Among the great tragedies of the culture wars that got started in the 1960s was the loss of the potential benefits of carefully-used hallucinogens: to stretch psychic horizons, to improve creative performance, to worship (or to attempt to encounter something worth worshipping), to help the dying confront the end, and to treat mental illness. Mechanisms, techniques, benefits, and risks all remain imperfectly understood, but there is overwhelming evidence that the materials can be safely used under appropriate supervision and that they sometimes deliver impressive rewards.
One of the remaining overhangs from the 1960s is the inability of most of the mass media to discuss the issue without reference to Tim Leary. The headline-writer for the New York Times op-ed page couldn’t resist assigning “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again” to John Tierney’s calm and well-reported piece on some of the latest advances in the field. The piece itself carefully abstains from the use of the term “psychedelic,” with all its paisley-and-Day-Glo associations.
Robert Jesse, the research entrepreneur behind the Hopkins psilocybin work reported in Tierney’s piece, doesn’t get mentioned. That reflects Bob’s operating style; the phrase “a passion for anonymity” might have been written with him in mind.
Tierney notes that federal funding for this line of research is scarce. One strong example comes from an issue Tierney doesn’t mention: the use of MDMA to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The preliminary results of that research are so encouraging, and the outcomes of conventional treatments for chronic PTSD so poor, that you might expect the VA hospital system to be eagerly looking into it. No doubt it would, if the therapy didn’t involve a popular recreational drug. As it is, the fear of headlines and hearings linking the VA to raves will guarantee that veterans with PTSD will continue to wait and suffer until privately-funded research has established safety and efficacy beyond doubt.
In some ways, the psycotherapeutic uses of the true hallucinogens (and of MDMA, which is a member of a related but distinct drug class) pose the easiest problem from a regulatory perspective. If two well-controlled large-scale trials show safety and efficacy for the treatment of some disorder, the Food and Drug Administration will approve a New Drug Application, which automatically* moves a drug from Controlled Substances Act Schedule I – which means a complete ban for other than research purposes – to Schedule II, available by prescription. (This is simple, of course, only in theory: there’s tens of millions of dollars’ worth of activity concealed in that sentence, and the political backlash were FDA to consider approving and down-scheduling LSD, for example, can only be imagined.)
On the worship side, the courts are now in the process of ruling that any extant religion which uses an otherwise-banned drug in its rituals may lawfully do so, as long as the practice is reasonably safe and the drug doesn’t “leak” into non-ritual use. But that process still involves church-by-church litigation, and individual seekers after the Beatific Vision have no legal protection.
As for the apparent value of low-dose hallucinogens to enhance creative performance, or their use in higher doses for personal exploration without an explicitly “religious” label, right now we don’t even have regulatory frameworks in place that would allow some agency to consider those claims. At some point, there is going to have to be a reconsideration of the drug-regulation process to deal with drugs designed to enhance normal functioning rather than to treat diseases or deficits.
If it seems to you – as it does to me – that the revival of this work is of historic importance, you might want to take a look at the website of the Council on Spiritual Practices, the group Bob Jesse set up to support work on the ritual/religious/spiritual applications of the hallucinogens. Contributions to support the work of CSP are being accepted by the San Francisco Foundation:
The San Francisco Foundation, CSP Fund
225 Bush Street, Suite 500
San Francisco, CA 94104
* Update A friend closer than I am to this process points out that downscheduling is “automatic” only in theory. FDA approval means that a drug has, by definition, accepted medical use, which in turn means that it no longer meets the criteria for Schedule I: abuse potential and no accepted medical use. The actual process of rescheduling can grind slowly.