Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Daniel Miller
Note: Daniel Miller is a lawyer and the founder of the Psychedelic 
Society of Brooklyn.


Activist Daniel Miller Says Psychedelics Can Be Good for You

Taking LSD even one time may fundamentally reshape our lives, making 
us happier and kinder, more productive at work and more open-minded.

In 1970, Congress dropped psychedelics into the war on drugs. After a 
decade of Timothy Leary, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and news 
reports of gruesome murders, the federal government declared that the 
drugs had no medical use - and high potential for abuse. The chairman 
of New Jersey's Narcotic Drug Study Commission called LSD "more 
dangerous than the Vietnam War."

But over the past decade, some scientists have begun to challenge 
that conclusion. Far from being harmful, they found, hallucinogens 
can help sick people: They helped alcoholics drink less; terminal 
patients eased more gently into death. And it's not just the infirm. 
Psychedelics can make the healthy healthier, too.

On this subject, only a handful of peer-reviewed studies have been 
conducted; sample sizes are tiny. There's still a great deal 
researchers don't know. But early results suggest that psychedelics 
can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs. They can help us 
solve problems more creatively and make us more open-minded and 
generous. Some experiments even suggest that a single dose can change 
our personalities forever.

Is it possible that a drug labeled as one of the most destructive and 
dangerous could make everyone's lives better?

Americans have had a complicated history with psychedelics like LSD, 
magic mushrooms and peyote. In the 1950s, researchers began to 
investigate whether psychedelics could treat mental-health disorders 
and addiction. Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government funded 
116 studies on the subject, affecting thousands of people.

At the same time, large numbers of Americans started using these 
drugs recreationally. As many as 2 million had dropped acid by 1970. 
Stories about "bad trips" and psychotic breaks emerged in the press. 
In one widely publicized incident, a 5-year-old accidentally took her 
uncle's drug; people got scared. Meanwhile, soldiers were returning 
from Vietnam addicted to heroin, terrifying families. By 1968, 
President Richard Nixon had declared drugs "public enemy number one." 
Congress banned all psychedelic use in 1970, which made research 
nearly impossible.

Then, in the early 2000s, a handful of scientists began looking into 
psychedelics as a way to relieve anxiety and addiction. (They were 
drawn to the drugs after reviewing the work of researchers from the 
1950s and '60s.) These experiments were successful. In one study, 
cancer patients were given psilocybin, a component of psychedelic 
mushrooms. Each patient was given one dose and then allowed to trip 
in a hospital room designed to look like a living room. Two medical 
professionals stayed close by. Afterward, almost all of the 
participants experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and 
depression. Scientists checked in with the patients six months later; 
all reported that they still felt calmer and happier. Volunteer Gail 
Thomas told me that the treatment helped her overcome a deep sense of 
loneliness. "The main message from the trip was that we're all 
connected," she said. "We're not alone."

"The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long 
is an unprecedented finding," NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross told the 
New Yorker. "We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field."

Other researchers have tested the drug as a treatment for depression, 
addiction and other mental problems such as obsessive-compulsive 
disorder. Remarkably, in each small trial, scientists saw incredible results.

In a 2014 smoking-cessation study published in the Journal of 
Psychopharmacology, 15 participants were given three doses of 
psilocybin under careful supervision by doctors. The participants 
were all heavy nicotine users, consuming about a pack a day for an 
average of 31 years. Six months later, 80 percent were cigarette-free 
- - most smoking-cessation efforts are about 35 percent effective. In a 
2015 alcoholism study, also peer-reviewed and published in 
Psychopharmacology, many of the 10 participants drank significantly 
less for at least nine months after one or two psilocybin 
experiences. In both studies, the psilocybin doses were coupled with therapy.

Here's why scientists think it works: When someone takes a 
psychedelic, there's a decrease in blood flow and electrical activity 
in the brain's "default mode network," a group of brain structures 
found in the frontal and prefrontal cortex. The default mode network 
is primarily responsible for our ego or sense of self; it "lights up" 
when we daydream or self-reflect.

When we trip, our default mode network slows down. With the ego out 
of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and 
object dissolve. As Matthew Johnson, a principal investigator in 
Johns Hopkins's psilocybin studies, explains, this can lead to a 
"transcendence of time and space," a sense of unity and sacredness 
and a deeply felt positive mood.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist with Imperial College London, 
notes that the default mode network is responsible for a lot of our 
rigid, habitual thinking. Psychedelics help relax the part of the 
brain that leads us to obsess, which makes us calmer. And they can 
help "loosen if not break" the entrenched physical circuits 
responsible for addictive behavior.

There's also an increase in activity between different parts of the 
brain that don't normally communicate - what scientists call 
"crosstalk." That may be why we hallucinate while on psychedelics; 
the brain's visual-processing centers are interacting in strange ways 
with the parts of the brain that control our beliefs and emotions.

Of course, it's not just the mentally ill who want to feel less 
isolated and obsessive, more fulfilled and creative. Research has 
shown that healthy people also benefit from the brain shift that 
psychedelics provide. Taking the drug even one time can fundamentally 
reshape our lives, making us happier and kinder, more productive at 
work and more open-minded. These findings are one of the reasons I 
became a psychedelics advocate.

