Psychedelics, the drugs of choice for many in the 1960s counterculture movement, may be making a comeback in the most straight-laced of places: research labs and doctors’ offices.
Scientists, doctors and scholars who have researched the health potential of drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms and ecstasy, gathered at the Horizons conference in New York City this past weekend to discuss innovations in the field.
Psychedelics have been the subject of experiments by scientists for decades but went out of favor with the law in the 1960s and 1970s when they “escaped the lab” and were picked up by proselytizers who helped give them a bad name, conference presenters said. This led to a backlash that slammed the lid on research for the next several decades.
Those prohibitions seem to be loosening somewhat, with some governments allowing a small amount of research with psychedelic drugs, results of which show they may carry promise for treating a wide variety of ailments, from anxiety to addiction.
Here are some highlights from presentations at the conference.
1. Millennia Before the War on Drugs, Psychedelics Were Celebrated by Many
“Some of the most significant civilizations have given an honored place to psychedelics,” scholar and writer Graham Hancock told conference attendees on Sunday (October 12). In ancient Egypt psychoactive blue water lily andacacia plants were likely consumed to induce visions, he said.
“I think the Egyptians were deep into the visionary and psychedelic experience, which explains the transcendental power of their ideas and art,” Hancock said.
Hancock said hallucinogenic mushrooms played a part in cultures such as the Mayan Civilization and were depicted in European and African cave paintingsas far back as 9,000 years ago. He also demonstrated the widespread use of peyote cacti and other hallucinogenic plants throughout Latin America and Amazonia in the pre-Columbian era.
ancock said it’s not unusual for innovative thinkers to experiment with drugs, citing Steve Jobs’s use of LSD in the 1970s as an example. Jobsdescribed taking LSD as “a positive life-changing experience,” though it’s impossible to prove it was directly involved in the development of the Apple computer.
Hancock described it as “criminal” that “we live in a society that will send us to prison if we make use of time-honored sacred plants [and other synthetic derivatives] to explore our own consciousness,” he said.
The U.S. Government has made almost all psychedelics illegal, and even simple possession of a small amount something like psilocybin-containing mushrooms can carry a penalty of a year in jail.
2. A Magic Mushroom Chemical Has the Potential to Treat Anxiety in Cancer Patients
Psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms,” has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in several small studies, including one 2010 study at UCLA published in Archives of General Psychiatry and another in progress at Johns Hopkins. A paper that came out this spring done by researchers from the Psychiatric University Hospital of Zurich publishedin the journal Biological Psychiatry found that psilocybin decreases activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that may be overactive in people with anxiety and depression.
A recently completed project at New York University found that psilocybin appears to reduce anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients, saidAlexander Belser, a doctoral fellow in the Department of Applied Psychology. Belser stressed that the results hadn’t yet been fully analyzed. But it appeared that psilocybin led many of the study participants, who were all in various stages of life-threatening cancer, to have “mystical experiences” that gave them great insights, improved their anxiety and generally made them more positive and loving, they and their loved ones reported.
One of the study participants, a middle-aged woman, said in a film shown at the conference that ever since her dosing several months ago, she found herself “so much more connected to everyone and everything.”
Another participant, a young man, said the experience gave him “a connection to a spiritual world that adds meaning to my life.”
To date there have been no adverse reactions to psilocybin in any study. Some people have had some “difficult trips” that involved anxiety, but study participants considered this part of the healing process, they said. In the NYU study, and others like it, guiding practitioners are heavily trained beforehand and also keep on hand a psilocybin antidote for a worst-case scenario, which luckily hasn’t happened.
Belser and colleagues received a warm welcome from the sellout crowd, gathered together Saturday (October 11) at Judson Memorial Church, across the street from Washington Square Park. Several of the patients from the study whose testimonials were shown in a video also attended the presentation.