ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
In 1966, psychedelic drug advocate and former Harvard professor Timothy Leary appeared on "The Merv Griffin Show."
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RATH: You can tell that sounded completely insane to the studio audience. It was the late 1960s, the summer of love, the massive anti-war protests and experimentation with psychedelic drugs. The authorities cracked down on hallucinogens, reclassifying them as Schedule I drugs, meaning they had no known medical use. Research on the medical uses of LSD and other psychedelics was effectively shut down. Today, scientists are picking up where Timothy Leary and others left off. Psychedelic research is back, and that's our cover story today.
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RATH: Back in the '50s and '60s, Stanislav Grof was one of the leading researchers on the therapeutic applications of LSD and other hallucinogens. He studied their effects on mental disorders, including addiction. Grof says LSD seemed to accelerate treatment of mental illness exponentially. Some alcoholics even appeared to be cured, never touching a drink again after their LSD session.
DR. STANISLAV GROF: It was quite extraordinary. This was a tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process. And compared with the therapy in general, which mostly focuses on suppression of symptoms, here, we had something that could actually get to the core of the problems.
RATH: But the pervasive image of LSD was as a recreational drug and not a medicine. By the 1970s, research had been stigmatized. But in the 1990s, attitudes began to change. There was a flurry of studies on psychedelic drugs. By the 2000s, there was a small but growing research community picking up where Grof and others had left off. One area that showed promise was using hallucinogens to ease anxiety and depression in patients with cancer. Patients like Erica Rex.
ERICA REX: I was diagnosed with breast cancer stage 2 in 2009, on April Fools' Day, great day to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Even if people are happy to spout statistics at you about your chances for survival, that's not exactly what happens in emotional or human terms. I went through the treatment, and there's a group of drugs called aromatase inhibitors. They have extreme side effects, and that can also include depression, which, for me, it did.
RATH: Erica told me she became obsessed with the possibility of her death. It was crippling. And then Rex found out she might qualify for a depression study using an experimental drug: psilocybin. It's an active compound in psychedelic mushrooms. Just to get into the study was an ordeal - tons of lab tests, days at the hospital and then a very intense psychological workup with some probing questions.
REX: One that stuck out was, do you think that people on the television or the radio are saying things specifically to you or that there are coded messages in advertising, stuff like that. It's like having five years of therapy or psychoanalysis stuffed into three days. It was exhausting.
RATH: But at the end of it all, she was approved for the study. She would be given two doses of the hallucinogen in two separate sessions, with trained guides sitting with her as the drugs took effect. Now, what she's about to describe is an intense drug experience, a trip. It's also a science experiment. Her experience began in a windowless room.
REX: The setting is basically a room, an office or a hospital room, and it's been decorated with sort of lots of hangings, and it looks like a sitting room. It's comfortable enough. They have a blood pressure machine because they take your blood pressure every 15 minutes or half an hour during the whole experience.
RATH: So then you take the hallucinogen psilocybin. What does a psilocybin pill look like?
REX: It was a little purple capsule. You take the capsule, you drink a whole cup of water, and you have an eyeshade on and you have earphones on through which there's music. They have a very elaborately, thought-out music track that they play throughout the day that doesn't - essentially doesn't repeat. It started out being very ecclesiastical.
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REX: The music became very absorbing and involved. I mean, it went to symphonic music, which I prefer and which was much better, and then kind of world music, you know, things that were more kind of indigenous-type music from foreign countries.
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REX: It was a journey. There was a progression of things that happened. There was one that was very particular in which I was being confronted by a little boy with a slingshot who had his arm sort of braced in a tree and was ready to shoot a pebble at me.
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REX: And then that was one image. And then something funny happened, and I started laughing. And my laughter was then jewels, like sparkling jewels or a starlight pouring out of a sky - an aperture in the sky. I can't verbalize it because people want it to be described as though it were a dream, and it's not. It is actual. So it is as real as my sitting on the bed clutching this microphone, and it's all entirely real.
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RATH: But it wasn't all starlight and laughter.
REX: I became nauseated. There were parts of the struggle with nausea that brought back things, issues that were from my family, from my young life that were excruciating and upset me a whole lot. At the very end of the day, as I recall, the last song that is played at the end of whatever it is, six hours, is "Here Comes the Sun." And then you go spend an evening with a trusted person and write up everything that you can possibly remember.
RATH: Coming away from this now with some distance from it, how has it affected your depression?
REX: I'm much better. I am able to plan. I don't sit around obsessing about what the future may hold nearly as much.
RATH: Erica Rex tells me her depression lifted and her life is undoubtedly better. But as much as the psychedelic experience helped her, some authorities say there are significant questions about whether they are safe and effective for everyone. Glen Hanson is a senior adviser for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
GLEN HANSON: I think there still needs to be an asterisk next to it. I don't think that it looks like a brand-new antidepressant. There are enough people who've gotten into trouble with these things. And we know that there's this lack of predictability.
RATH: Hanson says the main problem with hallucinogens is that they affect people in wildly different ways.
HANSON: There are people who get into trouble with these drugs. Usually, these are folks who have emotional disturbances already in place and you superimpose - like an LSD - on someone that's a schizophrenic, and you don't know what you're going to get. Because that's almost the definition of hallucinogens is you go in and you scramble the chemistry of the brain. And if it's already "scrambled" - again I put that in quotation marks - but if it's already abnormal, where are you going to end up with this person?
RATH: Remember all those questions Erica Rex had to answer before her session about voices in the TV and coded messages? Those were meant to screen out people who might have trouble. But Hanson says questions like that aren't foolproof. Charles Grob is at UCLA, and he's one of the few researchers actually studying medical uses of psychedelic drugs. Even he agrees there are reasons to be cautious but thinks federal regulations are still too strict.
CHARLES GROB: Our work, we feel we've demonstrated very good safety, as have the other researchers in the field. Where the risks come in are in a recreational setting where naive individuals who really don't know what they're getting into take it under adverse conditions, often mix it with alcohol or other drugs. That's where you have the serious potential for adverse outcome.
RATH: Can we talk about the current regulations with research on these drugs? What sort of restrictions are there? What sort of hoops do you have to jump through?
GROB: For starters, you have to go through FDA. You then have to go through the DEA. And then in California, we have our own kind of instate oversight body that looks at all research with Schedule 1 drugs, and that's the Research Advisory Panel of California. So many hoops to jump through. To work in this area, one has to be very patient.
RATH: You talked about how thanks to Timothy Leary and folks like that there have been kind of a stigma. Does that persist? Is it difficult to get funding?
GROB: Well, it's - funding is very challenging. It has not been possible to get funding from the National Institutes of Health, at least up to now, for funding these kinds of projects. Hopefully that will change and hopefully in the near future there may be some opportunity to see some progress in that arena. But up to now, all of our funding has come from private sources, which is, at times, particularly in a difficult economy, a difficult task.
RATH: Despite the difficulty finding funding, Charles Grob and others are pressing on.
GROB: I think we need to recognize the '60s are over. They're long gone. Timothy Leary is dead. Moody Blues sang that a long time ago when he wasn't dead but now he really is dead. He's off the stage. And I believe we're on the threshold of some very exciting discoveries that the health field can only benefit from.
RATH: Grob has been approved to begin a new study next month using the drug ecstasy to treat social anxiety in adults with autism. Timothy Leary may be dead, but a new debate over the use of psychedelics is just getting started.
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