Researchers Are Diving Into The World Of Psychedelic Drugs, And Compelling Results Are Arriving

Chemicals found in LSD, magic mushrooms, and ecstasy can be found in clinics across the globe.

For decades, LSD and psychedelics of any kind have been shunned by American society. But before long, you may start seeing them used in a medical capacity.

Since a 2014 Swiss study on lysergic acid diethylamide — commonly known as LSD or acid — looked at the drug's ability to treat anxiety, the scientific community has once again begun investigating the potential of hallucinogenic drugs for treating mental illness. 

That 2014 study broke a 40-year drought of LSD research, marking renewed interest in drugs like mescaline, MDMA — a pure form of Ecstasy that goes by the street name Molly — and LSD which, after being criminalized in the 50s and 60s, stopped being researched by scientists and universities.

In the 2014 study, researchers gave small-dosage LSD treatments to 12 terminally ill patients who suffered from end-of-life anxiety. Researchers found that LSD-assisted psychotherapy participants "consistently reported insightful, cathartic and interpersonal experiences, accompanied by a reduction in anxiety (77.8%) and a rise in quality of life (66.7%)."

Over the course of 12 months, there were no lasting adverse reactions. Of course, such studies need to be taken with a grain of salt; researchers have emphasized the preliminary nature of these works and the fact that larger scale studies still need to take place.

The Multidisciplinary Association For Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who organized that 2014 study, is now engaging in long-term MDMA-assisted psychotherapy research. They are testing the drug's affect on people with PTSD; not just soldiers, but sexual assault victims as well.

"I think the science and the eroding of the cultural stigma of psychedelics goes hand in hand," Brad Burge, the Director of Communications and Marketing for MAPS told A Plus. "The more science we see the less stigma there is, and the more people are talking about them from a rational standpoint and not just 'oh my God these drugs are going to kill your children.'"

As the number of studies on psychedelics picks up, Burge and others in the field are seeing breakthroughs in improving the quality of life for a diverse group of patients. But Burge like others notes that in the United States, they aren't yet receiving any help from the federal government. MAPS, for instance, has gotten a 2.1 million dollar grant from the state of Colorado for medical marijuana research. But the only money they get for research on psychedelics comes from individuals and small family foundations, a stark contrast that shows the stigma still attached to psychedelics.

With a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) meeting on the horizon this summer, Burge is hopeful that is going to change. They'll need it, as current cost estimates for the next phase of research is in the 20 million dollar range. 

"The FDA is still not ready to approve it, and that's just because they need to see more research," Burge said. 

Burge is currently expecting the FDA to approve MDMA trials for use in PTSD therapy as early as 2021. The hope is that 10 or 15 years from now there will be insurance-covered, international networks of clinics that patients can go to in order to receive treatment for PTSD or anxiety, or even just personal growth classes that may not be covered by insurance but worth the cost to patients.  

It seems the door has been opened to a world of taboo drugs being used for scientific good. In other places across the United States, prestigious research hubs like Johns Hopkins University and the University of California are now studying the use psilocybin — a principal component of psychedelic mushrooms — and its effect on anxiety, ability to quit smoking, and personality change, among other things.

In fact, Johns Hopkins researchers found that 80 percent of participants in a study on quitting smoking went without a cigarette for six months after receiving doses of psilocybin, a much higher success rate than typical smoking cessation trials. 

At Harvard, patients who received MDMA saw similar relief from end-of-life anxiety as those who received doses of LSD. Berra Yazar-Klosinski, a Ph.D and the Lead Clinical Research Associate at the MAPS, pointed out in a Reddit thread that MDMA was also being used in couple's therapy before it became a Schedule 1 drug in 1985. 

Of course, none of these professionals would advocate the recreational use of such drugs today. Mushrooms, acid, and Ecstacy all carry serious risks when they are taken in an unregulated fashion; everything from heat stroke to long-lasting brain damage to death. 

But the hope is with the best scientists in the world and the freedom to experiment, medical professionals can find a way to integrate these drugs into a variety of therapies that may improve an individual's quality of life. 

"Outside of the therapeutic model we want people to be able to use psychedelics safely and responsibly and we want them to disassociate it from the old counter-cultural attachment they've had," Burge said. 

For now, it seems like things are headed in the right direction. 

Cover photo: Steve Eason / Getty