Psychedelics in Rehab

Should psychedelic drugs be used for tough-to-treat conditions? Studying contraband substances are on the upswing, and many say it should have happened sooner.

By Steven Kotler, published on March 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Back in the early sixties, Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary snuck LSD out of campus laboratories and into the mainstream. Soon, tie-dyed hell broke loose in popular culture, and psychedelic drugs were quickly banned. By decade's end, they had all but vanished from the psychological research scene.

Human studies of such contraband substances are on the upswing again. Many researchers say it should have happened sooner.

"The banning of psychedelics has been an absolute disaster for consciousness and medical research," says Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company funding much of this new work.

Many researchers say hallucinogens were kept out of research labs because of fear generated by drugs like methamphetamines and heroin and the "war on drugs." In fact, there's little evidence that psychedelics are either addictive or more dangerous than, say, alcohol or marijuana, researchers report. Doblin argues that in the intervening decades, advances in everything from disease treatment to consciousness studies to basic psychological research have suffered. "These studies are just the first steps on a long road to recovery," he says.

The turnaround started in the early 1990s, when the Food and Drug Administration ran out of reasons, political and otherwise, to quash contraband drug research, Doblin says. Scientists hope hallucinogens can make inroads with tough-to-treat conditions, says Charles Grob, chief of adolescent and teen psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles. Grob is picking up where another researcher, Eric Kast, left off in the 1960s. Kast had promising results using LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) to relieve anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients. To follow up on those results, Grob is investigating psilocybin—the magic in "magic mushrooms"—as a treatment for anxiety in late-stage cancer patients.

Researchers hope this is only the beginning of a hallucinogenic data mine. As Grob also points out, "People forget, but psychedelics were the cutting edge of science in this country for 50 years." In fact, in the 1940s and '50s, so much money flowed in this direction that many top researchers got their start in this field. Many feel modern psychiatry owes its origins to the study of

After all, it was the discovery of the neurotransmitter serotonin—thanks to LSD—that jump-started the brain chemistry revolution.

Flashback in the Lab

Six psychedelic drug studies are underway, all aimed at some of medicine's more intractable problems.

  • Researcher Michael Mithoefer, at The Medical University of South Carolina, studies MDMA (ecstasy) in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by sexual abuse.
  • Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona studies treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorders with psilocybin.
  • Charles Grob, of the University of California at Los Angeles, studies late-stage cancer-related anxiety's treatment with MDMA and therapy.
  • Andrew Sewell, of Harvard University, is trying to get approval for research on treatment of cluster headaches with LSD and psilocybin.