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Down the Rabbit Hole

In 1943, chemist Albert Hoffman happened upon some interesting properties of a new compound by complete mistake while working at a pharmaceutical research laboratory. After developing a “remarkable restlessness combined with a slight dizziness”, Hoffman decided to return home, at which point his vision gave way to a “kaleidoscopic play of colors” amid other effects. In the true spirit of scientific progress, Hoffman later decided to intentionally expose himself to the suspect compound in order to verify its psychoactive properties. Needless to say, his suspicions were correct.

I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? -Hoffman following intentional ingestion

Synthesized for the first time in 1938, the drug in question was part of a larger class of compounds being investigated at the time for potential medicinal benefits. Known as lysergic acid diethylamide — or LSD — the compound became appreciated for its powerful effects upon the human psyche in even miniscule doses. The multitude of effects arising from only a few millionths of a gram lent heavy support to a connection between brain chemistry and mental phenomena. As the 1960’s Counterculture emerged onto the scene, LSD developed fans outside of the scientific community as well.

Under the Nixon administration, a number of drugs were outlawed under sweeping drug policy reforms. The classic psychedelics — LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT — were classified as Schedule I controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This action is often framed in two different lights: as a precautionary measure in response to rising reports of numerous health problems resulting from psychedelics or as a conservative reaction to youth culture.

Regardless of the specifics underpinning this policy development, the results are clear: a failed drug war that has resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of adults for drug offenses and disproportionately affected minority communities alongside massive profits for organized crime. According to a recent statistic from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drug offenses are responsible for nearly 50% (48.7% specifically) of the federal prison population. According to a Census Bureau report, 111,477 persons under the age of 16 were arrested on drug possession charges in 2009 alone. While the incarceration rate dropped slightly in 2014, American Exceptionalism stands strong when it comes to mass incarceration — we lead the world in imprisoning large proportions of our population. According to a 2013 State Department report, North Korea, a totalitarian state known for its brutal suppression of basic human rights, houses a prison population of 200,000–800,000. For a population of 24.9 million, this figure roughly translates to an incarceration rate of approximately 0.8% to 3.2% at most. While North Korea’s secretive nature has made precise measurements largely impossible, the fact that an American incarceration rate of roughly 0.7% approaches the range given for the Hermit Kingdom should be alarming.

While I could delve into the numerous feedback cycles inherent in this crazed no tolerance policy (for instance, the implications of a criminal record on job prospects and resulting recidivism rates) alongside the impact on the social fabric, I think I owe it to you to stay on track. So let’s return to the initial topic.

How are psychedelics relevant to any of this? After all, a majority of drug possession charges are related to the possession of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin (and other opiates) with other categories making up just shy of 19% of arrests. And psychedelics, like the major drugs responsible for possession charges, aren’t just a cold medication. They can be quite dangerous.

What I hope to convince you of in regard to psychedelics is the need for a critical reevaluation of imposed categories as opposed to the efficacy of drug laws themselves. A balanced discussion of psychedelics needs to revolve around our conceptions and cultural biases as opposed to a strictly consequential analysis of the Drug War. That is not to say that pragmatism should be booted out of the conversation; it is vital that we put into practice drug policies that respond to the reality of the situation. But while arrests for psychedelics may not be a major contributor to the growing prison population, they should be questioned at their very core.

To make this point clear, I’m going to respond to each characteristic given by the DEA for Schedule I substances.

                             Why Schedule 1 is Stupid

The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse. -Schedule I requirement

Chart plotting physical harm and dependence potential of various substances. doi:10.1016/S0140–6736(07)60464–4

Numerous studies have shown that psychedelics are among the least worrisome drugs when it comes to substance abuse. Psychedelics, as well as the “mild hallucinogen” marijuana, were shown to “have a low addictive propensity” in users in a 2007 study. It should be noted that alcohol and tobacco were found to possess significantly higher risks for abuse. A survey of psychiatric and “independent” experts carried out in the study corroborates this view. In a 1993 analysis of dependence potential, researchers found that oral psilocybin usage was least likely among twenty substances to induce drug dependence. A quick facts sheet by the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that LSD users often “voluntarily decrease or stop” their habit over time, summarizing that “LSD is not considered an addictive drug since it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior.” Hallucinogens (excluding PCP) made up only 0.1% of admissions to publicly funded abuse treatment programs in 2008 even though their use has been on the upswing in recent years. Alcohol was the largest single cause for admissions into such programs, accounting for 23.1% of cases. While critics may argue that legalization of psychedelics will simply increase the proportion of those admitted to treatment programs, numerous studies and a building scientific consensus have indicated otherwise. As I’ve stated already, psychedelics simply don’t have a high potential for physical or psychological dependence. This data is corroborated by a Department of Health & Human Services national survey that found past month usage of hallucinogens in individuals aged 12 or older has remained fairly constant (an estimated 0.4–0.5% of the population) throughout the 2000’s. In other words, even though hallucinogen use has been on the upswing, the percentage of Americans who use it on a monthly (or shorter) basis has remained constant, suggesting a low potential for dependence.

The data speaks for itself.

There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision. -Schedule I requirement

Chart via Wikimedia. Data provided by: Gable, R. S. (2006). Acute toxicity of drugs versus regulatory status

As far as physical harm, psychedelics are widely considered to be among some of the least dangerous recreational drugs currently in use, partly due to the enormous difference between an active dose size and the LD50 (a measure of a compound’s toxicity) dose. This is widely accepted and I’m concerned about length so let’s move on (if you’re not satisfied, here’s some data). So let’s examine the other side of the coin: psychological harm.

