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Psychologist Andrew Feldmar. (Christopher Grabowski for The Globe and Mail)
Psychologist Andrew Feldmar. (Christopher Grabowski for The Globe and Mail)

High hopes: Why science is seeking a pardon for psychedelics Add to ...

Financed by MAPS, the study will follow 12 PTSD sufferers for whom other treatments have failed.

“We’ll be recruiting from the general population,” explains the 73-year-old Mr. Feldmar, a Budapest-born therapist who trained with Scottish psychedelic pioneer R.D. Laing. “The study could include soldiers, firemen or police officers. No other form of therapy has proven effective in dealing with the kind of trauma they’ve experienced.”

In the randomized, double-blind study, participants will be given either a placebo or a large dose of MDMA. All sessions will take place under the guidance of the two therapists.

“Having PTSD is like having an alarm permanently going off in your head,” Mr. Feldmár says. “Under the influence of the drug, you go to what was unspeakable – the rape, the torture, the abuse – and you begin to speak about it. MDMA is an empathogen: It opens your heart, releases you from shame, and puts you in the present moment.

“In the presence of skilled therapists, you can go back to when you were traumatized, mourn what happened to you, and finally stop the alarm that has been ringing for so many years.”

Dr. Pacey took MDMA herself (supervised by a therapist) , and says it also has great potential in treating early-childhood trauma. “I spent my early years in a displaced person’s camp at the end of the war, surrounded by traumatized people. The hospital where I was born was bombed. I carried this kind of fear in my body, on a physical level, because the trauma happened when I was so young. I found taking MDMA gave me a different point of view. … The fear was allayed.”

In Britain, where ecstasy is especially popular, recent studies at Imperial College London suggest that MDMA tames activity in the amygdala, the part of brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Faculty psychiatrist David Nutt has been famously quoted as saying that taking it “is no more dangerous than riding a horse.”

For a television documentary last year, subjects in an Imperial College study sat, still under the influence, grinning and, in some cases, grinding their teeth (“gurning”) as Dr. Nutt used a giant translucent model of the brain to demonstrate how the drug reduces the connection between two areas of the cerebral cortex responsible for our sense of self – a clue, he suggested, to its capacity to diminish anxiety and self-consciousness.

Also there, watching in horror, was psychopharmacologist Andy Parrott. Many objections to MDMA stem from media coverage of ecstasy, which often has no trace of the advertised ingredient – deaths attributed to it in Alberta and B.C. last year were found to be caused by PMMA, a dangerous stimulant.

But Dr. Parrott argues that MDMA has killed people by causing a spike in body temperature, and cites studies that suggest it can spark a permanent decline in the brain’s ability to produce serotonin, the compound associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Dr. Nutt argues that such declines appear to be short-term.

A more subtle complaint comes from therapists who take umbrage at MDMA’s billing as “a year’s worth of therapy in two hours.” They contend that true insight can come only in moments of sobriety.

“Anybody who has that objection,” Mr. Feldmár says, “is either ignorant or puritanical.

“Look, MDMA is not a wonder drug. It’s an altered state of consciousness that allows certain experiences. Psychiatric drugs, like Prozac and the anti-psychotics, make you stupid, they shut you down. The drugs that are making a comeback show that you can wake up, that a bad situation can be changed.”

Man-made hallucinogens have been known since mescaline was isolated from peyote in 1897, but those based on plants have been used far longer for traditional or sacramental purposes, and therapists are reporting excellent results using some of them.

Philippe Lucas, a former Victoria city councillor and research affiliate for the province’s Centre for Addictions Research, says a study using ayahuasca, a combination of Amazonian plants, to treat alcohol and drug addiction among members of a coastal aboriginal band was overwhelmingly positive.

A follow-up six months later found significant reductions in the use of cocaine, tobacco and alcohol, he says, adding: “Ayahuasca, peyote, ibogaine – none of these substances is dependence-forming. Very few can lead to overdose or death. And all of them are far safer than the pharmaceutical opiates.”

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