Growing up, many people remember being told stories about the dangers of drugs and why they are harmful. Among the most “dangerous” class of drugs were those of the psychedelic or hallucinogenic variety, drugs like LSD, magic mushrooms (psilocybin), and peyote developed notorious reputations as some of the most dangerous illicit drugs ever discovered. This concern was further accentuated in 1966 when LSD was made illegal and further in 1970 when the United States classified it as a schedule I substances in the Controlled Substances Act (Cooper 2012). Soon all other known psychedelic substances would join LSD as a schedule I drug. This type of scheduling implies that “(1) the drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, (2) has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and (3) that there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” According to the DEA “Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” (“DEA/Drug Scheduling” www.justice.gov). The act makes these substances among the most illegal drugs to possess in the United States, as well as making them extraordinarily difficult to obtain for legitimate pharmacological research. I will discuss how psychedelic substances like LSD and peyote do not fit the criteria for schedule I substances and should thus be rescheduled as less severe.
The one of the main reasons why psychedelics do not satisfy the criteria for being labeled schedule I is because they are not addictive in the same way, or abused as highly or as frequently as many other drugs. This was substantiated in a study done by Professor David Nutt. The results of the study provide a strong argument against the DEA’s clam that psychedelics have a high potential for abuse. Nutt did an assessment on the harm and potential for misuse of twenty different mind altering substances categorized in the U.K. under the Misuse of Drugs Act. While the categorizing of illicit substances is slightly different in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., one can still gain valuable insight into how the results of Professor Nutt’s study support arguments against the criteria used to defend schedule I classification. In the U.K., drugs are categorized from most to least dangerous like in the U.S., only with very subtle differences. Nutt ranked all twenty drugs from every class in order from most to least dangerous and addictive to least, and “presented an analysis in which nine ‘parameters of harm’ (grouped as ‘physical harm’, ‘dependence’, ‘and ‘social harms’) revealed alcohol and tobacco [which are not even listed as controlled substances in the U.S. or U.K.] to be more harmful than LSD, MDMA and cannabis”(Nutt et al. p.4). He found that heroin and cocaine were among the most dangerous and addictive; despite cocaine being classified as a schedule II drug in the United States, which makes it appear less harmful. LSD and MDMA were ranked fourteenth and eighteenth out of twenty in health risk and addictive potential. After presenting his findings Nutt urged that illicit drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they cause.
The reasoning behind the DEA’s scheduling of psychedelics is vague and lacks substantial evidence in supporting its claim. Other sources have attempted to put this reasoning to perspective, but their efforts have not been convincing. Defining psychedelic drug abuse can be complicated for several reasons. The short answer, according to psychedelics.com—an informative website that offers helpful information and psychedelic help—says that “[p]sychedelic drug abuse is not the same as addiction. People who are addicted will experience withdrawal symptoms, cravings and other side effects when they attempt to quit using drugs. Those who abuse psychedelic drugs are not typically jeopardized with withdrawal or serious cravings, they don’t typically become physically or psychologically dependent on the drug and they can usually quit on their own” (Psychedelics.com: drug-abuse). This explanation may sufficiently answer to what extent psychedelic drugs have a potential for abuse, but not how that warrants higher scheduling.Given this description of psychedelic drug abuse, a sufficient argument cannot be made to support the DEA’s claim that the potential for psychedelics to be abused is any higher than lesser scheduled drugs like cocaine. Even though psychedelic drugs can be abused in rare cases, it does not follow that substances like LSD should be considered to have a higher potential for abuse than lesser scheduled substances like cocaine.
