Psychedelics Show Promise as an Addiction Treatment

A new study shows that people who use psychedelics—including LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin—as well as opioids—were less likely to have problems with abuse or dependence than people who use opioids alone.

The findings arrive amidst a growing concern in the United States about the abuse of opiates such as heroin and, more recently, prescription drugs; though preliminary and based on self-reporting rather than clinical trials, they suggest a promising avenue for further investigation.

Psilocybin and many other psychedelics are classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning they’re considered to have a high potential for abuse and are of no current medical value. Despite that designation (and the legal hurdles around working with Schedule I drugs), psychedelics have undergone something of a renaissance among researchers.

One of the study’s authors notes that psychedelics have been used alongside therapy to treat PTSD and depressive disorders; even use outside of a medical setting has shown an association with decreased psychological distress, domestic violence, psychoses, and suicidality. Psilocybin has been tried as an antidepressant, with particular success treating anxiety and depression among cancer patients. It’s also been used to treat addiction. Meanwhile, outside the lab, there’s the emergence of micro-dosing: taking small, regular doses of psychedelics to boost creativity and, of course, productivity.

All of which suggests that maybe this broad class of substances has some medical value. Researchers wanted to see if, given the apparent success in treating addiction, psychedelics might be useful in combating the opioid epidemic. Using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health collected from 2008 to 2013, they looked at 44,678 illicit opioid users. Those who’d also used psychedelics had a 27 percent reduced risk of opioid dependence in the past year and a 40 percent reduced risk of opioid abuse in the same time frame. Most other drugs showed just the opposite: an association with increased risk. (Interestingly, only marijuana had better numbers, with a 55 percent reduced risk.)

These numbers are preliminary, drawn from self-reported data. They don’t prove that psychedelics somehow prevented opioid addiction. And while the researchers tried to account for variables such as age, education, and sex, their results may obscure some other underlying factor. Right now, the data are suggestive, and one author points out that given the expense of running large scale trials and the legal burdens of working with Schedule I drugs, it may be some time before we know what they really mean.

Still, given what we already know about psychedelics, there’s cause for optimism. “Magic mushrooms” may have yet more magic to offer us.

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