The Therapeutic Power of Psychedelics and MDMA

03-Microdosing-lede.w536.h536.2x.jpgImage from NY Mag

Back in the 50’s, not too long after Albert Hoffman discovered the mind-bending, consciousness-expanding properties of LSD, scientists starting conducting experiments into the therapeutic potential of the drug. It became a popular area of research, and by the mid-60’s had spawned six international conferences, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers¹.

Meanwhile, the first sparks of the acid revolution had been lit, spearheaded by passionate acolytes such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, who believed that the drug held the key to shifting our global consciousness, to create a more peaceful, loving human species. It’d be tough to find a loftier, more noble objective.

Then it all went to shit. Governments across the world became concerned about the widespread, casual use of such a potent substance, particularly one that caused its users to doubt and criticise the power structures within their society, often calling for a freer, less restricted world. LSD was promptly banned by governments, forcing chief manufacturer Sandoz to halt production in the mid-60s¹. The first era of psychedelic therapy was over.

Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence. Governments are once again becoming receptive to the therapeutic potential of “party” drugs such as acid, psilocybin, and MDMA, whose reputation has been tainted in part by the greedy fear-mongering of the popular press. Scientific studies are becoming increasingly common, some with astounding results. The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy—MDMA has been found to be twice as successful². Psilocybin—the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms—had an 80% success rate in breaking a smoking habit, compared to 35% for conventional treatments³. It’s also been shown to cure severe depression⁴.

“Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”—Robert Kennedy

Though the hardened conservative will undoubtedly raise his eyebrows in disbelief, the people who have spent their lives taking illegal drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms may be unsurprised at the results. It’s obvious that these drugs have incredible potential for our psychological health. The pristine empathy and compassion one feels in the midst of an MDMA experience tells you everything you need to know. How could such an emotionally positive experience not have therapeutic potential?

In my late teenage years, I found myself surrounded by friends in the comfortable living room of one of our parents, each of us high on ecstasy. Uninhibited conversation was flowing, and upon reaching the topic of our fathers (Freud’s spirit nestled in the corner, glowing with anticipation), for the first time in his life, one of my friends opened up about his difficult relationship with his dad. He expressed sheer, unalloyed pain at his dad’s early departure from the family, followed by the brutal indifference that he exhibited towards him in the years after. There were floods of tears, but no awkwardness from anybody—just pure compassion and sympathy. Afterwards, he seemed as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, finally able to talk about something that had created anguish for years. It remains the most beautiful moment I’ve ever had with my friends.

“What’s unique about MDMA is that it’s actually stimulating but decreases anxiety…it could help people feel calm and comfortable enough to explore painful things that are hard to talk about.”—Julie Holland

The bonding power of MDMA cannot be understated, even with people who you’re already close to. Everyone tends to emerge from a session with a feeling of heart-warming emotional closeness, and a fiercer sense of loyalty towards this magnificent bunch of people with who we’ve spent the last eight hours. Time spent on MDMA can be flawlessly authentic, offering a state of mind that encourages you to delve into profoundly meaningful topics that you’re usually too wary to approach.

As a shy and cautious teenager, I’d often have trouble interacting with people who weren’t my friends—the gut-wrenching awkwardness was too much to bear, so I wouldn’t bother trying. MDMA helped to bring me out of my shell, and not just for the duration of the high, but extending far into the future. The rush of empathy one feels while on the drug, mixed with the feeling of immaculate love towards people around you, taught me not only to more easily identify the inherent good in other people, but to realise that I was worthy of their company and friendship. It accorded me the courage needed to speak and act without restraint, teaching myself—little-by-little—that I was more than capable of being a funny, interesting person, whose company people were eager to keep. By improving my emotional intelligence, MDMA has undoubtedly helped to shape my personality into something better.

Psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms also have a reputation for changing people profoundly. In Michael Pollan’s incredible book How To Change Your Minda treatise on the beneficial effects of psychedelics—he reveals that many people who take these kinds of drugs describe it as one of “the most meaningful experiences of their lives”. Psychedelics dampen our Default Mode Network, which is suspected to be the creator of our ego. As our sense of self dissipates, we can feel a profound sense of unity with the world around us, and our brains are temporarily permitted to make brand new connections, illustrated beautifully in this diagram from the book.

brain-networks

Image from Discover Magazine

This is why creatives in Silicon Valley are spending their work-days microdosing—it unfetters their naturally restricted brains, allowing them to be more creative than ever before.

