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Shroom to grow: Australia’s missing psychedelic science

A recent Norwegian study on psychedelic drugs and psychological well-being not only highlighted fewer mental health issues among users of these drugs but also underscored the reinvigoration of scientific…

Recent studies show psychedelics can have a positive effect on a range of mental health issues. Shutterstock

A recent Norwegian study on psychedelic drugs and psychological well-being not only highlighted fewer mental health issues among users of these drugs but also underscored the reinvigoration of scientific research in a field maligned since the moral panic of the 1960s.

Psychedelics are a broad category of drugs that profoundly alter perception. Examples include LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), mescaline (found in some cacti), psilocybin (found in some mushrooms), dimethyltryptamine (found in ayahuasca) as well as ketamine and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).

Plant-based psychedelics have been integral to healing practices for thousands of years in a number of cultures, including native Americans, the African Bwiti and the Mazatecs.

Western research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics commenced in the middle of the 20th century, but quickly became conflated with the counter-cultural movement in the United States, Europe and Australasia.

A moral panic ensued, leading to the prohibition of psychedelics and cessation of research. But psychedelic science is now re-emerging as a mature and credible discipline.

In addition to the Norwegian research, a number of other studies have recently demonstrated the powerful positive effects of psychedelics, including personality changes, reduced anxiety and depression associated with end-of-life cancer and long-term relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Overseas, psychedelic research programs are increasing exponentially and can be found at prominent institutions such as Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, New York University and UCLA.

But there’s a surprising absence of any such activity in Australia.

Australian research programs?

There’s a general reluctance among Australian researchers to explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. This might be partly attributed to the illicit status of the drugs, which, some suggest, has created a bureaucratic impediment to medical progress.

The illegal status of psychedelics is ostensibly based on their potential to cause harm. But these drugs are not addictive and have been consistently ranked by experts as being low risk.

Rather than remaining prohibited because they are harmful, the perception of psychedelics as harmful is maintained in order to justify their prohibition.

An analysis of Australian discourse about psychoactive substance use explains this process in terms of the dominant pathogenic narrative of drugs, which limits discussion to their harm.

Since Australian government funding is directed towards research that seeks to provide evidence of drug-related harm, the pathogenic narrative is self-reinforcing.

The pathogenic narrative

Without funding, it’s difficult for researchers to establish programs that seek to examine the positive benefits of banned drugs. And there’s little financial incentive for the private sector to invest in such research as psychedelics are not patentable because they aren’t “novel”, or because they’re derived from natural sources.

Australia shoulders a heavy burden of psychological disease, particularly stress, anxiety and trauma. Shutterstock

The financial incentive to demonstrate drug harm also often leads to bad science. Researchers reporting on the harms of MDMA, for instance, often use the terms MDMA and ecstasy interchangeably.

But there are distinct differences between pharmaceutical-grade MDMA and street ecstasy pills, which usually have a range of chemicals mixed with MDMA, or have no MDMA in them at all.

Observational studies are limited in furthering our understanding of MDMA’s pharmacology because poly-drug use (using many drugs at the same time), and the environments in which they are used, might contribute to many of the observed harms.

When MDMA has been administered in clinical settings, the adverse effects reported in the aforementioned research haven’t been observed.

The recent Norwegian finding that psychedelic use is associated with decreased incidence of mental health problems provides further support for “the safety of clinical research and treatments using psychedelics”.

Why it’s time to get on board

Like many other countries, the Australian community is facing unprecedented levels of psychological disease, notably stress, anxiety and trauma. Their cumulative financial costs have been estimated at around A$28.6 billion.

Mental illness also has a significant social cost, including its impact on families.

Current medical responses are effective in many, but not all, cases. Alternative approaches, including psychedelic therapy, offer hope to many who are resistant to current treatments.

Unlike conventional pharmacotherapies (antidepressants or mood stabilisers) that typically require ongoing and sometimes lifelong administration, the therapeutic use of psychedelics generally involves one or two doses of the drug under the supervision of trained therapists.

Most psychedelics also have large margins for safety, and the duration of their actions and contraindications are largely well understood.

