TRIP OF A LIFE­TIME

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An in­creas­ing num­ber of over­stressed and anx­ious Aus­tralians are ditch­ing mod­ern medicine and reach­ing for psychedeli­cs to treat their men­tal health.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of over­stressed and anx­ious Aus­tralians are ditch­ing mod­ern medicine and reach­ing for psychedeli­cs to treat their men­tal health. But just how ef­fec­tive – and safe - are magic mush­rooms, ayahuasca and green smooth­ies laced with LSD? By Fiona MacDonald.

AUS­TRALIANS HAVE NEVER been so med­i­cated, or so un­happy. Al­most one in 10 adult Aus­tralians take an­tide­pres­sants daily – one of the high­est rates of use in the world, and one which has dou­bled since 2000. At the same time, the ef­fec­tive­ness of the drugs has dropped. It seems the most com­monly pre­scribed med­i­ca­tions are hardly more ef­fec­tive than a sug­ary placebo.

It’s no won­der then that peo­ple are seek­ing out al­ter­na­tive mood boost­ers. In­creas­ingly, these op­tions have been com­ing in the form of psychedeli­cs: ly­ser­gic acid di­ethy­lamide (LSD), magic mush­rooms, ayahuasca and MDMA, to name just a few. They’re drugs more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with the free-love days of Wood­stock or the haze of Joshua Tree sun­rises and yet they’ve found their way into doc­tor’s of­fices, the tech com­pa­nies of Sil­i­con Val­ley and even sub­ur­ban homes in Aus­tralia.

If you’re a close fol­lower of the tech world, you might al­ready be fa­mil­iar with the so-called ‘psy­che­delic re­nais­sance’. Over the past five years, there’s been a grow­ing num­ber of ar­ti­cles pub­lished on Sil­i­con Val­ley’s ob­ses­sion with psychedeli­cs and their anec­do­tal abil­ity to ex­pand con­scious­ness, un­lock cre­ativ­ity and re­move road­blocks to heal­ing. The late Steve Jobs was a fan, and the il­licit use of the drugs has be­come so es­tab­lished that a 2015 Forbes story ques­tioned whether mi­cro­dos­ing – the prac­tice of tak­ing tiny doses of LSD or magic mush­rooms daily, some­times mixed into smooth­ies – was the “new job en­hancer in Sil­i­con Val­ley”.

It seems the rest of the world has now caught up. Doc­u­ment­ing re­cent sci­en­tific tri­als and his own ex­per­i­ments, US jour­nal­ist Michael Pol­lan took the idea of psychedeli­cs main­stream last year, with his best­seller How to Change Your Mind. Aus­tralian au­thor Liane Mo­ri­arty, of Big Lit­tle Lies fame, also touched on the sub­ject in her lat­est novel Nine Per­fect Strangers, set at a cut­ting-edge (and slightly creepy) well­ness re­treat. Closer to home, Aus­tralians are go­ing to ex­treme lengths to ac­cess these drugs, whether for ther­a­peu­tic or heal­ing pro­cesses, or just to find their way back to a bet­ter ver­sion of them­selves.

Grace (who asked not to be iden­ti­fied by her ac­tual name) has suf­fered from anx­i­ety since she was 19. The now 39-year-old mother of two lives in Syd­ney and has spent the bet­ter part of the past decade tak­ing the an­tide­pres­sant Zoloft, and go­ing through tra­di­tional ther­apy with­out much ben­e­fit. While her symp­toms were oc­ca­sion­ally man­aged, she still strug­gled with con­stant neg­a­tive thoughts about her­self, and the all-too-fa­mil­iar bat­tle of never feel­ing good enough.

Two years ago, she de­cided to come off the med­i­ca­tion and try a more holis­tic ap­proach, in­clud­ing med­i­ta­tion, yoga and en­ergy heal­ing. It was through these cir­cles she be­gan to learn more about the an­cient South and Cen­tral Amer­i­can rit­ual of drink­ing ayahuasca (pro­nounced eye- ah- wah- ska), a plant known to be rich in the hal­lu­cino­genic com­pound dimethyl­tryptamine (DMT).