“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country…how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”—Bill Hicks

There’s a big difference between the occasional drug-taking experience, and using substances as a coping mechanism for the pain in your life. Highly-addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin are a completely different beast, and should be avoided at all costs. This kind of escapism rarely ends well — it’s usually much better to face your suffering head on, with as much courage as you can muster.

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”—Steve Jobs

When it comes to MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin, it’s no wonder that people are willing to break the law in order to experience them. They can function as a form of self-therapy—a vehicle for fundamentally changing your brain, quicker and more effective than any other method. Since the discovery of LSD back in the 50’s, scientists have suspected its therapeutic benefits, kickstarting a field of research that has shown incredible results. But for the general public, stringent scientific experiments aren’t needed to tell them what they already know: MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin—when used for the right reasons— have the power to improve our lives. This is why millions of everyday people are willing to position themselves on the wrong side of the law. It’s not just about goofing around with your friends—laughing but also terrified at the clouds wiggling and shifting into new shapes—it’s about being equipped with the courage needed to leap over personal boundaries—a shift in consciousness that can teach you how to be a better person, with opportunities to encounter the world from fresher, more fluid perspectives. These drug can equip us with the potential to break out of our tired, restrictive moulds. Scientists have known this for years, as have regular, law-breaking users.

It isn’t a question of whether these drugs have therapeutic benefits, but a question of when our governments will be able to get past their antiquated views and embrace them as valuable weapons in our medical arsenal. Great progress has been made with marijuana. In time, and as more scientific evidence emerges, perhaps the same will happen with MDMA and psychedelics.

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Some words of caution
MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are still illegal in many countries, and as such, their production lacks quality control. Drug testing kits are essential to test their purity, and obvious discretion required if you’re willing to take the necessary risks to acquire the drugs themselves. This article is by no means an advocation to do so. It’s also worth noting that these drugs aren’t for everyone, particularly for those with serious mental illnesses.

References

1. Wikipedia, Psychedelic Therapy 
2. Jesse Noakes, Psychedelic renaissance: could MDMA help with PTSD, depression and anxiety?
3. Magic Mushrooms” Can Help Smokers Break the Habit
4. Sarah Boseley, Magic mushrooms lift severe depression in clinical trial

Australians love illegal drugs, please make them safer

poison-1481596_1280Image by qimono

At some point in our distant evolutionary past, a primate chanced upon a sticky swirl of fermented fruit, and after making the decision to consume it, felt the pleasant effects of a drug for the first time. Much changed over the next few million years, but our collective love for drugs isn’t one of them. Whether it’s the energy-boost from a cup of coffee that releases us from our zombie-like state, the numbing relaxation of a pint of lager that permeates us with ease, or the love-inducing effects of an ecstasy pill whereby we want to hug everybody, many of us adore how drugs make us feel.

Drugs have the ability to make us more productive employees, more likeable people, or seemingly better dancers. They can transform the steady, monotonous thump of a house beat into something wonderfully hypnotising, for which you’ll happily spend five hours dancing to. They can remove the stifling, anxiety-inducing edginess which is ingrained in social interaction, or make a difficult conversation a little easier to handle.

Drugs can also lead you to a sickening addiction that may result in giving alleyway blowjobs, surrounded by scores of needles and scum-filled pools of water. A thunderous techno beat might be the last thing you ever hear if you take too many ecstasy pills. Legal drugs aren’t any better – alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to withdraw from, creating hallucinations, severe body tremors, and occasionally death. Cigarettes are notoriously tough to quit, and create a cancerous, sticky black tar in the lungs of their smokers.

Drugs can be extremely dangerous when abused, but despite the plethora of information outlining the risks, we take them regardless. This is how much we love them.

Debates are raging in Australia at the moment about the possibility of implementing pill-testing tents at music festivals, offering attendees the chance to discover what their illegal drugs actually contain, and how strong they are. A few months ago, New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian pushed back against the idea, stating the following:

“We do not support a culture that says it is OK to take illegal drugs, and I am worried about the number of people who attend these events who think it is OK to take illegal drugs.” —Gladys Berejiklian

The crux of the problem is this: it doesn’t matter whether the Australian government gives their approval to take illegal drugs, people are going to take them anyway. The fact that there’s a $320 billion dollar black market is proof of this. Until our governments develop some kind of effective mind control, our love of drugs isn’t going to change, and we’ll continue taking them, illegal or not.

Prohibition obviously doesn’t work, it just goes underground and creates a network of crime that governments waste billions battling against. Every single country that has embarked on a war on drugs has failed miserably, not because they lacked the correct strategy, but because people have a strong desire to take drugs. Where there’s a desire, there’s a market.

