Psychedelics and research on their compounds are undeniably on the rise. However, this isn’t new. We’ve been here before, just over half a century ago, but things dried up quickly. Since then, its revival has been teased in waves. As we move into 2020 on the crest of a new wave of excitement, how are things different?
Psychedelic research was booming in the 1950s and 60s. Following their unearthing from ancient tribal rituals, mushrooms, truffles, LSD and more were all under the Western medical microscope. With universities, government-funded initiatives and recognised cooperatives spearheading the movement in the US, the popularity and enthusiasm birthed six international conferences and several hundred research papers. America as a country led and set the tone, and for those on the front line and involved in the research, ‘psilocybin promised a better route into the subconscious’ in an era dominated by Freudian school of thought.
It simultaneously captured a generation, and the psychedelic spur soon went hand in hand with the countercultural ideals of the sixties that spread across the globe. It was hailed as a wonder substance by both researchers and recreational users, with the real potential to help a spectrum of mental health illnesses, whilst also offering the possibility to alleviate the cloak of one’s ego and heighten one’s sense of deep, personal attachment to our surrounding world.
But by the 1970s, the momentum had slowed drastically. In the US, the majority of funding dried up, initiatives were shut down and psychedelics were outlawed and pushed underground. A number of reasons are to blame, with many citing the relatively unchecked, premature proliferation of psychedelics into the mainstream consciousness as one of the key destabilisers, coupled with President Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’. This proliferation of a fundamentally illegal substance also lacked the key appreciation of set and setting to one’s experience, leading to misinformed individuals, ‘bad’ trips, and bad press. Uninformed bureaucrats soon grouped psychedelics into a Schedule I category drug as part of the US Controlled Substances Act of 1970, alongside the likes of cocaine and heroin. Very quickly, by this measure, they were deemed to have no medicinal value and a high potential to harm people.
"The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others."
Michael Pollen, The Trip Treatment, The New Yorker 2015.
Since then, activity has simmered at best, never really returning to the heights of the ‘60s. Yet in the last decade or so, mainstream research into psychedelics has seen a fairly rapid upturn. In 2006, a landmark, scientifically water-tight study conducted by Dr Roland Griffiths named ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance’ prodded the sleeping giant. A year later, Switzerland was the site for the ‘first study of the therapeutic use of LSD in humans in over 40 years’. Since then, as the graph above shows, the number of scientific articles published about psilocybin has grown to overshadow the peak from the 1960s. Fifty years on, what exactly is happening and why could this era bear a new outcome for psychedelics?
Take a snapshot of current news surrounding psychedelics and you’ll read headlines of decriminalisation here, research into helping mental illness there, and pockets of groups microdosing everywhere. Riding somewhat on the back of the changing attitudes towards cannabis, mushrooms have already been decriminalised in two US states, with a third campaigning to follow suit in 2020. In October 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permitted a group of psychiatrists to ‘dose patients with magic mushrooms in therapy sessions'. Granting psilocybin - the active component in mushrooms - ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ status, the decision is helping psilocybin on a fast-track into the laboratory, bolstered by governmental backing and FDA personnel that are actively helping the researchers design trials that will quickly move these treatments to approval. More recently, John Hopkins University in Baltimore opened a $17 million, privately-funded Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, adding a US equivalent to a similar centre founded, also by private funding, in April 2019 at Imperial College London.
International conferences such as the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) ‘Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century’, Breaking Convention and MIND Foundation attract thousands each year from various academic and professional backgrounds. Some companies are beginning to offer team-building to corporate environments through microdosing. On top of this, at the end of 2016, 41 students graduated as ‘psychedelic therapists’ from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).
Psychedelics are also reaching, publicly, the politicians of nations. American Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez filed an - ultimately unsuccessful - amendment in June 2019 to restructure the US Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act which, if it had been voted through, could have drastically reduced the amount of red tape surrounding research on drugs in general, not just on psychedelics. Despite the ruling, news soon followed with an announcement from the FDA and National Institute of Health (NIH) acknowledging the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. Additionally, in October 2018, former chief of staff to Oakland City Council, Carlos Plazola, took mushrooms and was in the privileged position to speak directly with his City Hall connections about his life-changing trip, paving the way for its decimalisation within a year.
“If you get California, you get to talk to the U.S. And if the U.S. eventually flips, then the rest of the world falls after that."
Ryan Munevar, Campaign Director of DecrimCA 2020
Why is this happening? Why now? There could be a number of reasons at play.
Firstly, it’s likely that what we are seeing here are the fruits of labour from those that didn’t give up hope of psychedelics being beneficial on a wide-scale. Whilst eyes and dollars were averted as Nixon’s War on Drugs took centre stage in the ‘70s and ‘80s, those that witnessed the decline shelved the studies, but didn’t forget their impacts. Although unauthorised research and low-level psychedelic therapy was still practised during these years, the later formation of organisations and initiatives in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were instrumental in creating what we’re witnessing now: Rick Doblin’s MAPS, Bob Jesse’s Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), Rick Strassman’s five years of DEA-approved clinical research into DMT from 1990, David Nichols Heffter Research Institute and, later, Amanda Feilding’s Beckley Foundation all played their part. These formations also chimed with a pivotal moment within an FDA advisory committee meeting in 1992 that led to the FDA to ‘[putting] science over politics’, adopting a more cooperative stance towards the benefits of psychedelics and marijuana.