DMT, like LSD, has been shown to qui­eten down a part of the brain in the pre­frontal cor­tex called the ‘de­fault mode net­work’. It acts like a con­duc­tor of our brain, con­trol­ling which of our thoughts sur­face to con­scious­ness, and of­ten ap­pears overly ac­tive in peo­ple with con­di­tions such as ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der and de­pres­sion.

“The more I re­searched it, the more I be­gan to re­alise the in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful heal­ing ben­e­fits,” says Grace. “Ayahuasca is of­ten likened to con­dens­ing a life­time of ther­apy into a sin­gle night. I would cer­tainly agree with that, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced what I did.”

Last Oc­to­ber, she trav­elled to Costa Rica to try the plant her­self. Dur­ing a week-long re­treat she drank ayahuasca brew, an earthy tea in­fused with na­tive plants, four times, as part of an hours-long overnight rit­ual passed down through gen­er­a­tions and de­liv­ered by ex­pe­ri­enced shamans.

Ac­cord­ing to Grace, the ex­pe­ri­ence was one of the most pro­found and chal­leng­ing of her life. Dur­ing the hal­lu­cino­genic trips she ex­pe­ri­enced mo­ments of in­tense dark and light, deal­ing with past trauma and hurt in her life. Over­all, it left her feel­ing as though she’d bro­ken through a wall.

“I find it a chal­lenge to try to de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence, as it’s al­most not of this world,” she ex­plains. “I felt this warmth, this un­prece­dented peace and love for my­self and for ev­ery­one. To feel that re­lief from the anx­i­ety … I just felt so lucky to have this ex­pe­ri­ence.”

There were also mea­sur­able ben­e­fits. Upon her re­turn home, Grace found her so­cial anx­i­ety had lifted for the first time in her adult life. She could sud­denly stand in line wait­ing for cof­fee and spark up a con­ver­sa­tion with the barista. She felt lighter, freer.

Grace’s ex­pe­ri­ence is one that’s mir­rored not only across anec­do­tal ac­counts, but also in­creas­ingly in sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture.

In a study pub­lished ear­lier this year, re­searchers gave the plant to 29 pa­tients with stub­born, treat­ment-re­sis­tant de­pres­sion. Im­me­di­ately, 64 per cent saw im­proved symp­toms af­ter tak­ing the psy­che­delic, com­pared to only 27 per cent who took a placebo.

Psychedeli­cs come with rel­a­tively few phys­i­cal side-ef­fects com­pared to tra­di­tional an­tide­pres­sants, too, says psy­chol­o­gist Dr Stephen Bright, a lec­turer at Edith Cowan Uni­ver­sity in West­ern Aus­tralia and a found­ing mem­ber of not-for-profit psychedeli­cs re­search group Psy­che­delic Re­search in Science & Medicine (PRISM). Most of the drugs used to treat de­pres­sion, in­clud­ing MDMA, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in ec­stasy, can be neu­ro­toxic, but gen­er­ally only in very high doses. And LSD is known for be­ing dif­fi­cult to over­dose on, some­thing that’s hard to say about other drugs we use reg­u­larly to­day, in­clud­ing al­co­hol. As many of us are aware, tra­di­tional an­tide­pres­sants also come with their own list of po­ten­tial side-ef­fects, from low li­bido and ar­rhyth­mia to nau­sea and in­som­nia.

“Most neg­a­tive side-ef­fects from psychedeli­cs aren’t be­cause of the drug, but due to its use in an il­licit en­vi­ron­ment,” says Dr Bright. “If these drugs are taken in a clin­i­cal set­ting with pure prod­ucts, then most of those po­ten­tial harms are con­trolled.”

