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Are psychedelics the next medical marijuana? [Commentary]

In March 2014, for the first time in over 40 years, a study of the therapeutic benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide — more commonly known as LSD — was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. It showed that LSD-assisted psychotherapy significantly reduced anxiety in individuals with "life-threatening diseases," including Parkinson's disease and breast cancer.

This study is part of a recent wave of clinical research on psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin — the psychoactive component of "magic mushrooms." Although they are illegal for the general public, researchers at some of our most reputable academic centers are securing government permission to study them as a powerful new drug therapy for a host of illnesses for which our current pharmacopeia does not always work, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cluster headaches and alcoholism.

It is worth revisiting how they were introduced to the general American populace and how they became classified as illegal "Schedule I" drugs, which are considered unusually risky and lacking in medical benefits. Why they were outlawed — and our long-held attitudes about them — have more to do with the culture wars of the 1960s and '70s than their medical harmfulness.

Psilocybin-containing mushrooms were introduced to the U.S. mainstream in the late 1950s by R. Gordon Wasson, an American banker turned mycologist. Wasson and his wife made the first of 10 trips to Mexico in 1953 to conduct fieldwork on the Mazatecs — a group indigenous to Oaxaca — who used a certain kind of mushroom during sacred ceremonies to divine causes of illness and misfortune, among other things.

Wasson wrote enthusiastically about his experiences for Life magazine in 1957. Seeking the Magic Mushroom was the first article on a psychedelic substance to appear in a mainstream publication in the U.S. It inspired Timothy Leary to visit Mexico to take the mushrooms. Leary then established the first academic research center for psychedelics at Harvard University.

As for LSD, it was first synthesized from a fungus that grows on grain in 1938. After Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman discovered its psychoactive properties, Sandoz Laboratories manufactured a version. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) got wind of LSD in the early 1950s and secretly experimented with its use for mind control.

Both of these substances dovetailed with the new ideals of self-exploration associated with the growing counter-culture movement whose most visible emblems were beatniks and hippies. They were increasingly seen as a fast track to the personal and psychological liberation seen as necessary for true rebellion against political authoritarianism and social repression.

But the popular, widespread use of psychedelics ran afoul of governmental authorities and torpedoed clinical research programs. Once a part of mainstream academic psychiatry with over 1,000 publications describing their clinical uses, psychedelic substances were outlawed in the U.S. in 1968, as tensions between the American counter-culture movement and the government came to a head.

After psychedelics were classified as "Schedule I" drugs, knowledge about the effects of psychedelics tended to come from online data generated anonymously and curated on sites like Erowid. Researchers who have used these self-reported data have found just a few deaths associated with behavior after taking LSD and only one death associated with psilocybin in a heart transplant patient.

But after a generation had passed, the public panic surrounding LSD had largely abated. And continued legal research demonstrating the safety of psychedelics on non-human animals led emboldened researchers to petition the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Food and Drug Administration successfully for new human studies in the early 1990s.

Supporters of wider availability for psychedelics are taking a page out of the successful marijuana playbook: medical need. Why not turn to pre-existing substances that already have anecdotally helped conditions that conventional medicine still struggles to treat?

It seems all but inevitable that, through mainstream medicine, psychedelics will have new, socially sanctioned roles in Western societies. Even if their main risk today is not to inspire a hippie revolution, the new research into psychedelics does seem to hold the potential to change the way we treat mood and behavioral disorders.

And comments in The Atlantic from a participant in a current New York University study using psilocybin to treat anxiety associated with terminal illness also bring to life that historical tension between specific medical uses of psychedelics and their potential to change the very ways in which we experience society and ourselves: "The beauty of psilocybin is: it's not medication," the participant said. "You're not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself."

Welcome to the front lines of "existential medicine."

Nate Greenslit writes about media, drugs, and culture. He got his doctorate in the history and social study of science and technology at MIT. Mr. Greenslit is also a musician living in an artists' collective in Boston's South End. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square ( Twitter: @NateGreenslit.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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