Seeing Outside the Mental Box
(December 10, 2019)
I have been somewhat slack with these newsletters this year, as you may have noticed. I propose to take care of that in a few weeks with a New Year's resolution. But in the meantime, I am afraid that this essay is no exception to my general lack of diligence. I did not get my tush in gear to write it until Monday night, and then somehow I managed to erase the whole first draft of it. So it is not in the polished state that I usually like to see my newsletters. But, considering the subject, maybe a series of "WTHs" was going to be the best I could do with it under any circumstances.
Anyway. This started when I casually encountered a mindblowing little headline that most media completely overlooked:
FDA Calls Psychedelic Psilocybin a 'Breakthrough Therapy' for Severe Depression
Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic compound. Like all chemicals in that category, its effects include euphoria, visual and mental hallucinations, changes in perception, a distorted sense of time, and spiritual experiences (remember that last, by the way). And also like all its fellows in that category, it is illegal as hell. So why is the FDA going to allow it to be used as a prescription medication?
And not just "allow". The FDA isn't just approving the use of psilocybin for MDD (which stands for "major depressive disorder", a condition for which right now there is pretty much no treatment worth spit). It is PUSHING it. It's throwing its considerable weight behind getting this thing through trials and into common usage as quickly as possible.
That usually happens under just one of two circumstances: 1) the drug company involved has given a huge amount of money to a certain senator's PAC; or 2) the new treatment has been shown to be so much better than anything else currently in use that every day it is NOT in use is a kind of malpractice.
A single dose of this stuff can not only wipe out depressive symptoms, but do so for long periods of time. That's unheard of in the treatment of MDD. But, interestingly, it is NOT unheard of in the use of hallucinogens in the treatment of mental and emotional conditions generally. Here's something else on the subject:
"In the late 1950’s, after observing that LSD produced profound and largely positive psychological effects on people, psychiatrists began administering LSD to individuals with chronic alcoholism in research and clinical settings. They theorized it could cause a life-changing experience that would prompt those with a drinking problem to change their drinking patterns. A 2012 meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies conducted during the 1960s concluded that a single dose of LSD had a significant and long-lasting beneficial effect on a drinking problem for 59 percent of the patients who received it compared to 38 percent of the patients who took a placebo."
Did you notice that "1960s" part in there? The 1960s was right about the time that these things became not just illegal, but REALLY illegal. Hallucinogens have been used for thousands of years to produce revelation and transcendence with no particular problems, but suddenly they became a huge threat -- and just when useful medical applications for them were being found.
Have you ever struggled with a problem, and then suddenly seen its solution in a sort of flash of light that didn't just give you your answer, but lit up the situation so it was like you were suddenly seeing it all clearly for the first time? THAT seems to be how hallucinogens treat mental illness - by causing a life-changing spiritual/mental experience, essentially breaking open the box the mind is trapped in and letting in enough light to make the world a happier place for the subject. Why did this suddenly become bad?
So here are the "WTHs" that I mentioned earlier. I do not have answers for these questions, but I believe that they are worth pondering and possibly worth answering for yourself.
1) Since hallucinogens have been around for thousands of years, and were/are found to be mostly benign (note that underlined bit in the quotation above), why did they suddenly become SO illegal and supposedly dangerous in the 1960s?
2) Why did research into their usage essentially stop right when there was evidence that they might be very, very helpful for resistant problems like chronic alcoholism?
And the one I'd really like to ask,
3) Assuming that someone (or groups of someones) clamped a lid on the use and investigation of hallucinogens because they felt that they were a threat -- just what was so threatening about them? (And as a corollary -- why are they not threatening any longer?)
(Marijuana has followed that same trajectory, right along with hallucinogens. From benign to communist menace to healing medication. Go figure.)
I don't have answers, like I said. But I think that the questions are quite enough for all of us, for the moment. I must say, though, that I really look forward to the next ten years in the medical development of these formerly dangerous threats to American society.
--dr. diane holmes
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