Psychedelics Are Going Mainstream, Because the Mainstream Needs Them

Some experts predict practices like MDMA therapy will be legal in as little as three years.

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Jun 26 2018, 8:47pm

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The event begins, like so many ritualized psychedelic experiences do, with a check in. It is gently suggested that we close our eyes and take inventory of our internal realities. How are we feeling? Happy to be here? Energized? Cold? Mildly annoyed with the emotional fussiness of this exercise? Perhaps. The crowd sits in collective silence for several minutes, after which we are asked to yell out things that have “come up” for us.

“Beautiful!” “Purpose!” “Gratitude!” “Playful!” shout several of the roughly 150 people gathered under a sprawling tent on this overcast Friday morning in the rural hills of California’s central coast. It is day two of Lightning In a Bottle, the festival that has brought West Coast-flavored electronic music and the psychedelic culture from which it comes to tens of thousands of attendees in its 14 year run. This weekend 20,000 people living in tossed up tents will participate in yoga, art, dancing, bodywork, roller skating, swimming, sound healing and lectures like the one we’ve gathered here for.

“You are the leader, the president and the people of your own internal country,” says Ismail Lourido Ali, who is onstage co-delivering what has been billed as the Psychedelic State of the Union. “What is the state of your union right now?”

A survey of the crowd—yoga fit, crystal adorned and clutching gallon jugs of kombucha—suggests a discussion about the benefits of psychedelics is preaching to the choir. Lourido Ali and his fellow presenter Shannon Clare Carlin are not, however, onstage to simply discuss the personal benefits of blasting off on mushrooms and dissolving into universal oneness, but how the formal processes developing around such experiences carry great promise for people who might never cover themselves in glitter and step barefoot into this festival.

“In terms of the state of our collective union, we know people are feeling a lot of isolation and separation from their communities, their families and from themselves,” says Lourido Ali. The crowd collectively nods. “People are feeling meaninglessness, divisiveness and polarization.”

Indeed, in a moment where the overriding cultural sentiment is that nothing matters, daily existence can be upsetting to the point of numbness. We are anxious, depressed, lonely and addicted. Pharmaceuticals treat these symptoms, but are for many problematic given their side effects and decreased efficacy after long-term use.

Photo by Aaron Glassman

Enter psychedelics. In the past several years, the use of substances like MDMA, psilocybin, ibogaine and ayahuasca in treating the root of myriad health issues has become a white hot topic, with outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Stars and Stripes covering the so-called psychedelic revolution. In last year’s A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life , Ayelet Waldman explored the benefits of ingesting tiny amounts of LSD. Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence looks at the emerging science of psychedelics. Once considered the realm of kooks, burnouts and that one ex boyfriend who spent a chunk of his 20s following Widespread Panic, psychedelics have hit the mainstream, because, as Carlin, Lourido Ali and many MAPS researchers argue, the mainstream desperately needs them.

“People are seeking meaning, purpose, personal growth, development, mindfulness and expansion, and there’s also a huge desire to heal,” says Carlin. “With psychedelics, we can sometimes borrow the courage to look at parts of ourselves we don't want to consider because they're not pretty. Psychedelics can also give us the inspiration to embody love and to celebrate. Humans need celebration.”

The crowd cheers, of course.

Recent advances in psychedelic research are intrinsically linked to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. Founded by Dr. Rick Doblin in 1986, the organization has focused on the legitimization of psychedelics as medicine. MAPS has driven the research of MDMA use in therapeutic settings and believes legalization of this treatment will happen by 2021. Lourido Ali works with MAPS’ policy and advocacy counsel, while Carlin serves as the MDMA therapy training program manager. Both are young, and deeply passionate about their work.

As everyone in the next tent over gets into shavasana, the pair explains that this research is currently entering Phase III clinical trials. In the United States, 200 patients will take part, with additional studies happening in Canada, Israel, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Germany, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic and more. It is the largest MDMA psychotherapy trial ever conducted.

Once considered the realm of kooks and burnouts, psychedelics have hit the mainstream, because the mainstream desperately needs them.

