Ecstasy. Magic mushrooms. Acid. Ayahuasca. Peyote. It’s no secret that these mind-tripping psychedelics are a whole lot of fun at parties, but can the same drugs that cause you to feel music coursing through your veins also help purge your body of residual emotional trauma? The short answer is yes. Probably. Outlook likely.
Research into psychedelics as a treatment for emotional trauma is ongoing, but what investigators and forward-thinking healers believe is that the same hallucinogenic drugs favored by club kids and graduates of the free love era may be the key to healing serious mental health issues.
“MDMA will be a gift to the world,” said Rick Doblin, Ph.D., founder and executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit organization researching the use of psychedelics in mental health treatment.
It will also be a gift to PTSD-sufferers in Colorado. MAPS researchers have been leading a Food and Drug Administration approved study into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for patients with severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They have already cleared Phases I and II of the study, and the final stage before FDA-approval will take place later this year. Some clinical trials will be taking place right around the corner in Boulder.
It could prove difficult for all interested parties to participate in the study – Doblin said there are about 20,000 inquiries for 200 to 300 spots across the nation – but should the last phase of research prove successful, MDMA will take a flying leap from a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal value to a full-fledged, legal medicine to treat PTSD. Yes, Virginia, there is a psychedelic god.
And if the early phases of the study are any indicator, a legal route to MDMA appears pretty promising. What researchers have found so far is that MDMA in therapeutic doses is pretty darn safe, and when used in place of traditional pharmaceuticals, it can vastly expedite the trauma-healing process. As in, going from PTSD-sufferer to PTSD-free in three months or so.
Participants in the MAPS study are given MDMA over three sessions scheduled a month apart, with integrated therapy and support in between. The entire process lasts about 90 days, an incredibly quick turnaround considering traditional therapy can last years.
Not that those three sessions are comfortable, mind you. Unlike the recreational ecstasy sessions of old, using MDMA in a clinical therapy session is not fun, Doblin said. It’s work.
“We have patients who say, ‘I don’t know why they call this ecstasy.’ What they’re pointing to is that it’s painful work,” Doblin said.
Sure, hallucinogenic drugs are involved, but at therapeutic doses. These doses are meant to unlock inner trauma, not elevate the mind to an innate understanding of house music, and as one might imagine, unlocking those trauma chambers can be incredibly emotionally painful. For that reason, study participants are monitored closely by researchers and therapists who have been trained to catch potential issues as the trauma surfaces.
“We make sure physical and psychological issues are well-controlled,” Doblin said. “Could somebody potentially commit suicide at some point (during the study)? Well, PTSD is a precursor for suicide, so it’s possible, but what we’re seeing is that there’s actually some hope (for participants).”
Study participants have to clear several hurdles before MDMA can be administered, including the discontinuation of any psychiatric meds. That process alone can be emotionally taxing.
“The symptoms (of PTSD) could increase as they taper off,” Doblin said. “A lot of the time we find that they feel a little better, though – hopeful.”
Patients also have to be medically cleared before using MDMA as part of trauma therapy. The drug can cause an increase in blood pressure, even at low doses, so patients with uncontrolled hypertension have to get themselves over the controlled line before it’s safe to dose.
But while MDMA-assisted psychotherapy might not be an easy process, the method does appear to be effective.
Out of 107 participants with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD in the Phase II trials, 61 percent had no symptoms of PTSD two months after treatment with MDMA. At the 12-month mark, 68 percent were found to no longer have PTSD.
Phase II also showed that MDMA can reduce fear and defensiveness, enhance communication and introspection, and increase empathy and compassion, according to MAPS.
Even more promising, though, is that the same research has shown that MDMA is an effective tool for treating PTSD, no matter the source of the trauma. Most traditional psychiatric drugs aren’t really effective at treating veterans with combat PTSD, Doblin said.
MDMA, on the other hand, is.
“The other thing that we did find that was reassuring was that MDMA works regardless of the cause of PTSD,” Doblin said. “What that means is [with MDMA] we have a treatment of PTSD for any cause.”
