Psychedelic Solutions? : It was a long, strange trip in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. But the study of mind-altering drugs came to a screeching halt. Now, researchers are again looking at the possibility that the substances may be a key to curing addictions and mental illness.
A new generation of scientists calls them antactogens, empathogens and entheogens--"fantastic” drugs that could help us learn more about the mind’s mysteries, cure psychological problems and stop drug abuse. To others, however, these are rightfully banned substances newly cloaked in clinical names.
Most people know them simply as psychedelic drugs--LSD, ecstasy and hallucinogenic mushrooms, to name a few.
Almost 25 years after the federal government all but shut down psychedelic drug research involving human subjects, these academics are testing the illicit, mind-bending drugs on people--with the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These researchers say the government shutdown left major questions unanswered--and that America may be overlooking the wonder drugs of the future.
“We’re like early man who says fire’s too dangerous,” says Rick Doblin, 40, a Harvard-trained social scientist who has become the self-appointed spokesman for the new wave of research. “We’re not even at the stage where we figured out fire keeps you warm in the winter.”
Most of these academics were only teen-agers when Timothy Leary’s ‘60s-era pro-drug proselytizing helped prompt the government to finally shut the door on such research in 1970. Now they sport ties and cropped hair, have new names for the drugs (“There’s so much baggage psychedelics carries,” says one), and say they play by the rules. “I am well-trained, and serious about these drugs,” says Rick Strassman, who holds degrees from Stanford, UC San Diego and UC Davis and heads up two psychedelic drug projects at the University of New Mexico.
But while this group of researchers is diverse, serious and seems to have more degrees than a protractor, the politics of this kind of study is again at issue.
“It’s the same old thing in disguise,” says Wayne J. Roques, a Drug Enforcement Administration demand reduction coordinator based in Miami. “They believe they can open the door to legalization.”
Dr. William Bennett of Oregon Health Sciences University agrees that legalization is the goal. “It’s about a scientific agenda--a well-funded one,” he says.
“Illicit drugs are illicit because they’re painful, they’re harmful,” adds his wife, Sandra, vice president of a group called Drug Watch International. The couple lost their college-age son to cocaine in 1986.
Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit lobby tied to every new psychedelic research project involving humans, acknowledges that legalization is his ultimate end. His strategy is to support science that would prove psychedelic drugs have “therapeutic potential.”
“I’m up front and direct that there is a larger agenda,” Doblin says during an interview at his Charlotte, N.C., home office. “It’s a piecemeal, slow, gradual strategy.”
Not all the researchers like being affiliated with this kind of talk, though.
“I think hallucinogenic drugs are potentially quite dangerous and should remain tightly restricted,” says Strassman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. Charles S. Grob, director of child psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and lead researcher in a study of MDMA (“ecstasy”), says, “I want to be distanced as far as possible” from the politics.
By most accounts, six studies are either under way or awaiting final approval.
Most of the new studies involve university and private funding, some of which has been secured by MAPS. Two studies at the University of New Mexico, under Strassman, have received a total of $240,000 in taxpayer funds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In 1989, the FDA reopened the door to studies of the potential of psychedelic drugs. The result is that “aboveboard research with psychedelics is becoming viable, respected,” Grob says.
The first wave of research started that way. LSD, for example, was happened upon in 1943 as Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann was trying to synthesize a substance that would help the blood circulate better. He ended up with a hallucinogenic drug he hoped could be used in psychotherapy. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals patented the drug, the CIA tested it and researchers loved it.
Oscar Janiger, a retired Santa Monica psychiatrist, researched the effects of LSD by giving it to more than 1,000 people between 1954 and 1962. His subjects included more than a few stars--Cary Grant and Rita Moreno to name two. Then the government shut down his lab. “Nobody gave us a good answer,” says Janiger, 77.
That was the year the White House Conference on Narcotics found that psychedelics were popular with “long hair and beatnik cults,” writes historian Jay Stevens in “Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987). “My colleagues,” Janiger says, “were being shut down at the same time.”
The next year, Leary and colleague Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass, the best-selling spiritual guru), were kicked off the Harvard faculty for their enthusiastic research that involved giving LSD to graduate students. Then people like Leary and author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) preached about the drugs they had discovered--and LSD escaped from academia.
“Our social duty,” Leary told reporters in 1966, “is to publish manuals, give training sessions and prepare the young to use this powerful, consciousness-expanding drug.”
“The impressionable young, stimulated by the claims of Kesey and Leary, had begun taking it wherever and whenever they could,” Stevens writes.
Around 1966, bad trips begat trips to the emergency rooms for middle-class kids. Citing the bad experiences, possible schizophrenia and even brain damage, the government halted most LSD research, and Sandoz recalled its drug and gave up its patent.
In 1970, the federal government created “Schedule I,” a category of drugs for which there is no legitimate use. LSD and psilocybin (a chemical that comes from hallucinogenic mushrooms) were included, making government approval for human research with the drugs rare. (UCLA researcher Ronald K. Siegel was one of few allowed to test LSD on humans after 1970.)
“I think it’s foolish to try to blame me” for the crackdown, says Leary, now 74 and a full-time futurist, conspiracy-theorist and college circuit lecturer. But since he still sees the government as Big Brother, Leary says, “I would love to take the blame for stopping government research into drugs. I would be honored.”