Next, it is important to understand how psychedelic substances have provided useful benefits to the medical community in many ways. If substances like LSD and MDMA can be shown to have therapeutic potential, then it would not make sense that current legal scheduling of such substances implies that they have no current medical uses or benefits. Humphrey Osmond was one of the first psychologists who was able to work with mescaline and LSD in the early 1950s, before current laws prevented researchers from freely obtaining them. Osmond, later coined the term ‘psychedelic’ and continued to work with hallucinogens like LSD and mescaline and was able to make significant contributions in uncovering ways to better understand disorders like schizophrenia and later—alcoholism (Dyck, p.1). With the help of LSD, Osmond shed light on the biochemical aspects of and alcoholism by using it to inspire breakthroughs in patient therapy sessions (Dyck, p.5). Psychedelics were deployed for a wide variety of disorders besides alcoholism, including “obsessional neurosis and sociopathy” and were also used to “ease the process of dying. It soon became clear that with proper screening, preparation, and supervision, it was possible to minimize the danger of adverse reactions” (Grinspoon, p.2). Even before its legal banning in 1966, LSD has proved to have significant medical benefits when used as a tool along with psychiatric therapy. This provides further evidence against the DEA’s claims that psychedelics have no acceptable medical uses and that they can’t be studied safely under medical supervision.
However, soon the psychiatric community would lose its opportunity to study psychedelics all together. “By the late 1960s, LSD had become a popular recreational drug and gained media attention for its association with counter cultural youth, social disobedience and anti-authoritarian attitudes. All this served further to erode support for its clinical status” (Jacobs, p.2). LSD, mescaline as well as several other psychedelic drugs were made illegal in the United States by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. “As a result, nearly all research on psychedelics was placed on hold…” (Cooper, p.2). The prohibition of psychedelic drugs made continuing any research on them nearly impossible because the government refused to provide funding (Grinspoon, p.2). It further unsubstantiated any previous research on psychedelics and their legitimate therapeutic benefits. They were marginalized in with other dangerous and addictive substances and sensationalized their negative effects on society. This consequence made rational discussion about the utility of psychedelics in medicine come almost entirely to a halt.
Despite this roadblock, in the 1990s the FDA started to allow a handful of investigators to do carefully examined research on psychedelic substances once more—despite the current legal status of the drugs (Cooper, p.2). Since then, there has been an increasing amount of research in the field of psychedelics that has reviled more therapeutic potential within psychedelic compounds. Further research on the subject even shows that there have been a number of techniques that have shown to be “effective at maintaining acceptable levels of safety” when researching these substances in a professional medical setting, directly opposing the DEA’s claim that psychedelics cannot be studied safely under medical supervision. Many researchers who have worked with psychedelic substances actually have found them safe and effective when used in a medical setting. Currently there are research projects in the works that are studying the medical utility of every single schedule I psychedelic substance including LSD, DMT, MDMA, mescaline, and psilocybin. MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, is being researched as a potential treatment for PTSD, social anxiety in autistic adults, and people with second to advanced stages of cancer (“MAPS/Research” www.maps.org). This directly contradicts two of the reasons the DEA uses to keep psychedelic drugs under a schedule I classification, providing further need to reevaluate the scheduling of psychedelics.
Due to the fact that the true nature of psychedelic substances do not align with the DEA’s criteria for schedule I classification, it would follow that an argument can be made to consider the rescheduling of these substances to a lesser category. Based on the facts that (1) schedule I psychedelic substances have been shown to statistically have a less potential for abuse than lower scheduled drugs like cocaine, (2) current medical treatments have been implemented using psychedelic substances as therapeutic tools, and (3) there have been plenty of instances where these drugs have been used safely under medical supervision, and have a history of safe medical use. Due to the current scheduling of psychedelic drugs like LSD, today’s medical research has been legally deprived of the chance to utilize them in modern medical therapy. Only until recently are we seeing a reemergence of legitimate psychedelic research being utilized in modern psychological studies. Even though legal restrictions still hinder the progress of modern research, more independent studies on the utility of psychedelics as medicine are being done by universities and non-profits all around the world. With their results come new evidence that shows the criteria for schedule I classification does not directly apply to this class of drugs. However, there is still a long way to go until we can expect to see a change in the regulation of psychedelic drugs. One should expect a reevaluation of psychedelics as a whole when more is discovered about the utility they have in medicine and for society.
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