The Army's Secret Ecstasy Experiments

By Anneli Rufus 07/05/11
Acid, Ecstasy and other halllucinogens are being quietly used by the military to treat addiction and PTSD among returning vets.
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A New Military Program is Trying to Treat Traumitized Vets with Ecstasy and LSD

Let's say an abuse-ridden childhood has left you with PTSD that sparks panic whenever you hear shouts, even on TV. Or maybe a horrible childhood accident has saddled you with a lifetime of crippling anxiety and chronic pain. Now let's say that you could ease—or even cure—these woes with prescription psilocybin. Prescription ecstasy. Prescription LSD.

If a growing group of scientists have their way, you just might find yourself ttripping away your troubles in a doctor's offic sometime in the next 10 years. Research into the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs is booming. An April conference on the subject at Great Britain's University of Kent featured lectures on such topics as "Ketamine Psychotherapy" and "Ayahuasca in the Contemporary World."

Leading this wave is the Boston-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose executive director Rick Doblin was among the headliners at the conference. MAPS researchers have spent 15 years conducting international clinical trials whose results indicate that LSD and psilocybin counteract depression and anxiety and are effective pain-management tools while MDMA (ecstasy) helps many conquer ingrained fear and anxiety. Just this month, the Israeli Ministry of Health approved a new MAPS study using MDMA to treat PTSD.

[These developments followed an April 2010 international meeting in San Jose, Calif., of researchers specializing in psychedelic science—the largest such gathering in the U.S. in four decades—featuring hundreds of studies of LSD, MDMA, psilocybin and other hallucinogens for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life fears and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the the ban on government grants for rigorous academic experiments with psychedelics has been lifted, public funding has yet to catch up with the trend. Most of the research is back by MAPS or the Heffter Research Institute.—Editors]

"Time is on our side," Doblin says. "The world is full of aging baby boomers who are looking forward to psychedelic retirement and psychedelic hospice."

"They had psychedelic experiences in their youth that were useful to them. Then they gave up the drugs to pursue families and and careers. Now they're thinking back to those valuable experiences and they want to get re-engaged."

Bu this burgeoning movement isn't about ex-hippies seeking free highs. Rather, it's about mainstreaming these drugs, which MAPS does "by focusing on medical uses, which in our culture is the most likely way to create new legal contexts, because there is a love affair with medicine in this culture. There's a constant interest in the latest treatments to emerge from the scientific lab."

It's not about money. Costing nearly nothing to manufacture, "these aren't the kind of drugs that you need to take every day for the rest of your life." Instead, it's about using cutting-edge technology to prove what millions around the world have been saying for thousands of years: This stuff gets to your head.

"In the '60s Timothy Leary and his ilk were making exaggerated claims, saying that if you do psychedelics you're more enlightened than others. One of that era's biggest mistakes was Leary saying, 'Turn on, tune in, drop out,'" says MAP's Rick Doblin.

As a teenager in the early 1970s, Doblin first learned that psychedelics were being used to enhance art, spirituality and psychology.

"Then it all got shut down."

Those damn hippie freaks.

"People using psychedelics had accidents and did stupid things and ended up dying or going nuts. A bunch of famous people had extremely idealistic views that weren't particularly practical and weren't particularly patient. Timothy Leary and his ilk were making exaggerated claims, saying that if you do psychedelics you're more enlightened than others; if you do psychedelics you're better than others. One of that era's biggest mistakes was Leary saying, 'Turn on, tune in, drop out.'"

Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America. Hello, backlash. Hello, War on Drugs.

"The government came out with its own exaggerated claims, saying that if you took these drugs you'd have deformed babies and brain-cell death. We now know that it isn't true, but back then it launched this huge cultural clash. You might say society had a really bad trip."

Research to the rescue. High-tech brain scans reveal that psilocybin inhibits blood flow in parts of the brain that regulate sensory input. Less blood flow means less regulation. Flooded with perceptions, a psilocybinized brain can help PTSD patients reprogram their fears, Doblin says. New tools also provide new insight into LSD's ego-dissolving "catharsis effect." And the ecstasy chemistry: MDMA reduces blood flow in the fear-processing amygdala while increasing blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, which facilitates our ability to put things into context.

"With MDMA, the fear circuitry is reduced," Doblin explains. This helps PTSD patients remember and re-examine long-buried aspects of their traumas. Aided by MDMA, "these memories don't immediately go straight to fear." Say you were traumatized by a bat-wielding, red-hatted assailant. Under MDMA, "the neural pathways connecting bats, red hats and fear are not so strong." Recontextualized in an MDMA-activated prefrontal cortex, triggers lose their power—sometimes forever, he says.