Since the relationship between psychedelics and the mind also relates to their potential treatment applications, I’m actually going to introduce another DEA prerequisite and kill two birds with one stone.

The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. -Schedule I requirement

Initial psychedelics research in the 1950’s and 1960’s showed promising results for treatment of numerous issues, ranging from alcoholism to depression to fears associated with terminal illness. However, with the implementation of restrictive regulations under the Nixon administration, further inquiry in this field withered.

There is a rather large belief that psychedelics pose a massive ability to wreak havoc upon the psyche with irreversible damage. While there are areas of active research that require further investigation (expanded upon later), this notion seems to have been largely exaggerated. A 2013 study with over 130,000 participants found no statistically significant difference in long-term mental health between individuals who have used psychedelics and those who have not. In their analysis, the authors note that many claims of “psychiatric harm caused by peyote have been found on examination of medical records to be due to preexisting schizophrenia or other causes.”

Anxiety levels were found to decrease following LSD administration in terminally ill patients. doi: 10.1177/0269881114555249

Aside from the lack of hard evidence supporting long-term mental health consequences in otherwise healthy users, psychedelic drug use has been linked to improvements in mental health in both clinical settings and the general population. In a study of over 190,000 individuals across the United States, researchers found a strong correlation between psychedelics usage and decreased incidence of suicide or of suicidal thoughts. In their conclusion, the study authors supported a review of the legal status of classic psychedelics in order to encourage further research in clinical settings. In the study mentioned earlier with over 130,000 participants, “psychedelic use was associated with lower rate[s] of mental health problems.” In a smaller examination of therapeutic LSD use in terminally ill patients, researchers followed up with participants one year after LSD administration. Researchers found that “none of the participants reported lasting adverse reactions,” that 77% of those interviewed reported reduced anxiety levels, and that 66% of those interviewed reported an increase in their quality of life. The authors also noted a decrease in migraines in afflicted patients. While the sample size was far too small to draw any conclusions, the observation is corroborated by recent research into cluster headaches (think migraines on crack — something I don’t actually think should be legalized by the way). Psychedelics — LSD and psilocybin especially — seem to hold promise as effective tools in combating cluster headaches. While the jury is still out, classic psychedelics are showing promise as a treatment option based upon evidence that they can terminate headaches in session and reduce or even stop future activity. While the study cited suffered from several design flaws that introduced the possibility of various biases, the authors nevertheless indicated several promising data trends and promoted further research. Many anecdotal accounts floating about online seem to agree with this observation.

“A pain that’s so sharp and excruciating, there’s no talking or doing anything other than just screaming to try to get out of it.” -Patient account of a cluster headache experience

Psychedelics have also been investigated for potential applications in drug dependence problems, especially alcoholism. Psilocybin was found to be effective in lowering recidivism in one study of psychedelic-aided treatment of alcoholism. A 2012 meta-analysis (a review of data from multiple studies) found promising evidence that LSD was “associated with a decrease in alcohol misuse.” Evidence has also been gathering for LSD as a useful tool in combating tobacco addiction, far outpacing more orthodox treatment options in efficacy.

This is not to say that psychedelics do not have inherent dangers. “Bad trips” can result in panic, anxiety, and may even require sedation and hospitalization. Some evidence has shown a tendency for psychedelics to “trigger” latent psychological problems. Mescaline (a psychoactive ingredient in peyote) and LSD have been linked to aggravated symptoms in schizophrenics. Hallucinogen usage seems to cause an earlier onset of psychosis in schizophrenic patients relative to drug free users. This tendency to worsen preexisting or latent psychological disorders helps account for the image of users losing their minds following recreational usage of psychedelics; minor issues that may be temporarily invisible to an outsider become intensified following drug usage. Interestingly enough, there has also been some research into psychedelics in treating schizophrenia (don’t try it at home — especially considering the whole “this might make you go even more loco” data).

With these points in mind, the debate on psychedelics decriminalization or legalization should move on from the simplistic back and forth on safety: it is becoming increasingly clear that psychedelics are not especially dangerous relative to socially acceptable substances such as alcohol and tobacco and, in some measures, are quite safe relative to these more common routes to intoxication. While further research is of course necessary to establish a definitive consensus on the harm potential, a crucial first step is a relaxation of policies that have stifled scientific inquiry and ultimately the truth. There is no moving forward unless the scientific community can carry out its work unimpeded by overbearing regulations.

Without proper research, we are flying blind.

In light of the points laid out earlier, the psychedelics question needs to be reframed in terms of personal liberty. A ban on psychedelics is essentially a ban on certain states of consciousness. Authority figures have deemed certain modes of thought illegal according to a biased belief in vast psychological or physical harm arising from the use of certain drugs. Critics of this point might respond by arguing that psychedelics induce unpredictable mental states that might lead to personal harm or harm to others. While a cause for concern, the potential for harm has clearly not resulted in a modern day ban on alcohol, a substance highly correlated with increased aggression in users and often cited as the primary cause of drug induced violence. Psychedelics, by contrast, have been found in numerous studies to have little to no causal relation to violence save for situations where individuals have a psychological predisposition toward such behavior. Under controlled settings, there seems to be little threat to others from psychedelics users. Our cognitive liberty — our right to control our own cognitive processes — is at stake in this damaging and misguided war.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. What followed next was the enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples across the New World. The conquerors behind this, as good men of the Faith, made efforts to introduce their version of Christianity to local populations. As a part of this process, local belief systems were actively suppressed due to their idolatry and alleged Satanism. Medicinal practices, often infused with highly ritualistic and spiritual elements alongside hallucinogen incorporation, were driven underground by attempts to wipe out alternatives to a newly imported culture.

Are we participating in a modern day witch hunt?