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Psychedelic Science Conference Examines MDMA Treatment for PTSD [FEATURE]

At the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Psychedelic Science 2013 conference in Oakland this weekend there were mind-boggling displays of psychedelic art; tables full of books on LSD, MDMA, peyote, ayahuasca, and other, stranger hallucinogens; weird musical interludes; holotropic breathwork workshops, and indigenous shamans.

Psychedelic art, MAPS 2013
There was also some heavy duty science. Stretching over five days of workshops and conference presentations, the MAPS conference is perhaps the premier confab of psychedelic researchers worldwide. A look at just some of the topics covered in the remarkably broad-ranging affair makes that case.

Researchers from around the country and the world presented findings on three "tracks": clinical ("LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Anxiety Secondary to Life Threatening Illness," "The Neurobiology of Psychedelics: Implications for Mood Disorders"), interdisciplinary ("Psilocybin in the Treatment of Smoking Addiction: Psychological Mechanisms and Participant Account," "Ethical Considerations in the Medicinal Use of Psychedelics"), and a special track on the South American hallucinogenic tea, ayahuasca ("Ayahuasca Admixture Plants: An Uninvestigated Folk Pharmacopeia," "Ayahuasca, the Scientific Paradigm, and Shamanic Healing").

One series of research reports of urgent and immediate relevance centered on the use of MDMA ("ecstasy") in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD can be caused by any number of traumas, veterans mustering out after more than a decade of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with PTSD in record numbers. A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 18% of returning Iraq combat veterans had PTSD. And a 2008 RAND Corporation report estimated that up to 225,000 veterans will return from the wars with PTSD.

Dr. Michael Mithoefer describes his MDMA PTSD research protocol
The trauma of war is reflected not only in the number of vets suffering from PTSD, but even more ominously, in sky-high suicide rates. US military veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day, up 20% from just five years ago.

The military and public health workers are keenly aware of the problem, and are attempting to address it through means both conventional and unconventional. The military and the Veterans Administration have been opened to therapeutic interventions including yoga, meditation, and the use of companion dogs; they have also armed themselves with the arsenal of psychotherapeutic drugs -- anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, tranquilizers -- available in the standard pharmacopeia. But those drugs can have some nasty side effects, and their utility in treating PTSD is questionable, and, noting reports of negative consequences, the Army has warned against over reliance on them.

In a Saturday clinical track devoted to MDMA and PTSD, researchers reported on success in Phase II clinical trials (after Phase I studies had proven safety), as well as efforts to get more studies up and running, and the hoops they have to jump through to do so. Canadian researcher Andrew Feldmar perhaps best summed up professional exasperation with the complexities of doing research on drugs governments view with skepticism and suspicion.

"Give me a break!" snorted Feldmar after relating how it took 2 ½ years and three visits from bureaucrats in Ottawa to inspect his pharmacy safe before it was approved before the safe and the study were approved. "This is not science, its politics. Those people from Ottawa were doing what power does -- cover its ass and make people doing what it doesn't want squirm. We are not discovering anything with these studies; we are just proving something we already know. This is all politics."

Indigenous Huichol shaman from Mexico
While Feldmar was at least able to report that his study had been approved, researchers in Australia and England could report no such luck.

 Australian researcher Martin Williams reported that a randomized, double-blind Phase II study there had been stopped in its tracks by a Human Research Ethics Committee.

"The proposal was rejected by the committee with no correspondence," Williams sighed. "We submitted a comprehensive letter of appeal, and it was quickly rejected. Like MAPS in 2000, we're a bit ahead of our time for Australia, where we face war on drugs rhetoric, the psychotherapy community has more a psychopharmacology focus, and we're facing funding and regulatory hurdles."

"For the past eight years, I've been slowly trying to persuade the medical establishment this is worth doing," said British researcher Ben Sessa, who is trying to get a Phase II study off the ground there. "We have lots of war casualties because like the USA, we have a peculiar obsession with imposing democracy around the world."

Peyote-infuenced Huichol art
But his government grant was denied, with regulators saying there was insufficient proof of concept, the trial would be underpowered (because it was small), and the inclusion of patients with recreational drug histories was problematic.

