#21: Everything we know about psychedelics is wrong

1. 15.4% of UK adults have taken Class A drugs

My upbringing was most definitely drug-negative. I went to a school where “drugs” were for drop-outs. It would have astonished me to learn that more than a third of UK adults (11.4 million 16-59 year olds according to Home Office statistics) have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime – and almost a sixth (5 million 16-59 year olds) have taken Class A drugs.

Fear began to mutate into curiosity when, in my thirties, I first met people who were both well-adjusted and regular psychedelic users. Through them, I learnt that behind the fearful media image of psychedelics there was both science and history, which could, if we allowed, contribute to a much more mature and complete awareness of psychoactive compounds.

Psychedelics have been used as both medicine and spiritual guide by humans for thousands of years and to dismiss such compounds as of “no known medical or therapeutic value and bearing a high risk of abuse” (the definition of Class A substances in the UK) now seems to me at best an act of gross arrogance, at worst gross negligence.

2. Psychedelic effects are supported by psyence

In 2008, Richard Griffiths of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University led a study into the mystical effects of psychedelics, and their continuing significance more than one year later.

More than half of the 36 people involved in the study, none of whom had ever taken psychedelics before, found that just one session of psilocybin was enough to rank inside their top five most personally meaningful experiences of their entire lives and this rating remained true fourteen months after the psychedelic was taken.

Think for a second about how significant that is. It ranks up there with falling in love, the birth of your first child or the death of a beloved parent. What’s more, almost two-thirds of the participants concluded that this one psilocybin session had increased their sense of well-being moderately or very much, again with the results undimmed over a year later.

If this is news to you, then imagine my astonishment when I learnt that as long ago as 1991, psychologist Rick Doblin found that seven theological seminary students reported similar results – deeply felt positive mood and persisting positive changes in attitude and behaviour – twenty-five years after their only encounter with psilocybin.

Psychedelics promise instant enlightenment, but the lasting positive effects of psychedelic use is not just the boasting of hippies and drop outs: it’s science.

3. Psychedelics are good for your mental health

Despite their reputation, there is no established scientific link between taking psychedelic drugs and either physical or psychological health problems. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there has never been a recorded overdose of psychedelics and, in a comprehensive review of the literature in 1984, psychiatrist Rick Strassman found that “well controlled studies of neuropsychological function have generally failed to discern significant differences between groups of LSD users and controls”.

Two 2015 surveys with a combined population of over 300,000 people found that users of psychedelics were no more likely to suffer from mental health problems than anyone else. Quite the opposite, in fact: one of the surveys, of 190,000 people, found that “[l]ifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with a significantly reduced odds of past month psychological distress”, suicidal thinking and planning, and suicide attempt.

The UK-based Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs found that psychedelic mushrooms and LSD were around four times less harmful – to users and to society – than tobacco and more than ten times less harmful than alcohol. Psychedelics are extremely low in toxicity: it is far easier to overdose on paracetamol, which is deadly in quantities you can pick up in any supermarket.

One team of researchers conclude that “it is difficult to see how prohibition of psychedelics can be justified as a public health measure.” In other words: if you are a healthy adult, you have nothing to fear from responsible psychedelic drug use. Treat psychedelics as you should any practice, like meditation, that can mess with your head – with caution and research.

4. Psychedelic use is good for the planet

If you think about it, all learning is a reconfiguration or adaptation of our world view, another block of information or experience that you must somehow fit into your model. Sometimes it’s better to reconfigure the model than to fall victim to the confirmation bias and distort the information to fit.

When we’re babies, our default mode network has not yet built up the hierarchy and its logical schema of the world: everything is astonishing and from moment to moment new and earth-shattering insights must be accommodated. As Alison Gopnik, a professor of developmental psychology, says, babies are “basically tripping all the time”. To be egoless is to be receptive to the world, ready to see old things wondrous anew, ready to adapt to things as they are, not as our models would like them to be.

It happens less often as adults, but sometimes we are confronted with a discovery that cannot but shake the foundations of everything we thought we knew. Sometimes this is a transcendental experience of awe, such as I found walking alone in the woods of Hampshire, or it could be an intensely significant life event, such as the death of a close relative, the birth of your child or learning that you have a terminal, untreatable disease. But there is now plenty of scientific evidence that we can also safely shake the snow-dome of the mind through the judicious use of psychedelics.

Who knows where this might lead? American psychologist Ralph Metzner is not alone in suggesting that one reason we have a strong environmental movement today is because of the consciousness-shifting drugs that tens of millions of people took in the 1950s and 60s. The benefits of taking psychedelics are perhaps only matched by the costs, to people and planet, of not taking them.

5. There are no “good” and “bad” drugs

Eight years ago I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid and my doctor told me that I’d have to take synthetic hormones every day for the rest of my life. Over the first few months of taking these drugs, what most people would call my “personality” changed dramatically. I went from being comatose calm, cold even beside the radiator, sleepy-headed and slothful, to being energetic, carefree and ready to devour the life that had gone missing with my dying thyroid.

All substances have psychoactive effects: lavender is relaxing, sage improves our memory and sugar makes us buzz and crash. The only question is whether the balance of psychoactive effects make the drug valuable to the user. Thyroxine, for me, unequivocally answers the question in the positive – but, though nominally legal, it would probably kill you.

