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Psychedelics pose threats to powerful groups with vested interests. We need to support initiatives to make them available for therapeutic use.

Part 11 of the series “Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me”

As I have said too many times since I launched this series of posts, there is increasingly strong evidence that psilocybin, LSD and other psychedelics can help to alleviate depression, addictions, PTSD, and other debilitation mental-health issues after one or two doses, given the right set and setting.*

As I’ve been chronicling my own journey as a participant in a study into the effects of psilocybin on chronic depression, many people have reached out to me, expressing hope that not only will the dose I take be effective for me, but that they will eventually have access to this treatment too. Some researchers in the field now hope that within five years, psilocybin will be approved for use in safe therapeutic settings. (I know! This is an agonizingly long wait if you are suffering.)

However, many researchers, therapists and prospective patients – as well as “healthy normal” people who are interested in safely exploring dimensions of consciousness not usually available to us – have expressed concern, as I am doing here, that before we reach a world in which there is legal access to these substances – within, much less outside of, treatment settings – the drugs will be banned once more, as they were in the 1960s, making it illegal not only to use them but even to continue researching their benefits. If that happens, millions will continue to suffer without access to an option that is showing dramatic, positive results and very few negative side effects.

The Shape of the Threat

If the past few years of watching the news have taught us anything, it is that people with money and power can achieve just about anything they want. They do this directly (e.g., by withdrawing money from funding agencies or by changing laws), and they do it indirectly (e.g., by convincing significant numbers people via social media, community groups and religious institutions that something they don’t want us to have is dangerous). As we have seen over and over again, when special interests have lots of money for lobbying, they can be frighteningly effective in winning government support.

It has been demonstrated beyond a doubt that when properly administered, psychedelics are almost never dangerous – physically or psychologically. To the contrary, they have provided relief to thousands upon thousands of people. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons why those with power and money are likely to want to prevent or curtail governmental approval for their therapeutic use.

Here are some of them.

They Are Going to Damage Big Pharma’s Bottom Line

Psilocybin is a chemical that is found in mushrooms, which are cheap. Mushrooms with psychoactive properties can be easily found in nature if you know what you are looking for (and if you look in the right geographical locations) and, given the right spores and media, they can even be grown at home. Even when a production step is added to ensure quality control and ease of consumption, so that people don’t have to chow down actual dried mushrooms, psilocybin itself is likely to remain relatively inexpensive. because no one can control the source.

Further, only one dose of a psychedelic is normally required to attain lift-off and, in most cases, to produce the desired outcome. Even if LSD (a laboratory-developed chemical compound) is used instead of mushrooms, and even if pharmaceutical companies corner the market on LSD, most patients are not going to want or need to take more than one dose – the trips they induce are intense and can be scary, and their effectiveness is diminished with repeated use. These drugs have no effect on the dopamine centre in the brain which is what leads to drug addiction, so they are not candidates for getting people hooked. (Some current research shows that a way to extend the benefits of having dosed with a psychedelic may lie in meditation, of all things, rather than in repeating the psychedelic dose or using other drugs. Meditation is a very inexpensive route to peace of mind.)

Contrast the cost of a psychedelic treatment with the big business of antidepressants, which a whole lot of us have been taking once a day in increasing doses for years and even decades. The benefits of SSRIs tend to diminish over time, and they are very hard to discontinue. (I can attest to this. I’m now six weeks off of duloxetine/Cymbalta and I am still having brain zaps, aching joints, anxiety and, of course, intensified depression and anxiety.)

It seems to me as though it would be a good business strategy for Big Pharma to gain sole legal control of the production and distribution of psychedelics when and if they are approved – and then to mount intense PR campaigns (of the kind some companies once used to insist that opioids were harmless) to get the message out that psychedelics are dangerous and that anti-depressant treatment should be preferred.

They Threaten Those with Financial Stakes in Other Profitable Industries

Psychedelic use tends to make people more aware – on both a short- and a long-term basis – of the deep, life-nurturing and even sacred connections between themselves and others, and between humans and the natural world. This leads to increased concern for the environment and greater interest in fostering peaceful and loving relationships among humans.

If millions of people seek out psychedelics in an effort to lead more stable, productive and creative lives, and end up becoming more loving and peaceful and more intent on protecting our planet, this development will not be welcomed by those who earn their livings through the manufacture and sales of guns and military armaments – nor by those whose futures depend on nurturing interpersonal disputes. Elections would be quite different if voters were more interested in seeking peaceful solutions to their differences than in fighting over them, or beating down the “other” so many of them seem to fear, or trampling others’ rights and freedoms.

To me, it seems quite likely that when rabid conservatives (in particular) discover a political resurgence of “peaceniks,” and decide that this trend is due in part to the availability of a single chemical substance, that substance is suddenly going to become very difficult to obtain. If some fake news needs to be manufactured in order to make that chemical disappear, so be it.

Users and Underground Guides Can Make Psychedelics Look Risky

This morning I came across an article in the New York Times that reports that some people trying out psychedelics purchased on the street have had terrible outcomes for themselves as a result of unethical dealers and guides. This means renewed damage to the reputation of psychedelics. The NYT article links in turn to a whole series of New York Magazine podcasts about the downsides for some people of taking psychedelics, and the abhorrent practices that may be pervasive underground and even in quasi-therapeutic settings.

