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         Drug War Archives    War on Drugs [Home]
The Hallucinogenic Way of Dying
(Judity Lewis, LA Weekly, March 19-25, 2004)
Can psilocybin reduce death anxiety in end-stage cancer patients? . . . Unlike so many other experiments in radical cancer treatment, Grob’s does not offer a cure; he merely hopes to find that psilocybin, the most potent of the many compounds in psychedelic mushrooms, ameliorates a dying person’s fear of death. . . . Participants in the study must have cancer of sufficient severity, but they must also be free of most other medical problems: high blood pressure, anemia, heart disease or liver dysfunction, brain tumors or metastases to the brain, kidney disease. . . . Psilocybin is relatively safe according to most research, you’d have to ingest your own body weight in “magic mushrooms” to poison yourself. But it’s still a Schedule I drug, regarded by the federal authorities as having a high potential for abuse and no medical application. “I had to get the FDA, the DEA, the IRB, the California Resident Advisory Panel and our research committee here [at Harbor-UCLA] onboard,” says Grob, who heads up the child-psychiatry division at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. “Along the way, the criteria we had written initially got modified and tightened.” . . . According to Dr. Charles Schuster, a former director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, now head of Wayne State University’s Substance Abuse Clinical Research Division, the federal government sometimes objects to such studies out of concern not only for the patients but for the overall mood of the country. “If psilocybin is shown to have some medical value,” he says, “that might weaken the government’s argument against it as a drug of abuse. I understand their concerns and share them, but if psilocybin or MDMA or any of these agents were to prove to have a unique therapeutic value for something we can’t treat well currently, ethically we have a responsibility to pursue them.” . . . Grob hopes to find that, in addition to reducing psychological distress associated with impending death, psilocybin is the rare substance that can safely reduce a cancer sufferer’s need for pain medication — not because it blunts pain, as morphine does, but because it “changes one’s perception of pain.” . . . In 1962, a physician and minister named Walter Pahnke conducted a double-blind study with 20 Protestant divinity students, who were administered capsules containing either 30 mg of psilocybin or a placebo just before Good Friday services at Boston’s Marsh Chapel. Among them was the Rev. Mike Young, now a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, who later reported having entered a mystical state in which he lost his fear of death. As he understands it now, the drug works because “human beings define their identities by this illusory thing called ego, which is constructed of memory and experience and determines who we think we are.” In a controlled setting under the influence of psilocybin, “you transcend that ego. And to the person who no longer identifies with that ‘who am I,’ the loss of that self is no longer as threatening as it was before.” The psilocybin trip was, Young recalls, “a pretty profound experience.”

[See www.canceranxietystudy.org for details about this study.]

posted by Lorenzo 6:05 PM

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