The great promise of MDMA assisted therapy is its efficacy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Phase II trials demonstrated that patients with formerly treatment resistant PTSD saw significant improvements through the 65 hours of therapy received over four months.

These therapy sessions are conducted by pairs of clinicians—each pair is male and female—working with a patient who has ingested 120 mg of MDMA. Eight-hour sessions are comprised of talk therapy that begins once the effects of the MDMA have started. Research demonstrates that during these sessions, activity in the amygdala—the region of the brain related to fear response—is decreased, making it possible for patients to discuss and process traumatic events without experiencing their standard reactions to that trauma. For many patients, talking about their pain is revolutionary.

“Some people have never had someone willing to sit with them, give them attention and not judge them,” says Carlin. “Even our placebo group improves by 20 percent.”

The 110 participants in the Phase II trials included police officers, firefighters, and veterans, a group MAPS has focused on given the crisis level rates of PTSD and suicide in this population. Eighty clinicians will take part in Phase III trials, which begin this summer. Once those are underway, MAPS can apply for Expanded Access, a designation granted to areas of research where the need is especially urgent and which would allow more clinicians to do this work.

“We can't just tell all the people with PTSD they have to wait three years until this becomes a legal treatment,” says Carlin. “There's an ethical response to consider.” There are currently more than a thousand names on the patient waiting list.

While Jeff Sessions has continued the tactics of the failed war on drugs, Carlin and Lourido Ali don’t believe the current political climate will impede their work, beyond the fact that people like Sessions contribute to the continued stigmatization of potentially beneficial substances. Politics will more likely come into play if the DEA reschedules MDMA from its current Schedule I designation. (A Schedule II is anticipated.) While the VA has not yet embraced this therapy, the federal government has thus far been supportive.

“The FDA has essentially told us that what we're doing is important and that the science is good,” says Lourido Ali. “They’re really trying to expedite the process and help us through this.”

As Phase III trials begin, the question of access remains on the forefront. MAPS is working with Dr. Monnica Williams, an expert on race based trauma at the University of Connecticut. Williams has consulted on the style and locations of trial recruitment, along with who is trained as therapists. The goal is to avoid this treatment becoming available only to rich, white people. Observing how countries with universal healthcare incorporate the treatment into their coverage may also provide a roadmap for providers in the US. Plans for required pediatric studies are also underway. Yes, children will be taking MDMA.

If this latter concept recalls the “high kindergarten” of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it’s crucial to consider that the psychedelic exploration that roared to kaleidoscopic life before imploding into burnout in the 60s and 70s is returning now in formalized and more socially acceptable ways. While life in the United States in 2018 often feels like acid trip gone dark, psychedelic professionals like those at MAPS contend there are no bad trips, only challenging experiences. Some believe this is a period in which our collective traumas are coming to the surface to be healed and in which we are re-embracing ancient rituals largely cast aside during worldwide colonization. Of course some people just want to get high and dance, which many will attest is itself a form of preventative medicine.

As MDMA breaks barriers, other psychedelics are in line for research and medical legalization. Researchers are exploring ibogaine as a treatment for opioid addiction, a grave need given the CDC estimate that 115 people die from opioid overdoses every day in the United States. Other teams are working with psilocybin to treat end of life anxiety. MAPS is also beginning a clinical trial of smoked marijuana for PTSD in US veterans.

And this medicalization is just one path for psychedelics to enter the mainstream, with art, music, film and television also serving as points of entry. (Annihilation, anyone?) So too does this Lightning in a Bottle festival and others like it provide access points into psychedelic culture. Places like it certainly are not for everyone. The levels of excess and escapism might be a turnoff, the sometimes dopey genuineness eye roll inducing. For many in attendance, however, the weekend lives up to its transformational title. For Carlin, the real question is how we can sustainably incorporate the feelings of satisfaction and belonging created here into our daily lives.

“We're not just talking about chemicals,” Lourido Ali says. “We’re talking about a process. We're talking about the doors of perception opening. We're talking about ritual and ceremony. We’re talking about the contexts we’re creating for psychedelic use.”

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