Running alongside a general acceptance that this war has been dangerous and often detrimental to communities, older and younger researchers alike have been poised with the promising evidence from before. This, in combination with governments looking for novel ideas to solve national health and crime problems, has enabled researchers to present a new, revised approach for psychedelics. Ironically enough, these problems - sometimes fuelled by legal drugs - seem to have the chance to be remedied by drugs that are currently classified as illegal. With the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) going some way to essentially admit that, one can glimpse an opening through a new door of perception.
Linked closely to this as another reason is age. With those in positions of societal power now carrying these valuable experiences of the previous years, they have often passed this insight on with less baggage. The first-wave generation were using a rite of passage that previous generations didn’t know and understand, alienating their uninitiated elders from them. Now, the same cannot be said as concretely. In some cases, those in positions of power may have also lived all stages: from the initial enthusiasm and research, to its condemnation and restriction – now finding themselves back in a period of cautious curiosity, whilst straddling the illegality of the matter in question.
For example, former deputy "drug czar" under George H.W. Bush, Herb Kleber (b. 1934), put his name in support alongside two past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association on a study surrounding psychedelics and cancer patients suffering from anxiety of death in 2016. Drug abuse expert Charles Schuster (b. 1930), who served under two Republican Administrations, also consistently challenged the international narrative on drugs. With this in mind, it is very plausible to assume that the idea of revisiting research for the benefit of society isn’t beyond many in positions of power to do so - particularly when their jobs may depend on providing creative solutions to big problems, and the entities they are associated with may have also had an indirect hand in creating in the first place.
Driving this sentiment farther and wider than ever before, for those that weren’t born in the first wave of the ‘60s and lived the experiences first-hand, a combination of personal psychedelic experiences and the spread of credible, previously inaccessible, research, news and positive awareness through the internet has undoubtedly played a part in this ‘renaissance’. News articles from reputable international publications, books with readers over the globe, blockbuster films, voices of prominent public figures and podcasts with millions of listeners, among others, have all helped the progression towards normalising the topic, opening up a wider discussion for twenty-first-century interest to balloon to the heights seen half a century before.
The reach of the internet has also allowed an important, sedating message of caution and patience to be disseminated alongside it. A desire to avoid the pitfalls of the past - ‘excessive exuberance about their potential’ and the subsequent dissatisfaction and restlessness of the ‘rigmarole of objective science’ in particular – is certainly at the forefront of most minds working diligently in the sphere of psychedelics. Figures like Paul Stamets, head of Fungi Perfecti, University of Auckland associate professor Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, and Initiative 301 Campaign Manager Kevin Matthews have all taken a ‘cautious approach’ that focuses on ‘education’ and a ‘professional approach’. Matthews in particular, during his campaign that successfully lobbied for the decriminalisation of magic mushrooms in Denver, stressed how ‘we have a duty to rebrand psychedelics away from the stigma of the ‘60s and ‘70s’ through the use of education and small, verified steps like Decriminalise Denver. With Matthews now working closely with the DEA to agree on the proposed boundaries of ‘personal use’ and the position in which they will be marketed publicly, it would appear this self-imposed guideline is being adhered to.
“We desperately need a new treatment approach for addiction. Done in the right hands—and I stress that, because the whole psychedelic area attracts people who often think that they know the truth before doing the science—this could be a very useful one."
Dr. Herbert Kleber (b. 1934), professor, psychiatrist and substance abuse researcher speaking to Michael Pollen in 2015.
Adding to the proliferation of knowledge acquired, in part, through the internet surrounding psychedelics, more recent understandings of fungi and their extensive application outside of the mental health space has also begun to raise the profile of mushrooms, and psychedelics by default. Discoveries like fungi that can ‘eat plastic’, ‘feast on radiation’, ‘clean up oil and diesel spills’ or relieve cluster headaches have all helped to highlight the benefits of extending scientific research into mushrooms. Having (accidentally) derived the revolutionary antibiotic penicillin from fungi almost a hundred years ago that has gone on to help hundreds of millions of people, we are now also facing a new, more modern problem. This, curiously, has the potential to be treated through the aid of mushrooms too.
That problem is stress. Crippling people on a daily basis and now classed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘World Wide Epidemic’ affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world, stress has the potential to kill. If not, it can - at the very least - be the base in which anxiety, depression, addiction and a plethora of other mental health and general health issues can be born and lead to an individual being stuck in a dangerous cycle of mental rigidness and destructive narratives. Adding to this, traditional drugs aren’t working as effectively. As many as 50% of patients have developed ‘treatment-resistant depression’ that traditional antidepressants cannot alleviate. With this comes the chance for psilocybin to address this issue for some, and relieve the mental, physical, emotional and financial burdens for many aspects of societies and the individuals they are comprised of.