"Under the influence of MDMA, people can make emotional changes that persist after the MDMA is out of their systems." On MDMA, "you operate on this much smoother level, and then you lose it—but not all of it. You get so much material from that experience, which you can learn to integrate."

This doesn't mean you can recover by hitting a few raves. A key theme of the medical-psychedelics movement is that it's medical. These drugs are so strong and long-lasting that, for clinical use, Doblin says they must be administered in "a safe, supportive, controlled setting" overseen by professionals.

In one MAPS study, 10-hour LSD sessions took place in a medical office. Guided by a psychiatrist and a nurse, patients being treated for severe anxiety lay with their eyes shut, listening to music they had chosen for this purpose. According to a MAPS prospectus, each patient was encouraged to focus "introspectively on his or her sense of self and life-history in order to increase the psychological insights mediated by the LSD treatment." The nurse and psychiatrist would sometimes "use physical touch, such as holding hands." These drug sessions were followed by non-drug sessions in which patients discussed their drug experiences.

[MAPS is also funding a study of ecstasy, or MDMA, for the treatment of PTSD in 16 former military service members. Dr. Michael Mithoefer and Anne Mithoefer, a psychiatric nurse, are spearheading the research after the FDA and DEA officials gave a final OK based on the the South Carolina pair's prior study showing MDMA's benefits for people suffering from post-traumatic stress. 

“My sense is that, especially after we published the results of the first study, these institutions are more open to the idea,” Dr. Michael Mithoefer told WIre magazine. “Obviously, this is still new and experimental, and it can take time to get through to big institutions.”

The majority of vets in the new study fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; the military estimates that as many as one third of all vets of those long and bloody wars may suffer from some degree of PTSD. They will take part in three solitary, eight-hour therapy sessions with both doctors, revisiting the traumatic battlefield experiences that caused their emotional pain. According to Dr. Mithoefer, ecstasy serves as a catalyst for “an optimal zone of arousal”—a just-right level of openness that presents an unprecedented opportunity to master the too-muchness that trauma triggers.]

The FDA and DEA officials gave an unprecedented approval to a study of ecstasy, or MDMA, in 16 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from PTSD. The military estimates that as many as one third of all vets of these two wars may have the disorder.

In a successful psychedelic therapy session, Doblin says, "there are times when the patient gets extremely lighthearted. You could have laughter. You could have joy. It's like a roller-coaster ride. You could have beautiful memories that give you the strength to go down to difficult memories, then come back to the surface and go back down there again, to a different level, hours later."

In old-school therapy, "it's the analyst who figures out your problems and tells you what your insights should be. But if these insights are disconnected from your emotions, it won't work." With psychedelics, by contrast, "the emotional connection is immediate and personal." Analysts can help you sort it out, "but it's an experience of yourself. The drug has simply given you a window onto yourself."

"There is a need for these substances," says Doblin, who along with his colleagues sees psychedelics as a powerful alternative or at least adjunct to SSRIs and, in the case of pain management, opiates. What's the difference between Zoloft and ecstasy? Legality. In other words: the FDA. MAPS submits its findings to the agency, which Doblin hopes "will put science before politics." [In another historic first since the '60s, in September 2009 the FDA, under Obama's newly appointed head Margaret Hamburg, approved a clinical trial of LSD to treat anxiety in cancer patients. —Editors]

'The main problem with the drug war is the concept that there are good drugs and bad drugs," when what's actually good or bad "is the relationship between the person and the drug, and the context in which the drug is taken," says the MAP maven.

For instance, naysayers can claim "that MDMA is a drug of abuse and since people with PTSD have a high incidence of drug abuse, they shouldn't be given MDMA. But people with PTSD have a high incidence of drug abuse because they haven't been able to deal with painful emotions that they abuse drugs to escape." If those emotions could be processed via MDMA therapy, "their drive to abuse drugs would be reduced. We want to clarify that drugs of abuse can be used well. But the government is still too wedded to the drug war."

In that regard, the Bush-to-Obama handover "didn't really change things at all. We had hoped it would." 

Nonetheless, Doblin and his colleagues predict the legalization of prescription psychedelics within the decade. Until then, "we have to show society and scientists that these drugs can be used in ways that create greater benefits than harms."

In the new wave of psychedelic research, "there hasn't been a single person who has died or was driven crazy."

So far, so good.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). This article first appeared on AlterNet.

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Anneli Rufus is the author and coauthor of many books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On, and Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto. These books aim to explore how and why we feel the complicated ways we do about each other and about ourselves in this weird and crowded world which we (often unwillingly) share. Find Anneli Rufus on Twitter.

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