This has clear benefits in terms of cost, safety and tolerability, as well as mitigating the risk of scheduled drugs being diverted into the community. But psychedelic psychotherapy requires the training of therapists in psychedelic treatments, which could take time and resources.

Global research into psychedelic therapy is gathering pace, notably in the United States. A significant player is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is supporting clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in the US, Switzerland, Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom. MAPS is very supportive of a similar clinical trial in Australia.

Globally, the re-emergence of psychedelic therapy is still in its early stages. It’s widely acknowledged that clinical research is required to establish the safety and optimise the efficacy of these promising approaches.

Australia has a pressing need to explore a range of options to deal with mounting challenges to mental health and general well-being. We believe that it’s imperative for the country to join the psychedelic renaissance, and initiate well-planned and adequately-funded, formal psychedelic research.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen S Holden

    Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

    Great stuff. Wish you'd led with paragraph 6 - the evidence that these drugs can have positive effects. That is, lead with a challenge to the knee-jerk reaction (and now established black & white 'norm') that psychedelics and illegal drugs in general are all about 'harm'. We live in a weird world that has a strikingly black and white view about drugs: ethical drugs are good (if we can just titrate around those pesky 'side-effects'), while most other drugs (social and illegal) are bad!

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    1. Stephen Bright

      Registered psychologist and sessional academic at Curtin University

      In reply to Stephen S Holden

      I agree with you regarding the unfortunate nature of the human perception, which leads to cognitive errors such as dichotomous thinking. At the individual level, dichotomous thinking perpetuates depression (e.g., I’m a failure vs I’m a success). At a societal level, it makes it difficult to discuss evidence-based drug policy, since you’re either a legaliser or a prohibitionist; however there are varying degrees of regulation that can be considered. Mugford (1993) proposes a ‘J’ curve of drug-related harm where the x axis represents degree of regulation and the y axis represents harm – thus the polemic arguments both maximise harm. Harm minimisation is found through the right balance of regulation for each given drug.

      Mugford, S. (1993). Harm reduction: Does it lead where its proponents imagine. In: Heather, N., Wodak, A., Nadelmann E. A., & O'Hare, P (Eds). Psychoactive drugs and harm reduction: From faith to science, London: Whurr, 21-33.

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    2. Peter Foster

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Bright

      Steven - if a patient approached a psychologist asking for therapy whilst under the influence of psychedelics (self administered) what would be the legal implications for said psychologist?

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    3. Stephen Bright

      Registered psychologist and sessional academic at Curtin University

      In reply to Peter Foster

      I particularly like thei quote from Boire (2007, p. 226-227): "Imagine a patient who arrives at a psychologist’s office for a therapy session and ingests a psychedelic prior to entering the office. An isolated incident of this sort presents little worry of criminal liability for the psychologist. The psychologist would be ill-advised, however, to build an entire practice around such a scenario, or to promote such services … Likewise a psychologist who is merely present at an event where people have used psychedelic medicines, violates no criminal law by providing medical assistance or counseling [sic] to those who seek his assistance or guidance."

      Boire, R. G. (2007). Psychedelic medicine and the law. In: M J. Winkelman & T. B. Roberts (Eds.). Psychedelic medicine: New evidence for hallucinogenic substances as treatments (Vol 1). Connecticut: Praeger, 217-232.

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  2. Alan Powrie

    Apprentice Polymath at Writer

    I thought this was a very thoughtful, well written and cogently argued post.
    It seems to me that "illegal substances" whether they be MDMA, heroin, speed or marijuana should be regulated by the medical profession rather than the cartels of drug dealers who currently control the distribution.
    It is axiomatic that if the drug problem was "medicalised" rather than "criminalised" as it currently is, the savings for society would be enormous. NO wasted time by Customs, AFP, state police, less crime by drug dependent people, significant reduction of court, prison and corrective services time. It seems eminently sensible to explore the possibilities for using psychedelic substances to treat or assist in the treatment of the "underlying mental health problems" of many of the drug dependent people who currently face "criminal sanctions" because of their "medical problems". Thank you for the post.

