I came of age in the freewheeling 1960s and early 70s when the counterculture revolution was in full swing and people were regularly experimenting with marijuana and psychedelic drugs aka hallucinogens.
As a veteran of that era, I am well acquainted with these drugs and can personally tell you that they are not for everyone. However, the pharmacological active ingredients of marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol) and the naturally-occurring hallucinogens found in peyote (mescaline) and magic mushrooms (psilocybin) have long been known to possess inherent therapeutic value. Unfortunately, because these drugs are associated with a particularly tumultuous period in American history, research into their use as therapeutic agents has long been stymied by the federal agencies that fund basic research in the US.
Despite these formidable obstacles, a small number of intrepid researchers have managed to demonstrate that these long-vilified and illegal drugs can be used in some cases to treat cancer patients suffering from difficult-to-treat depression and other forms of mental illness. To that end, there was a fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times that described a Johns Hopkins clinical study that showed that psilocybin can be used to manage untreatable depression in a small number of cancer patients.
The results from the study suggest that psilocybin, when administered using rigorous protocols and safeguards, can help to alleviate many of the symptoms of severe depression experienced by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The researchers also contend that the use of hallucinogens can be transformative and may help to identify an endogenous neural pathway that may be responsible for so-called religious epiphanies.
Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in California for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. Attendees are expected to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychoactive hallucinogens to treat depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Because reactions to hallucinogens can vary among individuals (primarily depending on the setting and external environment), researchers have developed stringent guidelines to set up a comfortable environment with expert monitors in the room to deal with adverse reactions. Also, they have established standard protocols so that the drugs’ effects can be assessed more accurately by scanning the brains of people who have taken hallucinogens. This is in marked contrast with the recreational use of hallucinogens which generally take place in a variety of sometimes difficult to control social settings; which may be responsible for some of the highly publicized “bad trips” experienced by hallucinogen users.
While there is no question that hallucinogens are very powerful psychoactive drugs—and their misuse can have serious cognitive and emotional consequences—it has never made sense to me why their use as potential therapeutic agents had been so discouraged. Ironically, marijuana and other illegal and so-called “dangerous illegal drugs” may actually be safer and more beneficial than some similar FDA-approved including certain antidepressants.
To be clear, I am not advocating the use of illegal drugs. However, in my experience, there is no obvious correlation between the legality of drugs and their potential therapeutic benefits. For example, both cigarettes and alcohol are legal drugs whereas marijuana (in many places) is not. A quick perusal of the number of people who are maimed or die each year from smoking pot as compared with those who die from lung cancer or are injured or killed by drunk drivers tends to emphasize this assertion. The bottom line: don’t throw any potential drug candidates on the pharmaceutical junk heap until they have been thoroughly researched and vetted as prospective therapeutic agents!
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!! (Right on man)