In 1970, President Richard Nixon's tongue lolled with contentment as Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, making a number of chemical compounds illegal. Their hands were tied. Youths all over the nation were irresponsibly using psychedelic drugs and putting themselves in harm's way. These poor substances—so dangerous in the wrong hands—basically got a bad rap because a bunch of hippies wouldn't stop screwing around.
Well that's how the narrative goes, anyway. Nice and tidy and not exactly true. The real story is way grosser and has more to do with political maneuvering and red-lined paranoia than public health.
In 1994, journalist and author Dan Baum spoke to John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser and fellow Watergate co-conspirator, who told him, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people ... 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 ... Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Yuck. But that's not even the wackiest part. Nixon himself believed the “drug problem” was literally a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to undermine the country, as evidenced in recordings found in the massive collection left after his death.
Yes. And nearly half a century later, we are still operating under a paradigm established by a mentally ill administration that banned the research of what might be the most powerful treatment of mental illness. If it were a movie script, I'd complain about the lazy plotting.
Under the new act, certain chemicals like those found in cannabis, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, MDMA, DMT, heroin, and many others were now listed as Schedule I substances, meaning they had no accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
But despite the legal status of these drugs, some researchers have managed to get FDA approval for clinical testing.
Recently, the work of Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, a psychiatrist at UNM School of Medicine who is studying the effects of psilocybin on alcoholism with incredibly positive results, has everyone excited about mind-bending drugs again. In his study, a group of regular drinkers were found to have cut their intake by half nine months after being given psilocybin. Similar studies conducted by the Heffter Research Institute are having incredible results in treating nicotine and other drug addictions.
Psychedelics didn’t seem to be the terrible, life-destroying drugs that I'd been told about growing up. I met Melissa Fought, RN at UNM Truman Health Services, and her daughter Sophia at a Starbucks to get a more boots-on-the-ground view of the situation. Both women are advocates of the psychotherapeutic use of psychedelics.
Melissa's work often brings her face-to-face with mental health disorders. “In any area that I've worked in the medical field, the primary problem is mental illness, and clearly the current treatments aren't working.” Melissa wants to see psychedelics—
“Psychedelics have an effect that makes a person more open and accepting of the moment. More open to change,” Sophia explained, referring to the John Hopkins study in 2011 that documented lasting personality changes in nearly 60 percent of 51 participants who were given a single high dose of psilocybin. In most of these subjects, positive effects on their mental health were still being recorded over a year later
Sophia is 15 years old. Last year, she started a Crowdrise campaign benefiting the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research and education organization that advocates for open psychedelic research. “MAPS has done studies where they treat people with PTSD and people in the dying process with LSD. [The patients who are dying] are more accepting of their death, and the ones with PTSD are able to be more accepting of what's happened to them.”
One much publicized study in Switzerland—the first of its kind in 40 years—took 12 individuals, most of whom had terminal cancer, and dosed them with LSD. The experience was shown to have improved the patients' anxiety levels up to 20 percent even a year later. “Everybody goes through grief differently, but there are certain defense mechanisms that everyone goes through, and I think acceptance is a big part of not just death, but a lot of things in life. I feel that people who are more open, or more creative, can accept death.”
And we have to wonder: If psychedelics don't hurt us, and they can help people suffering from mental health disorders or chemical dependency, and they seem to improve personality and bring a sense of acceptance to the dying, why are they still demonized? Why do people still repeat disinformation and urban legends (like the guy who thought he was a glass of orange juice, or that seven acid trips will deem you legally insane) instead of actual science? Because the science seems to be indicating what the entire human race was saying about these substances before the ‘70s: they're amazing, life-changing, positive medicines used to treat the worst illness of all: the human condition.
There's no shame in having been lied to by ol' split-footed Nixon's cronies. The shame is continuing to believe it in the face of contrary evidence.