Marijuana for medical purposes has finally become a serious policy option. Meanwhile, there has been a quiet but promising revival of research on the potential of psychedelics as part of the treatment of mental illness.
It is exactly 50 years since Congress passed the Food and Drug Act that gave expanded powers to the FDA. In general the new rules were warranted, requiring that drugs being marketed meet both efficacy and safety criteria. But psychedelics like LSD were still experimental. Many psychiatrists in the U.S. and abroad had been working with them for years in the hopes that they could provide both a laboratory model of psychotic states (called “psychotomimetics”), and a therapy for disorders that were and today remain recalcitrant to standard therapies.
Soon after the new law was in place the FDA decided to curtail research on LSD, with one ironic exception: Intelligence agencies and the military were still able to do research through a special exemption. But by the mid-1960s even those agencies had largely lost interest in LSD, after more than a decade of often shockingly irresponsible “experiments,” so even that work was essentially frozen. In spite of a congressional probe spearheaded by Senator Robert F. Kennedy (whose wife Ethel seems to have been one of many elites who had undergone LSD therapy, joining a list that included actor Cary Grant and publisher Henry Luce), the regulators held their ground. By 1970 LSD was classified as a schedule 1 drug that had no medical value.
Part of the problem was that psychedelics had become associated with the public antics of Timothy Leary, who had been summarily dismissed from Harvard. Though Leary’s activities were a setback for psychedelics, his reputation is overdue for reassessment. Leary was admittedly a notorious publicity hound but he nonetheless truly believed that LSD could save humankind. And in comparison to many of his contemporaries Leary had a sense of medical ethics. For example, in his psilocybin experiments with prisoners at Concord Prison in Massachusetts (the goal was to assist in their rehabilitation), he reportedly obtained consent and gave clear risk and benefit information to volunteers. That was not common practice in medical experiments at the time and contrasted with the random dosing that CIA operatives were doing to citizens around the country. And Leary was far more careful than many others in his management of LSD experiences, emphasizing the both the internal “set” of the participant and the “setting” or external environment.
But the entire matter of psychedelics has for too long rested on the reputation of a single personality. It is a sad lesson of history that generational change is sometimes required to cast off unreasonable stigma. Especially now that the pipeline of new concepts for psychoactive pharmaceuticals is modest at best, it is fortunate that serious and cautious research on psychedelics, which have been a part of human experience for tens of thousands of years, is beginning again. Centers like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are taking the careful first steps in examining psychedelics as therapies for disorders like anxiety and for drug addiction. Federal regulators are taking a more reasoned approach, permitting work on MDMA for PTSD. Early data in the use of psychedelics for patients adjusting to terminal illness are also encouraging.
This September a timely conference called Psychedemia will take place at the University of Pennsylvania. Organized by a group of imaginative Penn graduate students, the Website explains that:
“this conference captures the state of the stone for psychedelics in Western culture. Bringing together university scholars and professionals, Psychedemia will promote a discussion about how the increasing visibility and exploration of psychedelic experiences will influence greater culture. Together, this conference is poised to explore varied perspectives of a significant issue: as the psychedelic renaissance increases its momentum, it is vital to consider the impact of altered states of consciousness and the means by which they are produced, from interdisciplinary and critical perspectives.”
The timing of Psychedemia couldn’t be more perspicuous. It’s high time to destigmatize psychedelics as objects of legitimate research for the good they can do.
And that’s no joke.