November 30, 2020

The Past, Present and Future of Psychedelics

Fifty years after psychedelics were deemed as one of the most dangerous things in America, research on their potential benefits has once again begun.

We are in quite turbulent times right now and we are all trying to look for possible solutions to not just our own individual issues, but our collective issues as well. I believe psychedelics may help in illuminating that path for us. 

Of course, I am not advocating for everyone on the planet to be tripping, but instead, I wonder how reintroducing psychedelics into society may benefit humanity. They have been an integral part of several ancient cultures, and even some today, who pity us for our disconnection from the spirit by abandoning these sacred molecules. The benefits these compounds offer such as help with mental illness, increasing nature relatedness, and a general feeling of connection with the cosmos should not be overlooked, and may help steer us onto a better path as a species. I believe however that we should first look at human history with psychedelics, as well as where we are now and how we can avoid the same mistakes of the past to pave a better future for research and their implementation into our society. 

Psychedelics such as psilocybin, mescaline, Salvia Divinorum, and ayahuasca have been used by cultures around the world for thousands of years. These plants were mainly used shamanically as opposed to recreationally as they typically are today in the West. Instead of simply looking for a high, ancient cultures (and some today) used psychedelics to heal the soul, contact another reality, connect you with the Earth and the cosmos, etc. 

The use of psychedelics by humans is not a new thing, and was not considered a taboo until relatively recently in human history. There are still some cultures that use psychedelics ceremoniously however. For example the Mazatec tribe in Oaxaca, Mexico uses Salvia Divinorum as well as psilocybin mushrooms in healing ceremonies. Even in the United States, Native Americans were given back their right to ceremonial use of peyote after it was placed in Schedule 1. For a long time, psychedelics were only an interest to those using them in a shamanic setting, but in the 1960s something new hit the scene that caught the interest of an entirely different demographic.

In March of 1966, Life magazine released an article on LSD that was the catalyst for the interest in psychedelics in America’s youth. These were young people growing up in a very hectic time, with the civil rights issues, an intense political situation, the new atom bomb hanging over their heads, the draft, and a general hopelessness about the state and future of humanity. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? These folks were seeking hope and seemed to find it in a tiny square of paper. 

Before getting into that though, let’s look at how psychedelics, particularly LSD at this time, managed to get out of the lab and into the streets. No one knows for a fact exactly how it happened, as it was likely multiple factors, but let us examine what we do know. When talking about the psychedelic revolution, one person that we cannot forget is Timothy Leary who was first experimenting with the therapeutic effects of psilocybin at Harvard in the early 60’s, and then telling us to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” at the Trips Festival in 1966. 

After being fired from Harvard over his Harvard Psilocybin Project, Leary was given the Hitchcock Estate by Billy Hitchcock in 1963, which became a hot-spot for people looking to experiment with their minds. At the estate, there were students, philosophers, artists, scientists, spiritual seekers, and all other types of people rotating in and out of the estate all with one common interest: experimenting with LSD. This psychedelic rat-wiring they had going on was instrumental for the development of the psychedelic revolution, as it allowed people who may have never met otherwise to create connections that resulted in tremendous outcomes. 

One person in particular, Nick Sand, was invited up to Millbrook by his friend Billy Hitchcock in order to meet Timothy Leary. This event unknowingly created the spark that caused the psychedelic explosion in America. Sand found himself immersed for the first time in a community of people interested in psychedelic research. He stayed there for a couple of years, simply participating in the research that was happening, while at the same time trying to find out how to manufacture pure LSD. 

In 1967, Hitchcock introduced Sand to another friend of his, Timothy Scully, who had already been manufacturing LSD with legendary psychedelic chemist Owsley “Bear” Stanley since 1966. To preface this, Owsley had already been making and selling LSD in Haight-Ashbury, and taught Scully the process.  Scully and Sand both had a shared interest in producing a large amount of LSD with the intention of spreading it around the globe, as they believed it may be a key to saving the world. Eventually a partnership was formed, one that would change an entire generation. They agreed to move to California together with the plan to manufacture around 200 kilograms of LSD to accomplish their mission of “turning on the world”. 

