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History of Psychedelic Drugs in Medical Therapies

Apr 18, 2024 | Your Health

For many years, it was unthinkable to prescribe psychedelic drugs to patients for any reason. That mindset is changing. Today, professionals in the medical field are exploring key applications and subsequent benefits of this class of drug.

Beverly Fergus, Master’s Degree student at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, shares information about psychedelics, including their history of becoming mainstream and what types of medical conditions they may be effective in addressing.

Magic Mushrooms’ Introduction to the U.S.

Mushrooms, commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” have a rich history—seen as early as 9,000 B.C. in stone paintings in North Africa and Spain. Indigenous cultures have been using psilocybin-containing mushrooms for generations in ritual ceremonies.

Psilocybin was first introduced to the United States by a U.S. Banker, Gordon Wasson, and his wife, who traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and participated in a mushroom ceremony. They were so excited about the new experience and spent extensive time talking about the effects on the body and consciousness, even though they had promised the shaman in Mexico they weren’t going to talk about it and keep the experience private. A photo essay was published in Life Magazine in 1957 detailing their experience.

“That article was really pivotal in introducing these mushrooms to the rest of the world. Wasson brought back the mushrooms and gave a sample to Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. Then, he isolated the psilocybin and began producing pills for research purposes. For the next decade, thousands of doses were administered in clinical settings,” states Fergus.

Psychiatrists, doctors, and researchers considered psychedelics like psilocybin to be promising treatments for alcoholism, autism, and a host of other conditions. In the 1960s, psilocybin was considered the “wonder drug” that could cure everything from addiction to anxiety.

The Research Continues at Harvard University

The next phase of development involved Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, both psychology professors at Harvard University. These two became interested in psychedelics after reading the Life Magazine article. Leary and Alpert went down to Mexico to try the mushrooms and were amazed at the effects. Leary stated that the experience was “above all and without question the deepest religious experience of his life.”

“He also said he learned more during the six or seven hours after he ate them than he learned in all the years as a psychologist,” notes Fergus.

Leary and Alpert started the Harvard Psilocybin Project—experimenting on students and on themselves. Everybody considered it a wonder drug. “If you want to look into Leary, it’s a super interesting read. He was a crazy guy. But, you know, this was in the midst of the burgeoning hippie movement that embraced a counterculture that included and expanded into music, literature, and art,” she adds.

Government Interference Disrupts Key Findings

Many people, including the government, considered the hippie movement a threat. It was a counterculture that was at odds with the moral code of the time. By 1968, the establishment had enough, and the war on drugs began. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and promised to bring back law and order, calling Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America.

Years later, John Ehrlichman—a top aide for Nixon—was quoted as saying: “You know what, this was really all about that the Nixon White House had two enemies, the anti-war left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate hippies and Blacks with drugs, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In 1971, Nixon officially declared the war on drugs, stating that drug abuse was public enemy number-one. “Since I’m of that generation, I remember how scary everybody thought this war was. I thought there were going to be drug pushers around every corner,” shares Fergus.

The Controlled Substances Act came into effect soon after and designated all psychedelics Schedule 1 drugs, which meant they were the most dangerous drugs, they possessed no medical benefit, and they had great potential for abuse. “This stalled research completely,” explains Fergus. “It became almost impossible to get those materials for study. Consequently, we had 50 years of no research, despite all the promise of those treatments in the ’60s.”

Learning from the Past, Looking Towards the Future

Fortunately, there has since been an explosion of interest in the field of psychedelics—particularly with so many people desperate for mental health help. Fergus believes the FDA will grant approval for psilocybin-assisted therapies within the next three or four years, and MDMA even sooner.

“Psilocybin and other psychedelics hold so much promise, much more than what is currently out there. I hope we learn from the mistakes of the ’60s and we can stay on course by making this psychedelic-assisted therapy accessible to all people. I also hope the industry doesn’t forget about these indigenous cultures who have been using these medicines for thousands of years. We can learn a lot from their wisdom and traditions.”

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