All this radical mental movement requires a collective awareness and understanding that must fundamentally be shifted from the patch it once used to occupy in the ‘60s. As someone who witnessed the rise and fall of psychedelics before him, Rick Doblin – founder of MAPS – weighs in with reason to believe it is slowly doing so: ‘People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquillised to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room! Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centres and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.’ He might have a point, as one of the voices in a new documentary about psychedelics: ‘Journeys to the Edge of Consciousness’.
In addition to this, the stigma surrounding mental health is undoubtedly reducing in some countries. UK-based Time To Change reported a 9.6% positive change in attitudes towards mental health between 2008 and 2016. Dr Paul Liknaitzky, executive officer of Mind Medicine Australia – an organisation which lobbies for psychedelic-assisted treatments for mental health - has also said the stigma around the psychedelic-assisted therapy has been lifting globally in the past 15 years. However, these are isolated national cases, and the need for continued work, and the push for general increases in funding, cannot be understated if an environment of familiarity and understanding on the topic of mental health is to be nurtured and assimilated to become the norm.
Yet despite this, with more recent and widely-reported studies being conducted into MDMA and Ketamine for the benefit of mental health – as well as LSD and psilocybin – across ‘active research hubs’, the potential for this to speed up the process of careful education and gradual implementation is entirely feasible. As Mandy Oaklander points out, there hasn’t been a major depression-drug breakthrough in nearly three decades since anti-depressants, in comparison to the strides made in oncology, cardiology, infectious diseases and more. It would suggest such a revolution is ripe.
With finance being a driving force throughout the world and so often an agent for lasting change, opportunities within the ‘nascent’ psychedelic industry are also beginning to look extremely attractive for those inclined to invest millions. Stockhouse has already predicted it to be the next billion-dollar industry, and recently a group of European technology investors came together for the largest-ever private financing round for a German psychedelic medicine biotech company, ATAI. As Brad Loncar, a biotech investor with Loncar Investments, who specializes in cancer and rare disease stated, the FDA's decision to award ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ to psychedelic-assisted therapy in 2018 is the ‘ultimate signal for investors…it shows that there's a regulatory path forward for this class of drugs, which typically causes a flood of investment in the area.’ Companies such as Compass Pathways, which is setting itself up to be the first legal provider of psilocybin since its foundation in 2016, are also leading the way with similar financial weight and the ‘highest standards of intellectual and scientific integrity’. Currently, they are also in talks with payers, insurers, and regulators to figure out a realistic insurance model for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.
As it is with so many heavily-financed initiatives, the chances of it veering off course and becoming another big-pharma subsidiary for the pursuit of profit isn’t unlikely. As Adam Winstock MD of UCL, a specialist in addiction medicine and the Global Drug Survey founder states: ’That’s the case with the pharmaceutical industry time and time again: good intentions are marred by the drive to maximize revenue’. However, it can also be very easily argued that without such backing, it’s hard to see such initiatives ever making it to the level they need to be occupying in order to help those they have the potential to help.
Recently, The Business Roundtable - a lobbying group composed of America’s leading CEOs, including Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos - announced a decision to change the definition of the “purpose of a corporation”. Since 1997, the purpose has been ‘that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders.’ The recent revision has now repositioned that stance, stating that a corporation and its actions must benefit all stakeholders: not just shareholders, but employees, communities, and the environment.
Why is this relevant? Because an open, albeit relatively tardy, acknowledgement of other equally important company duties, aside from profit, is a positive step towards a more holistic approach for big business. This holistic approach is one that psychedelics embodies and actively fosters within most individuals, promoting a sense of oneness and collective responsibility to our planet.
It can be easy to get caught up in the hysteria of expectation for psychedelics again. For example, when Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook recently endorsed, with good intentions, a ‘mass ingestion of psychedelic substances in protest against the criminalisation of drugs.’ However, one thing that can be agreed on by all is the need for more research. Unfortunately, it is expensive: £2000 per person for psilocybin-assisted therapy at Imperial College London, for example. Rick Doblin also has a rough estimate of ‘$10 million’ in order to ‘develop any psychedelic or marijuana into a prescription medicine’. But as alluded to above, despite it potentially running up multi-million costs, there are investors willing to match these figures.
Ascertaining if, and how, this can be placed within structures of society, both medical and social, will then be the challenge of the next decade or so, if the science stands up to scrutiny. Much will likely depend on the strength of the studies, disposition of decision-makers, and willingness of the general public to internalise a new message for such a historically-stigmatised topic. Hurdles will also come in the form of existing models of business having their repeat dose and therapy structures under threat by an approach that can produce similar results in less than a few weeks. One suspects though, if in doubt, it’s always a good rule of thumb to take cues from those who have had these compounds integrated harmoniously within their social structures for thousands of years.
Above all, is the emphasis on patience and vigilance. Changing medical structures can take several years. Changing minds can take even longer. Barring a sudden overnight revelation, a long-term mindset will have to be adopted if such changes are to be realised in the years to come. However, if these recent developments are anything to go by, there are certainly reasons to believe it could well mature into decriminalisation, legalisation and general adoption - providing the process of implementation is guided, predominantly, by those without morally-bankrupt intentions. Time will, naturally as ever, reveal all.