The government has also tried drug-scare campaigns, which in a comical backfire, have shown to have the complete opposite effect, with people more motivated to take drugs after encountering the campaign. No amount of bodybag or car crash imagery will prevent people from doing what they love. I cannot reiterate this point enough – people will continue to take drugs, regardless of the government’s futile attempts to convince them otherwise. History has proven this point time and time again.

In light of the fact that people are always going to want to take mind-altering, illegal substances, and that convincing them not to take them is a laughable failure, any sane person would surely agree that we should do whatever we can to ensure that their drugs are as safe as possible? Would any politician in their right mind – Gladys Berejiklian included – argue against this point? Can they really continue pushing the astonishingly pathetic, antiquated idea of just say no? People don’t just say no, they just say yes, regardless of the fact that they’re risking death (albeit the tiniest chance) every time that they take them. If you can’t frighten a drug-user with the prospect of their death, you’re not going to frighten them with anything.

Inevitability cannot be fought, so the only sensible solution is to make illegal drugs as safe as possible. Festival drug testing tents have been shown to be an effective way of doing this, simply by giving users more information about their drugs. It’s absolutely astonishing that politicians like Gladys Berejiklian, and NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, are claiming that it’s a bad thing to know whether your drugs contain a poison that will kill you. This is one of those situations where their arguments are so ridiculous that you half-expect it to be a prank. There’s simply no scenario where life-saving information about your illegal drugs is a bad thing, unless you’re advocating more death, which as bizarre as it sounds, is exactly what people like Gladys Berejiklian and Mick Fuller are doing.

Former police chiefs and politicians (who no are longer concerned about pursuing a career) are calling for decriminalisation. The ambitious NSW premier would never dream of doing this in case she loses voters, but losing drug-users to poisonous pills doesn’t seem to be so much of a problem. The recent spate of drug-related deaths in Australia may not have happened if the victims had access to a service that detected the deadly toxicity in their drugs, or were offered advice from a knowledgable, sympathetic drug-worker.

I don’t believe for a second that Gladys Berejiklian or Mick Fuller actually think that the approval of pill-testing tents will legitimise drug use. They’re just so concerned with damaging their own careers that they’re willing to overlook the mountains of evidence that demonstrates the life-saving capabilities of drug-testing. They can no longer ignore the proof. Unless they want more people to die, it’s time to put aside their selfishness and offer serious legislative support for establishing pill-testing tents at every Australian music festival.

 

Addiction

A friend of mine has severe depression, a debilitating drug-addiction, and a gambling problem of epic proportions. Over the last two years, he’s alienated almost every one of his family and friends, disfigured his nose by snorting obscene amounts of cocaine, and lost over £100,000 (profit from the sale of his house). At the moment, he lives with his parents, both of who have come to detest him, but can’t stand the thought of him living on the streets.

His downward spiral has been happening for a long time. He loved drugs from a young age; always indulged in any kind of escapism, anything that numbed the pain of existence. Challenging/worthwhile things were ignored in favour of something easier. He never learned to persevere. He only ever headed in a single direction – the easiest one. He never learned that a great deal of happiness is to be found in doing what’s difficult.

I can’t imagine what it feels like to be in that kind of situation; the helplessness of it all. An awful sense of pity and frustration washes over me whenever I think about him. Every person who cares about him knows what he needs to do: rehab, and ongoing therapy. Yet he refuses. He continues to live a life that simply isn’t worth it, because it’s easier.

An addict can’t be forced to seek treatment. We’ve tried every persuasion technique possible. We’ve been patient and compassionate; furious and coercive. Nothing gets through. The affect that he’s had on his family has been heartbreaking to witness.

By allowing him to live in their home, his parents are keeping the situation stagnant. He has no responsibility to feed and shelter himself. He often sleeps all day, because he can. They’ve paid off his drug debts (£15k+) multiple times, and every single time that they do, they’re helping to kill their own son.

So a battle is being fought on two fronts: convincing his parents to stop funding my friend’s drug habit, and convincing him friend to get professional help. They seem like hopeless tasks, and I’m now starting to wonder whether this is something that I need to walk away from, for the sake of my own mental health. But doing so feels like giving up on someone that I love.


Are you suffering from any of these problems, or know somebody who is? You might be interested in the below.

Suicide prevention: https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Alcohol/drugs: https://adf.org.au/help-support/
Addiction: https://au.reachout.com/tough-times/addiction

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