"Those reasons are all rubbish," snorted Sessa, who said he was revising his protocol in hopes of it being accepted. "We went for the Rolls Royce and didn't get it; maybe we'll get the Skoda," he said.

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have gotten approval for a Phase II study of MDMA with people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, but it wasn't easy. Sometimes the regulatory niggling borders on the absurd, they said.

"We started two years and were waiting on approval from the DEA," said researcher Marcela Ot'alora, who is doing the study with Jim Grigsby. "We thought they read the protocol and would let us know if we were doing something inappropriate, but that wasn't the case. We had to get a 500-pound safe and we put it in the therapists' office, but no, it had to be in the treatment room. Then, we get a second inspection by the DEA, and they said we had to install alarms. We did so, and thought we were good to go. The next day, the DEA and the city zoning department came together. The zoning department said we had to have a half bath instead of a full bath, and no kitchen."

Psychedelic Homer Simpson, MAPS 2013
Ot'alora showed slides of workers obediently demolishing the bath tub, but their travails weren't finished just yet.

"The zoning department said we had to find a place zoned for addiction and recovery, and my office met that criteria, so we moved the safe and alarms for a third time, then had a third DEA inspection," she related. "The local DEA said yes, but it also needed approval from headquarters. We had a congressman write a letter to the DEA to speed up the process, and now we have final approval and are screening our first participants. We hope to enroll the first one by the beginning of May."

That would appear to be a good thing, because other researchers reported that when they actually got studies up and completed, they were seeing good results. Israeli researcher Keren Tzarfatyl and Swiss researcher Peter Oohen both reported promising preliminary results from their studies.

But it was US researchers Michael and Annie Mithoefer who reported the most impressive results. They reported on a 2004 Phase II clinical trial with veterans, firefighters, and police officers. The research subjects were given MDMA (or a placebo) and psychotherapy sessions. MDMA-assisted therapy resulted in "statistically significant" declines in PTSD as measured by standard scales, the Mithoefers reported.

"We're doing Phase II studies, giving the substance to people who are diagnosed with PTSD and measuring the treatment effects. The results continue to be extremely impressive," said Michael Mithoefer. "These tools have so much promise for healing and growth. There are lots of reasons to think these will be useful and promising tools."

Existing treatments for PTSD -- cognitive-behavioral therapies, psychodynamic psychotherapies, pharmacological interventions -- too often just don't work for large numbers of sufferers, Mithoefer said. He cited estimates of 25% to 50% who don't respond favorably to existing treatments.

"We have looming problems with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of them are not getting the treatment they need," said Mihoefer. "The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed, but also many vets just don't show up for treatment or stay in it. People with PTSD have a lot of trouble with trust, making it hard to form a therapeutic alliance. They can also either be overwhelmed by emotion and then drop out, or they are in avoidance, emotionally numb, and then the therapy doesn't work. If MDMA can increase trust and decrease fear and defensiveness, maybe it can help overcome these obstacles to successful treatment."

But even so, the research effort is starved for funds.

"This would not be happening if not for these remarkable non-profits supporting research," said Mithoefer, referring to groups like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation, which co-hosted the conference. "The government is not funding this, Big Pharma isn't funding this; the community is funding it. We are trying to build bridges, not be a counterculture, and we hope the government will get involved."

What they've found so far is definitely worth pursuing, Mithoefer said.

"We've established that for this kind of controlled use with well-screened people, there is a favorable risk-benefit ratio and no indication of neurotoxicity," he explained, although a small numbers of participants reported unhappy side effects, such as anxiety (21%), fatigue (16%), nausea (8%), and low mood (2%).

With a follow-up three years later, the Mithoefers found that the benefits of MDMA-assisted therapy remained largely intact.

"For most people, the benefits in terms of PTSD symptoms were maintained," Mithoefer reported. "With people who completed the assessment, 88% showed a sustained benefit, and assuming that those who didn't relapsed, that's still a 74% sustained benefit."

The Midhoefers are now in the midst of another Phase II study and are finding similar results.  They are finding reductions in PTSD symptoms as measured by standard measures. They are also finding lots of interest among PTSD sufferers.

