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Tim Molloy at home in Calgary. (Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)
Tim Molloy at home in Calgary. (Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)

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Hallucinogens: New relief for traumatic stress? Add to ...

After two months of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, 80 per cent of MAPS's subjects were free of PTSD symptoms, compared with 25 per cent in a placebo group. The Swiss numbers were less auspicious, but there, too, they were better than the statistics that coaxed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve Zoloft and Paxil for PTSD victims.

Still, getting there will be a struggle. FDA standards are demanding and expensive. Finding sponsorship money is difficult. Governments, heavily invested in the war on drugs, won't fund research. Nor will Big Pharma: There's no financial incentive because, if approved, psychedelics would be off-patent, generic drugs. And for most well-endowed non-profit foundations, the topic itself is still too fraught.

Given those obstacles, “I wouldn't call it a growth industry,” says Park Avenue psychiatrist Jeffrey Guss, who oversees NYU's psilocybin study of depression in 32 late-stage cancer patients. “But there's a commitment to keeping psychedelics alive as a subject of serious scientific inquiry, removing them from the counter-culture and making them part of the culture.”

Even the vocabulary is changing. Many of those involved in pilot studies eschew the term hallucinogen in favour of “plant medicine” or even “entheogen” (“god generator”).

“The ground is shifting,” insists Ingrid Paley, the Vancouver psychiatrist who will help supervise a $250,000, Health Canada-sanctioned, phase-2 MDMA trial on 12 PTSD volunteers. “Although in a way,” she adds, “we're reinventing the wheel.”

She's right: Between 1953 and 1973, the U.S. funded 116 studies of LSD, involving 1,700 subjects. MDMA's research literature is even more extensive. Those early results were often encouraging, if not conclusive. And what's often forgotten 40 years later is how common LSD was in psychotherapy – and how widespread its use was overall. By 1970, between one and two million Americans had taken an LSD trip.

Why Prozac but not LSD?

In many ways, the psychedelic revival should not be surprising. Nine countries and more than a dozen U.S. states have moved to decriminalize cannabis, citing positive impacts on everything from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease to glaucoma and asthma.

“Besides,” adds U.S. social historian Erik Davis, “America is now absolutely awash with psychoactive drugs,” from Prozac to amphetamine-like stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. There's still a huge difference in the public mind between Adderall and magic mushrooms, but … Americans are starting to accept a deeper link between drugs that change your mind and drugs that heal your self.”

The culture also seems more receptive to the lessons psychedelics may teach. There's been a steadily rising trend of interest in Eastern mysticism and meditation. Specialty TV channels devote entire schedules to the nexus of mind, body and spirit.

Yoga studios and health-food stores proliferate, as do holistic birthing centres and hospices. There's a growing awareness of the earth's fragile ecologies – a sense that, just as the psychedelic pioneers reported, we are all connected. In retrospect, it's easy to see that 1960s society, just emerging from 1950s conformity, wasn't ready for the Dionysian message of psychedelics.

“The idea of deconstructing your personality before it's fully formed was not a good idea,” quips environmental writer J.P. Harpignies. “I remember seeing entire hospital wards full of the victims of LSD.”

But now, says Neal Goldsmith, the New York psychotherapist who curated the New York conference, “we're more relaxed. The people who took the drug back then are in positions of power. They see its potential.

“Psychedelics are corrosive, yes,” he adds. “They deal with our calcifications. They don't call it ‘acid' for nothing. But I have great faith in the scientific method. We'll do it one step at a time, in proper contexts.”

Others aren't waiting for an FDA seal of approval. “I don't need 50 double blind, placebo-controlled studies to know that ayahuasca can help cure addictions,” says Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté, who has been using it to treat addicts.

“It's what the experience shows. Addiction is about running away from pain without resolving it. The plant shows you what you're running from. It fills the void. It reconnects you.”

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