Cancer patients with acid smiles

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

The New York Times reported last year that psychedelic drugs were being trialled in cancer treatment – not to encourage remission, but to help people face their own mortality. Far from being smacked up to the eyeballs to achieve this anxiety release, patients undertaking the trials experienced long-lasting benefits in terms of mood and attitude towards life – and death – from a single administration of psilocybin, the psychotropic substance found in magic mushrooms .

When taken in controlled conditions which encourage the participants to think about their lives and those they share them with, an emotional catharsis appears to take place. Subjects report being able to experience the emotions felt by their loved ones relating to their illness, and a spiritual connection to the world which enables them to see life as part of a process, therefore removing the fear of death. Effects were immediate, and scores on depression and anxiety scales were consistently lower at six-month follow-up.

Now this research is only small-scale, but if you cast your mind back, some of you will have read about David Nutt(bag)’s campaign to enable LSD and MDMA (esctacy) to be used in clinical trials to look at their efficacy in treating depression. Now I acknowledge that it’s probably the fault of the media, and it’s not that I contest what he has to say – I just find myself frustrated that I can see the world isn’t ready for his outlandish statements, so why can’t he? The man needs Alistair Campbell.

However, below the media hysteria that hangs precariously off his every word like a failed snot-rocket, are some incredibly interesting points, which not only support the research findings around treating the fear of imminent death, but have some potentially broader-reaching implications. Psilocybin, for example, has been found to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders, by shutting down parts of the brain associated with the unhelpful and repetitive thought processes on which the illnesses feed. It has also given some insight into the neuropsychology of schizophrenia. MDMA appears to enable post-traumatic stress sufferers to revisit problematic memories without experiencing overwhelming fear. It seems that the drugs associated with free love may in fact be capable of breaking introspective thought patterns and giving us back our sense of perspective. (Which, let’s face it, most of us in the western world would benefit from.)

Now I am not suggesting that wigging oneself out on pills and mushrooms everyday is a health intervention. Far from it. We all know the pie-eyed star-gazers who went a bit too far for a bit too long and, after a brief spell of drug-induced psychosis, now shuffle around talking to themselves, looking constantly surprised, devising conspiracy theories about the Government. Too much of these substances can cause long-lasting damage to the grey stuff. But who is to say that measured doses of these active ingredients couldn’t have their place in mental health treatment? Or, for that matter, addiction treatment?

Anyone who has ever had cognitive behavioural therapy, solution-focused therapy, hypnotherapy – pretty much any psychological intervention – will know that the their fundamental bases are breaking unhelpful, engrained thinking patterns. If you can help people lift their heads to see above these negative cycles, they realise that life doesn’t have to be like this. Now if a controlled dose of psilocybin can achieve this, a) the massive financial burden of treatment for depression, anxiety and addiction would be minimalised, and b) I’d be out of a job. Sounds like a plan.

In his usual ‘all right David, tone it down a bit’ way, Professor Nutt has claimed that it’s “outrageous” and “a scandal” that further studies into this have not been done, but I think he has a profound point – the only thing complicating this research taking place is the illegality of the substances involved.

Whether or not you agree with decriminalising drugs as a whole, I think there can be little argument that these substances should not be made available to medical researchers. And this is in a country where George Osborne is making beer cheaper. (How thick and easily-pleased do you actually think we plebs are, George?) I increasingly struggle to understand the arbitrary disparity between the Government’s treatment of different substances… Maybe I’m going a bit Nutts.

4 comments on “Cancer patients with acid smiles

  1. jamie says:

    I love this stuff ,partly i think because im sick of the unenlightened or those who are directed by tabloids saying things like ‘we are not going soft on drugs’, – this appears to be a discussion devoid at this point of thier fear and naivity.
    There is a lot more to drugs and modern society than a daft political prohibition debate…
    Anyway i remember reading excerpts from a counter culture a few decades ago around the time of’ lyall watsons supernature’ and marcia moore and howard altounian experimenting with ketamine in “journeys to the bright world’ and some chap-lester grinspoon,i think examining cannabis and its positive affects …
    Whilst i know folk get carried away at times with thier experiences of intoxication and can maybe fail to see that thier cathartic experiences mostly relate to where they where at -before ingesting some hallucinogen or the other, there are very evidently experiences to be had . Some anthropological study or another, i believe has suggested that all human societies use intoxicants, even innuits extract an hallcinogen from pengiun liver, laplanders ingest amanita muscara via Reindeer pee etc etc..
    So, interesting and probably not far round the corner from the fear and greed immersion of present political times, we may be entering another time where people (whilst running out of money still unable to buy that one cosumable which will truly make them permanently happy) question the actual point of existence .
    If we can afford anything in our modern ,rich society maybe we should all take a lesson from Bill Gates and the eradication of polio and instead of spending time queing for fake tans or the next new car look for solutions to the human condition…I suppose at this point the suggestion of a collective conciousness is a bit whacko ,we maybe need a few more religious wars before we find the motivation to act as a species, individually ,functional and compassionate – you know like ants or something…to suggest we are the most developed ,intelligent species on the earth ,there appears a hell of a lot of disharmony and a few fat rich people at the front of what appears now to be a global rat race.
    Now obviously intoxicants wont be the cure for all the worlds ills ,however the existential benefits to the terminally ill maybe aren’t realisations around the subject of death,but realisations around the subject of life and possibly should be extended and imparted through philosophical education to everyone .

    • Wow, thanks for this response! You are absolutely right – the use of hallucinogens is something that pre-dates modern society, and which has grounded and bonded humans with each other and the earth for many centuries. I think the difficulty comes in trying to point this out without sounding like a hippy – the fact that a group of people, within living memory, took something ancient and labelled it as their own, taking it to extremes and, ultimately, gave this type of experience a bad name (think again of the washed-out, pie-eyed casualties).

      What I think we need currently is not for everyone to get smashed up on acid, but to use the opportunities these substances can offer in a more applied, systematic manner. I don’t doubt Nutt’s claim that the potential for learning opportunities about the brain, about which, really, we know so little about, is massive, and who knows what could be understood about humanity in the process. I fully understand why the researchers in America are disassociating themselves from Leary and the 60s movement, because what they want to uncover is something more reasoned and more scientific. I suppose it is about starting from scratch – applying learning to current society, looking at the problems it could help to address here and now, and avoiding associations, positive or negative, with Carlos Casteneda or hippies. The way I felt after reading the articles on this stuff is – this is an opportunity we just cannot afford to miss

      • jamie says:

        Err, it maybe there was so much negative coverage through american propaganda and fear,-to dissassociate is not to discredit but rather to recredit .I think Leary,Freedman,Janiger had significant understanding and credibile knowledge though were at some depth or other, associated /immersed in a counter culture which shunned traditional american values of the time.I agree the rigidity of human civilisation and material conciousness would be a significantly high wall to scale, hence the start point would be to talk in a language the men in grey understand, i do however also think that the rigours of science and proovability may prove to be one dimensional …Man!
        check this link out in relation to LSD and a future without war ;.)

      • Thanks for the link – hilarious. The sound didn’t work so people wanting to watch it might be better cutting and pasting the link.

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