Mind-altering drugs hold ‘calming benefits’
Some patients dying of terminal cancer have found psychedelic drugs calming, and others with severe mental problems have also been helped by them. Should they be more widely available?
The British writer Aldous Huxley made his name in 1931 with ‘Brave New World’, a science-fiction dystopia which became one of the most famous novels of the 20th century.
Six years later, Huxley moved to Hollywood, where he began experimenting with psychedelic drugs – first mescaline in 1953, then LSD in 1955. He wrote about his experiences in ‘The Doors of Perception’, which later became influential on the counterculture of the 1960s. He believed such drugs could give everyone the opportunity to share the spiritual ecstasy and feelings of universal love previously only described by religious mystics.
His experiments continued until 22nd November 1963, when, dying of cancer, he asked his wife to inject him with LSD. He died later that day, just hours after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Three years later, LSD was officially banned in California. Seven years later as part of President Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’, all psychedelic drugs were made illegal in the US, with very severe penalties for their possession.
This was a blow to medical research. The drugs had proved very successful in treating a variety of difficult mental illnesses, including depression and alcohol and drug addiction.
Now, four decades later, the American medical establishment has been giving them a second look and there have been some remarkable results. Controlled studies have shown how psilocybin and other psychedelics can help patients dealing with cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life anxiety. A psychiatrist involved in one experiment, describes it as an ‘existential medicine’ that helps dying people overcome fear, panic and depression.
There are also signs that psychedelics may prove effective for difficult-to-treat and severely painful cluster headaches.
So is it time to allow widespread medical research into these drugs?
Some say it is far too early to deregulate all psychedelic drugs, as has recently been done with marijuana for medical purposes. Relaxing the laws in any way allows more people the opportunity to abuse them, and besides, not all experiences under these drugs are good. A quarter of patients reported feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Much more controlled research is still needed.
Others point to the reported benefits for patients. Three-quarters of them rated their experiences as being in the top five most significant events of their lives. They describe how their pains and anxieties vanished as they seemed to enter an altered state of consciousness. As one patient explained: ‘It’s not medication. You’re not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself.’
- Should more widespread medical research be allowed into the use of psychedelic drugs?
- Was the US goverment right to take a stand against a growing drug culture in the 1960s?
- In groups, come up with five ways to help ease the suffering of patients. Try and include some ways that you could help too. Compare your list with the rest of the class.
- Search online for some descriptions of various psychedelic experiences by writers such as Aldous Huxley. Then look for descriptions of mystical experiences by people like St Teresa. Do they seem to be describing the same thing?
Some People Say...
“Taking mind-altering drugs is never OK, no matter what benefits they might bring.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- But aren’t psychedelic drugs dangerous?
- Yes, they definitely can be when not taken under the correct supervision. But they also seem to offer the possibility of excellent treatment in some difficult situations, such as soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. That is why it is so important for more research to be done.
- Will they ever become available for medical purposes?
- It is difficult to say. Getting any drug through the difficult and expensive process of having it legally licensed by governments involves long medical trials, and it is usually only something rich drug companies can afford to do. But often they only go through this lengthy process for drugs which have the potential for making them substantial amounts of money; psychedelic drugs do not fall into that category.
- The word ‘utopia’ was invented by Sir Thomas More as a title for his 1516 novel about an ideal society. In Greek it means ‘no place’. ‘Dystopia’ means ‘bad place’ and was coined by the philosopher John Stewart Mill in 1868 as the opposite to an ideal society.
- Psychedelic drugs
- Drugs whose main effect is to change the way we perceive and understand the world. They can be found in nature, such as psilocybin in mushrooms and mescaline in cactuses, and in artificial drugs which have been made in the lab, like LSD which was developed in 1938.
- A subculture whose opinions, ideas and attitudes are at odds with the mainstream of society’s ideas. It often expresses itself in music, books and art, as well as unconventional ways of living.
- Religious mystics devote themselves to prayer and fasting in the hope of directly experiencing the presence of God, usually in an overwhelming burst of ecstasy. The Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, are among the most famous and both wrote about their experiences.