This is some­thing that was al­ready well es­tab­lished in the 1960s. Back then, LSD was less of a party drug and more the psy­chi­a­trist’s med­i­ca­tion of choice, used to as­sist ther­apy. Be­tween 1950 and 1965, it was pre­scribed to about 40,000 pa­tients, with more than 1,000 aca­demic papers pub­lished on the topic.

But by 1971, in the fall­out from Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’, LSD and magic mush­rooms, as well as cannabis, were all ranked as Sched­ule 1 drugs in the US, along­side heroin. This is the class­ing for il­licit sub­stances that al­legedly have “no cur­rently ac­cepted med­i­cal treat­ment”, with a “high po­ten­tial for abuse”, and as such their use in sci­en­tific stud­ies was pro­hib­ited. MDMA briefly re­placed them in neu­ro­science re­search, but by 1986 it was also marked Sched­ule 1. (In Aus­tralia we call them Sched­ule 9 drugs, but the clas­si­fi­ca­tion is the same.)

For al­most 40 years, re­searchers barely men­tioned psychedeli­cs. But things are shift­ing. In a huge break­through in 2015, re­searchers at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don gave vol­un­teers LSD, placed them in fMRI ma­chines and saw their brains spark a wealth of new con­nec­tions, of­ten be­tween parts of the brain that don’t typ­i­cally com­mu­ni­cate.

Psilo­cy­bin (pro­nounced si-luh-sai-bin), the key in­gre­di­ent in magic mush­rooms, was also shown in 2015 to suc­cess­fully re­duce de­pres­sion symp­toms af­ter just a sin­gle dose in pa­tients who have ex­hausted all other med­i­ca­tions. It’s now be­ing fast-tracked by the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA).

Progress has been slower in Aus­tralia, with our re­search and po­lit­i­cal cli­mate no­to­ri­ously con­ser­va­tive on the is­sue of drugs, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the de­lay on medic­i­nal cannabis.

But ear­lier this year PRISM ob­tained ap­proval to give psilo­cy­bin to 30 ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients at St Vin­cent’s Hos­pi­tal in Mel­bourne to ease their endof-life anx­i­ety and cri­sis. It’s a phase II trial, which is the sec­ond-last step be­fore a gov­ern­ment’s reg­u­la­tory body can ap­prove a new drug. If the re­sults are pos­i­tive, it could be sooner rather than later that the gov­ern­ment will need to de­cide whether it will al­low psychedeli­cs to be pre­scribed.

What’s im­por­tant to note, Dr Bright stresses, is that it’s not the drug it­self that’s a magic bul­let. In the vast ma­jor­ity of tri­als, psy­che­delic sub­stances are only taken a cou­ple of times to help open up the mind: it’s still ther­apy that does the hard work.

It’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion to make, par­tic­u­larly given Dr Bright of­ten gets emails ask­ing him how to ac­cess the sub­stances il­le­gally. In­deed, Grace par­tic­i­pated in an un­der­ground ayahuasca cer­e­mony in By­ron Bay on her re­turn from Costa Rica, but this time around it made her more anx­ious, as the shamans weren’t ex­pe­ri­enced enough. And sev­eral sub­jects of off-the-record case stud­ies who spoke to Vogue are al­ready tak­ing part in psy­che­delic ses­sions held by ther­a­pists in their clin­ics af­ter hours.

Un­til these treat­ments are avail­able in con­trolled set­tings with trained prac­ti­tion­ers, they’re not some­thing Dr Bright can rec­om­mend. “If peo­ple are do­ing it in an un­reg­u­lated en­vi­ron­ment with­out qual­ity con­trol, it can be dan­ger­ous,” he says. “With these drugs, the en­vi­ron­men­tal set­ting re­ally is ev­ery­thing.”

