Breaking the stigma: Psychedelic Drugs

There are a lot of negative stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs. A large portion of the population and the government condemn these substances to be dangerous, addictive, and illegal. Although, that may be true when it comes to opiates or stimulants (such as heroin or cocaine). As they are, indeed, physiologically toxic and addictive. Psychedelics, on the other hand, have been mistaken to have the same, or even worse detrimental effects to one’s health.

The negative stigma created against psychedelic drugs

This is because for decades, the media have been portraying psychedelics as extremely dangerous drugs. When, in fact, the classic serotonergic psychedelics are one of the most physiologically safe drugs out there. The negative stigma surrounding psychedelics drugs needs to be broken. These substances have the potential to revolutionize psychiatric research and treatment.

Breakking the stigma on psychedelic drugs

Numerous studies and research throughout history have identified the many positive therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs.

They are the oldest known group of drugs to mankind and have been used by several ancient civilizations. However, since 1970, psychedelics have been classified as Schedule I substances by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The criminalization of psychedelics made it extremely difficult to continue scientific studies on these substances. This futher allowed the unobstructed spread of a large amount of misinformation by the media that highlighted and exaggerated the negative effects of psychedelics. Thus, stigma surrounding psychedelics was created by cultural and political forces, rather than actual scientific evidence.

What are psychedelics?

Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs that put you in a different state of consciousness. They bind with your serotonin receptors and change your sensory perceptions, energy levels, and thought processes. They are unique from other drugs because they can “induce states of altered perception, thought, and feeling that are not experienced otherwise except in dreams or at times of religious exaltation” says David E. Nichols, Ph.D, in the Journal of Pharmacological Reviews on psychedelics.

Classic serotonergic psychedelics include:

  • LSD
  • Psilocybin
  • DMT
  • And Mescaline

These drugs have been extensively studied and “considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction”. The use of psychedelics has been spiritual and therapeutic throughout history. 

What are psychedelics

Psychedelics Throughout History

Centuries before the discovery of LSD, the other classic psychedelics such as

  • Psilocybin– the active ingredient in Magic Mushrooms
  • Mescaline– found in the Peyote Cactus
  • And DMT– from Ayahuasca

They all have been used in religious and divinatory rituals by indigenous people and ancient cultures. For example, psilocybin mushrooms were commonly used in “healing rituals” by shamans from the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec cultures. Additionally, the use of the peyote cactus containing mescaline by Native North Americans dates back to as long ago as 5700 years. Furthermore, the Brazilian churches União do Vegetal (UDV) and the Santo Daim still use ayahuasca, containing DMT, as a religious sacrament to this day. 

Ancient use of magic mushrooms
Ancient use of magic mushrooms

There is not much scientific knowledge on these religious ceremonies; though, the consensus is that after consuming these drugs,

“profound insights about life could be achieved, and it was apparently a treasured once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” – David E. Nichols, Ph.D

This aligns with many of the findings by scientists, later on, who started conducting experiments and studies to explore the mind-altering effects of these psychedelic substances. 

Preliminary research on psychedelic substances   

During the 40’s and 50’ there was an explosion of studies and research done on LSD and other psychedelics. There are more than a thousand clinical papers discussing 40,000 patients, several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy. One of the primary focuses of these studies was to observe the effects of psychedelics on treatment of mental health disorders. In that period, tens of thousands of patients took LSD and other psychedelics to study their effects on-

  • Cancer
  • Anxiety
  • Alcoholism
  • Opioid use disorder
  • Depression
  • And PTSD

The results of these early studies were remarkably positive.

Psychedelics for psychiatric research
Psychedelics were used mainly for psychiatric research and in clinical trials

A research psychologist, William Richards, who has been studying psychedelics for over 50 years states that “they’re not toxic. They’re not addictive”; and they show promise to effectively treat mental illnesses. However, despite all the generally positive contributions of psychedelics throughout history. These substances are currently classified under the most restrictive legal category – Schedule I drugs. This category is reserved for substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (NIDA). This classification is amiss, dismaying many psychologists and hindering the progression of psychiatric research.

The end of an era

The effects of psychedelics are highly dependent on the set (mental expectation) of the user and the setting (environment). When used in a comfortable setting with a proper mindset, such as in a therapist’s office or with a religious shaman, the user will most likely have a positive and beneficial experience. On the contrary, the chances of having a negative experience is significantly increased if administered in an unstructured setting such as a party or concert with many unpredictable variables.

Stewie having a bad trip on LSD

In the 1960’s, before its criminalization, psychedelics became a popularized street drug adopted by college students and the hippie counterculture in the United States. No longer administered in the relative safety of a lab or psychiatrist’s office, horror stories of bad “acid” trips at colleges and concerts shared headlines with images of anti-Vietnam protests and unclothed Woodstock attendees. This began the end of the “golden era” of psychedelic research. 

What lead to criminalization 

Timothy Leary, a discredited Harvard psychology professor encouraged young people to take LSD recreationally and to “drop out of school, because school education today is the worst narcotic drug of all…Don’t politic, don’t vote, these are old men’s games”. Leary’s message fulminated against mainstream culture, undoubtedly, causing public outrage. Several other countercultural movements such as the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, contemporary feminism, and the antiwar movement were also catalyzed by psychedelics. 

