The Promise of Psychedelic Drugs In Treating Mental Illness

I spend half of my time as a lawyer defending people accused of drug crimes.  In almost all cases, the offense related to these  “crimes,” is that they are classified as crimes, to begin with.

June 2021 marked the United States’ 50 year history of its “War On Drugs.”  This fiasco has been, from its inception, an utterly miserable failure, akin to the Prohibition era in this country, which lawmakers also utterly failed to learn from.  Prohibition did nothing but create underground cartels, rampant crime, and destroyed thousands of lives in the process.  Yet, in its terminal blindness and stupidity, the U.S. government learned nothing from this, and in more than a half century has spent trillion of dollars at both the federal and state level.  The end result?  Trillions of taxpayer dollars wasted, that could have been spent curing horrible diseases, and countless personal lives and reputations ruined.

But the human cost has not been measured solely by wasted money and needless prosecutions.  The opportunity cost of these policies is now becoming clear – i.e., what has been lost in human progress as the result of this foolhardy endeavor.  When the War on Drugs was declared in 1971, all kinds of drugs that had been legal up to that point, were declared illegal.   Five separate “Schedules” of drugs were created by the DEA, with Schedule One becoming arguable the most important of the five, because it listed drugs that were declared to present “No currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This, despite the fact that several worldwide populations have utilized these substances as medicines for more than 5.500 years (including indigenous North Americans).  Thrown into this list were marijuana (cannabis), MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly), methaqualone (Quaalude’s), and peyote.   Additional drugs included heroin and LSD, which the U.S. government covertly tested in citizens in the 1950’s.

In the past ten years or so, a psychedelic renaissance has exploded:  Scientists all over the world, including institutions such as the Imperial College of London and Johns Hopkins University, and Massachusetts General Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics, have come to see the many times stunning, sometimes indescribable, beneficial effects that several of these banned substances have in treating mental illness.  From PTSD, to treatment-resistant depression, to anxiety and addictions, dozens of clinical trials have established, essentially without question, the benefits that many of these substances have proven to exert in treating a variety of mental health problems.  Two of these drugs – MDMA and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) – have clinically demonstrated such positive mental health effects that the U.S. FDA has granted both of them “breakthrough therapy status,” fast-tracking them for approval in clinical use.  Just this past December (2023), the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the U.S. leader in this field of psychedelic research, filed its New Drug Application (NDA) for MDMA.  It took almost 30 years to get to this point, and FDA approval for clinical is expected by the end of this year.

God willing, the millions of people that have suffered serious forms of mental illness with little relief from the “treatments” that Big Pharma has offered to date, will soon have several, much more effective options before them.  But it’s hard to think of the wasted time that was lost over the past 500 years of government incompetence and ignorance.

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