"More than 400 vets have called us from around the country," said Mithoefer. "The need is so great. It's heartbreaking that we can't accommodate them all."

Anna Mithoefer read to the audience some of the responses from their research subjects.

"It's like PTSD changed my brain, and MDMA turned it back," reported a 26-year-old Iraq veteran.

"Being in Iraq was bad, but what was worse was having my body back here and part of my mind still in Iraq," said a 27-year-old who had served as a turret gunner in Iraq. "This helped me come home."

"MDMA helped me in so many ways, it feels like it is gradually rewiring my brain," said a female military sex trauma survivor. "The MDMA sessions were the crack in the ice because the trauma was so solid before that. It was incredibly intense around the MDMA sessions -- a lot like popping a big bubble from the unconscious."

The Phase II studies underway or completed strongly suggest that MDMA is useful in the treatment of PTSD. The Phase II studies trying to win approval around the world could strengthen that case -- if they can overcome the political and regulatory obstacles before them. In the meantime, another 22 veterans are killing themselves each day.

Oakland, CA
United States

Surprise! The Media Doesn't Understand Why People Take LSD

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/acidsheet.jpg

In medical practice, the term "drug abuse" is typically understood to describe habitual consumption with harmful consequences to the user. It's also sometimes used to describe non-therapeutic or unintended use of a medical drug. But when it comes to illegal substances, the press routinely -- and ignorantly – calls it full-blown "drug abuse," even if you try the substance just one time.

Here's the latest example from a CBS News story about LSD:

In 2009, the last time data was taken, 779,000 Americans age 12 and older said they had abused LSD at least once in the previous year.

I have a feeling that very few of these 779,000 people would consider themselves drug abusers. It says right there that you only had to drop acid one time in '09 to get counted, and as far as I'm concerned, doing acid one time doesn't make you much of a drug abuser. If it did, then we'd have to come up with a whole new term for some of the people I've had the good fortune of encountering at Burning Man, or for that matter, liberal arts college.

But as silly as all of this is, it gets worse when you take the context into account. The above quote, tragically, is actually the last line contained in this otherwise interesting article:

LSD should be considered for alcoholism treatment, study says

(CBS News) Decades ago, researchers would examine LSD's effects on various health conditions including pain, anxiety, and alcoholism. A new study suggests it might be time to revisit the mind-altering drug's therapeutic uses. The study found lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid, could help serious alcoholics sober up…

What we have here is entire article that goes on for several paragraphs about renewed scientific interest in the therapeutic benefits of LSD, only to conclude by implying idiotically that every single LSD user in the country is a drug abuser. Did it not occur to the author that some – perhaps a substantial portion – of the people using LSD were doing so for the same sort of therapeutic purposes being studied by these scientists? If the drug is in fact beneficial, then maybe, just maybe, people could be using for its benefits rather than as part of a pattern of abuse?

Seriously, this isn't even complicated. If CBS News has a hard time grasping the concept of beneficial, non-abusive drug use, my first recommendation would be to reread the first 8 paragraphs of their own article.

Czechs Decriminalize Peyote, Magic Mushroom Growing

Under changes in Czech drug policy approved November 28 by the Cabinet, growers of psychedelic cacti and fungi will no longer face criminal punishment. The hallucinogenic plants will be removed from the government's drug "black list," meaning that cultivation of more than "small" amounts will no longer be a crime.

Psilocybe cubensis, the magic mushroom. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
Peyote and magic mushrooms were originally included on the list when the Czech's reformed their drug laws in 2009, making the Czech Republic one of the most liberal in Europe on drug policy. But amateur cactus growers who said they had no intention of consuming their plants complained that the drug reforms effectively criminalized them for pursuing their hobbies.

The 2009 reforms decriminalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, as well as the possession of small amounts of other drugs.

Last week's adjustment of the reforms actually tightened up a bit on the issue of marijuana cultivation. They include a change in the way marijuana's potency is calculated. Previously, authorities measures the amount of THC in pot plants by measuring the content of the whole plant; now, they will only measure the content of the flowers, where the THC is most concentrated. That means some pot cultivators who are growing low-potency marijuana will not be able to escape drug law enforcers.