Researchers believe that MDMA could be a method for treating a broad spectrum of mental health disorders, including PTSD flashbacks, uncontrollable mood disorders, or even eating disorders.
If they’re correct, this drug could be a huge breakthrough for mental health patients. While there are some health risks with MDMA – increased blood pressure, hyperthermia, and hyperhidrosis (overdosing on water) are the most common – researchers already know what to expect. Ecstasy has, after all, been on the market – albeit not always legally – for decades.
“We know the risks, more so than any drug that the FDA has approved, because in those cases the trials are limited,” Doblin said. “MDMA has been used by tens of millions of people. We aren’t likely to be caught by surprise with any new risk.”
If he’s right about those risks, and all goes well in Phase III, MDMA could be available in a few short years.
“We’re thinking that we’ll have completed the research in 2020, and MDMA will be approved by 2021,” Doblin said. “So far, it seems like we’re on track for that, but we shall see.”
The mission of MAPS isn’t solely on MDMA research, though. The organization is conducting research on a number of other psychedelics, including marijuana, LSD, ibogaine – a naturally-occurring psychoactive substance found in some plants – and ayahuasca, for the treatment of psychological disorders.
They’re also fighting to end the monopoly the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute for Drug Abuse have over marijuana, which makes it difficult to hold any privately-funded, FDA approved studies into cannabis as medicine.
Ending the marijuana monopoly could prove to be pretty darn beneficial for mental health patients. There are a number of forward-thinking healers in Colorado using cannabis to help treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychological issues. As with MDMA, the anecdotal results appear to be promising.
Daniel McQueen, a spirituality and life coach, is one of those healers. The co-founder of Aspenroots Counseling in Boulder, McQueen has been actively engaged in the psychedelic community for the last 18 or 19 years, and has become the go-to guy for therapeutic cannabis use.
According to McQueen, when cannabis is used correctly, the plant’s psychedelic properties can help heal trauma in a similar manner to MDMA, but without the associated health risks.
It’s not as simple as sparking up a joint, though. McQueen uses an amalgam of smoked or vaped cannabis, along with guided meditation and gentle breath work.
“In general, if you take enough (cannabis) to have a psychedelic experience, it also increases anxiety. That amount causes tripping out and people having panic attacks,” McQueen said.
To amplify cannabis’ hallucinogenic effects and avoid anxiety issues, McQueen uses a specific blend of indicas, sativas, and hybrids to help boost the body experience and lower client anxiety.
“With skill and intention and right setting, people can induce states that shouldn’t be possible from what they’re taking (with cannabis),” McQueen said.
The process of mixing cannabis, meditation, and guided breathing helps clients clear the residual trauma or address major life changes.
“Trauma is stored in our bodies, in our muscles, our tendons and a lot of other places. Cannabis can be useful for getting it out of our whole bodies,” McQueen said.
As with MDMA, it appears that using cannabis as a co-therapy can speed up the emotional healing process.
“Typically somebody will do a series of six-ish [sessions] and take a break,” McQueen said. “It’s like flossing your teeth after a certain point. You’re clearing trauma out of the body, and at some point you just want to maintain it.”
Interest into McQueen’s method has exploded in recent years, thanks in part to Colorado’s legalization of cannabis. These days, he leads open group meditation classes, conscious cannabis circles, healing circles, and individual sessions to accommodate the influx of clients.
And, even after all these years, McQueen says that the power of the plant never ceases to amaze him.
“Every time I think I have a grasp on (marijuana’s) limits, I’m introduced to a whole new way of living,” McQueen said.
While cannabis is McQueen’s modality, he is fully supportive of using other psychedelics as a treatment for trauma.
“I fully support (MDMA). It’s an incredible healing tool. It’s got to be contained, though,” McQueen said. “There are strict guidelines (when used as a co-therapy). It’s only used three times. In those settings it’s incredibly healing. I don’t think (MDMA) is the whole story, though. I think there’s a place for cannabis in healing trauma.”
To him, the rewards from psychedelics – MDMA, cannabis, or otherwise – far outweigh the risks.
“Too many people are killing themselves because of PTSD,” he said. “And that’s not OK.”