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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 5

Turn On, Tune In, Get Better: Psychedelic Drugs Hold Medical Promise

Psychedelic drugs are poised to be the next major breakthrough in mental health care
psychedelic artist drawing



Credit: NICOLAS NEUBAUER Alamy

Almost immediately after Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD in the 1940s, research on psychedelic drugs took off. These consciousness-altering drugs showed promise for treating anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and addiction, but increasing government conservatism caused a research blackout that lasted decades. Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in psychedelics as possible therapeutic agents. This past spring Swiss researchers published results from the first drug trial involving LSD in more than 40 years.

Time for a Psychedelic Spring?
Although the freeze on psychedelic research is thawing, scientists say that restrictive drug policies are continuing to hinder their progress. In the U.S., LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, DMT, peyote, cannabis and ibogaine (a hallucinogen derived from an African shrub) are all classified as Schedule I illegal drugs, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration defines as having a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical applications—despite extensive scientific evidence to the contrary. In a joint report released in June, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies catalogue several ways in which they say that the DEA has unfairly obstructed research on psychedelics, including by overruling an internal recommendation in 1986 that MDMA be placed on a less restrictive schedule.

The DEA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintain that there is insufficient research to justify recategorization. This stance creates a catch-22 by basing the decision on the need for more research while limiting the ability of scientists to conduct that research. The June report recommends transferring responsibility for drug scheduling from the DEA to another agency or nongovernmental organization without a history of antidrug bias, such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. No matter how it happens, until the drugs are reclassified, bringing psychedelics from research into clinical practice will be an uphill battle.

This article was originally published with the title "Mystical Medicine."

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