Psychedelic drugs are making a quiet comeback, as a smattering of recent studies have demonstrated their medicinal potential. The latest finding suggests it is time to revisit LSD as a treatment for addiction.
Pål-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Krebs of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed six clinical trials of LSD from 1966 to 1970 and published their results in March in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The study subjects were being treated for alcohol abuse at inpatient clinics. They all underwent the standard treatment regimen for addiction, but some of them were also given a single, small dose of LSD during a therapeutic session.
The results of the old studies were tepid, but they all hinted that LSD had helped. Pooling the data gave Johansen and Krebs more statistical power. “Instead of six small studies, you have one big study,” Krebs says, and the results of that larger study were much more robust. Of those who had taken LSD, 59 percent decreased their alcohol consumption, as compared with 38 percent of subjects who did not take LSD. Six months after leaving treatment, those who took LSD were 15 percent more likely to be sober.
For just one dose of a psychiatric drug to remain effective for months is an impressive feat that researchers attribute to the unique qualities of psychedelics such as LSD. The feelings of openness and well-being brought on by the drug seem to help people see themselves—and their problems—in a different light. In this way, LSD could act as a kind of chemical catalyst for the “moment of clarity” cited by many addicts as a turning point in their treatment.
Krebs and other researchers are quick to point out that context matters for LSD's therapeutic potential; dropping acid at home will probably not help cure addictions the way it might in a rehabilitation facility under psychiatric guidance. The results add to the growing body of work suggesting that psychedelics have untapped potential. For instance, doctors have had recent success using MDMA, the psychoactive substance in ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Other research has found that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can ease anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
This recent spate of promising findings belies the hurdle researchers face: getting funding for such studies remains quite difficult, as it has been since the antidrug movement of the late 1970s. Yet Johansen thinks the tide may be turning. “People are definitely getting more interested,” he says. “And I think that's going to make it easier to get grant money going forward.”