Last week, Johns Hopkins Medicine launched the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. The Center, which is the second of its kind in the world to open, will study the medical uses of psychedelic drugs such as LSD (acid) and psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushroom or “shrooms.”
These substances have recently become the subject of a broad range of clinical research — what Michael Pollan, Harvard professor and the author of How to Change Your Mind, has coined “the modern renaissance of psychedelic research” — because of their astonishing promise as treatment for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction and anorexia. For years, psychedelic drugs have been classified as Schedule 1 drugs — the same category as highly addictive drugs with no medical benefits, such as heroin and meth — which has suppressed the clinical and life-enhancing potential of these relatively harmless substances.
Removing this classification and decriminalizing psychedelics would open new avenues for future research and potentially improve the lives of many.
Psychedelics haven’t always been considered dangerous, and have actually played a role in many cultures since prehistory. Some researchers hypothesize that murals from as early as 6,000 years ago depict the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in religious rituals. For centuries, the Aztecs frequently used psychedelic mushrooms for divination and other cultural practices, until such practices were suppressed by Spanish Catholic missionaries.
Psychedelics did not enter Western culture until the creation of LSD in 1938, which spawned both scientific interest and a cultural revolution, culminating in the 1960s hippie movement. Then, in 1971, the United Nations issued a recommendation that governments should prohibit psychedelics except for government-approved scientific purposes. In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration had to approve of all controlled-substance research. According to an article in the scientific journal Nature, “the important and unfortunate outcome of the controls placed on (psychoactive drugs) is that they make research into their mechanisms of action and potential therapeutic uses — for example, in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — difficult and in many cases almost impossible.”
The criminalization of psychedelics was unquestionably misinformed. Schedule 1 drugs are defined as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But according to almost all research, psychedelics do not fit this definition. In 2010, for example, British drug experts ranked 20 widely used substances based on 16 physical, psychological and social harms. These included harm to users, such as health damage and dependence, and harm to others, such as crime and family breakdown. Mushrooms and LSD were found to be by far the safest drugs, whereas alcohol and heroin were found to be the most dangerous. Moreover, a seminal 2016 review of scientific literature by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that, in addition to its therapeutic benefits, psilocybin had “low abuse and no physical dependence potential.” They recommended it be reclassified as a Schedule IV drug, a category that includes Xanax.
Glimpses into how, exactly, psychedelics might work to treat a wide range of illnesses underscore the need for further research, which is stymied without decriminalization. A pair of 2016 studies at New York University and Johns Hopkins, examining the effects of psilocybin on cancer patients, offer a clue. Patients diagnosed with cancer often experience clinical levels of depression and anxiety. In the studies, after a supervised trip on shrooms, 80 percent of cancer patients exhibited clinically significant reductions in depression and anxiety, and these reductions were still present at least seven months after the trip. Many patients described, as the New York Times put it, “a mystical experience of selfless unity,” in which they seemed to break through pernicious patterns of thought and felt a transcendent connection with the universe. One patient described his trip: “images flew by like shooting stars: a spinning world that looked like a blue-green chessboard; himself on a stretcher in front of a hospital; his parents, gazing at him with aching sadness as he reached out to them, suffused with childlike love.” Importantly, the researchers saw a correlation between the intensity of mystical experience that the patients described and their decrease in anxiety and depression.
Yet, individuals with mental illnesses are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the using psychedelics. According to Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Jesse, psychedelics can potentially help healthy people too. Psychedelics can permanently alter one’s view of reality, often (albeit not always) for the better. Michael Pollan describes the altered states of consciousness that ordinary people can experience: “The premise of psychedelic research is that this special group of molecules can give us access to other modes of consciousness that might offer us specific benefits, whether therapeutic, spiritual or creative.” For centuries, humans have sought to cultivate altered states of consciousness through means that do not always require psychoactive chemicals, such as meditation. But LSD and shrooms can provide glimpses of these states without having to spend years as a Buddhist monk.
In May, Denver became the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin. Oakland, California soon followed. In 2020, California and Oregon will likely add initiatives to their ballots for the decriminalization of psilocybin. Similar movements are occurring in Canada and Australia. Even mainstream politicians are starting to notice: in June Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez filed legislation for the removal of legal hurdles for scientists conducting psychedelic research.
Even while the future of psychedelic research and use seems promising, none of this is to say that these drugs go without a risk. The potential of a bad trip is real; people should be informed of the risk, and should understand the proper procedures for minimizing the risk. The research, though promising, is also young, and important questions remain. But as long as there are legal and social barriers to this research, these questions will not be thoroughly answered. Decriminalization is the logical step to realizing psychedelics’ potential to improve lives.
James Flynn ’20.5 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.