Hallucinogens encompass a broad category of chemical compounds that modify a person’s awareness, thoughts and feelings. Hallucinogens can be classified according to their source. Some are natural as they are extracted from plants or mushrooms, while others are produced in a laboratory and hence are deemed synthetic. The five most common hallucinogens include:
- LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide)
- Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine)
- Peyote (mescaline)
- DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine)
A growing body of research into hallucinogens is indicating their robust therapeutic application ranging from treatment of severe mental disorders to more commonplace depression and addictions, including alcoholism. Additionally, these concrete, scientific findings have kick-started the process of de-stigmatizing hallucinogens, most of which are currently classified as controlled substances.
Below is a glimpse into the therapeutic applications which are becoming evident for the more popular hallucinogens:
LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide)
LSD, an extract from lysergic acid, is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. The compound has a variety of street names including acid, dots as well as mellow yellow. It was first synthesized in 1938 at the Sandoz Laboratory in Switzerland.
Research into the therapeutic applications of LSD gathered steam in the 1950s and 60s, with over 1,000 papers published on the subject. The studies demonstrated encouraging results for LSD’s efficacy in treating a wide array of conditions including alcoholism, opioid dependence, cancer-related pain and anxiety as well as neurosis. This positive research momentum came to a screeching halt in the 1970s with the passage of the UN Convention of Psychotropic Substances and the US Controlled Substances Act which declared LSD along with psilocybin, DMT and mescaline as banned substances.
After a hiatus of several decades, therapeutic research into LSD started to gain speed again over the last several years. Recent research conducted in 2014 has definitively proven that LSD can reduce anxiety in terminally ill patients. Studies conducted in 2015 have also found heightened creativity and increased emotional responses to music the LSD use. These have opened up the avenue for the use of music in LSD-facilitated treatments to further increase its effectiveness.
First isolated in 1958, psilocybin is a psychedelic compound which occurs in over a 100 species of mushrooms found in the sub-tropical regions of South America and the US. Prior to its banning in the 1970s, several studies were undertaken to look more closely into psilocybin’s therapeutic nature.
A landmark 1963 study, referred to as the Good Friday experiment, conducted amongst divinity student showed evidence of increased spirituality and personal-meaningfulness amongst subjects that had ingested psilocybin. Additionally, a 1969 study showed that psilocybin use amongst 32 inmates reduced the probability of falling back into crime (recidivism) due to a positive change in outlook.
Similar to LSD, following a break of several decades, research into the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin has increased over the last decade. A 2014 study, reinforced the study on recidivism conducted earlier where 25,000 individuals in prisons in South-eastern US, found the association of psilocybin use to reduced rates of supervision i.e. parole violations. This study has prompted a serious consideration of incorporating psilocybin into rehabilitation programs being administered across the US.
Other promising studies include the use of psilocybin to treat a wide variety of mental conditions and negative habits including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, treatment-resistant depression as well as quitting smoking and treating alcoholism.
Peyote is a small, spineless cactus native to northern Mexico and Southwestern US which has mescaline as its active ingredient. Its street names include buttons, cactus and mesc.
Although it is classified as a banned substance, peyote is allowed to be consumed by the Native American Church members in the US as part of their religious freedom.
Early research into peyote use by the Native American Church revealed safety and efficacy in the treatment of alcoholism. A 2005 scientific study, also found peyote to cause a feeling of general positivity and well-being amongst users of peyote. The volume of research into peyote is growing yet limited compared to LSD and psilocybin.
DMT is a potent chemical found naturally in certain Amazonian plants. Specifically, Ayahuasca is a brew containing DMT that is commonly consumed. The chemical can also be manufactured in a lab. Synthetic DMT usually takes the form of a white powder that can be smoked.
Research into DMT and particularly Ayahuasca over the last two decades has shown promise. Studies have linked the continued use of Ayahuasca to a decrease in mental disorders as well as an increase in cognitive abilities. Additionally, studies have also found an unmistakable connection between ayahuasca use and reduction in alcohol consumption and other forms of addictions in subjects. Ayahuasca has also been found to positively affect individuals suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) as well as other minor forms of depression.
Ketamine as a chemical was first synthesized in 1962. It was used medically soon thereafter as an anaesthetic used in the Vietnam war and is still the most widely used veterinary anaesthetic.
Research in the therapeutic use of ketamine to treat alcohol and other forms of addictions is extensive. A seminal study conducted in the 1980s and 90s documented the successful treatment of 1,000 alcoholics through Ketamine Psychedelic Therapy (KPT). Additional positive findings included the feeling of being more in control of one’s life and a positive change in life values. Recent studies have also shown KPT’s benefit in helping with the rehabilitation of cocaine addicts. The chemical has also emerged as a fast-acting antidepressant with very robust results in treatment-resistant populations.
The Therapeutic Future of Hallucinogens
It is abundantly clear that as the body of positive research supporting the therapeutic benefits of hallucinogens is growing at a swift pace. An increasing debate is taking place amongst global policy elite to decriminalize the use of these chemicals across much of the globe. Hallucinogens are expected to take the same trajectory as cannabis over the next few years to acceptability and legality.