By Conor Wilson
Psychedelic drugs might be the answer to a series of mental health problems.
After decades of stalled research, due to the drug ban in 1970, large amounts of scientific research is revealing the effectiveness of these drugs in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and addiction, according to Scot Nichols, a somatic psychologist and Western professor who teaches a class on psychedelic science.
Decreasing stigma and educating people on these benefits is the main reason behind the formation of Western’s new Psychedelic Club.
“[The club is] really the only way I saw to push the agenda, advocate for more funding to research from the university and educate community members,” club co-founder Elliot Goit said.
Goit said he first became interested in the idea of medical psychedelics during his junior year of high school, while doing a research paper on fungi.
“Elliot asked if I could help with the administrative part of it and I really believed in his idea,” club officer Allison Bowe said in an email. “Our goals are to try to get rid of the stigma that surrounds psychedelics and bring a new educational light to them while trying to reduce harm in the community at the same time.”
Goit and Bowe said they hope that the club can help spread awareness to those who are misinformed about the potential benefits of using the drugs medicinally.
“We don't want to be an echo chamber of ‘Only join this club if you've taken psychedelics and you know everything that's going on.’ We want people who are curious, we want people who are against it,” Goit said. “Obviously, the club will be made up of people who are believers, but we want to reach people that aren't.”
Goit said the club is hoping to work towards hosting an educational convention on campus in the future.
Medical psychedelics, like psilocybin and MDMA, might be on their way to becoming mainstream.
“I’m not going to be surprised if the future of healing includes more of these plants,” Nichols said. “The research is overwhelmingly positive and under these controlled circumstances people are having life-changing events.”
Last year, Denver became the first city in the county to effectively decriminalize psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in “magic mushrooms.”
The law made the personal use and possession of psilocybin among those 21 and older the lowest possible law enforcement priority. It also prohibits the city from spending resources to pursue criminal penalties related to the drug.
The Psilocybin Service Initiative in Oregon, which would legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy, is currently gaining signatures and could appear on the state’s 2020 ballot.
Psilocybin and other psychedelics are schedule one drugs under the Controlled Substances Act and are illegal in Washington state.
Schedule one drugs are defined as having potential for abuse and serve no legitimate medical purpose, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Non-psychedelic schedule one drugs also include marijuana and heroin according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It’s becoming absurd that [psychedelics] are all on schedule one,” Nichols said. “It’s been proven over and over again how good they are for our brain and how non-addictive they are.”
A study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that after providing psilocybin to those with life-threatening cancer, about 80% of participants showed significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety after a six-month follow-up.
Since 2009, psychedelic-related research has increased significantly, according to the Beckley Foundation.
Research into psychedelic drugs was halted in the 1970s due to the U.S. government's War on Drugs and the passing of the Controlled Substances Act, according to the Beckley Foundation.
Nichols said that during this time period, LSD hit the streets and became recreational, however, this is different from the way psychologists are using psychedelics today.
“When it’s taken for recreation, you don’t have much control over what’s called ‘set’ and ‘setting,’” Nichols said. “These therapeutic level uses are closed room, safe, comfortable; the participant lays down with an eye mask and has music. There’s a sitter who’s trained to just be available, so it’s not this overstimulated atmosphere.”
Training in psychedelic-assisted therapies has already begun at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
In 2015, the school started the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research, which offers a post-graduate certificate program in psychedelic-assisted therapies. According to the program’s website, they have trained over 220 licensed professionals between 2016 and 2019.
Larger schools have also launched efforts into psychedelic research. Private donors provided $17 million to John Hopkins University to start the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
In a study of 15 smokers, John Hopkins University School of Medicine found that under a controlled and specific environment providing psilocybin to participants lead to an 80% abstinence rate over six months, compared to a 35% rate for other drugs.
Other than schools, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – or MAPS – has also been studying the effects of psychedelics.
MAPS has secured FDA approval for clinical studies on the use ofMDMA – the main ingredient used in ecstasy and molly – to treat PTSD.
“[PTSD] has been a bit of a sore for psychology as well as for the military because no one knows how to treat them,” Nichols said. “MDMA is so skillful in turning off the amygdala – which is the fight or flight response – so that people can verbally, imaginarily and somatically process the trauma.”
According to MAPS’ website, Rick Doblin, the company's executive director, is hopeful that on top of treating PTSD, MDMA will be effective for treating eating disorders and social anxiety and depression in autistic adults.
Nichols said the drugs are not a good cure for psychotic events or schizophrenia, but other than that, he has not seen many downsides.
The biggest question that remains is dosage, Nichols said.
“How long do these things last?” he said. “For a lot of these cancer patients, one moderate dose is enough.”
A dosage of 3.2 grams of psilocybin was found to have the highest increase of well-being for cancer patients, according to a study in the US National Library of Medicine.
In the corporate environment, microdosing – taking about 10% of a normal dosage of a psychedelic drug – has been reported by workers as a common way to reduce migraines, depression and chronic-fatigue while increasing creative thinking, according to an article by Rolling Stone.
“[Microdosing] is very normalized in the tech world, it's normalized for creative production, but it also helps people’s moods go from grumpy to lighter,” Nichols said.
Despite the promising research, stigma remains the biggest challenge to legalizing medicinal psychedelics.
“It’s like AI-driven cars; there can be thousands on the road, but it only takes one crash to make the news,” Goit said. “It will be interesting to see if society can be patient with itself, knowing that not everyone can be responsible.”
Nichols said that unlike other cultures, Western society has not established a cultural norm of using psychedelics as a healing tool
“What I want to teach at the American student level is that these plants have their origins in indigenous culture,” Nichols said. “These plants weren't these novel things that they would trip-out on, but rather it was their medicine, it was their doctor.”
Goit said that oftentimes, people who have bad experiences with psychedelics are more likely to vilify them than if they had a similarly bad experience with marijuana or alcohol.
“Many people I know with little psychedelic knowledge, have heard of people getting PTSD from bad trips and having flashbacks like they're suddenly tripping again. That kind of thing has happened, but is very, very unlikely,” he said. “They get blown out of proportion because it is easy to remember scary things.”
Goit said he hopes his club's work can help to reduce some of this stigma.
“We really want to present ourselves as professional,” he said. “Stigma is a very big obstacle, and we feel obligated to represent it nobly."