“All my life,” a 55-year-old Cary Grant reflected, “I have been going around in a fog. You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are.”
But after only a few weeks of intensive therapy, he wrote in his autobiography, he had come to terms with a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse: “To my delight, I found I had a tough inner core of strength.” His only regret? “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”
The therapy was lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). By the mid-sixties, the man voted Hollywood’s Most Attractive was one of an estimated 40,000 people who had used it in an attempt to heal their brains, whether to unravel long-repressed trauma or to overcome addictions.
Today, of course, thanks to the proselytizing of Timothy Leary and its degradation into hippie culture’s “acid,” a cheap street drug, it and many other hallucinogens are illegal and believed to have, like heroin and cocaine, a high potential for abuse and what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls “no currently accepted medical use.”
But are hallucinogenic drugs really of no value to medicine? Flash forward to 2013: With North America awash in powerful pharmaceuticals that are perfectly legal, yet addictive and widely abused, some mental-health professionals are making a case for reviving banned mind-altering substances, arguing that they can enable insight, empathy and long-term recovery from trauma.
Forty-five years after LSD became the first of them to be prohibited, the psychedelics and their chemical cousins are making a comeback, launching what is being called a revolution in treating, and perhaps curing, some of the most refractory disorders of the human brain.
At the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – is being used to reduce anxiety in end-stage cancer patients. At the University of Ottawa, a researcher is studying ketamine, which has put many a raver into the infamous “K-hole,” as an alternative to shock therapy for severely depressed patients.
In New Zealand, the hallucinogenic African shrub iboga has been reclassified as a promising treatment for opiate addiction, and in England, a tidal wave of research, much of it using up-to-the-minute brain-scanning techniques, is showing how once-reviled street drugs can be used to treat everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder to chain smoking.
The work exciting the most interest, however, involves something that has long been a conundrum for medical science: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
With hundreds of thousands of Canadians believed to be suffering from PTSD – more soldiers commit suicide after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed there in combat – a highly effective treatment may be available in the form of a mind-expanding drug known to chemists as 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) and to the public at large as ecstasy.
Of course, ecstasy is strictly prohibited (up to life in prison for those caught making or selling it), so the news that this month Health Canada gave the final go-ahead to the first ever Canadian study of MDMA as an adjunct to therapy, is being followed very closely indeed.
Patented in 1912, MDMA, like many psychoactive drugs, is derived from natural sources: an oily liquid called safrole extracted from sassafras plants (one rich source, a Southeast Asian tree, is so heavily harvested it’s now a threatened species).
Forgotten for decades, it was revived in 1976 by California chemist Alexander Shulgin, legendary for developing novel hallucinogens.
Impressed by its ability to produce “intoxication, disinhibition and clarity,” he introduced it to an Oakland-based psychologist, who dubbed it “Adam” for its apparent ability to return patients to an Eden-like openness. Then it started appearing in nightclubs and soon was banned.
Not surprisingly, San Francisco, ground zero for the Summer of Love, is at the centre of the current revival. This spring, the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), created to promote the clinical cause, will hold its second international conference in nearby Oakland.
Up the coast, British Columbia is known not only for magic mushrooms and pot-friendly “Vansterdam,” but one of the continent’s worst skid rows, whose residents struggle with trauma, alcoholism and drug addiction. As a result, they could benefit from MDMA therapy, according to psychiatrist Ingrid Pacey and psychologist Andrew Feldmár, who lead the team that learned recently, after three years of waiting, that the final hurdle – allowing imports of the drug from its Swiss manufacturer – had been cleared.