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Take a Trip With Me: LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin

Heroin, LSD, Marijuana, MDMA: what do they have in common? 

Chemically, not much.

But Richard Nixon’s 1970 Controlled Substances Act designated all of them “as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” otherwise known as Schedule I substances. Americans have since accepted the various medical uses of marijuana, yet it remains categorized alongside one of the most physically dangerous narcotics: heroin. Despite its recreational legalization in nearly half of United States territories/states—and medical legalization in a dozen more—marijuana’s misplacement within this federally restrictive category isn’t going anywhere. 

But this isn’t a story about marijuana—it’s one about psychedelics. If the ongoing battle for cannabis legalization has taught us anything, it’s that the reversion process for psychoactive substances implies a much more daunting task. 

To properly trace American hysteria with psychedelics, we must begin before 1970. Interestingly, medical researchers were conducting psychoactive studies as early as the 1960s, the results of which may surprise you.

The Spring Grove Experiment—famously covered in a 1966 CBS documentary—documented the psychedelic journey of 33-year-old father named Arthur King, who was a struggling alcoholic at the time of entry into the program. After King’s psychotherapy session, he “never picked up another drink” and expressed no desire to do so.

Psychiatrist Eric Cast demonstrated in a 1967 study that “LSD given at sub-psychedelic doses without formal psychotherapy out-performs traditional opiate-based drugs for relieving pain and anxiety for patients with end-stage cancer.” 

The list goes on. Dozens of studies before Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act point optimistically toward several beneficial uses of psychedelics in the treatment of a variety of medical ailments. And yet, after 1970, the vast majority of this medical research was forcefully concluded. While Nixon’s Act is primarily responsible for this hiatus, several other flows of misleading or downright incorrect information influenced how the public—and perhaps even the government—perceived psychedelics. 

In 1968, one Pennsylvania government official, Norman Yoder, famously claimed that “half a dozen tripping Pennsylvania college students stared at the sun so long they went completely blind,” a statement later discovered to be a “scare story.” It might be relevant to note that Yoder’s position was State Commissioner for the Blind.

Meanwhile, research suggested a causal relationship between LSD and schizophrenia, but this was later refuted by more thorough studies linking psychosis to dopaminergic drugs. 

Instances of ill-advised panic over hallucinogens around this time were numerous. The growth rate of psychedelic stigmatization eclipsed all the ongoing medical research—regardless of why or how—and culminated in Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act. This development created a paradox that would persist for the foreseeable future: these drugs were banned for having no “medical use” but could not be thoroughly studied because they were banned. 

While this mandate significantly dampened the prevalence of LSD and mescaline medical research, there was a silver lining to this restriction—since scientists were forced to abandon LSD research, it allowed them to investigate another drug: MDMA. 

The first report analyzing the psychoactivity of MDMA was published in 1978 by chemist and UC Berkeley graduate Alexander Shulgin, rapidly accelerating research on the topic. In reaction to this report, psychotherapist Leo Zeff began studying the effects of the drug on his patients, noting that it “stripped away neuroses and put users in a primordial state.” It would later surface that he had been safely administering MDMA to dozens of patients following Shulgin’s report.

The boom in MDMA research seemed to be replicating the LSD burst that had happened a few decades earlier—promising research emerged, and attitudes were trending in a positive direction. However, this optimism was short-lived.

In 1984, almost in response to this uptick in research, the DEA announced its intention to add MDMA to the list of Schedule I substances, which would make it “illegal to manufacture, sell, buy, or prescribe.” This announcement sparked outrage in the medical community, ushering in dozens of protest letters by leading researchers of MDMA. Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of Mental Health Services, Dr. George Greer, urged the DEA to consider the several “useful and beneficial effects of MDMA when used under medical supervision.” 

This influx of letters led to a 1985 hearing featuring Dr. Greer, in which he and colleagues debated the DEA’s objective. The panel provided compelling testimony from Greer, his peers, and their patients urging for the prevention of MDMA’s placement in the Schedule I register. In addition to these overwhelmingly favorable accounts, the media seemed to be finally taking a stance against the DEA, which peaked with a debate on the drug by popular TV host Phil Donahue. 

Unfortunately, these efforts proved futile. In cruel fashion, the DEA elected to ignore the accounts presented in the hearing along with the widespread positive media coverage concerning MDMA. On March 23, 1988, the DEA made a “final rule placing the drug [MDMA] into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act,” where it remains today.

A wave of hopelessness ensued—the government had met every attempt at psychedelic medical research with harsh restrictions and biting opposition. Any hope of a medical breakthrough would surely be drowned out by the torrent of unruly governmental influence, and for the better part of two decades, it was. 

This “decades-long research hiatus” may finally be over, though. After years of subjection to stigmatization, psychedelics have finally been receiving the positive perception that has long since been overdue. 

One 2016 study found that “people suffering cancer-related anxiety or depression found considerable relief for up to six months from a single large dose of Psilocybin.” This breakthrough also documented the effectiveness of psychedelic treatment when coupled with supervision sessions (controlled administration). In 2017, the FDA granted “breakthrough status” to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, allowing the drug to undergo expedited research processes. In 2018, the FDA did the same for Psilocybin (in treating depression) largely in response to the 2016 Johns Hopkins study.

Another 2018 study analyzed the effects of psychedelic drugs on individuals suffering from alcoholism, concluding that “after the psychedelic experience, 83% no longer met [alcohol use disorder] criteria.” In 2020, conclusive evidence was presented that drew a direct link between Psilocybin treatment and the reduction of depression symptoms. Furthermore, this effect “was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” a shocking finding considering the widespread nature of antidepressants.

Former firefighter Ed Thompson compared his first MDMA-assisted therapy session to the sensation of being able to “take a big breath after being stuck underwater for a long time,” even when talking through his most traumatic life experiences. 

Dozens of studies published in recent years point towards the same conclusion: psychedelics indeed have medical use, especially when paired with conventional therapy. However, many of these substances remain available only in clinical trials, as opposed to being freely accessible through medical channels. 

The United States is at a tipping point—the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) recently submitted an application to reschedule MDMA, which is currently pending approval. Five months ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would allow doctors to immediately start prescribing Psilocybin and MDMA if they’re federally rescheduled, effectively jumpstarting federal rescheduling under the assumption that these changes are on the horizon. 

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is going to take effect—people should stop counting years and start counting months. The induction of psychedelic substances into lower federal schedules will only deliver more breakthroughs in the future; this change will mark the beginning of a historic period in medical drug research. 

It is imperative that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. The controlled administration of psychedelics necessitates careful procedure. Assuming rescheduling is soon to occur, one mistake could easily jeopardize their federal standing, sending the United States back into an era of medical darkness. 

Featured Image Source: DALL-E

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