At the Drug Policy Foundation's annual conference in Washington last fall, several enthusiasts were passing the word about a miraculous cure for addiction. They said one exposure to ibogaine, a psychedelic drug derived from the root of an African plant, enables longtime addicts to take stock of themselves, break their habits, and reorient their lives.
Researchers in the United States may soon have the opportunity to test such claims in a rigorous way. Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration's Drug Abuse Advisory Committee urged the agency to permit psychedelic research with human subjects, which the government has long resisted. In November, the FDA approved a six-subject study of MDMA ("Ecstasy") by psychiatrist Charles Grob at the University of California, Irvine. Down the road, the agency may approve human studies of such previously taboo substances as ibogaine, LSD, and psilocybin.
"They're sincerely saying that it's time for science to take precedence over ideology," says Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Charlotte, North Carolina. Doblin says the FDA's action shows that "government is not monolithic" and some agencies can be swayed by scientific testimony about the safety and possible benefits of illegal drugs.
Says FDA consumer safety officer Corinne Moody, "I think the FDA is beginning to look at [psychedelic drug research] as a means of helping people."
Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have found that both LSD and MDMA—which were banned in 1966 and 1985, respectively—can promote self-insight and help patients deal with terminal illnesses. Research in the 1960s suggested that LSD could help alcoholics change their behavior. MDMA, which has been used in couple therapy, seems to encourage empathy, the expression of emotion, and recovery of repressed memories. Psilocybin also shows promise as a psychotherapeutic tool.
Doblin says psychedelic researchers plan to take things slowly, giving the FDA time to assess the first few studies. But he hopes the FDA will ultimately approve more research, perhaps including studies of marijuana's medical uses. "In the midst of a merciless drug war," he says, "some fragile flowers still bloom."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Expanded Minds".