Breaking the Cycle of Addiction, With Hallucinogens


Pictured are magic mushrooms for sale in a London market in 2005, before the U.K. made them illegal. For decades, researchers have been interested in how hallucinogens can affect addiction. Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Addiction has hit the United States hard, with over 20 million people reporting substance use disorders, according to the surgeon general's 2016 report. And so, despite decades of stigma, studies into using hallucinogenic drugs to treat addictions are coming back into scientific vogue.

Take a trip with Ben and Matt to discover the pros and cons of this research — and the conspiracies that accompany it — in this Stuff They Don't Want You to Know podcast, Can hallucinogens cure addiction?

Addiction is essentially a disease targeting the reward system in your brain; when you do drugs, you feel good. The brain is exactly where hallucinogens affect us the most, and studies have shown that they can permanently alter harmful behaviors like addictions.

This idea isn't new. Timothy Leary's famous Harvard Psilocybin Project from 1960-1963 tried to find out whether scripted, guided trips on psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, could help with addiction to alcohol. Since then, many more studies have followed that show that the psychedelic MDMA (Ecstasy) can help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psilocybin can aid with cancer anxiety and that LSD can be used to treat alcoholism. Perhaps most promising is ibogaine, a type of bark used in shamanistic rituals for centuries. It can stop addiction in the brain by binding to our pleasure receptors and essentially stopping the reward/pleasure sensation in its tracks. It's not that the itch becomes less pleasurable to scratch but rather that the itch isn't there at all.

Don't get excited. Your doctor won't be prescribing tabs of acid anytime soon. Although it's been argued that the intense, introspective experience many people have on these drugs is as essential to their healing benefits as their chemical properties, most aren't convinced. Many of these tests are trying to synthesize versions of the drugs incorporating the health benefits but not the hallucinogenic effects.

Which brings us back to our original point. If addiction is such an enormous issue in the U.S., why has it taken so long to start studying these effects in earnest? The Nixon administration's 1970 Controlled Substance Act, which put hallucinogens, as well as marijuana and heroin, in the most strictly regulated category of Schedule I, is one key reason. That categorization made it nearly impossible to get funding, permission or the necessary drugs to conduct studies. The popular hippie movement co-opting hallucinogens for "mind trips" also contributed to an academic stigma in studying them, one that lingers to this day.

Conspiracy theorists would note that governments have no problem dabbling in the drug trade. The Opium Wars of the 1800s and even the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic in the United States stand as examples of that. Keeping these drugs illegal helps keep that source of revenue open. Or are these studies possibly being stopped by the pharmaceutical industry? After all, arguably more money can be made in the treatment of a disease than a cure for one. Is there something sinister going on here? Turn on, tune in and drop out with Ben and Matt to find out the truth about your brain on drugs.



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