Psychedelic drugs that include LSD and magic mushrooms are much less harmful than has been claimed and should be reclassified to make it easier for scientists to research their potential benefits, according to Dr. James Rucker, a leading psychiatrist. Promising medical research into psychedelics ground to a halt as long ago as 1967 when they were made illegal amid widespread concern about their psychological and social harms.
However, writing in the British Medical Journal, Rucker says that no evidence has ever shown that the drugs are habit-forming. There is also little evidence of harm when used in controlled settings, and a wealth of studies indicating that they have uses in the treatment of common psychiatric disorders, he says. In fact, researchers are beginning to look again at how LSD and psilocybin — the active compound in magic mushrooms — might be of benefit in the treatment of addiction, for obsessive compulsive disorder and even, according to one small Swiss study, to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety in terminally ill patients.
However, larger trials are “almost impossible”, Dr Rucker argues, because of the “practical, financial and bureaucratic obstacles” imposed by the drugs’ legal status. In the UK, magic mushrooms and LSD are Class A and Schedule 1 drugs. Institutions that wish to conduct research require a licence of £5,000 to hold the drugs, and only four hospitals in the UK possess one.
The small number of manufacturers willing to produce the drugs must also comply with international regulations, leading to hefty charges for researchers wishing to acquire the drugs, with one manufacturer quoting a cost of £100,000 for one gram of psilocybin, according to Dr Rucker, of King&’s College London&’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. “These restrictions, and the accompanying bureaucracy, mean that the cost of clinical research using psychedelics is five to 10 times that of research into less restricted (but more harmful) drugs such as heroin — with no prospect that the benefits can be translated into wider practice,” he writes.
National and international bodies should reclassify psychedelics as Schedule 2 drugs, he argues, “to enable a comprehensive, evidence based assessment of their therapeutic potential”.
In the UK, drugs regulations are the responsibility of the Home Office, which takes advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. A former chairman of the council, Professor David Nutt, who was dismissed after saying that LSD and ecstasy were less harmful than alcohol, is currently conducting research into psychedelics’ effects on the brain. His team at Imperial College London is the first in the world to conduct brain scans on people under the influence of LSD.
An outspoken critic of the restrictions around studies of psychedelics, Professor Nutt has compared the repression of such research to the censorship of Galileo and the banning of the telescope. Amid difficulty securing funding, his team recently announced they have to crowd-fund the next stages of their research.
For the record, The Beatles wrote songs about them and Aldous Huxley said they could be “extremely good for anybody with fixed ideas”. Now scientists are beginning to understand exactly what happens to our brain under the influence of psychedelic drugs, revealing intriguing insights into their well-observed link to creativity.
In a new analysis of a study that saw 15 volunteers undergo Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans while under the influence of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, scientists have discovered that the patterns of activity seen in their brains bore “fascinating” similarities to those seen when dreaming. The researchers found that while activity in parts of the brain responsible for high level thinking such as planning and analysing was “disjointed and uncoordinated”, activity in more primitive areas of the brain associated with emotional thinking was much more pronounced. They also saw that different areas of the brain were able to communicate in “novel” ways, giving the study volunteers a much larger range of potential brain states — something the researchers said could be a physical counterpart to the sensation of “mind expansion” often reported by users of psychedelics such as magic mushrooms, LSD and mescaline. The study has been published in the journal, Human Brain Mapping.
Aldous Huxley, when describing the experience of taking mescaline in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception, said it was like “seeing what Adam saw on the morning of his creation”, and recalled in great detail the “labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity” visible even in the folds of his trousers. He said the people who could gain most from taking LSD were “professors” because of the insights it could offer.
Scientists at Imperial College are currently researching whether psilocybin may help alleviate symptoms of depression. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from Imperial&’s Department of Medicine, says the observed ability of psychedelics to give users a level of “emotional insight” is a strong argument for their use in psychotherapy, adding that they may even have a useful role in creative problem solving. “There may be something in the loosening of the mind that occurs both in dreaming and in the psychedelic state that could be useful in terms of facilitating creative insight,” he says, adding that the scans showed that psychedelics could promote “a more exploratory kind of thinking… Novel connections are made between different ideas and different topics. There&’s a fluidity and fluency to cognition. Only now are we forming ideas about what that might rest on in terms of changes in brain activity”.
A similar effect may be at work in forming the hallucinations and heightened perception of colour and pattern associated with a psychedelic trip. “Much of what the brain does when we experience the world is to make predictions,” Dr Carhart-Harris says. “The brain gets quite adept at this and the world becomes more and more familiar and less surprising. Our predictions and our assumptions about the world begin to firm up and we experience the world with assurance and confidence. What appears to happen with psychedelics is that the process goes awry and the brain makes impetuous inferences about the world: this might be the basis of hallucinations. For instance, usually you look at the trunk of a tree and see the trunk of a tree. But on a psychedelic drug we may see a face in the trunk. It may be that the modules of the brain that normally process faces has ‘broken free’ and is making inferences in an impetuous way where there is no sensory evidence to call it up.”
Famed users include:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: He famously composed the poem Kubla Khan after waking from an opium dream caused by “an anodyne” prescribed for an illness. He fell asleep reading about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, and dreamed of writing 200 to 300 lines of a poem, with all the images “(rising) up before him like things”. On waking, he found he could only remember fragments, which nevertheless survive as one of his best-known poems.
The Beatles: Although conspiracy theories have linked more or less every Beatles song to drug use of one form or another, Paul McCartney has confirmed that the song Day Tripper is about LSD. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, despite featuring imagery reminiscent of a psychedelic trip (“cellophane flowers of yellow and green”, etc) and having LSD subliminally in its title, was apparently inspired by a picture drawn by an infant Julian Lennon.
Aldous Huxley: The author of Brave New World was an exponent of the mind-expanding qualities of mescaline, which he first took “one bright May morning” in 1953. He later engaged in a discussion with psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond about what such drugs should be called — suggesting phanerothymic, from the Greek “visible spirituality”. Osmond won though, with his suggestion “psychedelic”’ from psyche (soul or mind) and “delein” (to manifest).