For over a month, the duo along with Sand’s romantic partner at the time worked day in and day out, at great risk, producing LSD at their lab in Windsor, California. Together they managed to produce 1.3 kilos of LSD in that short amount of time with the household name Orange Sunshine. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love were the official distributors of Orange Sunshine, and took it all across the United States and the world birthing new acid heads right in your neighborhood. Now that we know a bit about how LSD managed to actually get out onto the streets, we should now examine how it affected the population that mainly partook in it: the baby boomers. 

Now one thing that most people forget about baby boomers, is that they were the young people during this time. That guy you see in documentaries about the 60s dancing his heart out while covered in Day-Glo paint could very well be your grandfather. Once LSD appeared and a lot of these young people used it, it blew the hinges off of the doors of the mind, allowing them to examine the society they were a part of in a new light.

Not only that, but a good psychedelic experience can include ego-dissolution giving the user a sense of connection with everything around them. Whether this sensation was real or not didn’t matter, what did matter was the effect if left on people. They wanted to be more loving and caring towards other people, which started the Summer of Love in ‘67 and the Peace & Love Movement during the late 60s and early 70s. Minds were beginning to change about topics the government had no interest in swaying their opinion on. The fact that LSD was rapidly changing the ideals and values of an entire generation was not something that could have gone swept under the rug, at least not for too long. 

Once the US Government caught wind of this happening, as well as potential physical dangers of the drug, they began to crack down on this new substance that was supposedly tainting the minds of the youth. It wasn’t just LSD they were going after however, it was any form of consciousness exploration they did not approve of. 

Through the eyes of the government, psychedelics and drugs in general were seen as dangerous to the citizens of the United States. Despite initial research showing positive results, LSD was made federally illegal in 1968, and clinical research came to a halt while clandestine production ramped up. As more cases of bad trips and hospitalizations were occuring due to people taking more they could handle, the government began to recognize the potential hazard these substances could pose if they are just rampant out on the streets. 

The risks these substances could carry was a much greater factor to lawmakers though. Claims that psychedelic use was linked with chromosomal damage, permanent psychosis, and flashbacks only caused more worry to ensue. Most of these claims stemmed from anomalies in research, such as chromosomal damage found in mice and rats, and psychosis found in those who had schizophrenia and used LSD.

Despite these pitfalls however, some scientists still argued that the positive results from these studies should not be ignored, and warranted further investigation. Still, politicians saw psychedelics as a threat to society, and passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 banning the manufacture, possession, importation, distribution, and use of recreational drugs. While there were without a doubt risks associated with use of psychedelics, we cannot ignore the political aspect of why psychedelics were criminalized. 

The media’s focus on LSD’s association with civil disobedience and anti-authoritarian perceptions provided more of a reason to ban these substances all together. During this time, the US was involved in the Cold War, and the last problem our government needed was its own citizens turning against them. It is apparent when you look at the reasons as to why the Controlled Substances Act was passed, it was nothing more than a political agenda rather than due to scientifically established risks. Even former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrilchman said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did”. 

As the Controlled Substances Act eliminated supply of psychedelics, the psychedelic revolution fizzled out. By the time The Analogue Act was passed in 1986, banning all analogues similar to a controlled substance, researchers that were still interested in psychedelics had to keep their studies secret. 

Despite this however, psychedelics managed to somehow keep their head above the water, at least in an amateur setting. One important individual that assisted in the boom of clandestine psychedelic production was an individual by the name of Hobart Huson, better known as “Strike”. Strike was a chemist who owned his own chemical company that distributed required precursor chemicals for synthesis, as well as started the forum page “The Hive”, with the focus of educating anyone who wanted to learn about the synthesis of a variety of psychedelics. His intent was to subvert the federal government’s efforts to limit street supply of psychedelics, and countless people at home were now armed with the knowledge and supplies necessary to create these compounds. 

While the War on Drugs pretty much brought all research on psychedelics to a screeching halt, clandestine production was and still is going strong. It is safe to say that drugs seem to have won the War on Drugs all things considered, and we are now seeing the clinical field considering psychedelics again after its long intermission from research. 50 years after psychedelics were deemed as one of the most dangerous things in America, research on their potential benefits has once again begun. A natural question that gets raised is what caused a resurgence of interest in psychedelics in the scientific community. The main factor is that the scientific community was recognizing that the original perception of the risk factor may not have been as accurate as once thought.