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    1. Stephen Bright

      Registered psychologist and sessional academic at Curtin University

      In reply to Alan Powrie

      Psychedelic research creates an ironic twist within our current paradigm of drug policy, since:
      (i) these illegal drugs can be used as therapeutic agents for officers who have suffered trauma through their efforts to enforce prohibition; and,
      (ii) these non-addictive drugs can be used as therapeutic agents for the treatment of drug addiction (e.g., the team at Johns Hopkins are currently investigating the efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of smoking cessation that is producing promising preliminary data).

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    2. Richard Windsor

      Mycologist

      In reply to Alan Powrie

      Unfortunately you have a largely unwarranted faith in the medical profession. They are. in many cases, the luddites.

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    3. Alan Powrie

      Apprentice Polymath at Writer

      In reply to Richard Windsor

      With great respect the "medicalisation" of the problem as opposed to the "criminalisation" of the problem was not meant to infer a "faith" in the medical profession.( I recall Thalidomide, Chelmsford & Ors). I suggest that the paradigm should in the short term be "treated" as a medical problem and not "dealt with" by a punitive criminal model. I suggest the longer term approach is to consider the historical and social aetiology of the necessity for the treatments. In fact, one of the matters arising from the article is "why" are psychedelics not being researched and used in everyday practice. I particularly like the "pathogenic model" proposed in the article, but I think the fundamental reasons that psychedelics are not being researched is because the major financial beneficiaries of medical research have concluded that there is limited financial benefit in developing psychedelic remedies.

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    4. Richard Windsor

      Mycologist

      In reply to Alan Powrie

      Allan, with due deference, I apologise! Luddite was not the appropriate term, true luddites were activists, actively seeking to prevent the loss of their livelihoods by the introduction of new technology. Todays medical profession are much more akin to those which Lyal Watson referred to as having "neophilia", held in thrall by the pharmacutical industry. You are correct in making the link between research on non-patentable substances being pushed aside in favour of resarch on patentable items…

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    5. Alan Powrie

      Apprentice Polymath at Writer

      In reply to Richard Windsor

      Thank you Richard, you have made some interesting and disturbing points. I shall certainly be looking to find further information on the important matters you have raised re Anderson et al.

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  3. Peter Baulderstone

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    Interesting article - fighting fire with fire; or fanning the flames?
    Do you have any thoughts on Dr Gabor Mate's use of the South American psychedelic 'ayahuasca' as part of addiction treatment?

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    1. Steve McDonald

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Baulderstone

      Dr Gabor Mate's use of ayahuasca to treat addiction in Canada is modelled on the successful therapeutic programs which have been running at the Takiwasi Centre in Peru since 1992 (see Takiwasi.com). There is now a considerable body of research on the health benefits of ayahuasca use. Dr Mate's work was featured in the documentary The Jungle Prescription, which includes footage of the programs at Takiwasi. For a summary of completed and current ayahuasca research, please visit http://www.maps.org/research/

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Steve McDonald

      I presume that it would be better to work with carefully controlled, purified, measured doses of the active alkaloids contained in ayahuasca such as DMT and harmine, since consuming plant material intrinsically leads to some variation in the dose, and because ayahuasca is potentially very dangerous if taken alongside other drugs and pharmaceuticals such as SSRIs, particularly because of the presence of MAO-inhibiting harmala alkaloids in the brew.

      But certainly these drugs have valuable roles to be explored in the treatment of addiction, PTSD and mental illness.

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    3. Steve McDonald

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Luke Weston

      You're correct Luke, conducting research using plant materials makes it very difficult to control dosage. That's why ayahuasca studies are usually observational studies of users, rather than clinical studies which administer the medicine. Ayahuasca is potentially dangerous where there are pre-existing medical conditions or other contraindicated medications being used. A recent study by Santos (2013) published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs reported that the administration of ayahuasca to healthy volunteers is relatively safe. There have been very few reported deaths from ayahuasca and in most of these cases there was another substance combined with ayahuasca and/or a pre-existing medical condition.