Some of the original LSD researchers say they were close to a breakthrough. They say they were amassing evidence that psychedelic drugs could cure alcoholism, help cure mental ills and even help reform prisoners (an idea Leary began testing while at Harvard). “The track record in the original research had great promise,” says Alexander Shulgin, 69, a former Dow Chemical Co. researcher who has published nearly 200 papers on psychedelic drugs.
Others say enough was discovered to conclude that LSD and psilocybin aren’t worth our time. “The federal government supported research, Sandoz supported research,” says Jerome Levine, who studied LSD at the National Institute of Mental Health in the ‘60s. “It certainly did have its day in court.
“A majority of the studies that were done turned out to be negative,” he adds.
The specter of drug abuse and AIDS in the ‘80s created a climate friendlier to new drug testing of all sorts. In 1989, the FDA established a Pilot Drug Evaluation staff “to do a better job of responding to the needs of the research community with a minimum of bureaucracy,” says an FDA official who did not want to be named. The point was to smooth the way for drugs such as AZT, a treatment for AIDS, and substances that might help reduce drug abuse, the official says.
But the result was also that psychedelic drug research got approved, as long as it is done “real carefully and with a lot of people watching to make sure no one gets hurt,” the FDA official says.
Approval for such research must come from the FDA. The DEA then issues a license to handle the drugs. NIDA sometimes funds the research and provides the drugs. (A drug can also be made by a licensed researcher or imported with federal approval.) “We really want to see scientific data that can hold water,” says NIDA staffer Jeraline Lin. In California, additional approval has to come from the state’s Research Advisory Panel.
Psychedelic drugs vary the amount of chemicals that the mind shoots across its expanse, like so many E-mail messages, researchers say. The colorful psychedelic experience can be the result of either a lack of E-mail or an E-mail overload.
Some researchers say this process can open the mind to psychotherapy, drawing out true feelings, repressed memories and subconscious hang-ups. Under that same concept, they say, the drug can also open the mind’s eye to psychotherapy-aided attempts to end drug dependence, for example, or help a criminal turn over a new leaf. “Psychotherapy is enhanced by an altered-state experience,” Harbor-UCLA’s Grob says.
Dangers surrounding most of the drugs--aside from disorientation and confusion--are not as great as the public was led to believe in the ‘60s, says UCLA’s Siegel, a longtime drug-abuse consultant to the federal government. Risks of brain damage and schizophrenia, he says, have been discounted. Most psychedelics are stimulants, and like any stimulant, they can be harmful to those with high blood pressure and heart conditions, he says.
Also, especially in the case of LSD, the psychological effects of the experience can be overwhelming--and they can linger, Siegel says. That’s why researchers avoid giving the drug, for example, to the mentally unstable. A few drugs, such as MDMA, appear to be more physiologically dangerous.
One of the first projects of new-generation research was a 1991 safety study of DMT--a drug found in some trees, grasses and even in the human brain. It is now being studied to find out more about how the brain works. DMT researcher Strassman says it’s too early to release any findings, but adds that it could “lead to possibly developing drugs that could treat bad trips in emergency rooms.”
He recently started a NIDA-supported study of psilocybin and has been approved to study LSD.
In 1991, Baltimore researchers Richard Yensen and Donna Dryer were approved to study LSD--which is not considered addictive--with the goal of finding out if it can help treat addiction to other substances. The study has yet to begin.
In ’92, Grob’s MDMA project was approved. Grob and colleague Russell Poland, a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA, are finishing up the initial safety study. MDMA--a drug first patented in 1914--has an effect described as a mix between speed and LSD. The researchers eventually want to see if the drug is useful in treating psychiatric disorders. Individuals on the drug “are more communicative about their feelings,” Grob says.
This project seems to be the most controversial, however, because it involves a drug that has been known to cause brain damage in rats. “I would have serious reservations about administering MDMA,” Siegel says.
Grob and Poland counter that governmental scrutiny is high, dosages are low, and volunteers, who must be former users, are well-informed. “If we give the drug to those who have taken it previously, at very low dosages, we feel it’s very safe,” Poland says.
Early last year, the FDA approved a University of Miami study of ibogaine, a psychedelic drug found in a rain forest shrub and used in regions of Western Africa as a stimulant, aphrodisiac, hunting aid and as part of religious rituals. The goal is to find out if the drug can be used to help stop drug dependence. Some anecdotal evidence says it works, but Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos says it’s too early in his study to tell.
Resurgent psychedelic drug research is supported by three groups working in concert. The 800-member MAPS puts out a quarterly newsletter on the latest research, lobbies Washington for approval and solicits money for studies. Leaders of the newly established Heffter Research Institute, as yet homeless, hope to build one of the first laboratories devoted purely to psychedelic study. For now, their goal is to raise an endowment to support research. The Albert Hofmann Foundation, based in Los Angeles and founded by Janiger, has been raising money to become a repository for psychedelic drug research papers.
MAPS president Doblin--who says he’s a nondrinker, nonsmoker and avid jogger--has positioned himself as spokesman for the new wave of research. He learned the bureaucratic ropes in the mid ‘80s as spokesman for the unsuccessful movement to keep MDMA legal (it was included as a Schedule I drug in 1985). Now, he says, “I found out how to do what I want to do within the system.”
But the real issue for the future of psychedelics, Janiger says, is not “the system.” It’s found in the past: economics. “The most important force is the one that is never mentioned: that Sandoz never found a medical use for LSD,” he says.
And even if all this research supports the medical use of LSD, MDMA and other drugs, the issue remains, Grob says, “What’s the profit line?”