They’re experimenting with psychedelic drugs again over at UW-Madison.
No, we’re not talking about wide-eyed students in tie-dyed T-shirts walking along Picnic Point murmuring “Oh, Wow,” as they do their own “independent research” on spiritualism and self-actualization. That was the 1960s.
We’re talking about research, rigorously controlled clinical research, with human trials to see if long-banned drugs like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) can be used to treat depression or addiction. UW researchers are testing MDMA (think of the club drug known as Ecstasy or molly) to determine if it can boost psychotherapy for treating post traumatic stress disorder.
As chronicled by staff writer Preston Schmitt in the current issue of “On Wisconsin,” the UW’s alumni magazine, the door effectively slammed shut on psychedelics research in 1971 when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which declared psilocybin, LSD and later MDMA had “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
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“It was highly unlikely that researchers would have received the necessary federal approvals to continue such studies,” Schmitt told us, “And in that climate, given the cultural and political backlash there was little willpower to do so.”
That head-in-the-sand approach to psychedelic research lasted for decades.
“That landscape shifted abruptly in 2006 when Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins (University) published a new psilocybin study titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”, Schmitt told us. “Researchers at NYU followed it with a landmark study on psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The floodgates opened, since it was then clear that institutional review boards were willing to approve rigorous study proposals with psychedelics (deeming the scientific inquiry legitimate), and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) were willing to provide the necessary exemptions for researchers to access the drugs.”
The UW tip-toed back into psychedelic research with a clinical trial eight years ago.
In “On Wisconsin”, Schmitt wrote, “Half a century later (after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act), the UW’s research team is forging ahead. This fall the School of Pharmacy is starting classes for its first-of-a-kind master’s program in psychoactive pharmaceutical investigation. Over the summer, the UW launched the Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances, with more than a dozen affiliated faculty members across the humanities and sciences.”
And the clinical trials of psychedelics at UW and other institutions are showing promise. One such study, co-authored by UW researchers and reported in “Nature Medicine” last spring “reported that 67 percent of participants who received MDMA during three therapy sessions no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis after 18 weeks, compared to 32 percent who received a placebo with therapy. In the MDMA group, 88 percent of participants experienced a clinical meaningful reduction in symptoms.”
After decades of being shunned as a research opportunity to gain insights and knowledge, the UW is back on track to follow its pledge as expressed in the plaque on Bascom Hall that “the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
It’s difficult to follow the science when there is no scientific research.
As one UW scientist, pharmacy professor Paul Hutson, who spent much of his three-decade career studying chemotherapy drugs, said in the alumni magazine report: “It (psychedelic research) is going to save lives, quite honestly.”
That’s the hope. And it’s a good one. We hope the science bears it out.