Exactly one year ago, I became a vegetarian. My energy levels dropped through the floor: I just couldn’t eat enough. On day five I felt on the verge of dizzy collapse and had to roam the streets at night hunting for vitamin pills. I gradually recovered, but over the following six months I lost four kilograms in weight. This caused a knock-on effect to my medication, flipping my thyroid into over activity. This imbalance led to anxiety, irritability, sensitivity to heat, fatigue and insomnia.

Whether we are aware or not, our biological and psychological well-being is in lock-step with all organic matter – food, drug, drink – we ingest. The unnatural dichotomy between legal and illegal, good and bad drugs is a distinction that I see as increasingly arbitrary and untenable. In my opinion, it would be shocking negligence indeed to dismiss entheogens (psychoactive substances used in a spiritual context) that human beings have used for millennia to explore the buried riches of our psyche and the furthest dimensions of the universe.

6. We are responsible

We are entering a delicate phase in our cultural appreciation of psychedelics. Government regulators are cautiously beginning to allow the scientific community to resume sober examination of the potentially remarkable therapeutic and personal development uses of psychedelic drugs. Psilocybin, LSD and MDMA have shown great promise in the treatment of alcohol and tobacco addiction, severe depression, post-traumatic stress and end-of-life anxiety.

I believe this leaves us all with a great responsibility to educate ourselves and re-awaken a mature awareness of these precious gifts from our more enlightened past. Politicians very rarely lead; they react. During this delicate phase, the work of organisations like The Psychedelic Society is vital to connect the strengths of the scientific academy with individual experiential knowledge and laymen like us.

Only when we have taken personal responsibility and shown our courage, knowledge and maturity will politicians be able to find the courage, knowledge and maturity to change the laws we live by. The signs are promising, but – as the enduring 1971 global ban on psychedelic use shows – it would be easy to screw up.

Further Reading

Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2015/16 Crime Survey for England and Wales. Statistical Bulletin 07/16 Edited by: Deborah Lader. July 2016. Home Office.

Griffiths, Roland R., Matthew W. Johnson, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, Una McCann, and Robert Jesse. ‘Psilocybin Occasioned Mystical-Type Experiences: Immediate and Persisting Dose-Related Effects’. Psychopharmacology 218, no. 4 (December 2011): 649–65. doi:10.1007/s00213-011-2358-5.

Doblin, R (1991) Pahke’s Good Friday Experiment: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique http://www.maps.org/research-archive/cluster/psilo-lsd/goodfriday.pdf

Psychedelics Facts. Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed 16 September 2016. http://www.drugpolicy.org/drug-facts/psychedelics-facts

Strassman, Rick J (1984) Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drugs: A Review of the Literature The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Vol. 172, No. 10 October 1984 Serial No. 1223 p591

Hendricks, P. S., Thorne, C. B., Clark, C. B., Coombs, D. W. & Johnson, M. W. Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population Journal of Psychopharmacology March 2015 vol. 29 no. 3 280-288 http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0269881114565653

Johansen, P-Ø. & Krebs, T. S. Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behavior: A population study Journal of Psychopharmacology March 2015 vol. 29 no. 3 270-279 http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0269881114568039 (2015)

Krebs TS, Johansen P-Ø (2013) Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study. PLoS ONE 8(8): e63972. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063972

These studies used data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 130,152 respondents, of whom 21,967 (13.4% weighted) reported lifetime psychedelic use. “[I]n several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems”.

Freye, E. Pharmacology and Abuse of Cocaine, Amphetamines, Ecstasy and Related Designer Drugs : A Comprehensive Review on Their Mode of Action, Treatment of Abuse and Intoxication / Enno Freye. Dordrecht ; London: Springer, 2009. Chapter: Ibogaine, Psychedelic Molecule with Anti-Addictive Properties

Nutt, David J., Leslie A. King, Lawrence D. Phillips, and others. ‘Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis’. The Lancet 376, no. 9752 (2010): 1558–1565. Addiction, liver damage and mortality aside, alcohol is actually even more harmful to others than to its users through injury, crime, loss of relationships and “family adversities”.

Alison Gopnik’s remarks reported in: Horgan, John. ‘Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 4’. Scientific American Blog Network. Accessed 25 October 2016. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/dispatch-from-the-desert-of-consciousness-research-part-4/.

‘Why the Psychoactive Substances Act Is Much Better than Anyone Will Admit’. Accessed 25 October 2016. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/business/2016/10/artemis-monthly-distribution-fund-opportunities-volatile-markets.

Oehen, Peter, Rafael Traber, Verena Widmer, and Ulrich Schnyder. “A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (±3, 4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Journal of Psychopharmacology 27, no. 1 (2013): 40-52.

Gasser, Peter, Katharina Kirchner, and Torsten Passie. “LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with a life-threatening disease: A qualitative study of acute and sustained subjective effects.” Journal of Psychopharmacology (2014): 0269881114555249.

Bogenschutz, Michael P., Alyssa A. Forcehimes, Jessica A. Pommy, Claire E. Wilcox, P. C. R. Barbosa, and Rick J. Strassman. “Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 29, no. 3 (2015): 289-299.

Johnson, Matthew W., Albert Garcia-Romeu, Mary P. Cosimano, and Roland R. Griffiths. “Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction.” Journal of Psychopharmacology (2014): 0269881114548296.

Michael Pollan. ‘The Trip Treatment’, 2015. http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/the-trip-treatment/.

‘Are Psychedelic Drugs the Next Medical Breakthrough? | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss’. http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/09/14/are-psychedelic-drugs-the-next-medical-breakthrough/.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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