This is some­thing that 29-year-old Melissa Warner knows well. She’s the ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer at Mind Medicine Aus­tralia, a char­ity that helps fund psy­che­delic re­search for men­tal health, in­clud­ing the St Vin­cent’s trial. Warner was study­ing neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne when she be­came in­ter­ested in

“Most side­ef­fects from psychedeli­cs are due to use in an il­licit en­vi­ron­ment. If these drugs are taken in a clin­i­cal set­ting with pure prod­ucts, most of those harms are con­trolled”

psychedeli­cs. She’d never ac­tu­ally taken any (“I was the nerdy, video game-play­ing, science-lov­ing kid,” she says), but she was in­trigued by the re­search.

Then, in her fi­nal year of uni­ver­sity, she was sex­u­ally as­saulted, a trauma that left her with se­vere post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD). “My mind and per­son­al­ity com­pletely changed; I be­came in­su­lar and dis­con­nected. I dropped out of uni for a time,” she ex­plains. “I tried con­ven­tional psy­chother­apy, but I couldn’t go back to the mem­ory with­out hav­ing a panic at­tack.”

This is some­thing that’s com­mon for PTSD suf­fer­ers, and one of the key rea­sons ther­apy can fail. Know­ing that the rate of suc­cess for an­tide­pres­sants and PTSD was only around 20 to 30 per cent, she con­vinced her par­ents she should go to Por­tu­gal, a coun­try where psychedeli­cs have been de­crim­i­nalised, to take part in a MDMAas­sisted ther­apy ses­sion. She de­scribes the af­ter­math of the ex­pe­ri­ence as wak­ing up from a deep, dark night­mare.

“I hadn’t re­alised how trapped I was at the mo­ment of my trauma,” she says. “With the MDMA-as­sisted ther­apy, I was able to re­con­nect to my­self. I no longer had flash­backs and could talk about the trauma. It be­came an in­spi­ra­tion to help oth­ers.”

This is be­cause MDMA acts on sero­tonin re­cep­tors, which are trig­gered when we feel happy and re­laxed. “When the brain re­calls some­thing, it doesn’t just take it out of the fil­ing cab­i­net, read it and put it back. It takes it out, shreds it and rewrites it,” says Warner. “By re­mem­ber­ing a trau­matic mem­ory on MDMA, which in­duces those feel­ings of safety and com­pas­sion, you re-en­code that mem­ory, al­ter­ing the emo­tional tone.

“It’s not a panacea; I still had to do work to get my con­fi­dence back and my trust back, but it helped me to break through the big­gest hur­dle,” she says.

Two ma­jor tri­als on MDMA-as­sisted ther­apy and PTSD are now wrap­ping up in North Amer­ica and Europe. In the US study, an in­cred­i­ble 68 per cent of treat­ment-re­sis­tant pa­tients no longer had PTSD one year af­ter their MDMA-as­sisted ther­apy ses­sions. Some of them had been suf­fer­ing for decades.

Phase III tri­als are about to be­gin over­seas, and Mind Medicine Aus­tralia pre­dicts that by 2021 MDMA could be ap­proved by the FDA in the US – and Aus­tralia may not be far be­hind.

We’ve al­ready seen how quickly things can shift in the case of ke­tamine. While not a psy­che­delic, it has tra­di­tion­ally been con­sid­ered a party drug, and yet re­ports pub­lished in 2013 showed that ke­tamine could ease symp­toms of se­vere de­pres­sion in up to 75 per cent of cases, com­pared to roughly 60 per cent for cur­rent an­tide­pres­sants. Cut to this year and a new nasal spray an­tide­pres­sant based on ke­tamine was ap­proved by the FDA.

