Hallucinogens: Assessing their medical future

Written by kirstiekeate
In 1975, award winning psychiatrist Stanislav Grof said, “Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telesc

In 1975, award winning psychiatrist Stanislav Grof said, “Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy.”
However, with the potential to cause some very unpleasant long term psychological and neurological damage, including permanent visual disturbance, psychosis and clinical depression, they have been banned globally for all purposes including research since last century.  
Even though work done before they were banned indicated they could be of remarkable benefit to people suffering a range of conditions.
Hallucinogens in different cultures 
Natural hallucinogens have been used in different cultures for generations as part of religious and social rituals. Mescaline, from the seeds of the Peyote cactus and originally used by some Native Americans in Mexico, ayahuasca, made from the stems of the vine and originally used by Amazonian cultures, and ibogaine used by the African spiritual traditions of the Bwiti and derived from the tabernanthe iboga plant, appear to have been used to promote social bonding due to their mood promoting properties.  
Even psilocybin, the hallucinogenic found in magic mushrooms, which is normally associated with modern culture has been used in different cultures throughout the ages.
Alongside these natural hallucinogens, we also have, perhaps the most well known drug of this type, LSD, a synthetic hallucinogen, which entered popular culture in the 1960s.  
Like the other psychedelic drugs of the time it was seen, not for its potential medical uses, but as a threat to the political order of the time which led to the beginning of the current tight controls we still have in place today for these drugs.
Useful under the right circumstances
However, prior to the ban there was research that indicated these drugs could be of real usefulness under the right circumstances. LSD has been shown to have potential to treat addiction to one of the most damaging yet freely available drugs to us, alcohol.  
The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous reportedly became abstinent after an LSD experience allowed him to visualise his life without alcohol, and other research work came up with similar conclusions. Furthermore, ibogaine has been shown to be useful in treating opiate addiction, and is licensed for that use in New Zealand.  
People treated with this drug claim it helped them in two ways: Firstly they experienced the same visualisation of a life free from addiction as those treated for alcoholism with LSD.
Secondly, they were able to access and process the painful memories they had repressed for many years that sent them down a path of self destruction and drug addiction thus, with psychotherapy, treating the root cause of many of their problems which would help to get over the so called ‘addictive personality’ bringing long term recovery.
Not only have some hallucinogens been shown to have treatment potential for addictions, psilocybin has been shown to be a possible treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder and cluster headaches. Other studies showed that LSD and psilocybin could potentially be of huge benefit for end of life care for cancer suffers who were, understandably, suffering from depression and fear following a terminal diagnosis.  
Patients who were administered these drugs reported increased acceptance of and less fear of impending death, fewer feelings of distress and in some cases a reduced need for pain relief.
Some even reported feeling a great sense of clarity which enabled them to feel at peace and grateful for their lives and accepting of their fate, taking affect weeks before an anti-depressant would and giving clarity rather than the numbness that anti-depressants can sometimes bring.  
Even cancer patients without a terminal diagnosis who have suffered psychological trauma as a result of their diagnosis have reported a reduction in ‘obsessive thoughts’ after treatment with psilocybin, and, in both cases, like those whose addiction was treated with hallucinogens, these feelings continued long after the drug had left their system.
Tight controls & Uncertain future
Hallucinogens are subject to the tightest controls of any drug, and while there is no doubt that used incorrectly they have potential to do serious damage, there is also evidence that if research into them were allowed to restart, there is potential for some really positive treatment options for a variety of neurological and psychological illnesses.  
Maybe one reason research with them is still banned is a reflection on societies view that psychological suffering is not as real as physiological suffering. Would they ever have been banned if potential to cure heart disease or diabetes had been shown in the same way that the evidence points to them being a cure for end of life depression and alcoholism?  
Whatever the reason, perhaps it’s time to allow tentative research into this field to begin again.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.
[ Flickr / Wally Greeninker ]