In one study (admittedly, one that didn't follow today's rigorous 
research parameters) conducted at Harvard in 1962, 10 divinity school 
students were given psilocybin just before a Good Friday service. 
Eight reported a mystical experience. In the late 1980s, researcher 
and psychedelics advocate Rick Doblin interviewed seven of the 
students who'd taken the drug. All said that experience had shaped 
their lives and work in profound ways. But Doblin also found that 
several subjects experienced acute anxiety while they were high. One 
participant had to be dosed with a powerful antipsychotic after he 
became convinced that he'd been chosen to announce the arrival of the 
Messiah and ran from the chapel.

In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers tested whether psychedelics induce 
a mystical experience in healthy people. Thirty-six volunteers were 
given either a hallucinogen or a placebo at one session. In the 
second session, the pills were reversed. Six months later, the study 
participants said they were "more sensitive, compassionate, 
tolerant," with "increased positive relationships, an increased need 
to serve others," a lead researcher told Newsweek. The doctors 
interviewed participants' family members, friends and colleagues as 
well; they all confirmed that the volunteers had become nicer and 
more pleasant.

The positive changes seen in this study persisted for at least 14 
months. A third of the participants in the Hopkins study rated their 
psilocybin session as the most spiritually significant experience of 
their lives, even more important than the birth of a child or the 
death of a parent.

The 2006 study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. In 
that issue, several prominent drug researchers were invited to 
comment; all praised the finding and called for additional research. 
Columbia University professor Herbert Kleber wrote that he saw "major 
therapeutic possibilities."

In a 2011 study, 18 healthy volunteers were given four doses of 
psilocybin. The vast majority of participants reported prolonged 
positive changes in attitude and mood, feelings that lasted for at 
least 14 months. In follow-up research, scientists determined that 
many of the volunteers from both studies had undergone a change in 
personality, something that is supposed to remain relatively fixed 
after 30. Participants were now more open-minded, tolerant and 
interested in fantasy and imagination.

"People have certain fears and rigid perspectives and ways of seeing 
the world that often limit what they can do," said Katherine MacLean, 
who helped research psychedelics at Johns Hopkins. "A lot of people I 
saw go through the study as healthy people wanted to make certain 
changes in their life. And psilocybin helped them make these changes."

A recently published Imperial College London study seems to reinforce 
the Hopkins findings, although on a much more limited time scale. 
Twenty healthy volunteers were administered a relatively low dose of 
LSD. Two weeks later, they were asked to fill out personality 
assessments. The participants said they felt more optimistic, 
open-minded and intellectually curious.

Beyond the studies, there is a small community of people who are 
using LSD to self-medicate through micro-dosing, or consuming tiny 
portions of the drug. There's no scientific rigor to their work. But 
in articles and on Internet message boards, these users claim to have 
experienced some success in using LSD to improve focus, 
concentration, memory and creativity. In James Fadiman's "The 
Psychedelic Explorer's Guide," regular acid users said small doses 
helped them work harder and smarter. Some Silicon Valley workers are 
taking the drug to increase their productivity.

Even famous Americans have linked their use of psychedelics to major 
creative breakthroughs. Steve Jobs famously said that taking LSD "was 
one of the most important things in my life." The entrepreneur Tim 
Ferriss said that "the billionaires I know, almost without exception, 
use hallucinogens on a regular basis." And the beloved and recently 
departed neuroscientist Oliver Sacks related LSD use to his ability 
to better empathize with his patients.

So far, about 500 people have participated in formal psilocybin 
experiments, and researchers have reported no serious side effects. 
But of course, these volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened 
and guided by therapists who are well-trained to manage episodes of 
fear and anxiety that can occur during a trip.

When psychedelics are used outside these tightly controlled settings, 
major problems can occur. These can come in the form of bad trips, 
which make users feel extremely anxious and depressed. Sometimes, 
people do dangerous things while under the influence. And 
hallucinogens can surface latent psychological problems, such as 
schizophrenia. Recreational use can occasionally result in terrifying 
flashbacks. (Though researchers have found that psychedelics like LSD 
and magic mushrooms are not addictive and far less dangerous than 
many legal drugs like alcohol.)

That reality makes it hard for many scientists to imagine a future 
when psychedelics are used widely. They worry that it will be hard to 
control the drugs' use. As Nora Volkow of the National Institute on 
Drug Abuse told the New Yorker, "The main concern we have . . . is 
that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a 
safe drug."

There are legal considerations, too. Researchers are in the process 
of asking the FDA to consider rescheduling the drug as a treatment 
for end-of-life anxiety, a long and complex process. Approval for 
broader use would likely take decades. What, then, is the way 
forward? Perhaps the studies that have been have done offer a path. 
Patients could be recommended for treatment by their doctors, 
screened for serious mental illness and certain heart conditions, 
prepped about what to expect and monitored by a medical professional 
(with whom they've built a trusting relationship) over six to eight 
hours in case of anxiety and fear. The psychedelic experience should 
also be integrated into the participant's life through some form of 
follow-up therapy. Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert and NYU 
professor, emphasizes the importance of containing the experience, 
both during the trip, for the purposes of safety, and afterward, "so 
it's not merely a one-off mystical experience, but actually something 
you could build a life around."

These drugs would have to be tightly regulated; they're simply too 
powerful to be left to the free market. But that's no reason for 
inaction. Under the right setting, psychedelics provide a lifetime of 
perspective in an afternoon. Who wouldn't want that?
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom