A Little Help From One's Friends
by Sandra Blakeslee

This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 2001-03-15, page 9 (reprinted from the New York Times). It discusses the work of a number of eminent researchers who are currently conducting research (with the approval of the relevant "authorities", who generally don't know much about this area anyway) into the effects of psychedelic drugs on human consciousness. The tone is generally sympathetic, and one may wonder that this article was actually published in the New York Times, which mostly parrots the anti-drug line emanating from Washington. Comments in the article colored thus and enclosed in brackets are by Peter Meyer.

Hallucinogenic [better called "psychedelic" or "entheogenic"] drugs like LSD and peyote — derided [by whom? and why?] as toys of the hippie generation — are increasingly drawing the interest of neurologists and psychiatrists who want to test the idea that they may be valuable tools in treating a range of mental disorders.

Although there are anecdotal reports that psychedelic drugs can help some people with mental illness [not just anecdotal] the idea has never been substantiated by mainstream psychiatry [whose practitioners prefer to keep their heads in the sand] and remains highly controversial — some [who exactly?] would say outlandish [why?]. Even the researchers involved in the new work are not suggesting that people start medicating themselves with hallucinogens [which they've been doing for millennia anyway]. But researchers like David Nichols, a professor of pharmacology and medicinal chernistry at Purdue, believe the drugs' potential should be investigated. [And why not?]

For example, Dr. Nichols, an expert on hallucinogenic drugs, said there were reports that symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, like washing one's hands dozens of times a day, subside under the influence of psilocybin, a hallucinogen derived from mushrooms. Dying patients given LSD have reported less pain and less fear, he said. Ayahuasca (a Brazilian plant extract) and peyote (derived from cactus) have reportedly helped alcoholics stay sober.

"We now know a lot about how they work in the brain, but we have not begun to investigate their potential for treating brain disorders," Dr. Nichols said.

He is the founder of the Heffter Research Institute, opened in 1993 and named for Arthur Heffter, a 19th-century chemist who was the first person to identify a hallucinogenic molecule, mescaline, which he extracted from peyote. Backed by such private donors as Laurence Rockefeller and Bob Wallace, a Microsoft millionaire, the institute is financing clinical trials with LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens to treat phobias, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and substance abuse, said James Thornton, its executive director. [And about time too.]

Dr. Nichols said trials were underway or planned in Switzerland, Russia and the United States. Most of the work is being done overseas, he said [not adding that this is done because of the active repression of such studies by the U.S. government via its agencies which control research funding]. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration, said that any proposal to study the medical use of a hallucinogen must meet the same rigorous medical and scientific standards used to evaluate any other unapproved drug. Furthermore, because hallucinogens are controlled substances [i.e., possession of psychedelics is punishable in the U.S. by years in prison], the investigator will need a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency to use such a substance in a clinical trial. [So a law-enforcement agency is qualified to deliver judgement on the merits of proposed medical studies? But what can you expect in a police state?]

The drug enforcement agency [sic] classifies hallucinogens as drugs with no known medical value — purely "drugs of abuse." ["Abuse" in this context simply means "not legally permitted".] If a valid medical use is found for hallucinogens, Dr. Woodcock said, the food and drug agency has safeguards to prevent the drugs from being diverted and used for unapproved purposes. [Unapproved by whom? The U.S. government? Why should we need its approval to use psychedelics?]

Separating a drug's beneficial effects from the harm it can cause is possible, said Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Morphine works for pain [if you're lucky enough to have some doctor give it to you when you need it], but it's horrendous when used in an addictive way," he said. [But nicotine is not horrendous when "used in an addictive way"? And society can tolerate widespread daily consumption of cigarettes but not the occasional use of magic mushrooms by a few intrepid explorers? Something fishy about this.] "The same may or may not be true for hallucinogens. It's a mistake to confuse the two issues." [Confusion results rather from misinformation put out by government propagandists.]

Much has changed in the half-century since LSD was first used by psychiatrists and then found widespread recreational use in the 1960s and '70s. ["Recreational"? To compare an LSD trip to a couple of beers after dinner is an insult to a substance capable of expanding consciousness to a degree most people can't even imagine.] Modern psychiatry [at the urging of the legal drug manufacturers interested in their huge profits] has embraced drugs that affect the same brain molecules that are tweaked by hallucinogens. Tools for studying the brain's neurochemistry and response to drugs like LSD are far more advanced than they were in the 1960s and '70s.

Moreover, many of the people who hold political and scientific power today came of age during the 1960s, and they, unlike their parents, are not as afraid of hallucinogens, Dr. Nichols said. [That's because they often know what they're talking about, which can't be said of people who have never taken psychedelics.]

Hallucinogens are drugs that produce bizarre [? sometimes awesome] sights, sounds and feelings that appear to have no basis in reality [the question of their "basis" is secondary to the fact of the experience itself]. All work by changing levels of a chemical called serotonin, a substance involved in the modulation of brain states, including depression, euphoria and appetite. [In fact no-one knows how they work, since consciousness is beyond the explanatory power of current Western science.]

While antidepressants like Prozac work by making the neurotransmitter serotonin linger in the gaps between brain cells, hallucinogens have a different mechanism of action. They are what are called serotonin agonists — molecules that are very similar to the body's natural serotonin and, when taken in large doses, push the serotonin system into overdrive, making many brain systems more sensitive, Dr. Nichols said.

So, for example, hallucinogens amplify signals in the visual system to produce distortions of form and size. Instead of seeing one object, a person sees many copies of that object, he said. [I remember one time on acid watching a bird wheeling in the sky; what I saw were multiple images of the flying bird, like on a multiply-exposed film; interesting, but this sort of thing is not why psychedelic experience is important.] Perceived motion is similarly distorted. People begin to "hear" colors and "see" sounds [or experience a taste as waves of light rolling over the tongue] or have out of body experiences. [Ah yes, these are impressive.] Some are so disoriented they experience a terrifying "bad trip." [That's why there should be training in the use of psychedelics, so people know how to deal with such unexpected experiences and don't freak out.]

Very little is known about how hallucinogens can be used therapeutically, Dr. Nichols said. "The first thing we want to know is, are they safe?" [Well, based on per capita casualty figures, they're a lot safer than driving on the highway, and that's legal.]

John Halpern, a psychiatrist at McLeans Hospital in Boston, is looking at this question in a study financed by the Heffter Research Institute and the Nationa1 Institute on Drug Abuse. The study will involve members the Native American Church who, as part of their religious rituals, take peyote in a group setting but use no other drugs, not even alcohol.

Using tests for mental and social health, three groups of Native Americans — 70 church members, 70 alcoholics and 70 people from local communities in the Southwest — are being compared for two to three years. The goal is to see whether peyote users are healthier or less healthy than the others. [One should also examine the tests themselves. What criteria are used for "mental health"?]

Similar studies in Brazil showed that violent alcoholics who took ha1lucinogens in a ritualistic context often stopped drinking and had higher blood levels of serotonin, said Dennis McKenna, Heffter's director of ethnopharmacology. Those changes may reflect an increase in their brain levels of serotonin, added Dr. McKenna, who is also a lecturer at the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, which seeks to integrate cultural and spiritua1 aspects of care with the biomedical aspects.

Francisco Moreno, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona, and his colleagues there have permission from their hospital review board and expect final approval from the food and drug agency soon to carry out a study on obsessive compulsive disorder and psilocybin.

At the University of Zurich, Franz Vollenweider has permission from the Swiss govemment to explore hallucinogens in treating depression and schizophrenia. "We are interested in the nature of the human experience, of the subjective me-ness or self that guides our behavior," he said. He wonders whether a medically facilitated experience in which the self temporarily "dissolves" might reduce the symptoms of a clinical depression.

In St. Petersburg, Evgeny Krupitsky, chief of the research laboratory at the Leningrad Regional Center of Addictions, is administering ketamine, an anesthetic with strong hallucinogenic properties, to alcoholics and heroin addicts, as they are treated with talk therapy. [And?]

For a detailed report on work already done (with official approval) with one of the most powerful of the psychedelics see Dr Rick Strassman's DMT — The Spirit Molecule.

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