It’s not every day that a team of top-notch scientists calls for an illegal psychedelic drug to be made available as medicine.
But earlier this year, some of the leading researchers at Johns Hopkins University – people who’ve pioneered some of the highest-caliber studies on psychedelics’ therapeutic mental health potential – suggested that’s what should happen for a drug derived from magic mushrooms.
In a recent article published in the medical journal Neuropharmacology, four preeminent psychiatrists wrote that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, should be placed in the most lenient category by the Drug Enforcement Administration and made legally available through clinicians, pending final data from several ongoing clinical trials.
In essence, they argue, the potential benefits presented by psilocybin outweigh its possible harms.
The available evidence suggests they’re correct.
Although the DEA currently considers psilocybin a Schedule I drug “with no medical use,” the past decade has seen a resurgence of research on psychedelics’ therapeutic possibilities for treating psychiatric diseases like anxiety and depression. A large recent survey also suggested that magic mushrooms could be among the safest recreational drugs.
That suggests to several experts – including the authors of the recent article – that psilocybin should be handled differently than, say, heroin or bath salts (other Schedule I drugs).
“It is the opinion of the authors of this review that the original placement of psilocybin was the result of a substantial overestimation of the risk of harm and abuse potential,” they wrote.
The authors included Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professors of psychiatry Matthew Johnson, Roland Griffiths, and Jack Henningfield; as well as Peter Hendricks, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health.
A resurgence of interest in psychedelics as medicine
- Daiana Lorenz/Youtube
Over the past several years, a handful of studies have suggested that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin could help treat a range of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and PTSD.
One of those studies – a clinical trial published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2016 – was written by Griffiths and Johnson, two authors of the recent piece outlining why psilocybin should be made medically available. Griffiths’ and Johnson’s seminal work concluded that in people with a terminal cancer diagnosis, a single high dose of psilocybin appeared to help pull them out of severe depression and anxiety. On a press call after the study came out, Griffiths likened the treatment to “a surgical intervention” for the mental illnesses.
Since then, research into drugs like LSD, ecstasy, ketamine, and marijuana (which many experts consider to have psychedelic properties) has abounded. Last year, a study suggested that ecstasy could help veterans cope with PTSD symptoms. Another recent paper hinted that ketamine could be used to curb severe depression. Several more recent studies of psilocybin have suggested it might help treat obsessive-compulsive disorder as well.
“At this point, the data suggest that the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin-assisted therapy are real, and of potential medical and public health significance,” the four authors wrote in their recent article.
The findings on psychedelics are also garnering the attention of investors and tech moguls. Just last month, German entrepreneur Christian Angermeyer launched a new biotech company called Atai with the mission of backing more psychedelic mental health research. Compass Pathways, a research startup studying and producing psilocybin for depression, recently attracted backing from tech magnate Peter Thiel.
But the legal classifications of these drugs not be keeping adequate pace with the research or the investments.
‘Replacing fear and misinformation with scientifically based facts’
Despite the ongoing research, neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the DEA has announced an intent to reschedule psilocybin or any other psychedelic. But such a move could happen. It did recently with marijuana.
In June, the FDA approved the first medicine made with a compound from cannabis. Called Epidiolex, the drug treats two rare forms of epilepsy using CBD, a marijuana compound that’s not responsible for a high. As a result of the FDA’s green light, the DEA was forced to reclassify CBD.
“We don’t have a choice on that,” DEA public affairs officer Barbara Carreno told Business Insider in June. “It absolutely has to become Schedule 2, 3, 4, or 5.”
So this September, the DEA officially shifted its stance on marijuana for the first time in 46 years by putting CBD in Schedule 5 alongside substances like cough syrup and sleep aids – all drugs that the agency considers at the lowest risk of abuse or harm.
In their article on psilocybin, the authors write that it too should be placed in Schedule 5, pending its approval as a medicine. Some experts say that could happen as soon as 2027.
“Schedule I is for substances with a high potential for abuse, lack of therapeutic approval, and that cannot be used safely in medicine,” they write. “History of use and available scientific data show that the first criterion is questionable, and the third criterion is likely not true.”
Meanwhile, the research on psilocybin is continuing to blossom. Clinical trial results from Compass are expected before 2020; researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are currently enrolling patients in a study to see whether psilocybin could assist in group therapy to improve the mental health of long-term AIDS survivors; and scientists at New York University aim to study whether psilocybin could be used to treat alcoholism.
Johnson, Griffiths, Henningfield, and Hendricks seem to believe the future of those studies – and psilocybin’s potential – is bright.
“This area of regulatory science has the potential to facilitate innovative therapeutic breakthroughs by replacing fear and misinformation with scientifically based conclusions and facts,” they wrote.