image by: cottonbro
Although it’s not news to a lot of us, even the purveyors of the ruinous failure known as the “War on Drugs” may be finally opening their eyes to the salubrious qualities of even the most prohibited of controlled substances.
In 1933, the United States officially ended its 13-year war on alcohol by repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. But in the 84 years since then time and again the federal government has doubled down on prohibitionism when it comes to other drugs. But while perhaps reasonable arguments can be made concerning whether the distribution and use of truly dangerous substances such as PCP and methamphetamine should be sanctioned, with the “War on Drugs” the feds have generally thrown out the baby with the bathwater, going as far as to conduct military-style raids against caregivers and patients who use cannabis—a non-toxic plant with a millennia-old track record (supported by an ever-increasing amount of contemporary evidence) of medicinal and therapeutic value—even in states where they citizenry passed laws to allow for such use.
Considering that a relatively benign substance like cannabis has been and remains classified as Schedule I—meaning the federal government laughably regard it as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”—it’s not at all surprising that many “harder” drugs that may also have medicinal/therapeutic use are lumped into the same category. But a recent proclamation by the feds may signal a coming sea change. That proclamation came in August, when the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has granted “Breakthrough Therapy designation” to MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Notice of this designation, which allows for Phase 3 clinical trials on humans, was given to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) after a full 16 years of studies. In a society where Big Pharma is typically able to get a brand new drugs from lab to patient in 12 years, the protracted timeline of MAPS’ MDMA research exemplifies how slowly the leaky oil tanker that is the “War on Drugs” alters its course even slightly, it only hints at how long some scientists have been swimming against the tide of prohibitionism in the attempt to find out just how beneficial psychedelics may be in treating certain problems of the brain and psyche. According to Brad Burge, MAPS’ director of Strategic Communications, MAPS does not expect FDA approval for the MDMA use (in concert with psychotherapy) for the treatment of PTSD until 2021.
MAPS, “a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana,” was founded in 1986, but that only scratches the chronological surface. While psychoactive substances have been an accepted part of human life for thousands of years (prohibition is a very recent phenomenon), within the Western medical establishment explicit investigation of psychedelics as a possible treatment for mental illness commenced in the 1940s with Albert Hoffman’s synthesis of and experiments with LSD. During the 1950s and ‘60s many psychiatrists employed LSD as an enhancement to treatment for patients struggling with various conditions, including alcoholism.
As Erika Dyck notes in a 2005 article published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, “By 1951, more than 100 articles on LSD appeared in medical journals, and by 1961, the number increased to more than 1,000 articles.” Nonetheless, despite the medical community’s general enthusiasm for LSD as a therapeutic substance, in 1966 the FDA added LSD to its list of illegal narcotics, with all research on the substance criminalized two years later.
The story is similar with numerous psychedelics that the 1960s there was a great deal of research on possible medicinal and therapeutic uses for other psychedelics, including psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), mescaline, peyote, ibogaine. Although only the last was generally regarded by researchers as potentially present serious physiological danger to the user, by 1970 the government had disallowed even scientific study.
MDMA was no exception. Despite a consensus recommendation from the medical community that MDMA be listed as Schedule III because it had “a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and two separate ruling by the DEA’s own administrative law judge that listing MDMA as Schedule I was illegal, the Nixon administration—the original architects of the “War on Drugs”—made sure that MDMA’s potential benefits for treating PTSD would be lost to the over 850,000 Vietnam veterans believed to have suffered (or are still suffering) from the condition, among the millions of others in their own PTSD boat.
“MDMA clinical trials are more than 30 years behind schedule due to the difficulty obtaining regulatory approval for research into the therapeutic uses of Schedule 1 drugs,” Burge says. “Also, MDMA will be a generic medicine, so for-profit pharmaceuticals don’t have the incentive to obtain approval for it despite its clear promise. The failed War on Drugs has made fundraising much more difficult due to the stigma, which is now decreasing day by day as the need for more PTSD treatments becomes more pressing and apparent.”
Finally, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the use of psychedelics within the medical establishment to heal. According to Burge, MAPS has also completed the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the therapeutic use of LSD in human beings since the early 1970s, along with observational studies concerning the effectiveness of ibogaine and ayahuasca as treatment for drug addiction—all with promising results—adding to the now-rapidly growing body of scientific literature on such subjects.
As for MDMA, “Preliminary trials have shown that MDMA may dramatically improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy for people with PTSD,” says Burge. “MDMA’s ability to enhance memory and attention, decrease fear, and increase feelings of compassion make it a potentially revolutionary adjunct to psychotherapy for PTSD. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy also represents a completely new and more efficient approach to psychiatric treatment for PTSD, since unlike currently approved medications for PTSD (SSRIs) which must be taken daily often for years to be effective, research has shown that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is only needed two or three times to achieve lasting reductions in PTSD symptoms.”
So although the “War on Drugs” may not be getting a cease-fire anytime soon, in the foreseeable future psychedelics are likely to help causalities of many sorts.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!
Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.