- Published May 9, 2021
It’s been a long, strange trip in the four decades since Rick Doblin, a pioneering psychedelics researcher, dropped his first hit of acid in college and decided to dedicate his life to the healing powers of mind-altering compounds. Even as antidrug campaigns led to the criminalization of Ecstasy, LSD and magic mushrooms, and drove most researchers from the field, Dr. Doblin continued his quixotic crusade with financial help from his parents.
Dr. Doblin’s quest to win mainstream acceptance of psychedelics took a significant leap forward on Monday when the journal Nature Medicine published the results of his lab’s study on MDMA, the club drug popularly known as Ecstasy and Molly. The study, the first Phase 3 clinical trial conducted with psychedelic-assisted therapy, found that MDMA paired with counseling brought marked relief to patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
The results, coming weeks after a New England Journal of Medicine study that highlighted the benefits of treating depression with psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, have excited scientists, psychotherapists and entrepreneurs in the rapidly expanding field of psychedelic medicine. They say it is only a matter of time before the Food and Drug Administration grants approval for psychoactive compounds to be used therapeutically — for MDMA as soon as 2023, followed by psilocybin a year or two later.
After decades of demonization and criminalization, psychedelic drugs are on the cusp of entering mainstream psychiatry, with profound implications for a field that in recent decades has seen few pharmacological advancements for the treatment of mental disorders and addiction. The need for new therapeutics has gained greater urgency amid a national epidemic of opioid abuse and suicides.
“Some days I wake up and can’t believe how far we’ve come,” said Dr. Doblin, 67, who now oversees the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a multimillion dollar research and advocacy empire that employs 130 neuroscientists, pharmacologists and regulatory specialists working to lay the groundwork for the coming psychedelics revolution.
The nation’s top universities are racing to set up psychedelic research centers, and investors are pouring millions of dollars into a pack of start-ups. States and cities across the country are beginning to loosen restrictions on the drugs, the first steps in what some hope will lead to the federal decriminalization of psychedelics for therapeutic and even recreational use
“There’s been a sea change in attitudes about what not long ago was considered fringe science,” said Michael Pollan, whose best-selling book on psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind,” has helped destigmatize the drugs in the three years since it was published. “Given the mental health crisis in this country, there’s great curiosity and hope about psychedelics and a recognition that we need new therapeutic tools.”
The question for many is how far — and how fast — the pendulum should swing. Even researchers who champion psychedelic-assisted therapy say the drive to commercialize the drugs, combined with a growing movement to liberalize existing prohibitions, could prove risky, especially for those with severe psychiatric disorders, and derail the field’s slow, methodical return to mainstream acceptance.
Dr. Doblin’s organization, MAPS, is largely focused on winning approval for drug-assisted therapies and promoting them around the globe, but it is also pushing for the legalization of psychedelics at the federal level, though with strict licensing requirements for adult recreational use.
Numerous studies have shown that classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin are not addictive and cause no organ damage in even high doses. And contrary to popular lore, Ecstasy does not leave holes in users’ brains, studies say, nor will a bad acid trip lead to chromosome damage.
But most scientists agree that more research is needed on other possible side effects — like how the drugs might affect those with cardiac problems. And while the steady accumulation of encouraging data has softened the skepticism of prominent scientists, some researchers warn against the headlong embrace of psychedelics without stringent oversight. Although “bad trips” are rare, a handful of anecdotal reports suggest that psychedelics can induce psychosis in those with underlying mental disorders.
Dr. Michael P. Bogenschutz, a professor of psychiatry who runs the four-month-old Center for Psychedelic Medicine at NYU Langone Health, said most of the clinical studies to date had been conducted with relatively small numbers of people who were carefully vetted to screen out those with schizophrenia and other serious mental problems.
That makes it hard to know whether there will be potential adverse reactions if the drugs are taken by millions of people without any guidance or supervision. “I know it sounds silly but, Kids, don’t take these at home,” Dr. Bogenschutz said. “I would just encourage everyone to not get ahead of the data.”
The Rush to Invest
Psychedelics are suddenly awash in money.
Dr. Doblin can remember when research funding was nearly impossible to come by. But MAPS is flush now, having raised $44 million over the past two years.