Could psychedelics become the new medical marijuana? (May 8, 2017)
When I woke up yesterday morning, I opened the door of my bedroom and walked out to a balcony overlooking the Pacific. I waited to catch a glimpse of the dolphins I had seen the day before and moved on to my meditation ritual.
That was the closest I’d get to a mystical experience at the Ibogaine Institute on the coast of Rosarito, Mexico. Upstairs, on the third floor of the house, a man and a woman I had met the day before were laying in a blacked-out room, entering their seventh hour of soul-searching hallucinations. In the house next door, six people had just emerged, changed they said, from a different journey, under the influence of yet another hallucinogen.
Kim, who'd been upstairs, is a 29-year-old with the face of a teenager who has been addicted to heroin for seven years. Just like Colin, also undergoing the Ibogaine treatment in the same room, Kim suffered an accident and became dependent on prescription painkillers. When doctors wouldn’t prescribe them anymore, she turned to black market pills. She received a settlement from the accident and said she spent the $90,000 on pills. Finally, she turned to the cheaper alternative, heroin.
Just like Colin, Kim said other programs would detox her on Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, which also has a high risk for addiction and dependence. She said those programs crowd people into bunk beds and although they teach the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, she never “even got past the first step.” As other addicts I interviewed told me, you become dependent on the Suboxone and the Methadone and “you can’t really function.”
Kim says the Ibogaine Institute “doesn’t seem like any other 30-day program because they actually work on what’s wrong, on the problem of why you use in the first place.” She hopes after her treatment, she can return to Connecticut to be a mother to her 6-year old son, now in custody of Kim’s mom.
The institute offers 7 and 30-day programs to chronic relapsers of drug addiction, PTSD patients, and other disorders. Treatments for addiction begin with Ibogaine, a natural African psychoactive drug, and end with Ayahuasca, a popular South American plant-based hallucinogen.
Scott, the founder of the Ibogaine Institute who says he owes his years of recovery to Ayahuasca, says up to 70 percent of people who have gone through his treatments have stayed sober. According to a 2014 study looking at relapse rates after other residential treatments, 29 percent of people who are opioid dependent will remain abstinent after a year.
Scott says the Ibogaine helps fight cravings and they also integrate heavy doses of therapy, meditation, exercise and a nutritional diet to help people craft a foundation for daily life.
“By the end of the treatment they are no longer physically dependent on the heroin,” says Scott, who has also integrated the wisdom of 12-steps programs into the treatment. “Once the bell has been rung, it’s impossible to un-ring it. They’re coming face to face with parts of themselves that they had been unwilling to look at, and because of the journey they are in, there’s nowhere to run. We are integrating pieces of ourselves that are at war with each other and once those pieces integrate, it is a lot easier to experience and be able to keep on the path.”
He said the reason he's in Mexico is to gather enough evidence to build enough of a case to show the results of the treatment and with that, push for federal agencies to regulate Ibogaine and allow its controlled use in the U.S.
I met Scott at the Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland where scientists, patients and casual users convened to discuss the benefits of psychedelic drugs and the need for drug policy reform.
I also met Dr. James Fadiman, who is running one of the largest studies on microdosing with LSD.
“The major benefit seems to be that there’s an improved equilibrium of systems throughout the body, which is why it seems to affect so many different systems," he said.
That sounded to me like a sort of panacea cure for all ailments and it wasn’t too far from what Ayelet Waldman told me when I interviewed her at home.
Following Dr. Fadiman’s guidance, Waldman did a 30-day micro dosing experiment to treat a severe mood disorder and reported her experience in her book, A Really Good Day.
“I just wanted to relieve the intensity of my depression and I was profoundly depressed, even suicidal when I started the experiment." she said. "I just wanted to feel better so I said to myself okay you can break the law for 30 days.”
She said the treatment helped her more than any antidepressant ever did and it did so without the gnarly side effects. Microdosing doesn't make you hallucinate, as you are only taking between 5 and 10 percent of a typical dose. Ayelet says if the drug wasn’t illegal, she would still be microdosing.
LSD and Ibogaine are not the only psychedelics making a comeback and seeking legitimacy in science and health. Magic mushrooms, MDMA, Ayahuasca, and psilocybin, among others, are being studied for their potential benefits to treat a number of illnesses and mental disorders. However, they are all Schedule I drugs which, according to the DEA, are “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies or MAPS, sponsors research on psychedelics and helps scientists navigate the complex pathways of regulation. They are currently conducting one of the most advanced and promising studies in psychedelics by treating PTSD patients with MDMA, also known as Molly.
“We found that (MDMA) almost doubled the effectiveness of the treatment," said Allison Feduccia, a researcher at MAPS. "People who were in the MDMA group had significant reductions in their PTSD symptoms two months after completing of the sessions and then also we followed up with them 12 months later and found that 67 percent of participants at that point no longer met criteria for PTSD.”
MAPS enrolled 107 subjects across six different study sites in the U.S., Canada and Israel, treating different kinds of PTSD. One study specifically enrolled veterans firefighters and police officers.
“It’s really a long-term durable effect that we see with this treatment is quite promising," said Feduccia. "This is a very difficult condition to treat with the current medications and therapy available."
MAPS is entering Phase III of clinical trials. If they prove the medical benefits, a cost they estimate will surround 20 million dollars, they can apply for the drug to get rescheduled by the FDA and MAPS will be able to produce it. That doesn’t mean Molly will be available to anyone, it would only be part of medical treatments.
Some drug policy advocates say this kind of progress, while good, is not enough to deal with the ill consequences of the war on drugs. Representatives from the Drug Policy Alliance and other advocacy groups stand by the notion that people who want to get high will get high. They also say prohibition creates enormous profits for organized crime groups, endangers the lives of black market drug users, generates violence in the streets and the countries where drugs are produced and has resulted in the mass incarceration of millions of Americans.
Hamilton Morris is the host of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, a show about drugs on VICELAND. He said he sees freedom of consciousness as a basic human right.
“I favor a sort of cognitive liberty stance that people should be able to have the freedom to alter their consciousness with whatever they wish," he said. "Even if it is harmful, even if it is damaging, I think the damage of prohibition I think is far greater than the small number of people that are being helped using these things in a therapeutic way in a clinical trial.”
Ethan Nadelmann, who just stepped down as Director of the Drug Policy Alliance says, although Jeff Sessions will make it difficult for psychedelics to reach the level of acceptance that medical marijuana has in the past few years, the overreach by the Federal agencies might push for states to fight back and defend their own progressive policies.
“I think the popular consciousness is not there is yet," he said. "We just begun to do some public opinion polling on it where you now have 90 percent of Americans believing that marijuana should be legal for medical purposes, which is up from 60 percent 20 years ago. On psychedelics, there's a growing awareness. But it hasn't penetrated the mass consciousness yet.”
That means lobbying and the alternative drug policies that may follow are still long ways away. But for addicts, vets, and people suffering from disorders who could find help in these drugs, the stakes are as high as their very survival.