LSD, ecstasy, magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs could be used to treat mental health problems like anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and addiction, a new study suggested.
It is more than 40 years since Harvard University researcher Timothy Leary urged America to “turn on, tune in, drop out” causing President Richard Nixon to brand him “the most dangerous man in America”.
He conducted experiments under the Harvard Psilocybin Project and advocated the use of LSD, but was fired amid controversy – with some claiming the experiments produced useful psychiatry data.
Experiments using psychedelic drugs – substances that have a strong effect on one’s “conscious experience” – grew in the 1950s and 1960s until they were stopped as LSD and other drugs were outlawed.
The drugs include LSD, psilocybin found in magic mushrooms, DMT, mescaline and MDMA, used in ecstasy pills.
Now there is a renewed interest in using mind-altering substances to explore new therapies, an analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found.
University of Columbia researchers found small research studies have shown some success with the controlled use of these drugs.
Professor of medicine Dr Evan Wood said: “Since the termination of a period of research from the 1950s to the early 1970s, most psychedelic substances have been classified as ‘drugs of abuse’ with no recognised medical value.
“However, controlled clinical studies have recently been conducted to assess the basic therapeutic efficacy of these drugs.
“Renewed scientific interest in psychedelic medicine is generating new knowledge about a class of pharmacologic substances that humans have long used for ceremonial, therapeutic and cultural purposes.”
Dr Wood said many of the adverse side effects such as a “bad trip” has been because of misuse as recreational drugs rather than in clinical settings.
The paper said small-scale studies involving human participants in the United States, Europe and Canada are showing that such research can be conducted in a safe and scientifically rigorous manner.
Preliminary findings show some successful results for these treatments, with significant clinical improvements and few – if any – serious adverse effects.
One small randomised controlled trial indicated that LSD-assisted psychotherapy might help reduce anxiety from terminal illness.
Another small study, in which the active molecule in “magic mushrooms” was used as part of therapy for alcohol addiction, shows a significant reduction in the number of days alcohol was used as well as in the amount.
A small US study of MDMA shows a reduction in symptoms in people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
Dr Wood added: “International drug control scheduling classifications and popular misconceptions about the relative risks and harms of psychedelic drugs make research involving humans difficult.
“However, continued medical research and scientific inquiry into psychedelic drugs may offer new ways to treat mental illness and addiction in patients who do not benefit from currently available treatments.
“The re-emerging paradigm of psychedelic medicine may open clinical and therapeutic doors long closed.”
Lessons could also be learnt from the experiments done in the 1950s and 1960s, he added.