Are Psychedelics Medicine? Understanding the Safety & Therapeutic Value of Psychedelics

Imaging of neurons, courtesy of Wei-Chung Allen Lee, Hayden Huang, Guoping Feng, Joshua R. Sanes, Emery N. Brown, Peter T. So, Elly Nedivi.

For anyone skeptical of the mental health benefits of psychedelics, hearing them referred to as “medicine” is sure to cause eye-rolling. Since the late 1960’s, psychedelics have been portrayed as dangerous, frivolous, and inherently anti-establishment. Any self-respecting adult would surely avoid taking psychedelics for fear of going crazy or jumping off a building. From the baby boomers to the millennials, nearly everyone in the West has been exposed to this story of psychedelics, but prevalence does not necessarily imply truth. In fact, the anti-psychedelic propaganda that we are all so familiar with is a scientifically inaccurate blip in a much grander story of some of mankind’s most powerful and potent medicines. Spoiler alert: 10,000+ years of human psychedelic use and modern science agree, psychedelics are indeed highly effective medicines, and are far safer than many prescription medicines we use today.

Medicinal Origins

It’s important to remember that before the modern advent of anti-psychedelic laws and propaganda, psychedelics have always been considered medicine. Human psychedelic use dates back at least 10,000 years, and there are countless examples of ceremonial psychedelic use around the globe. Some of those ancient traditions still exist today, such as the Bwiti tribe in Gabon who use iboga, and the Mazatec people from Oaxaca who use psilocybin mushrooms, both of whom treat them as healing sacraments.

Even when psychedelics first appeared in the United States, they were studied by researchers for their therapeutic effects long before they became popular recreationally during the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. From 1950 to 1965 there were over 1,000 scientific papers published on the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Psychologists were treating them as the ‘next big thing’ in treating a wide range of issues such as PTSD, depression, and addiction. Unfortunately, as a reaction to the fast-growing popularity of LSD and political upheaval, psychedelics were systematically made illegal in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

While it is regrettable that we went for many decades without the ability to do further scientific studies on psychedelics, now that the doors are opening once again there is a flood of new research pointing out their wide ranging benefits. But are psychedelics medicine? Merriam-Webster defines medicine as “a substance or preparation used in treating disease” or ”something that affects well-being”. Let’s see how a few of the major psychedelics measure up:

MDMA

  • Currently finishing Phase 2 clinical trials for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in US military veterans
  • 83% success rate at treating PTSD in a pilot study
  • Incredible potential to curb the 22 US veteran suicides that occur daily
  • On track to become a legal prescription medicine in the early 2020’s

Psilocybin Mushrooms

LSD

  • Scientifically shown to treat alcoholism
  • Scientifically shown to treat anxiety and depression
  • Scientifically shown to be safe with no lasting side effects when administered appropriately
  • Countless anecdotal reports of psychospiritual benefits, many from prominent figures

Iboga

  • Known as the best addiction-interrupter for opiate and other hard drug addictions
  • Studies showed an estimated 40-50% success rate for getting patients off opiates like heroin, fentanyl, and methadone permanently
  • Countless anecdotal reports of lasting psychospiritual benefits

Psychedelic Safety Compared to Other Drugs

It would be reckless and inaccurate to say that psychedelics are completely safe in every circumstance, but this is the same common-sense approach that we use for medicines such as aspirin and antibiotics, which can also be dangerous or deadly if used inappropriately. Thorough medical screening, a look at mental health history, and a range of other precautions are used by today’s scientists in psychedelic research to ensure that contraindications and risks are avoided. These same protocols are used by the best psychedelic healing centers that are appearing around the globe.

For those who still worry about the dangers of psychedelics and wonder if they should be thought of as medicine, it’s important to note that some of the ‘scariest’ hard drugs we know of such as methamphetamines (Adderall) and opiates (OxyContin) are being prescribed every day in the United States, even as they lead to widely reported rises in addiction and overdose deaths. If we as a society condone the use of these highly dangerous and addictive substances in certain medical contexts, then surely we should extend the same opportunity to psychedelics, which are non-addictive, nearly impossible to overdose on in most cases, and shown to be safe and highly effective with the right precautions and just a few administrations.

Embracing Psychedelic Medicines

The stigma of psychedelics as purely recreational, dangerous drugs with no medical applications is an unscientific artifact of decades-old propaganda, and stands in the way of millions of suffering people who deserve the best treatments we can offer. Are psychedelics medicine? The answer is the same as it’s been for thousands of years: yes, and in the realm of mental health they appear to be some of the best medicines on the planet. Like any medicine, they can be used or misused. The fact that you can overdose on penicillin or become addicted to cough syrup does not mean we exclude them from our collective medicine cabinet, and the same consideration should apply to psychedelics. The real question is how long it will take for our outdated and inaccurate view of them to give way to modern scientific research and millennia of cultural experience so that we can begin treating the epidemics of depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD that affect so many suffering people today.

 

Psychotherapists and other experts are harnessing the transcendent power of psychedelics to treat mood disorders, substance addiction, and much more. The staff at Psychedelic Times is here to provide guidance and support through the processes of psychedelic integration and recovery coaching. Contact us with your questions about psychedelic therapy―the journey starts today.

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Wesley Thoricatha
Wesley Thoricatha is a writer, visionary artist, permaculture designer, and committed advocate for psychedelic therapy as a means to a more meaningful and harmonious world.