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A woman harvests magic mushrooms in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands, Friday Aug. 3, 2007. A group of Canadian researchers has called for further study into the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs, such as magic mushrooms.

PETER DEJONG/AP

A group of medical researchers is calling for further study into how those with mental illnesses and addictions could benefit from psychedelic drugs such as acid and MDMA, which they say could one day be combined with psychotherapy and counselling to replace daily doses of widely abused pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Evan Wood, co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and three other researchers published a report Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, reviewing the existing mental-health studies into the therapeutic benefits of drugs such as LSD (commonly known as acid), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ayahuasca (derived from an Amazonian plant and served in a thick tea), mescaline (found in the peyote cactus) and MDMA (the psychoactive ingredient of the street drug ecstasy).

The group says the mind-altering drugs, several of which have been long been used in indigenous ceremonies across the Americas, warrant more research in larger, controlled clinical trials after having shown promise in smaller pilot studies into treating addiction and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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"This is an area that could potentially bring about major changes in people, without a sort of chronic-disease model where people would be forever on an expensive [pharmaceutical] medication," Dr. Wood said. "It's a totally different model: it's not one pill every day, it's one experience and we're going to try to heal you."

The study found that, in some trials, patients said the psychedelic drug offered a "profound experience that brings them greater insight into their patterns" which enabled them to "move past and make really meaningful change in their life," he added.

Dr. Wood said these types of shorter psychedelic treatments could ultimately prove to be much more effective than using commonly prescribed sedatives such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan to treat anxiety or insomnia. He said he spends a "significant portion of my day job" helping patients get off these drugs, known as benzodiazepines, while working at UHRI, which studies substance use, infectious diseases and homelessness.

Most of the clinical research on psychedelics was done in the '50s and '60s, but scientists disagreed over which methods were best, and there were "infamous" trials that involved "egregious violations of ethical protocols" by not gaining the consent of their participants, Dr. Wood's group reported. By the mid-'70s, researchers' access to and professional interest in the drugs died out.

In the past decade there has been a renewed engagement in the field, with a 2014 Swiss study finding that patients with terminal illnesses reporting lasting relief from their anxiety after two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions, Dr. Wood and his co-authors noted. A similar trial done in 2008 found psilocybin could help terminal cancer patients deal with their impending deaths.

A 2013 B.C. study of an ayahuasca-assisted intervention involving a small group of coastal First Nations people addicted to alcohol and cocaine showed that the participants reduced their use of those drugs and felt their mental health improve after a four-day retreat using the psychotropic brew.

This year, a small University of British Columbia study involving 12 patients suffering chronic PTSD started in Vancouver. It took that trial took six years to clear all the regulatory hurdles with the staunchly anti-drug Conservative federal government and raise the $200,000 needed.

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"These things can be researched," Dr. Wood said. "It's obviously a cumbersome process with Health Canada, but that's the standard in terms of ensuring appropriate safety."

Four years ago, Health Canada threatened to prosecute high-profile doctor Gabor Mate for illegally using ayahuasca to treat the addictions of up to 200 Vancouver-area drug users in sessions spanning two years.

Dr. Wood and his co-authors argue the public's negative perception of these psychedelics is tainted by examples of people buying street drugs and using them recreationally, which is different from clinical trials involving controlled administration overseen by professionals.

"The historical context and understanding of these molecules is going to mean a very cautious approach to the science and education are going to be needed," Dr. Wood said. "Because the sort of uncontrolled use of these substances and the fears that it induced when they were being widely used in the 1970s-Vietnam War era is still with us in many ways.

"While these substances absolutely can have the potential to have untoward effects on people, they are certainly, from a scientific perspective, much safer than probably alcohol, tobacco and many of the commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs that people take on a daily basis."

Common psychedelic drugs

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1) LSD

GENERAL EFFECTS

- activates serotonin receptors (increases feelings of happiness)

- dizziness, weakness, tremors, tingling

- altered consciousness (visions, auditory distortions, ideations)

- altered mood (happy, sad, fearful, irritable)

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- distorted sense of space, time

POTENTIAL HARMS

- psychosis

- persistent hallucinations

THERAPEUTIC USES

- addiction (e.g. alcohol)

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- anxiety associated with terminal illness

2) Psilocybin

GENERAL EFFECTS

- activates serotonin receptors (increases feelings of happiness)

- dizziness, weakness, tremors, tingling

-altered consciousness (visions, auditory distortions, ideations)

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- altered mood (happy, sad, fearful, irritable)

- distorted sense of space, time

POTENTIAL HARMS

- psychosis

- persistent hallucinations

THERAPEUTIC USES

- addiction (tobacco, alcohol)

- anxiety associated with terminal illness

3) Ayahuasca

GENERAL EFFECTS

- activates serotonin receptors (increases feelings of happiness)

- dizziness, weakness, tremors, tingling

- nausea, vomiting

- altered consciousness (visions, auditory distortions, ideations)

- altered mood (happy, sad, fearful, irritable)

- distorted sense of space, time

POTENTIAL HARMS

- psychosis

- serotonin syndrome

THERAPEUTIC USES

- addiction (alcohol, cocaine, tobacco)

- depression, anxiety associated with terminal illness

4) Mescaline (found in the peyote cactus)

GENERAL EFFECTS

- activates serotonin receptors (increases feelings of happiness)

- dizziness, weakness, tremors, tingling

- altered consciousness (visions, auditory distortions, ideations)

- altered mood (happy, sad, fearful, irritable)

- distorted sense of space, time

POTENTIAL HARMS

- psychosis

THERAPEUTIC USES

- addiction (alcohol)

5) MDMA

GENERAL EFFECTS

- increases serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline

- euphoria

- arousal

- perceptual alteration

- enhanced empathy and sociability

POTENTIAL HARMS

- potential memory loss

- sleep disruption

- short-term depression

THERAPEUTIC USES

- PTSD

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