If MDMA does get ap­proved as a medicine, it’ll open the door for fur­ther psy­che­delic re­search – and not just on men­tal ill­ness, but over­all well­ness and cre­ativ­ity, just like the self-pre­scribed ex­per­i­ments cur­rently hap­pen­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

LSD mi­cro­dos­ing is a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non, be­cause it only in­volves tak­ing around 1/10th of a dose of LSD daily, which on paper shouldn’t do much to brain ac­tiv­ity. Of course, im­pacts may vary, de­pend­ing on the in­di­vid­ual. While self-re­port­ing sug­gests mi­cro­dos­ing can have pro­found ef­fects, there are still very few clin­i­cal tri­als that have been pub­lished on the topic, which means it’s still too early to know if they’re ef­fec­tive. But, in­ter­est­ingly, some of the ear­li­est re­sults sug­gests it can al­ter peo­ple’s neu­roti­cism, one of the five key per­son­al­ity traits sci­en­tists have tra­di­tion­ally thought were fixed through­out a life­time.

One ad­vo­cate of mi­cro­dos­ing is Amanda Feild­ing, Count­ess of We­myss and March, and founder of the Beck­ley Foun­da­tion in the UK. She’s widely known as the driv­ing force be­hind the psy­che­delic re­nais­sance: it was her foun­da­tion that helped fund the first brain scans of re­search sub­jects un­der the in­flu­ence of LSD.

Now aged 76 and run­ning the in­sti­tute out of her fam­ily manor in Oxfordshir­e, she’s made no se­cret of reg­u­larly ex­per­i­ment­ing with psychedeli­cs and be­ing blown away by their in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial to im­prove cog­ni­tion and cre­ativ­ity.

“I’ve al­ways used my­self as a test sub­ject,” says Feild­ing. “Psychedeli­cs can of­fer a new kind of paradigm shift to how we ap­proach and treat men­tal ill­nesses but also well­be­ing – and that’s some­thing that we as a so­ci­ety des­per­ately need.”

She says mi­cro­dos­ing is one of her favourite ways to take the drug. It’s some­thing she did of­ten in her 20s, and found that it gave her a much greater edge in cre­ative pur­suits and also men­tal tasks. She’s now fund­ing sev­eral con­trolled tri­als aim­ing to prop­erly test and un­der­stand ex­actly how the process works, and how it can be op­ti­mised.

“My cur­rent hy­poth­e­sis is that it ba­si­cally changes your brain in the same way as a full dose but to a much re­duced ex­tent. So in­stead of re­ally shak­ing your brain’s con­trol sys­tem, you’re just slightly nudg­ing it. It’s like a psy­cho-vi­ta­min,” she says.

But Feild­ing also warns against self-ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, es­pe­cially with the amount of rogue sub­stances out there. “What we need now is much more qual­ity re­search to work out what these drugs can do and how we can best har­ness them,” she says.

While the cur­rent re­search is al­ready of­fer­ing hope to many with men­tal health is­sues, it’s still only the be­gin­ning. There are dozens more stud­ies in the works on psychedeli­cs, in­volv­ing ad­dic­tion, anx­i­ety and men­tal sharp­ness.

Feild­ing would also like to test whether the drugs could ben­e­fit the age­ing pop­u­la­tion and al­le­vi­ate some of the symp­toms of dementia and Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

It’s been al­most 50 years since the war on drugs shut down re­search on these cu­ri­ous sub­stances. That’s long enough for most of us to for­get they were ever more than the back­drop to the free love and good vibes of the 60s. But per­haps now sci­en­tists fi­nally have the tools to study what the drugs can do and ex­plore their pos­si­bil­i­ties for good.

“I com­pare tak­ing LSD to be­ing a good rider of a pow­er­ful horse,” says Feild­ing. “In the right, care­fully con­trolled, set­ting and with the right in­ten­tion, you could use the psy­che­delic to achieve what­ever you want.

“In my case back in the 60s, it was en­hanc­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion and well­be­ing and vi­tal­ity, but we don’t yet know what the real po­ten­tial is. I thought then and I still think now that’s an amaz­ing abil­ity for hu­man­ity.”

“Psychedeli­cs can of­fer a new kind of paradigm shift to how we ap­proach and treat men­tal ill­nesses but also well­be­ing – and that’s some­thing that we as a so­ci­ety des­per­ately need”

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