Why Psychedelics Research Is Still An Uphill Battle
The idea of using psychedelics as a way to treat mental health conditions can still sound pretty controversial.
In fact conservative attitudes towards these drugs stopped research into psychedelics for decades.
But in recent years this research has absolutely exploded, and it’s showing some really promising results in treating things like addiction, depression, and PTSD.
Australian researchers are now testing whether psilocybin – the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms – can help in battling methamphetamine addiction.
The research is a world-first, but there’s still a bunch of barriers for this kind of research and regulators aren’t keen on making these drugs any more accessible yet.
For the researchers trying to explore the potential of psychedelics, and for the people who are finding these drugs helpful, that can be pretty frustrating.
So, what’s the deal with psychedelics studies right now, and what needs to happen for Australia to take these therapies more seriously?
The History Of Psychedelics Research
In 1943, a chemist called Albert Hofmann working in Basel, Switzerland accidentally absorbed about 20 micrograms of a compound he’d synthesised a few years earlier.
There’s this famous story about how he then left his research lab on a bike and became the first person to ever trip on LSD, or what later became widely known as acid.
By the 1950s, a small group of psychiatrists had begun investigating LSD as a treatment for alcohol addiction and some mental health disorders.
Among them was this guy: Humphry Osmand.
He was actually the first person to coin the term ‘psychedelic’, which basically means mind-manifesting.
LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA – or ecstasy – all fall under the psychedelics banner today.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, psychiatrists like Osmand got a whole bunch of funding for their research into psychedelics, and a whole bunch of media attention too.
Even back then, psychedelics were looking really promising as a useful companion to therapy.
By the mid-60s, LSD therapy was being prescribed to thousands of patients for things like neurosis, schizophrenia, and psychopathy.
But in the later part of that decade, all of that came to a grinding halt.
Psychedelics had become synonymous with drug-using counterculture, and governments were panicking about the supposed moral decay they thought these drugs were causing.
LSD was outlawed across the US in 1968, and the ban of psilocybin came soon after.
The funding into psychedelics research dried up and for the most part, studies just kind of stopped.
Why Psychedelics Research Is Looking So Promising
It took until the 90s for that research to start being revisited.
By then, the moral panic about illicit drugs had started to subside in the scientific community, and researchers were kind of looking to cut through the stigma and just understand more about them.
Studies with psychedelics have had a real boon in recent years.
Some modern studies have been foundational in proving that psychedelics actually seem pretty safe in single doses, and showing some pretty interesting benefits.
Like this study from 2006 that evaluated the psychological effects of psilocybin.
Since then, there’s been a whole heap of studies that have suggested that psychedelics can be really, really useful.
There was this study in 2014 that showed psilocybin can be incredibly effective at helping to kick tobacco addictions.
These trials with MDMA showed its effectiveness in treating PTSD.
This trial suggested MDMA could also be helpful in treating alcohol addiction.
And this research from last year showed that even just one or two doses of psilocybin can be really helpful in treating major depression.
But even though the science is looking promising, there’s still a really long way to go before psychedelics could actually be integrated into any kind of established therapies.
Psychedelics are heavily controlled substances.
LSD is still in Schedule 1 of the United Nations classification of drugs, which means that research into it is still restricted.
And there are still some good reasons for people to be wary of these substances.
Their effects on people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, or people with a strong predisposition for them, can be serious.
And the effects can be serious even in people without these particular disorders.
Stephen: “You’re talking about people with serious mental illness and giving them, you know, very powerful psychoactive drugs … that’s gonna create some extremely challenging clinical situations.”
Psychedelics are also known to raise blood pressure, which could be an issue for anybody with hypertension.
But for the most part, a lot of the fight to continue research into psychedelics is about breaking through the stigma and conservatism that surrounds them.
Why Australia Is So Conservative About This Research
Australia is really, really conservative when it comes to illicit drugs, so much so that some research organisations themselves are still pretty apprehensive to get near psychedelics.
Stephen: “The national drug and alcohol research center, [who] are funded by the federal government, show that drugs are bad, don’t use drugs. So they have a vested interest in perpetuating the pathological narrative of drug use, including psychedelic drugs.”
But that’s not to say there hasn’t been progress.
Huge, reputable international institutions – like John Hopkins, Imperial College in London and Yale – have all established their own psychedelics research programs.
Here in Australia, places like the University of Melbourne are following suit.
And even though the Therapeutic Goods Administration or TGA rejected a recent bid to change the classifications of MDMA and psilocybin which would have made them more accessible to practitioners, the rejection was pretty optimistic.
The TGA basically just said that they recognise the emerging evidence of psychedelics, but they didn’t think the research is quite there yet to establish their efficacy and safety completely.
After the TGA’s rejection, the government announced that it was going to give 15 million dollars in research grants for psychedelics research.
So we’re now at a point where, even though there are more battles to be had with regulatory bodies, research into psychedelics to try and understand them more is underway.
But while that’s happening, there are also people who are trying to use these substances as medicine, and they’re just not being broadly recognised by the medical community.
I spoke to one of these people, a young woman who’s started micro dosing with psilocybin to help alleviate some of her struggles with PTSD, anxiety and depression after she read about some of the supposed benefits of psychedelics.
Jane: “I was finding that my triggers were getting in the way of my life and doing things on a daily basis and it sort of got a bit overwhelming. Within like six months to a year, my triggers had drastically reduced.”
Jane has continued to micro dose around every fortnight.
She told me that she doesn’t get any psychoactive effect from the psilocybin. In fact, she said that she barely feels it at all. Instead, she said she finds it incredibly beneficial because it means she can still function throughout the day.
Jane told me she finds it frustrating that even though she was seeing all these benefits in her own life, she can’t really discuss it with people and the progress in the medical world seems so slow.
But this research is still ongoing. And there’s still so much caution that needs to be exercised around these substances when they’re not being used in a clinical setting.
Stephen: “The literature isn’t saying that this is some panacea, some magic bullet that’s going to fix everybody. The important part is that it’s not the drug, it’s the psychotherapy in combination with the drug. And that psychotherapy involves a lot of hard work. It’s not just going out and taking mushrooms.”
So how do we move forward here?
Well, psychedelics research is looking promising. But that means there are things that the medical community needs to seriously consider.
Studies into psychedelics are still a massive uphill battle for the researchers trying to conduct them, and these researchers need to be collaborating and sharing information in a productive network as much as possible.
And if we reach a point where psychedelics are approved as a treatment form in some way in the future, then we need to be thinking about how these drugs will actually reach the people who need them.
The cost of some of these therapies, when done through private systems, can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
These drugs would have much more equitable accessibility if they were integrated within the public health system.
And when you’re talking about drugs being used to address serious mental health issues, that’s pretty damn important.