1. Psychedelics on the NHS?
Last Friday I was at the Cube cinema in Bristol to watch a documentary about the first clinical trials involving classical psychedelics in decades.
In case you missed it, in 2016 Robin Carhart-Harris led a team at Imperial College London that trialled the psychedelic treatment of 20 depressed patients, 18 of whom had ‘severe, unipolar, treatment-resistant major depression’.
The trial gave promising results, with all 19 patients who completed the follow-up showing significantly reduced symptoms of depression for at least 5 weeks after the two psilocybin sessions.
18 of these patients did not seek any further treatment (medication or psychotherapy) for their depression until after the 5-week mark.
This is remarkable for a cohort that had, on average, a history of 4 previous failed medications.
Subtitled ‘Can Magic Mushrooms Cure Depression?’, it is to the credit of director Monty Wates that his film Magic Medicine is more about the illness than it is about the controversial compound that could hold the key to its treatment.
Indeed, I would argue that the only controversy is that it took Robin Carhart-Harris and his team more than 3 years just to secure government and ethics approval to use the psilocybin.
The Class A / Schedule 1 classification of psychedelics means that scientific research, and future medical treatment, is bureaucratically arduous and expensive.
Now that this therapy has been shown to be safe, it is time we reclassified psilocybin and let the scientific community spend their time and money where it belongs: on the treatment of disease.
The focus of Magic Medicine is quite rightly not on the profound psychedelic experiences of its participants, but on the shocking symptoms and consequences of living with depression.
Psilocybin offers hope to these people and we owe it to them to do what we can to realign the law with the science.
Four separate trials have reported improvements in depressive symptoms after psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011; Carhart-Harris et al. 2016), including one in which ‘treatment-resistant depression’ was the primary criterion for inclusion (Carhart-Harris et al. 2016).
Psilocybin has shown promise in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (Moreno et al. 2006), alcohol (Bogenschutz et al. 2015) and tobacco addiction (Johnson et al. 2014) and anxiety related to terminal diagnoses (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011).
Unfortunately, of course, the treatment is currently illegal in the UK.
One thing we can all do is sign this government petition to reschedule psychedelics so that researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris can redouble their efforts to find treatments for the greatest mental health diseases of our age.
2. Psychedelics and Society
Along with most humans, I am captivated by experiences of awe, moments in which my self seems to dissolve into nature, where time and space have little relevance, and which seem to unveil to me the meaning of my puny existence.
Psychedelics are by no means the only route to such experiences – look out from a mountain top, have sex, ride a roller-coaster – but, once experienced, it would be foolish to argue that they are not one of the most direct.
Such a direct experience of awe is, I believe, the birth-right of all humans. Psychedelics change lives for the good, and not just those of people who have a diagnosable mental disease.
Psychedelic experiences are associated with measurable changes of personality in the direction of greater openness.
What does that mean?
In a pilot study, Taylor Lyons and Robin Carhart-Harris found that after two doses of psilocybin the participants’ measures of nature-relatedness were significantly increased, and that their political authoritarianism was significantly decreased. [CITATION]
Not only that, but these personality changes persisted 7-12 months after the psychedelic session.
For someone who would really rather like to live in a society that is more connected to nature and less politically authoritarian, this is a good news story.
3. Psychedelics and Mundane Wonder
Psychedelics can be used as a remarkable treatment for some of the most stubborn illnesses of the 21st century.
They can be used to explore the outer limits of consciousness, experience awe and transcendence, and perhaps change society for the better.
But they can also be used in the mundane, as an extraordinary part of ordinary daily life.
Microdosing is the way that I am very glad I was introduced to LSD. I am by nature cautious and was brought up in a drug-negative society that taught me to fear altered states of consciousness.
It doesn’t help that almost everything we think we know about psychedelics is wrong.
I can scarcely believe that I would have ever had the courage to take a large dose of a psychedelic had I not learnt the small way that these compounds would not – as I had been led to understand – send me insane.
But taking miniscule amounts of a psychedelic like LSD can have a surprisingly profound effect on your day.
In my experience, I find myself more open to social interaction with strangers, more appreciative of the beauty of the world, more able to focus on creative work, and more content with life.
In the words of pioneering researcher Jim Fadiman, more often than not microdosing helps people have ‘a really good day’.
Psychedelics for a Better Future?
In our hyper-rationalist culture, psychedelics are reminding us that there is another way of seeing the world.
Perhaps it’s just the re-emergence of a tradition that has been squashed in this country ever since the Romans banished the druids to Anglesey.
With the work of scientists like Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, psychedelics are showing us that transcendence can have a measurable and positive impact on our lives.
We have to be careful not to screw this up, but the time has come to support scientific psychedelic research, to support the right of individuals to explore their own consciousness through altered states, and to believe in the potential of psychedelics to change our future for the better.
- The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience (11 minute read) Start here for an introduction to everything I have learned about psychedelics over the last 2 years.
- A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman (16 minute read) My review of Ayelet Waldman’s book on microdosing LSD is, on the one hand, nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.