Psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy: the end of a taboo?
The preparation of Ayahusca. Flickr user Emma and Kunley.
Something interesting is happening to the world of psychotherapy. After decades of being banned from public discourse and medical research, due in large part to Timothy Leary‘s experiments and subsequent troubles with justice in the’60s and ’70s, psychedelic drugs are regaining credibility as a tool for therapy – but taboo and prejudice make the process extremely slow.
The first time I heard of experiments being conducted was through The Jungle Prescription, a documentary depicting the work of Dr Jacques Mabit in the Amazon and Dr Gabor Maté in British Columbia, who use the Ayahusca, a hallucinogenic concoction made of Amazonian plants, to treat drug addicts. The film was shown on CBC television, and filmmakers are currently preparing a theatrical version.
Ayahusca has traditionally been used by indigenous communities in the Amazonian regions of Brazil and Peru, as well as religious communities such as Santo Daime. When I was in Brazil is struck me that whenever I raised the subject of Ayahusca with Brazilians, they all seemed to view the drug as merely recreational. Many people take it without the necessary mental and physical preparation, resulting in scary experiences that have given the drug a bad reputation. Yet Drs Mabit and Maté have discovered that Ayahusca has powerful healing properties, helping those who take it to get over past painful experiences. It is therefore helpful to addicts who have been using drugs as a way to “cope” with such experiences.
Then earlier this month, BBC News ran a story about ibogaine, a substance derived from the African plant Iboga and traditionally used in tribal ceremonies, used as a treatment for drug addiction in South Africa. Ibogaine also suffers from an image problem because of its misuse by untrained or ill-intended medical practitioners, but Dr Anwar Jeewa reports significantly positive results with her patients, even if a considerable amount of research is still needed to improve treatment.
Lastly, the New York Times reported that studies are being conducted with cancer patients at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center and McLean Hospital in Belmont Mass. (Harvard Medical School,) New York University’s medical school and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, using psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy) to help them ease their fear of death. Patients reported that during the sessions, they were able to view elements of their lives from a different perspective, and came to see death as transition to another state of being and not an absolute end to their life. The effects of the sessions seemed to be lasting for weeks, or even months.
Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study (MAPS), in Santa Cruz, Calif., would like psychedelic drugs to be used in a wider range of settings, such as therapy, or merely for personal growth. Many researchers won’t go that far, mainly because this would imply to build a strict set of regulations to avoid abuse, and, let’s be honest, a radical change in the way most people view psychedelic drugs, which will take some time to happen.