The Psychedelic Drug Revolution. It’s a tale of discovery, mistakes, irony and (finally) opportunity.
After decades of strict Prohibition, psychedelic drugs are making a major comeback. Exciting medicinal applications for some of the most problematic fields of medical treatment are producing a thaw in both public attitudes and government regulation.
Plant-based psychedelic drugs have a long history in many cultures as medicinal treatments and for spiritual enhancement.
Synthetic psychedelics were born in 1938 through the work of Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. He discovered lysergic acid diethylamide – better known as LSD. But Hoffman didn’t realize exactly what he had created until he inadvertently consumed some of his creation in 1943.
Research (and experimentation) with these substances slowly grew during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s. Then along came Timothy Leary.
Leary’s focus was not psychedelic medicine but rather the psychedelic “experience”. He became an outspoken advocate of psychedelic use for spiritual/psychological growth.
This culminated in a 1967 gathering of hippies in San Francisco. It was there that Leary uttered his infamous exhortation: “turn on, tune in, drop out”.
This was too much for governments and the political establishment in general. Western governments (and governments around the world) quickly moved to criminalize psychedelic drugs.
In many cases, the strictest criminal prohibitions were attached. Research into these drugs – even for their medicinal potential – ground to a halt.
Then came the Cannabis Revolution in the 1990’s.
Cannabis Revolution trumps War on Drugs
Successful court challenges forced North American governments to start to provide access to “medical marijuana”. As legal exemptions grew, this morphed into first cannabis decriminalization and then full legalization.
Legalized cannabis has since been successfully integrated into Canada at the national level. It has been successfully integrated into roughly two-thirds of U.S. states, either for medicinal use or full legalization.
Based on that success – and changing social attitudes -- research scientists were motivated to re-examine psychedelic drugs. At the same time, governments have shown a willingness to revisit statutory prohibitions against these substances.
As research prohibitions have started to evaporate, exciting potential drug discoveries quickly followed. Here are just a couple of the potential applications for psychedelic drugs that are turning more and more heads.
Our lives are increasingly stressful. Our societies are increasingly dysfunctional.
It’s no wonder that depression represented a worsening global epidemic – even before COVID-19 struck. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers of people suffering from depression are soaring.
An estimated 322 million people were already suffering from depression even before pandemic fears and lockdown stress caused those numbers to spike. Yet current treatment options yield dismal results.
Psychedelic drugs currently in clinical studies for the treatment of depression include psilocybin, ayahuasca, LSD and ketamine. Compass Pathways’ psilocybin-based treatment for treatment-resistant depression has received “breakthrough therapy” designation from the FDA.
- A 2016 study on the use of psychedelic drugs by terminally-ill patients showed that 80% experienced reduced depression and anxiety
- A 2016 study on “treatment-resistant depression” reported that two-thirds of patients (66%) were in remission one week after their first psilocybin therapy session
The same dynamics that have led to an epidemic of depression are also driving increasing substance abuse.
A 2019 UN report on drug addiction estimated that 35 million people have drug use disorders. This excludes 100's of millions of others suffering from alcohol and/or nicotine addiction. As with depression, the current success rate in treating substance abuse is poor.
Here again psychedelics are showing amazing potential as a treatment option.
- In a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University, 80% of participants remained abstinent 6 months after being on psilocybin therapy
- In a 2017 clinical study (reported by MAPS) on using ibogaine to treat opioid dependence, 50% of participants had stopped using opioids after 1 month
These are not merely strong figures in absolute terms, they represent superior results to existing treatment options. Current nicotine addiction drugs produce (at best) a success rate of 35%.
The impressive results in a steady succession of clinical studies is causing a reversal of attitudes even in some very surprising places – like the U.S. Department of Defense.
DoD pledges $27 million for psychedelic drug research
The DoD continues to absolutely prohibit any form of cannabis consumption, even non-psychoactive CBD products. Yet this same government department is now funding research into the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of veterans’ health, specifically potential applications for the treatment of PTSD.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has provided $26.9 million of funding for such research.
At DARPA, Dr. Tristan McClure-Begley, Focused Pharma’s program manager, said last fall that the agency’s interest in developing such drugs is due to the country’s large number of veterans with PTSD and other mental health conditions.
The irony here will not be lost on readers.
After 40 years of fighting a “war” against the use of these substances, the U.S. Defense Department is now considering embracing some of these drugs for the benefit of U.S. troops and veterans.
The particular focus of the DARPA research grant is to seek to derive the potential medicinal benefits from drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin but without the psychoactive/hallucinogenic side effects.
The U.S. government has spent countless billions in prohibiting access to these drugs. Now the DoD is spending tens of millions to see how they can benefit U.S. troops.
Psychedelics Revolution driven by changing attitudes AND economics
Ultimately, the Psychedelics Revolution is as much about economics as it is about changing societal attitudes.
The World Economic Forum estimated (in 2018) that mental health disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.
Looking ahead, as these mental health epidemics worsen, a Lancet Commission report estimates that by 2030 the total economic costs from mental health disorders will reach $16 trillion.
In a global economy that has already been greatly weakened by the coronavirus pandemic, these are health-related costs that nations around the world literally cannot afford.
The Psychedelics Revolution may have been sparked by changing attitudes, but it is being driven by hard economics.
Depression, addiction, and other endemic mental health issues exact a tremendous toll not only at the social/health level. Increasingly, these mental health problems are straining the budgets of our healthcare system.
Much of the current spending in these areas is virtually wasted: billions of dollars spent, with very low treatment success rates.
We need to spend more in treating mental health issues, but we also need to spend smarter.
In 2020, the primary dynamic surrounding psychedelic drugs is not prohibition but opportunity.
We have an opportunity to pioneer successful medicinal therapies for some of the hardest-to-treat mental health disorders.
We have the opportunity to prevent horrific economic costs as these mental health epidemics worsen.
We have the opportunity to launch a new industry within the healthcare sector that will potentially revolutionize the treatment of mental health.
Revolutions are often born from necessity. They sometimes represent a major leap forward for human society.
The Psychedelics Revolution shows every indication of representing such an advance.
[Editor's note: the article originally stated, incorrectly, that ketamine-derived Spravato has been approved by the VA as a treatment for PTSD.]