Psychedelic Revival

Research on forbidden drugs.


Before he became notorious as an apostle of chemically catalyzed enlightenment and lost his job at Harvard, Timothy Leary investigated the use of psilocybin and LSD in rehabilitating alcoholics and convicts. Such psychotherapeutic applications, explored in more than 1,000 papers and dozens of books in the 1950s and '60s, were largely forgotten in the hysteria prompted by the widespread recreational use of psychedelics. LSD and similar drugs were soon banned, putting a stop to studies of their benefits.

Four decades later, psychedelic research is returning to Harvard, where psychiatrist John Halpern plans to give MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy) to late-stage cancer patients to relieve their anxiety and to help them come to terms with death. The study was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December, and the Drug Enforcement Administration was expected to issue the required federal license after a March visit to the research site.

Halpern's work is part of a recent resurgence in psychedelic research prompted largely by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization dedicated to exploring the benefits of substances neglected because of the war on drugs. Other projects supported by the group include psychiatrist Charles Grob's psilocybin research with terminal cancer patients at UCLA; Charleston, South Carolina, psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer's study of MDMA as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder; and University of Arizona at Tucson psychiatrist Francisco Moreno's study of psilocybin as a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. Projects in development or awaiting approval include MDMA studies in Spain and Israel, a Russian study of ketamine as a treatment for heroin addicts, and a U.S. study of LSD for relieving anxiety in terminal cancer patients.

From a scientific perspective, the remarkable thing is not that such research is finally occurring but that it was interrupted for so long. As Leary observed, "psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them."?