Psychedelics and the F-Word


A front-page story in today's New York Times, tied to this week's Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century Conference, reports that "scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens," having received government permission in recent years to study their usefulness "for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness." Science writer John Tierney (who has a strong, libertarian-leaning interest in drug policy) notes that psilocybin and other psychedelics show promise "for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol." He also mentions the 2006 Johns Hopkins study in which healthy subjects who had never used psychedelics reported "a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects" after taking psilocybin. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), sponsor of this week's conference, seeks to gain approval for such life-improving uses of these drugs by jumping through the government's regulatory hoops. MAPS Executive Director Rick Doblin tells Tierney:

There's this coming together of science and spirituality. We're hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war. Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation, our culture is much more receptive now, and we're showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can't.

As with medical use of marijuana or religious use of psychedelics, this is an attempt to win limited pharmacological freedom by squeezing it into a socially approved category. If medical, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual uses of otherwise illegal drugs are ultimately blessed by the government, the exceptions will cover a lot of ground. But taking shrooms or acid just for fun—the most common reason people do it—will still be strictly prohibited.

Playing up serious, scientifically grounded uses of psychedelics, Tierney takes the obligatory shot at Timothy Leary, saying the drugs "became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan 'Turn on, tune in, drop out.'" But was this Leary's fault, or the regulators'? Leary's real mistake was not taking psychedelics too lightly but taking them too seriously, promising world-changing effects that the chemicals could not deliver. The government, in turn, took Leary too seriously, foreclosing research that could have demonstrated the drugs' genuine benefits. Salvia divinorum researcher Bryan Roth, no one's idea of a Leary-esque figure, says he worries that banning the psychedelic herb (which is currently legal is most states) will

make it more difficult to do research on it and investigate the potential therapeutic utility of derivatives. By definition, a Schedule I drug is devoid of any medical benefit. That makes it next to impossible to demonstrate any medical benefit. They made LSD Schedule I in the '60s, and they're only now getting around to looking at potential medical benefits. It really slows things down.

As Leary observed, "psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them."