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  4. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Has anyone in the pertinent health professions considered that the use of certain drugs is for the purposes of self-medication rather than, say, recreation?
    Nicotine, via cigarettes, was prescribed during the Fist World War, to minimise the effects of Shell-Shock or Battle Fatigue, with the restriction of the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain reducing the capacity for panic.
    Presumably, smokers are then generally self medicating for stress?
    And the illegal substances, are their users…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Richard Windsor

      Richard, thanks for the tip, but owing to my lack of time,( yes an easy excuse) could you provide a précis?
      Otherwise I'm guessing that Ritalin is being sold to amphetamine addicts who like to feel "empowered", a state of "health" that they might regard as less "ill" than their normal experience?
      Rather than for recreation?
      All those "Health" amateurs, doing their own medicine, for whatever "ails" them.

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    2. Richard Windsor

      Mycologist

      In reply to James Hill

      No self respecting methamphetamine addict would be caught dead with Ritalin so stop guessing. ADHD is prevalent in our adult society at around 6% (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0031500
      ), around 50% of the survey sample were being treated for depression, extrapolating from other studies, it is expected that 25% may be treated for anxiety. If there is a perceived misuse of stimulant medications, it is partly that the users are self medicating because of undiagnosed…

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Richard Windsor

      So where did I support any argument that all this drug use is recreational?
      The complete opposite I should think.
      Perhaps you need to do some repeat reading of my posts, and yes thanks for the additional information , though being couched in jargon puts it in want of some translation for the general "Conversationalist".
      Which translation skills I am sure you harbour, Richard.
      And I will, take your advice and look up "Sturgeon's Law".

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to James Hill

      At another guess Richard, (sorry) if George Bernard Shaw's observation that "the specialist is, in the truest sense, an idiot", then Sturgeon's Revelation, that ninety per cent of all "specialised" endeavour (such as science fiction writing) is crap, might be due to this pervading idiocy?
      In the field of medicine?

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    5. Richard Windsor

      Mycologist

      In reply to James Hill

      James, I apologise for being a grumpy old man but the line
      "Rather than for recreation?" carried that implication.

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    6. Richard Windsor

      Mycologist

      In reply to James Hill

      I don't think that Sturgeon was quite so specific, rather more all encompassing. In the current political climate, of course he underestimated. :-)
      In medicine, look at Thomas Insel's statement on the treatment of psychosis as an example
      Look at the major paper on SSRIs released a few years ago which showed ths most of then were little better than placebos. Yes, Sturgeon was on the money with medicine. :-)
      See http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/21/us-antidepressant-idUSTRE7BK1ZU20111221
      but remember Sturgeon's Law applies to this too.

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    7. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Richard Windsor

      I know, as a carer, that Selective Seratonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, can give relief to people who, without them would be , essentially, trapped in a "waking dream" , sleepwalking within a experience that they find very hard to distinguish from reality.
      Seratonin like Melatonin being concerned with the regulation of sleep.
      Most people can remember their nightmares, and lucid dreaming research shows the techniques used to escape disturbing nightmare scenarios which involve a recognition that a dream…

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  5. Psychedelic Frontier

    logged in via Twitter

    Thank you, Stephen and Martin, for this articulate and sensible article on evidence-based policy. "Pathogenic narrative" is a good way to sum up the stigma on drugs.

    I'm very hopeful that as more pioneering studies on psychedelics are published, it will be more and more accepted for other researchers to request grants for similar studies. This cycle will produce even more evidence, and over time public perception will change. Eventually psychedelics will be rightfully embraced as powerful medicines and therapeutic tools. Today's drug stigma will seem laughably small-minded!

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  6. Peter Foster

    logged in via Facebook

    As someone who has suffered with crippling depression and anxiety throughout my life. I have the following observations.

    1 SSRIs don't work. They are garbage drugs made through garbage science
    2 older drugs, MAOIs, TCAs do work and are not half as bad as drug company propaganda would have you believe
    3 psychedelics MDMA, and LSD in particular have if not saved my life, then made it far far richer. Treat these drugs with respect and they work miracles. Governments don't want consciousness expanding drugs, they want everyone on sedative deleriants ie. alcohol

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  7. ben michael

    writer. Lecturer.

    Psychedelics have been a positive and clearly benifcial part of many, many people's lives. Seriously, I have countless positive respones to all the reasearch I've done in this area. totally joyful, positive responeses. Forget booze. Time we grew up.

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