currently working an ongoing MAPS-sponsored study of efficacy of MDMA to help adults on the autism spectrum cope with anxiety. The study’s protocols were in the making for the last couple of years, and after approval by the necessary government entities, including the FDA, it was launched in February.
The study is the first of its kind. Danforth said researchers decided to focus on people on the autism spectrum because that population tends to be particularly susceptible to anxiety. She noted that the study is in no way attempting to treat or cure autism, nor is it trying to „Give people who lack empathy, empathy“—a concern some people have expressed.
„Because MDMA is referred to as an empathogen, it’s kind of easy to make that leap,“ Danforth said. „It’s not the case that individuals on the spectrum lack empathy, but oftentimes they’re challenged with different aspects of empathic thinking. That’s not something we’re trying to address with MDMA.“
Linna Ponté recalls participating in a therapist training program in 2011 that used something called „holotropic breathwork“ to help trainees reach a psychedelic state. Since psychedelics are federally illegal, people interested in entering into psychedelic therapy use this alternative method to train.
„Participants breath in deep, full breaths, its like circular breathing and by doing it for an extended period of time with the help of a set playlist, you can bring yourself into state of consciousness similar to that induced by lsd or psilocybin or classic psychedelics,“ Ponte said.
Stan Grof, a pioneer of psychedelic therapy and one of the first researchers of LSD, founded the holotropic breathwork practice.
„When LSD was put on schedule I and made illegal he went off and developed holotropic breathwork to provide people with a way to access these non-ordinary states of consciousness that can provide deep healing for people,“ Ponte said.
April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.