What lead to criminalization
Timothy Leary at the “Human Be-in” addressing a crowd of hippies to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”

A large group of adolescents were rejecting conventional norms and promoting anti-war attitudes. This was perceived by the mainstream culture to be a consequence of drug use. Hence, these substances were often believed to be “perverting” the minds of our youth”.  Authorities and legislative bodies were threatened by the protesting hippies in the counterculture. Backlash against psychedelics filled the media. Greatly exaggerated reports of drug-induced insanity, chromosomal damage, attempts to fly, and so forth. This all resulted in the widespread negative misconceptions of psychedelic drugs.

Hippies protesting at Woodstock festival
Hippies protesting at the Woodstock festival– Summer Love Sale in 1967

In just a few years, a once fully legal and promising line of psychological research was completely demonized by propaganda– very similar to what happened to marijuana. The U.S’s war on drugs was just beginning. With the creation of the DEA, the federal government placed all hallucinogenic drugs, including psychedelics and marijuana into the most restrictive category of Schedule I substances in 1970.

The Research Renaissance

It became very challenging for researchers to study illegal substances. Fortunately, many preserved and psychedelic research made a comeback in the early 2000’s. For the past 2 decades, there have been major developments in the psychiatric world through the resurgence of studies on psychedelics. Numerous “breakthrough therapies” transpired with psychedelics on treating-

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • OCD
  • Substance Addictions
  • And even Autism

Experimental studies using double blind randomized trials have shown “rapid, marked, and enduring anti-anxiety and depression effects…with treatment-resistant depression after a single dose of psilocybin”. One dose of psilocybin in a therapy session has been able to effectively treat patients with chronic yet non-effective antidepressants use. Ayahuasca has also shown to “significantly improve depression and appears to be helpful in treating alcohol, tobacco and cocaine addiction”.

Magic Mushrooms

So far, sufficient amounts of evidence present classic psychedelics–psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and Mescaline–to be one of the fastest and most effective treatments for mental illnesses and substance addictions.

Nonetheless, psychedelics are still illegal which means doctors cannot prescribe them to patients; they can only be legally administered in selectively approved clinical trials to a small number of participants. The majority of patients suffering from mental illnesses around the world cannot benefit from these effective treatments if psychedelics remain classified as a Schedule I substance. The decriminalization of psychedelics would allow enhanced psychiatric treatment for more mental health patients.

Be cautious, but don’t worry 

Despite the fact that psychedelics are physiological safe, they can lead to serious psychological consequences when irresponsibly administered. As previously mentioned, the experience depends on both the set and the setting of the user as well as the dosage. Possible adverse effects of consuming high doses are “strong dysphoria and/or anxiety/panic…transient, delayed headache, with incidence, duration, and severity [increasing] in a dose-related manner”. It is important for users to be aware of the dosage when consuming psychedelics to avoid these symptoms.

Psychedelics are physiological safe

There are, indeed, a few documented cases of serious adverse effects and even fatalities linked to psychedelic use. However, “it should be emphasized that these latter fatalities, which are rare, have occurred after use of newer synthetic phenethylamine compounds, and not as a result of ingestion of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or DMT.” In fact, 8 recreational users who took up to 70 times the typical dose of LSD all survived after hospital treatment without apparent long-term residual effects.

It should be noted that the adverse effects are only temporary.

“Fears of any permanent damage from psychedelics were eased by a large 2015 study of 130,000 American adults, comparing users to non-users. The study found no link between the use of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline to suicidal behavior or mental health problems.” This study, along with numerous others, have confirmed the safety of psychedelic use. As a matter of fact, many studies have shown an association of psychedelic use with lower rates of mental health problems.

“Lifetime use of a psychedelic was associated with significantly reduced odds of past-month psychologic distress, past- year suicidal thinking, past-year suicidal planning, or past-year suicide attempt. By contrast, lifetime use of other illicit drugs was associated with an increased likelihood of these outcomes” – David E. Nichols, Ph.D

Not only do psychedelics not cause lasting physiological or psychological damage. But they actually benefit mental health and could even potentially be used for suicide prevention. Additionally, psychedelic drugs “do not cause addiction, and no overdose deaths have occurred”. Unlike its addictive, potentially fatal counterparts such as alcohol, cocaine, antidepressants, and so forth– all of which, ironically, are generally more accepted by society. 

The Impact of Psychedelics

The study of psychedelics and its effect on the mind has opened a whole new dimension of medical research, particularly in psychiatry. The extensively researched, classic serotonergic psychedelics- LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline– have repeatedly demonstrated effectiveness in treating mental illnesses including

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • And substance addictions

Despite the positive results in the scientific community, these drugs remain classified under Schedule I by the U.S. DEA.

This means psychedelics has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse (NIDA). Empirical evidence deems these substances to be physiologically safe and non-addictive. However, a large amount of biased information presented by the media and government continues to fuel the misconceptions that these drugs are dangerous and addictive.

Psilocybin Mushrooms
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles Magic Mushrooms, Los Angeles, where natural psychedelics are decriminalized

Fortunately, there has been a renaissance of research on the role of psychedelics on mental health. However, these studies are only selectively approved by the FDA and are entirely privately funded as the government is not endorsing research on illegal substances. The evidence supporting the benefits of psychedelics is accumulating rapidly. And, their astonishing effectiveness in treating mental illness is undeniable. Actions should be taken by the government to legalize psychedelics and counter the misconceptions that have been circulating the public for decades. As stated by Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology:

“it does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study important processes that under normal circumstances are not available for direct observation” 

Normal Brain vs Psychedelic Brain

Psychedelics are the key to future advancements in the psychiatric world. This will change the lives of millions of people suffering from mental illnesses… for the better.

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