By SAMANTHA MARMET
Art By URNA BAJRACHARYA
In 1938, chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) from ergot, a fungus that grows on rye. A few years later, Hofmann discovered its psychoactive effects during the first intentional LSD trip. The 1950s then marked the golden age of psychedelic research: more than 40,000 patients were administered therapeutic doses of LSD and a thousand scientific papers citing its medicinal benefits were published. LSD is a promising treatment for a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses, including depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
LSD is a powerful mood-altering drug that distorts the user’s perception of reality. It is a serotonin receptor agonist and a classified empathogen (a drug that enhances feelings of empathy and connectedness.) A recent study published by the University of California shows that LSD can profoundly change neuronal structure by encouraging neurons to grow more dendritic branches and spines; in other words, more neuron growth to forge new connections. This finding may be the key to successful treatment because many mental illnesses are characterized by atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls anxiety and regulates mood. Neuron growth also causes substantial changes to the brain’s default mode network, or DMN, which is thought to support cognitive processes and promote unconstrained thinking through its restriction on brain states that limit the content of our conscious experience. As Aldous Huxley wrote, LSD “opens the doors of perception,” consequently boosting mood, promoting creativity, and reducing anxiety and depression in terminally ill cancer patients, according to recent studies. LSD can be an alternative to pharmaceuticals like SSRIs that have inconsistent effects but are prescribed for a variety of conditions, such as anxiety, treatment resistant depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the growing promise of LSD for medicinal use, the stigma of its Schedule I status pervades its reputation. The ways we think about and classify drugs and substance use is socially constructed: the discourse is framed by the political and social institutions that stigmatize the substance and its users.
In June 1971, President Richard Nixon formally declared a “War on Drugs,” citing drug use as a public enemy and proposing strict measures to heavily criminalize it. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) created five classifications of substances and their penalties. Today, Schedule I drugs include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana, ecstasy, psilocybin (shrooms), and peyote. The schedulization of drugs is a social construct that creates policies which systematically discriminate against and criminalize drug users. Following the footsteps of Nixon, President Ronald Reagan expanded the “War on Drugs” by privatizing the prison system, eliminating probation and parole for drug offenses, and instituting harsher penalties for possession of small amounts of narcotics. The stigma against drug users is further perpetuated by the US education system. Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” campaign designated addiction as a choice rather than a chronic disease and public health issue. It was followed by the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, a curriculum now regarded as one of the most ineffective primary prevention programs. When I was nine years old, I formally pledged to my elementary school that I would dare to resist drugs and violence. This was soon after I visited my favorite uncle in a California Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center where he was in recovery for his addiction.
The inner cities were ravaged by thecrack cocaine epidemic from the early 1980s to the 1990s. Today, America is facing another drug epidemic in the form of Schedule II prescription and synthetic opioids. Yet, psychedelic substances remain Schedule I, a higher regulatory category and a greater criminal offense than the prescription pills that kill more than 130 Americans each day. The crackdown on LSD coincided with its status as a symbol for growing counter-culture movements and anti-Vietnam War sentiments. Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act required FDA permission for LSD to be used on research subjects, greatly limiting the scope of studies. By 1970, the Controlled Substances Act criminalized the use and distribution of LSD, consequently cutting all its federal funding for research. Was the criminalization of LSD the action of a loving government concerned for the health and safety of its citizens, or was it an excuse to lock up political protesters? John Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon, was quoted in an interview:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Interpret that how you will.
In order to make progress we must question authority and investigate the power structures that uphold the status quo. The criminalization of drugs, particularly psychedelics, is a product of politics rather than a legitimate concern for health and wellness. We have lost fifty years of research on a drug that has the potential to serve as an alternative medicine for the millions of patients who are non-responsive to traditional therapies. Eliminating the schedulization of psychedelics and implementing state-governed systems of regulation will make psychedelic research less burdensome and expensive, finally allowing LSD to be medicalized.