I am already massively apprehensive about my upcoming dose of psilocybin, and since psychedelics are very suggestible drugs, it would be a dumb idea for me to listen to these podcasts now. ** [Update. I’ve listened to them now, and I’ve commented below.] But from a quick review of the promo bits, it sounds to me like the approach taken in the New York Magazine series will fit perfectly with the goals of those who are opposed to making psychedelics available for therapeutic use (or any other purpose) in the foreseeable future.

As was true in the 1960s, a few acid heads also contribute to the continuing (if largely unsubstantiated) negative reputation of these substances. Research makes it clear that “set and setting” are crucial to successful trips, whether directed toward therapy or consciousness-raising. The trip experience is improved if one is in a quiet place, lying down comfortably, wearing a mask that keeps keep out light, and listening to quiet music on headphones.

It is also of value to talk to a knowledgeable guide (a “dose doula,” to coin a phrase) ahead of time in order to set intentions for what you want to get out of your trip, and for that guide to be physically present when you take the psychedelic. That way, if your trip goes south, someone will see that you are in distress and (with your permission in advance) will reassure you with a touch to your arm or shoulder, or say a few words to remind you of what you are doing, where you are and why. A guide can also help you to integrate the experience afterwards.

People who dose without attention to “set and setting,” and especially those who dose without a guide, can have bad experiences. They may have no awareness that they are on a drug and, lacking anyone to direct them away from their own frightening hallucinations, they may cause harm to themselves or others in their attempts to fight off perceived threats and dangers. These are the kinds of situations that lead – very infrequently but occasionally – to suicides, homicides and other unfortunate incidents for people who are tripping.

In addition, a very small percentage of people are thought to be at risk of being tipped into psychoses by psychedelics. These include people with a genetic predisposition to psychoses and those who are at risk of schizophrenia (often young people in their late teens and early twenties, which is exactly the age group most likely to experiment with psychedelics unsupervised, alone or at raves and parties – exactly the generation Timothy Leary attempted to turn on in the 1960s). Obviously, these bad outcomes attract public interest and media attention, which ultimately also serves the purposes of those who would like to stamp out the use of psychedelics for unrelated reasons.

Licensed Doulas for Psychedelic Trips?

It seems contrary to the very nature of mushrooms (watch Fantastic Fungi if you haven’t done so already) to regulate their use even in therapeutic settings to the point where they are available only to those with therapists. Therapists are themselves regulated by governmental and organizational dictates.

And yet regulation of these substances is the direction in which all research seems to be leading us at the moment, and there is no doubt that some sort of “sturdy societal container,” as Michael Pollan has described it, is probably necessary (selling tabs at the local 7-Eleven or even at cannabis-type stores is not likely to work out well). But where to draw the line? Human nature suggests that the therapists themselves will find it financially beneficial to insist that guides must be licensed by governing bodies of some kind.

To my mind, such a dictate would be as silly as instructing women (as the medical profession essentially did for many years) that they can only have babies when there’s an obstetrician in attendance. Babies will emerge no matter who is on hand. If safety is a concern (and it is, with both childbirth and psychedelics), the equivalent of a midwife or doula should be a legal option – someone who knows what they are doing but is not necessarily part of the medical or psychotherapeutical establishment.

Millions of people already use psychedelics illegally to self-treat or to simply have mind-expanding experiences. They are a relatively inexpensive resource that anyone can use. But if you are required to go through the burgeoning therapeutic system that is already growing up around us, and you want a competent guide, it seems likely that you are going to have to pay thousands of dollars to get one. I like the idea of people being able, at a reasonable cost, to seek out a compatible doula or midwife-type person with some track record or training to guide them through their trip in a warm, safe, home-like setting.

How Do We Prevent a Disastrous Halt to Psychedelic Research, Treatment and Explorations of Consciousness?

I haven’t got a clue. But I hope someone comes up some suggestions soon.

I am worried about this, especially given the political climate that surrounds us now.

Maybe I’m just displaying some of my pre-tripping anxiety, but I doubt that I’m alone in my concern.

* I am not going to litter this article with references. You can read back through my previous posts or just use Google to find links to scientific studies that support everything I’m saying here. If you want a reference for anything I say here, ask me in a comment and I’ll get back to you.

** UPDATE: I have now listened to most of the New York Magazine podcasts and they failed to dampen my enthusiasm for the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. For one thing, they primarily concern the horrific problems that can arise from misguided (very misguided) guides who manipulate vulnerable minds, and offer them quantities and mixtures of drugs that should not be administered to, or consumed by, those in precarious mental states – or, in some cases, by anyone. The series raises no concerns about psychedelics themselves, but it does fail to make the distinction between actual psychedelic drugs and drugs like MDMA and ketamine that are not in that category. This failure to distinguish is a problem that is rampant at the moment, one that arises from sloppy journalism combined with false advertising. Too many treatment centres are offering MDMA and ketamine as “psychedelic treatments,” when they are not true psychedelics. In fact, MDMA and ketamine can be dangerous and addictive. Listening to the series is probably worth your while in order to remind yourself not to get sucked in by snake-oil salespeople, especially if you are emotionally vulnerable or easily swayed and led by false prophets. Incompetent guides can kill you. But nothing in that series raised any alarm bells for me in regard to taking a standardized dose of psilocybin one or two times an a therapeutic setting with one or two competent guides on hand. Nor does it do anything to contradict the valuable resources Michael Pollan has created, although it clearly wishes that it could. In the end, the series just left me feeling very sorry for vulnerable people who will apparently go to any lengths to make themselves feel better, and will listen to anyone who offers them a way of doing that.

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