For a long time, psychedelic-assisted therapy had a bad rap. In the 1960s, the counterculture embraced drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms for their mind-expanding effects. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” advised Timothy Leary. Many paid attention and bad press, bad trips and bad judgment led to a legal crackdown on psychedelics.
But the bad mind-expanding uses of the drugs disguised the fact that there were also good ones. In fact, before the psychedelics’ recreational use researchers were doing serious studies into how they could be used to treat a variety of health ailments.
Flash forward to today and there is a resurgence of medical interest in therapeutic uses of psychedelics to treat alcohol dependence, nicotine dependence, anxiety, chronic PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), treatment-resistant depression, social anxiety related to autism, and more.
“Now, half a century after the ban, we’re in the midst of a global renaissance of psychedelic research,” claims Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), in a TED Talk.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is showing great promise for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, depression, social anxiety, substance abuse and alcoholism and suicide. Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems, with just relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis.”
What Is Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy?
Psychology Today defines psychedelic-assisted therapy as “therapeutic practices that involve the ingestion of a psychedelic drug.” It adds:
“Since the early 1990s, a new generation of scientists has revived the research. Clinical trials have shown that ingesting a psychedelic in a carefully prescribed and monitored setting can induce an experience that is medically safe and that provokes profound, durable psychological and behavioral change.”
One of the ways psychedelics can be used for healthful effects without the overwhelming mind-altering symptoms is by controlling the dose, or “microdosing.” These are often 1/10th or 1/20th the amount of a normal dose. The idea is to release the drug’s healthful benefits without the “disruptive effects” at higher doses, including hallucinations and dissociation.
Apparently some workers in Silicon Valley have been experimenting with microdosing to improve their creativity. While a lot more solid research needs to be done, some initial small studies have shown that microdosing does show promise in sparking creative and divergent thinking, and improving mood while lessening anxiety.
Some of the psychedelics being examined for therapeutic uses include:
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) — Potential therapeutic uses: alcohol addiction, anxiety associated with terminal illness. Potential harmful effects: Psychosis, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.
- Psilocybin — Potential therapeutic uses: Tobacco and alcohol addiction, anxiety associated with terminal illness. Potential harmful effects: Psychosis, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.
- Ayahuasca — Potential therapeutic uses: Tobacco, cocaine and alcohol addiction. Potential harmful effects: Psychosis, serotonin syndrome and other dangers from medication interactions due to monoamine oxidase inhibitory activity.
- Mescaline — Potential therapeutic uses: Alcohol addiction. Potential harmful effects: Psychosis.
- MDMA — Potential therapeutic uses: PTSD. Potential harmful effects: Memory impairment, sleep disruption, short-term depression.
Canadian Companies Leading the Charge
If Canadian companies are now playing a major role in investigating psychedelic-assisted therapies and providing solutions, then they are reprising a part they once played decades ago. In the 1950s, for example, Saskatchewan researchers became world leaders in the research of psychedelics to treat diseases that treated depression and alcoholism.
In Vancouver today, Numinus Bioscience — a healthcare company focused on the “delivery of safe, evidence-based, accessible psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy” — recently announced announced the harvest of its first crop of psilocybe mushrooms at its licensed research laboratory in Nanaimo.
Numinus is the first publicly traded company in this country to be granted a licence by Health Canada to conduct research of this kind, standardizing the extraction of psilocybin from mushrooms.
The license, issued under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, permits Numinus to test, import, store, and distribute MDMA, psilocybin, psilocin (two compounds present in magic mushrooms), DMT and mescaline.
Numinus is one of a growing number of public and private Canadian companies researching psychedelic substances that may help people who are suffering from end-of-life anxiety, mental illness, substance use issues, and more health problems.
“Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for literally thousands of years, and hence, they are [i.e., natural mushroom extracts] just that much closer to these ancient traditions,” says Numinus CEO Dennis McKenna. “Natural mushroom extracts are also likely to be far more affordable compared to synthetic psilocybin, and that is an important consideration when it comes to ensuring accessibility to this medicine which can be so beneficial to many people.”
Over in Toronto, Field Trip Health takes a personalized approach to mental wellness, blending “legal psychedelic-enhanced therapy, mindfulness, and self-care with a series of sessions with trained psychotherapists. All in a comfortable, spa-like environment that promotes healing.”
Billing itself as “first psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy centre in Canada,” Field Trip launched shortly before the coronavirus lockdown began. Operating regularly now, with locations also in New York, Los Angeles and Amsterdam, Field Trip is giving patients microdoses of ketamine — usually used as an anesthetic during surgeries — followed by a rest in a reclining armchair with noise-cancelling headphones, and then a psychotherapy session. The treatment is meant to address depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, often treated by antidepressants.
“Traditional medicine is passive,”says Field Trip medical director Dr. Michael Verbora,. “’You take this pill, this pill is going to fix you.’This is ‘we’re gonna give you a drug and we’re gonna help open up an opportunity for you to be your own healer,’ and we’re gonna be here for whatever you may need.”
Other Canada-based groups contributing to the cause include:
- MindMed: This is actually a New York-based company with an office in Vancouver, as well as other international locations. MindMed is devoted to “transcending traditional mental healthcare” with different therapies, including psychedelic-inspired medicines (without the hallucinogenic effects). It focuses on conditions that include addiction, anxiety and adult ADHD.
- HavnLife: This Vancouver-based company is supporting research for microdosing therapies for mental health disorders utilizing psychedelics. Working with “veterans and thought leaders in the military, Havn Life is developing innovative formulations to support clinical trials addressing PTSD recovery and other trauma related disorders.”
- Mindspace: This Montreal-based psychology clinic is a “a leader i. . . in the emerging field of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.” Last year, Mindspace hosted one of the first training programs in Canada for clinicians wanting to learn more about helping their clients work safely with psychedelics, and launched its Psychedelic Harm Reduction and Integration program. Its ketamine-assisted psychotherapy program was due to launch late this year.
Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies Living up to Their Early Promise
Psychedelics have always been used for mind-altering effects. New promising treatments and research show that they can alter minds the right direction, providing the healthy benefits that medical research pioneers always knew these drugs had.