Psychedelic drugs like MDMA and magic mushrooms are as safe as riding a bike or playing soccer, and bans against them are “inconsistent with human rights”, according to the authors of a letter published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal today.
The letter, written by Boston-born Teri Krebs, research fellow within the Department of Neuroscience at the Norway University of Science and Technology and her Norwegian husband Pål-Ørjan Johansen, stresses that national and international policies must respect the rights of individuals who chose to use psychedelics as a spiritual, personal development, or cultural activity.
“Although psychedelics can induce temporary confusion and emotional turmoil, hospitalizations and serious injuries are extremely rare. Overall psychedelics are not particularly dangerous when compared with other common activities,” says Krebs.
The pair have set up a non-profit organisation, EmmaSofia, which aims to expand access to quality-controlled MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics and to promote human rights for psychedelic users.
EmmaSofia has launched a crowdfunding scheme to raise $30,000 to build a foundation for their long term efforts to legalise the drugs which they believe can be used to treat addictions to substances like heroin, tobacco and alcohol and to help people suffering from diseases like Parkinson’s.
Johansen, a clinical psychologist with experience in providing treatments for anxiety disorders, suicide prevention and drug and alcohol abuse, used MDMA and magic mushrooms to treat his own alcohol addiction. He believes it is crucial that the drug is made available to others who could benefit from it.
“MDMA is not illegal because it’s dangerous; it can be dangerous because it is illegal,” he said.
He argues that different types of addictions have “commonalities”, and points to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry which supports the idea that psychedelics could be useful in the treatment of heroin addiction.
“The commonality is that addiction and drug abuse have a function which is to escape from stress and difficult emotions like shame, loneliness, fear, guilt or shyness,” says Johansen. “Recently our colleague, Matthew Johnson, completed a pilot study with psilocybin for smoking cessation, also with encouraging results.”
In the past, psychiatrists have advocated psychedelic drugs as a soothing antidote for people with terminal cancer, arguing that they alleviate anxiety and help patients find new perspective and acceptance. Johansen also suggests the drugs are beneficial for people suffering from life-threatening illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries as they induce “profound experiences”.
EmmaSofia’s campaign has been backed by numerous academics, including Professor David Nutt, a former drugs advisor to the UK government, who says he believes psychedelics and MDMA have enormous potential as treatments for patients with a range of psychiatric disorders.
But a spokesman for the British governmental organisation Public Health England Health and Wellbeing Directorate says it is unethical to treat an addiction to one drug with another illegal substance and says such an initiative would not have their support in the UK.
A spokesperson for the UK Home Office adds that the government has “no intention of legalising drugs”.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren, who is based at Priory Hayes Grove Hospital near Bromley, Kent, acknowledges that psychedelic drugs have powerful psychological effects and says the idea that they can be directly therapeutic, or facilitate psychotherapy, is attractive.
He says although there is certainly a need for more effective pharmacological agents to treat psychiatric illness, there is a well-established path for the development of new drugs which have built-in safeguards and ethical constraints, which are “there for a reason and should be followed”.
“There is at present insufficient scientific evidence in the form of adequately powered randomised controlled trials to justify the therapeutic use of these drugs.” he says.
“In a clinical setting we see the adverse psychological consequences of young people using drugs such as MDMA. The effects are often unpredictable and can be influenced by an individual’s vulnerability and the context in which the drug is used. Regular use can have adverse effects on intellectual functioning, and usage can also trigger anxiety and mood disorders.”
“Just because a drug has powerful psychological effects does not mean that those effects are inevitably therapeutic, and it should be subjected to the rigorous testing systems which are in place - as would be the case for novel pharmacological agents.”
However, Johansen points out: “Over 30 million U.S. adults have tried psychedelics and there just is not much evidence of health problems.”
Krebs added: "Drug experts consistently rank LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as much less harmful to the individual user and to society compared to alcohol and other controlled substances.”