It's an unseasonably warm September morning in New York City. On the steps of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, some 250 people have gathered, a mix of casually dressed men and women, young and old – a retired software developer from Boston, a 17-year old student from Ohio, a New York investment manager and his wife, a documentary filmmaker and a few true hippies.
They're not here for prayer. Under the beatific gaze of Mary, Jesus and the saints, they've come to hear a sober parade of academics sing the virtues of psychedelic drugs.
For four decades, the possession of LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens has been illegal in most of the Western world, the topic itself socially and scientifically taboo. More than half the U.S. prison population of 2.3 million is incarcerated because of drug manufacture, distribution and related crimes. Churches routinely inveigh against this alternate route to transcendence.
Taking users outside conventional time and space, psychedelics – almost by definition – challenge the hallowed ground of Western materialism. Lying beyond rationalism, they've been banned and pathologized.
To suggest that these substances might actually be good for us is heresy of the first order. Yet that's exactly what these psychologists, pharmacologists and social workers maintain – that they are good for the treatment of rampant drug addictions, for post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorders and for end-of-life, cancer-related and other depressions.
Not to mention, dare I say, to restore our rapidly fading sense of the sacred.
Something is happening here, the stirrings of a psychedelic renaissance. On a scale that could scarcely have been imagined a decade ago, the pharmacopeia of hallucinogens is slowly reclaiming a legitimate place in the West's cultural discourse. And it's doing so in the name of our highest secular god – science.
Mushrooms, not the patch?
Psilocybin, for example, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, is being used at New York University for cancer-related anxiety and at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins to help people quit smoking. A Harvard team is developing trial protocols for treating cluster-headache patients with LSD or psilocybin.
The non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is giving MDMA (ecstasy) to victims of PTSD in the U.S., Switzerland and Israel. Similar studies will begin next year in Jordan and in Vancouver.
In effect, drug regulators are now reviewing psychotropic substances as they would any drug seeking approval. They're testing safety, feasibility and efficacy through rigorous, double-blind, crossover clinical trials.
Last year, for example, New Zealand reclassified ibogaine – made from the root bark of a Central African shrub – as a prescription medicine, concluding that it reduced or eliminated opiate addictions and caused fewer deaths than methadone, the usual replacement therapy.
“Ibogaine basically saved my life,” says Claire Wilkins, a 39-year-old former heroin addict who now runs an ibogaine clinic in Tijuana. In the past four years, she has treated 400 chemically dependent clients; 93 per cent, she says, were detoxed.
“It's a difficult tool,” she says. “It makes you look at the hard stuff. But it interrupts the addiction. It gives you your choice back. It not only cuts the craving. There's actual neuron repair. We're creating a new paradigm of treatment.”
“I've seen a big change in 10 years,” says Mary Cosimano, a social worker involved with the Johns Hopkins psilocybin studies. “It's too early to draw definitive conclusions, but a year after the therapy ended, all three subjects are no longer smoking. Blood and urine samples are used for verification. If we can prove safety and efficacy, then psilocybin will have to be rescheduled.”
Can ecstasy save veterans?
If the climate of acceptance is warming, says MAPS executive director Rick Doblin, it's partly because “society's need is so great. Current PTSD medicines and therapies don't work.”
Last year, he notes, the U.S. Veteran's Administration issued $5.5-billion in disability payments to 275,000 vets. Even more startling, more U.S. soldiers are dying of suicide than in combat. Returning servicemen also show a higher propensity for homelessness, unemployment and drug abuse. Governments, in short, now have a vested interest.