It was revealed over time that the studies that pointed to strong evidence of risks had overall inconclusive results that were misconstrued to bring the impression that psychedelic use was dangerous. I find it funny that the exact thing that got psychedelics banned from research is the same thing bringing them back into the field. 

While no drug is without their potential dangers, it became clear that psychedelics were not any more of a risk than other forms of treatment available if administered under the right conditions by professionals. Due to more recent studies done, they have found that human use of psychedelics is nothing of major concern. The FDA even had a meeting in 1992 where they stated that psychedelics have an acceptable risk-benefit ratio, and are no more dangerous than other drugs used in human clinical studies. After reexamination of past clinical studies with psychedelics, and the debunking of many claims made back in the late 60s, psychedelics began to be clinically reevaluated as a tool for psychotherapy. 

There are several research institutions conducting studies on various psychedelics today, such as Johns Hopkins University, The Beckley Foundation, and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) finding promising results. As a matter of fact, MAPS is conducting Phase 3 clinical MDMA trials meaning if it passes, MDMA will be legal for use in psychotherapy by 2023. 

LSD and psilocybin have shown promising data in eliminating cluster headaches. Psilocybin has also been shown to reduce symptoms of OCD, anxiety, and depression in patients as well. Scientists are finding several potential uses for these compounds such treatment of mental illness, treating addiction, helping terminal patients accept death, and even simply increasing the patient’s sense of well being or satisfaction in their lives. Recent data is showing us that responsible, clinical use of psychedelics should continue. It seems that they may offer solutions for specific conditions that current medicine cannot offer. 

The promising results recent studies are showing are resulting in some cities reconsidering the legality of psychedelics. Every psychedelic is currently federally in Schedule 1, meaning they have a high potential for abuse, and have no accepted medicinal value. They are higher up on the hierarchy than cocaine, fentanyl, or methamphetamine. However, since studies are showing quite the opposite is true regarding psychedelics, cities such as Denver, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor have begun to decriminalize certain substances, namely psilocybin. 

Although psilocybin is currently decriminalized in five cities, it is still a federal crime to use, sell, cultivate, etc. More initiatives are currently taking place to change this over time, such as Initiative 81 in Washington DC which would decriminalize entheogenic plants, and Initiative 34 in Oregon which aims to provide psilocybin assisted therapy to individuals 21 years or older. Due to more positive results from research being found, as well as the stigma beginning to disappear from decriminalization, it seems that recreational psychedelic use is somewhat on the rise again.

A study released this year showed that from 2015-2018, LSD use went up 56.4% in adults in the United States. Now this does not necessarily mean every person using them for their powerful psychoactive effects. There is a “Third Wave” of psychedelic use happening, and people call this method microdosing. The idea is to use a smaller dosage, typically 1/10 of a normal dose, in order to increase cognition, creativity, focus, mood, and the list goes on. There are no noticeable psychoactive effects from microdosing. Instead they help facilitate connections in the brain that may not happen otherwise, as well as partially interrupt the default mode network. With an increase in research being done, recreational use once again increasing, it seems we are finding ourselves at the beginning of a sort of psychedelic renaissance. However, it is important as we move forward to recognize the mistakes made in the past regarding psychedelics. 

While the future of psychedelics looks very promising in the clinical field, it is by no means set in stone. Remember that psychedelics were found to be of great therapeutic potential in the 1950s and 60s, but were still put under prohibition due to the media’s portrayal of psychedelic use in youth. It seems we are avoiding the same mistakes of the past by performing research up to current standards with promising results, as well as more informed recreational use as opposed to the admittedly more irresponsible use in the 60s. While the imagery we see associated with the psychedelic 60s may paint a nice picture in our heads, we need to recognize what went wrong and how we can avoid those pitfalls. Perhaps this time we really can “turn on the world”, just much more responsibly. 

Only time will tell, but it doesn’t hurt to speculate what the future of psychedelics will be and what they may tell us. What do you think? Will research be shut down once again, bringing our new psychedelic renaissance to a close? Will these continue to be researched and eventually be integrated into mainstream society? I cannot answer these personally, but I believe that they deserve a second look. I don’t believe they are an answer, but they may just be a start to healing ourselves, our society, and our planet. 

(If you would like to read a more fleshed out version of this article, I will be posting it to my WordPress page https://denniscaus.wordpress.com/ on Friday 10/23/2020).

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