Treating addictions with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy

Imagine having a treatment-resistant addiction. You’ve tried going to therapy, taking medications, receiving treatment at rehabilitation centres–everything. But none of it worked. Where do you even go from there? What else is there to do? Psychedelic-assisted therapy could help you.

Getting an addiction can not only hinder one’s mental and physical health, but also their relationships, career, and life in general. You can develop an addiction that’s physiological, psychological or both. Whether it’s to substances like drugs or alcohol or activities such as gambling or shopping, addiction hijacks your brain and changes your brain’s structure and function. When you no longer have control over your behaviour and you continue to crave and use despite the adverse effects, that’s when you know you have an addiction. Addictions are extremely difficult to overcome. It may take months or years of therapy and treatment, some with many negative side effects, to resolve– and for some, it never gets resolved. 

Conventional treatments for addictions have had very low success rates; and those that do quit often relapse. However, researchers are looking into a faster and more effective way to treat addictions with fewer side effects and more sustainable results– and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy may be the answer.

Although psychedelic substances have been used for thousands of years in ethnomedical traditions, they were universally banned in the 1970s as a result of the War on Drugs. Despite psychedelics being illegal and all the stigma surrounding them, researchers persisted studying these substances and found promising results of psychedelics’ potential to treat a variety of mental disorders, including addiction. Learn the truth behind the negative misconceptions of psychedelics and their therapeutic potential in my other article here.

Back to treating addictions, there have been several clinical trials and observational studies showing psychedelics capabilities to reset one’s thinking patterns to overcome severe and treatment-resistant substance addictions. The results show that the effectiveness of psychedelic psychotherapy surpasses that of the currently accepted conventional treatments for additions.

The most effective smoking cessation treatment

Gordon McGlothlin, at 65 years old, has smoked a pack of cigarettes a day since he was 15 years old. He tried all types of smoking cessation treatments and therapies but relapsed every time. Today, he is 2 years clean from smoking and has no desire to start again after participating in a clinical trial with psilocybin-assisted therapy. 

Researchers at John Hopkins University did a proof-of-concept trial in 2014 on 15 chronic smokers with an average age of 51 and smoked, on average, 19 cigarettes a day for 31 years. These participants have tried and failed to quit smoking several times using traditional methods of treatment. During the trial, they received 3 sessions of psychedelic assisted therapy with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The result of the trial was that the abstinence rate for study participants was 80 percent after six months– substantially higher than typical success rates in smoking cessation trials, says Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D.

The success rates of conventional smoking-cessation treatments such as nicotine replacement and behavioural therapies are typically less than 30 percent. Currently, what’s considered the “most effective smoking cessation drug” is Varenicline which has a 6-month success rate of 35%– much lower than that of psilocybin assisted therapy. 

“I think psilocybin gave me the impetus to stay abstinent. It opens up a whole new dimension to your personality. It is almost as though quitting smoking is peripheral during the experience,” says McGlothlin.

Acid is the answer to alcoholism

The well known psychedelic, LSD, is often associated with hippies and the counterculture in the 60s and 70s. Little do people know, LSD has been intensively tested in clinical trials on over 40,000 subjects back in the 50s before psychedelics became criminalized. 

Two Canadian scientists did a large scale study across 6 different hospitals in Saskatchewan in the 50s. They tested the effectiveness of using LSD to treat alcohol addiction on over 1000 patients, all afflicted with treatment-resistant alcoholism. These patients all had broken lives shattered by unemployment, damaged health, abandonment, or imprisonment due to their heavy drinking. After the LSD treatment, 70% of the participants became sober or drank significantly less. Keep in mind, these were people that have tried and failed all other treatment methods such as therapy, AA meetings, and so on but were cured with the LSD treatment.

A randomized controlled trial done by neuroscientist Teri Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim evaluated the clinical efficacy of LSD in treating alcoholism. With 536 participants in six trials, 59% of those that received a single dose of LSD reported lower levels of alcohol misuse. Kreb was “surprised that the effect was so clear and consistent.” Her concern with most studies during that time was that they had limited statistical power due to having too few subjects. “But when you combine the data in a meta-analysis, we have more than 500 patients and there is definitely an effect,” Kreb says.

Ibogaine to curb opioid addictions

Laura was 35 years old and had a 14-year addiction to heroin. “I was at the edge of death. I tried every conventional method you can think of — detox, counselling, rehab — and nothing worked,” she said. Eventually, she heard about Ibogaine and how it can treat addictions. She went to her family and said “put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger or send me to an ibogaine clinic.” So they sent her to an ibogaine treatment centre just north of Cancun, where she did a few sessions. She has now been clean for the past eight years.

Ibogaine is another psychedelic drug that has a long history of use in West Central African shamanistic rituals. It’s known for its ability to eliminate withdrawal symptoms and bring out one’s memories and past experiences. It breaks the cycle of addiction by resetting the receptors in your brain to their pre-addictive state.

Ibogaine is highly effective for treating opioid addictions. Normally, it takes 90 days for an addict to detox using the U.S. detoxification system. Ibogaine, on the other hand, can stop acute opiate withdrawal symptoms and detoxify an addict within 24 hours. Dr. Alan Davis, a postdoctoral fellow at John Hopkins surveyed 88 ibogaine patients and 80% reported fewer or less intense withdrawal symptoms. On top of that, the intense hallucinogenic with flashbacks of childhood and pivotal experiences of one’s life can allow one to go through years worth of therapy in just 24 hours. Read this insightful piece about Dustin Dextraze’s journey out the deep end in this article.

Ibogaine does have adverse cardiac side effects, but it is safe if administered properly. However, due to its underground status, many patients are not properly screened, administered, or monitored by medical professionals which lead to 19 deaths between 1990 and 2008. 

Psychedelic treatments in the underground

Psychedelic assisted therapy is currently only legally available for clinical trial participants. However, there is a large underground community of guides that hold ceremonies to help heal people with psychedelics. 

Kat is a guide who trained for 8 years under a Peruvian mentor and has hosted hundreds of ayahuasca ceremonies in the U.S. and Europe. She manages a group of up to a dozen people while they trip– calming, reassuring, and grounding them as they go on a psychedelic journey to connect with their spiritual selves.

Ayahuasca retreat in the Temple Maloka

These ceremonies come with a lot of risk as it can be very difficult to control someone who starts panicking during their trip; there is also the possibility of getting caught and going to jail. But Kat persists because she wants to heal people. “I see it every time I hold a circle, every time I walk a group of people through this experience. People enter with one perspective and leave with another. Sometimes that means they see the world with new eyes, and sometimes it means they realize they’re more than their addiction, that their flaws don’t define them,” she says.

Many other psychedelics treating many other addictions

Chances of opioid abuse or addiction is shown to be reduced in those who have experience in using psychedelic substances, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Various other psychedelic substances including ayahuasca, peyote, DMT,  ketamine, and more, have been found to be effective in treating both physiological and psychological addictions. Find out more about it in this study. You can also read this interview of former addicts’ experiences through clinical trials of psychedelic psychotherapy here. There is also an award-winning documentary called Dosed about a woman who struggles with opioid addiction and other mental illnesses and how she overcomes them with psychedelics.

More and more research and studies about psychedelic psychotherapy are being conducted and published by the day. Although many of these substances are still illegal, there is a clear and certain transition to destigmatize and decriminalize psychedelics in the near future. Hopefully psychedelics can revolutionize the treatment for addictions and change the lives of many suffering addicts… for the better.