As a society, one important issue that we constantly address is societal safety. How do we go about identifying potential dangers to ensure our safety? We start trends! One trend that has helped society become a safer place today was developing a slogan pertaining to distracted driving stating, “when you’re distracted, who’s driving?” to ensure that we all think twice before using our phones or devices while driving to prevent more car accidents annually. We know the dangers of distracted driving because numerous studies performed by various research institutions and universities have shown that our attention can decrease significantly by simply performing smaller tasks such as listening to music while driving in comparison to driving without distractors. Unfortunately, not every societal trend is based on factual evidence. One prime example of this is the stigma surrounding psychedelics beginning in the 1960s because of how addictive they were said to be leading President Richard Nixon to declare a War on Drugs in 1971.
Despite growing support from society to adopt the trend of saying no to drugs over the years (referring to the “just say no” Nancy Reagan used), there were scientific studies on psychedelics essentially being ignored to push for the stigmatization of psychedelics.
Before the current stigmatization of psychedelics, psychedelics were used for therapeutic reasons. Before the ban on psychedelic research in the 1960s, psychedelics were widely researched by various scientists at universities around the United States on their effects. One notable scientist who shifted our thinking about the potential of psychedelics was Timothy Leary. Leary believed that psychedelics had the potential to play an instrumental role in enhancing therapy causing an increase in exploration with psychedelics either experimentally or recreationally throughout the country. This exploration has in turn treated 40,000 patients (Belouin and Henningfield, 2018).
What are the therapeutic benefits to using psychedelics? How have psychedelics been used to treat patients? To better understand the stigmatization of psychedelics, it is important to highlight how psychedelics have impacted patients.
Despite beliefs from the 1960s onward, psychedelic research shows us that psychedelics have positive effects on mental health and addictions. British psychiatrist Ronald Sandison and his research team attempted to explore how lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) treated mental illnesses specifically schizophrenia and patients that exhibited extreme manic and depressive episodes. Sandison and his team found that there was evidence that suggested that LSD could be a potential treatment for those two types of mental illnesses showing a significant success rate (Sandison, Spencer, and Whitelaw, 1954). Moreover, J. Ross MacLean and his team decided to also examine psychiatric traits that were more similar among mental illnesses while also looking into LSD as a potential treatment for alcoholism. MacLean and his team concluded that LSD, similar to Sandison and his team, could be a potential treatment for those psychiatric traits; the researchers also concluded that LSD also served as a potential treatment with a significant number of participants who were alcoholics recovering as a result of LSD. Currently, research continues to share similar results to studies conducting before the ban on psychedelics in the 1960s using psilocybin in addition to LSD (Bogenschutz et al., 2015; González-Maesoa and Sealfon, 2009).
Despite the overall therapeutic benefits that psychedelics possess, the rise in usage ultimately frightened the United States government. One major question is why would society fear a potential treatment for mental illnesses and additions?
When looking at the time period in which psychedelics were banned from research labs across the nation, during the 1960s, the Vietnam War began. United States involvement in the war left the nation essentially divided along with a list of other issues. At the time, many government officials viewed ideologies that aligned with ending involvement in the war and civil rights as a potential threat to the nation. Many young people who did possess these ideologies were inspired by Leary along with the use of psychedelics (Belouin and Henningfield, 2018). In 1968, the Johnson Administration created the Controlled Substances Act that essentially classified drugs as being a schedule number between 1 and 5 with 1 being the most addictive/dangerous with psychedelics being classified as schedule 1 (Spillane and McAllister, 2003).
When looking at the language surrounding schedule 1 substances in the above image, the language alone creates this notion that any substance categorized here immediately possesses dangerous elements. Interestingly, when looking at the schedule 2 substances, there are substances such as methamphetamine that are now known to be more dangerous substances are considered to be a lower tier than psychedelics. Moreover, possession of any of these substances led to consequences such as jail time, which only intensified when the Reagan Administration came into office. With the creation of the Controlled Substance Act, the stigmatization of psychedelics begins, while simultaneously disregarding any previous research focused on the benefits of psychedelics. The Act further allowed the continuous spread of misinformation that is still largely accepted by society despite more acceptance towards the science of psychedelics.
The development of the Act allowed society to accept psychedelics as a dangerous substance despite research stating otherwise. Another potential contributor to the stigmatization of psychedelics revolve around pharmaceutical companies. The studies previously mentioned have shown that the effects of psychedelics on those illnesses and addictions have long lasting effects. When thinking about the business model for a pharmaceutical company, using psychedelics as a treatment would decrease annual profits due to the decreased demand for pharmaceuticals. In addition, pharmaceuticals American author Michael Pollan mentioned that antidepressants are beginning to lose their effects overtime causing patients to spend more money on antidepressants (Pollan, 274). With the continued stigmatization on psychedelics, pharmaceutical companies continue to maintain their annual profits.
Often times in life we hear the expression “some things are too good to be true”. In this instance, the potential for using psychedelics as treatments seems like a dream. Despite the current stigmatization, there is still hope. Like with distracted driving, showing evidence of research to the general audience became more accepted to emphasize the importance. The evidence surrounding distracted driving allowed for society to embrace more focused driving to protect others. In the same manner, by normalizing data analyses among the general public, just like distracted driving, we can learn to embrace the benefits of psychedelics to help other overcome certain struggles for a better society built on truth and science.
Belouin, S. J., & Henningfield, J. E. (2018). Psychedelics: Where we are now, why we got here, what we must do. Neuropharmacology, 142, 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.02.018
Bogenschutz, M. P., Forcehimes, A. A., Pommy, J. A., Wilcox, C. E., Barbosa, P. C. R., & Strassman, R. J. (2015). Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(3), 289–299. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881114565144
González-Maeso, J., & Sealfon, S. C. (2009). Psychedelics and schizophrenia. Trends in Neurosciences, 32(4), 225–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2008.12.005
Jacobs, H. (2016). The DEA treats heroin and marijuana as equally dangerous drugs. Insider.
MacLean, J. R., MacDonald, D. C., Byrne, U. P., & Hubbard, A. M. (1961). The Use of LSD-25 in the Treatment of Alcoholism and Other Psychiatric Problems. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 22(1), 34–45. https://doi.org/10.15288/qjsa.1961.22.034
Pollan, M. (2019). How to change your mind the new science of psychedelics. Penguin Books.
Sandison, R. A., Spencer, A. M., & Whitelaw, J. D. (1954). The Therapeutic Value of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide in Mental Illness. Journal of Mental Science, 100(419), 491–507. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.100.419.491
Spillane, J., & McAllister, W. B. (2003). Keeping the lid on: a century of drug regulation and control. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 70(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/s0376-8716(03)00096-6