Czech Republic

Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/horizons-poster-2011.jpg
HORIZONS:

PERSPECTIVES ON PSYCHEDELICS

OCTOBER 14-16, 2011
CELEBRATING FIVE YEARS OF HORIZONS

Horizons is a conference about psychedelics that is held annually in New York City.  Its goal is to open a fresh dialogue on their role in medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and creativity.

Horizons is a non-profit endeavor hosted by Judson Memorial Church in the heart of Greenwich Village.

Visit http://www.horizonsnyc.org for further information.

Date: 
Fri, 10/14/2011 - 9:00am - Sun, 10/16/2011 - 6:00pm
Location: 
55 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
United States

Czechs Ban New Synthetic Drugs, Salvia, Ketamine

The Czech Parliament has moved to ban some 33 synthetic substances now being sold in the country, including synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, which is often marketed as bath salts and has stimulant effects similar to cocaine or amphetamines. Also included in the prohibitionist legislation is salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum, and the weird hallucinogen ketamine.

packaged synthetics (image via wikimedia.org)
The European Union banned mephedrone last November, while the US DEA banned synthetic cannabinoids effective March 1. The DEA considers mephedrone a drug of interest, but has yet to ban it. About 20 US states have banned synthetic cannabinoids, with action pending in others this year, while similar moves against mephedrone in the states are just getting underway.

The Czech Senate voted 67-0 April 4 to approve the legislation, which amends the Czech drug law. The House passed the bill last month. According to the Prague Daily Monitor, President Vaclav Klaus is expected to sign the bill into the law before the end of this month.

Some senators worried that rushing the legislation into effect would not allow merchants to get rid of their supplies in time, but that concern fell on deaf ears. Deputy Pavel Bem of the governing Civic Democrats, a sponsor of the legislation, argued that the ban should go into effect as quickly as possible.

The Czech government decriminalized drug possession
in personal use amounts in January 2010. It is unclear how these newly criminalized substances fit into the decriminalization scheme or whether personal use amounts for them have been set.

Prague
Czech Republic

LSD Icon Owsley 'Bear' Stanley Dead at 76; Killed in Car Accident in Australia

Location: 
Australia
Owsley "Bear" Stanley's long, strange trip has ended. The counterculture icon who was a major LSD producer in the 1960s and was celebrated in song by The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, has died in a car crash in Australia.
Publication/Source: 
New York Daily News (NY)
URL: 
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/2011/03/14/2011-03-14_lsd_icon_owsley_bear_stanley_dead_at_76_killed_in_car_accident_in_australia.html

Health Canada Proposes Ban on Salvia Divinorum

Salvia divinorum extract (Image via Wikimedia)
In an official notice published Saturday in the Canada Gazette (scroll down), Health Canada has proposed banning the potent, fast-acting hallucinogen salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, salvinorin A. It wants to add both to Schedule III of Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making it illegal to possess, produce, sell, import, or export the substances.

Although the notice was dated February 4, it was not posted in the Gazette until February 19. Interested parties, or stakeholders, have 30 days from the date of publication to comment.

Salvia is currently considered as a natural health product in Canada. Natural health products are not legal to sell in Canada without authorization from Health Canada. Health Canada has never authorized the sale of salvia, but neither has it taken any steps to enforce that regulation.

Salvia and salvia extracts are widely available in Canadian head shops and via the Internet. The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey in 2009 found that 7.3% of 15-to-24-year-olds had tried salvia at least once. [Editor's Note: Given the powerful, even scary, nature of the salvia high, it is probably safe to assume that many of them tried it only once.]

Salvia-inspired art (Image via Wikimedia)
Salvia is "reported to be one of the most prevalent herbal products used as an alternative to illicit drugs," Health Canada said. "Health Canada is concerned that the ready availability and use of salvia divinorum poses a risk to the health and safety of Canadians, particularly youth." Adding it and salvinorin A to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would "enable law enforcement agencies to take action against suspected illegal activities involving these substances," it added in the notice.

Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden are among countries that have already regulated or banned salvia, as have some dozen states in the US. The DEA has considered salvia a substance of interest for nearly a decade now, but has not yet moved to classify it as a controlled substance.

Ottawa
Canada

University of Kansas Scientist Studies Salvia Divinorum's Medicinal Potential

Location: 
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66045
United States
Dr. Thomas Prisinzano, a scientist at the University of Kansas, is studying whether the drug salvia could lead to revolutionary new medicines. He has studied it for nine years. Prisinzano is one of seven scientists in the country with a federal grant to look into what the plant can do.
Publication/Source: 
KMBC (MO)
URL: 
http://www.kmbc.com/r/26732474/detail.html

Law Student Sues St. John’s University for Rescinding Readmission Over Drug Charges

Location: 
8000 Utopia Parkway St. John’s University
Queens, NY 11439
United States
David Powers, an accountant who took time out of law school at St. John’s University, has sued the Roman Catholic university in New York after it refused to readmit him, saying that he had not been honest about a criminal conviction, since expunged, in his past. Three semesters into his law degree, Mr. Powers was granted a leave of absence to manage a $2-billion investment fund in Hong Kong.
Publication/Source: 
The Chronicle of Higher Education (DC)
URL: 
http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/law-student-sues-st-johns-u-for-rescinding-readmission-over-drug-charges/30251

The Promise of Psychedelic Healing: Entheogens, Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development

An evening with Neal Goldsmith and special guests John Perry Barlow, Julie Holland, Daniel Pinchbeck, Rick Doblin, and Ethan Nadelmann. And a dance party.

Join Evolver.net and Mangusta Productions for a mind expanding night of psychedelic exploration. Banned after promising research in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, the use of psychedelics as therapeutic catalysts is now being rediscovered -- a topic covered by Neal Goldsmith's new book, Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development (Inner Traditions, 2011). Come celebrate its publication with a kaleidoscopic conversation featuring five of the leading figures in this field, speaking on the latest theories, research, and legal developments.

How can psychedelic experiences shape personality and healing? Can psychedelic psychotherapy truly can be transformative, either individually or collectively? Can humanity change course from an impending human dieback and blossom to create a truly integral planet?

Come for a reading and discussion with:

Neal Goldsmith, Ph.D, Psychotherapist specializing in psychospiritual development. A frequent speaker on spiritual on spiritual emergence, drug policy reform, and post-modern society. Author of Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development

Rick Doblin, Ph.D., President and Founder of Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Science (MAPS). His dissertation was on “The Regulation of the Medical Use of Psychedelics and Marijuana and his master’s thesis (Harvard) focused on the attitudes and experiences of oncologists concerning the medical use of marijuana.

John Perry Barlow, Visionary, former Grateful Dead lyricist, and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization which promotes freedom of expression in digital media.

Julie Holland, M.D., Psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology. Author of Ecstasy: The Complete Guide and bestselling Weekends at Bellevue and editor of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis and Ecstacy: The Complete Guide.

Daniel Pinchbeck, Bestselling author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Notes from the Edge of Time, and Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shaminism; Co-editor of Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age. Daniel is the editorial director of RealitySandwich.com, and co-founder of Evolver.net.

Ethan Nadelmann, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Author of Cops Across Borders, the first scholarly study of the internationalization of U.S. criminal law enforcement, and co-author of Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations.

Dance Celebration follows discussion with live music performance by JahFurry & Kochie Banton with the I & I Drum Link. DJ sets by Krister Linder and Winslow Porter.

Cash bar – organic beer, wine and drinks.
Astoria's own Beyond Kombucha presents a special blend for the event.
Snacks by Xango.

Doors at 7:30, panel at 8:00, dance celebration 11pm – 2am

Price - $25, $20 for Evolver Social Network Members (e-mail psychedelichealing@gmail.com for info); $15 after midnight.

To purchase tickets please go to http://psychedelichealing.eventbrite.com/. Tickets will sell out so to guarantee your entrance, get yours ahead of time.

Date: 
Fri, 02/04/2011 - 7:30pm - Sat, 02/05/2011 - 2:00am
Location: 
446 Broadway 3rd floor Safe Harbor
New York, NY 10013
United States

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