The Power and Promise of Hallucinogenic Therapy

I’m not a medical doctor or therapist but a person who carries insights into how and why psychedelics hold such enormous therapeutic potential. Having personally experienced hallucinogens hundreds of times, primarily LSD and psilocybin, I’ve encountered the inner, transforming experience of reaching a state of mind that’s powerfully self-illuminating. In the midst of a downward spiraling epidemic of opioid addiction and chronic mental health issues, bold approaches are critically needed. Psychedelics may offer a solution, and here I offer some plausible speculations as to why these experiences can be exceptionally healing.

In the 1950’s, Canada was trying to solve a problem very similar to what America is presently faced with but it wasn’t opioid or heroin addiction; it was alcoholism. Rather than re-employing past strategies that showed little promise of success, they chose a radically different approach; they used a powerful new psychoactive compound that was discovered a few years earlier. They used LSD. Clinicians knew it would be a controversial decision so they chose a location in a far western province to conduct their research, which included administering a powerful drug to those who knowingly consented to the novel treatment. The documented results were compelling and unequivocal; the success rate in treating one of the most addictive disorders known was more than 70 percent, a phenomenally high number [1] . Patients were monitored for a number of months after their treatment with very little recidivism. The film “Hofmann’s Potion” released in 2002 documents this remarkable story.

Modern research is revealing new insights into how our brains function. The emergence of a national epidemic of opioid addiction combined with growing numbers of those suffering from PTSD and other forms of mental illness have inspired a new generation of clinicians to rethink the questions surrounding this novel form of therapy. What exactly does a psychoactive agent like LSD do when it enters the blood stream and passes into the human brain? The effects of these agents on a person’s state of mind can be profoundly self-edifying, and similarly reported by those who’ve had the experience. Modern clinicians who see the need for innovative therapies are at the cutting edge of a new era in treating a wide range of psychological disorders.

New questions are being asked that were not considered in years past. Is it somehow possible to change the consciousness of a person trapped in the repetitive cycle of addictive behavior through the use of these unique compounds? If we could find a way to lead someone into a different state of consciousness, one that retains their autonomous personality and personal identity but without the desire for any addictive substance, the changes would most likely persist.

It’s not that one would instantly forget their drug addiction but a change in consciousness would allow a person to begin conceptualizing their lives as normal and free of the needless pain of severe addiction or psychic trauma. Scientists are beginning to think of consciousness as something the mind enters and not as something it produces, which strongly suggests that it exists as an independent phenomenon. If this is true, then it offers an explanation as to why hallucinogens have such enormous therapeutic potential.

These psychedelic agents seem to have the ability to gently nudge a subject into a higher state of consciousness, a level of consciousness that fosters a self-concept free of addictive self-abuse or depression or psychological pain no matter what the source might be. Realizing an addictive substance is limiting life and the destructive nature of self-blame for traumas outside of one’s control, can be dramatic and instantly life changing. 

A powerful example is a scene from the documentary “Hofmann’s Potion” that shows what appears to be the breakthrough moment when the patient being treated for alcoholism while under the peak influence of LSD is shown a picture of his wife and children. Upon seeing the photo the patient assumed a reflective countenance and said calmly but with passion, “they’re people too.” Repeating the phrase several times he evidently achieved a realization that his alcoholism was harming his family and he was the sole cause of that harm.

Because of the profound psychological effects on the human brain, hallucinogens do two things to counteract the maleficent effects of addictive or compulsive behavior. The substances diminish the repetitive activity of over-used neural pathways that reinforce these unhealthy patterns in the brain while simultaneously augmenting the flow of neural energy into regions of the brain associated with intelligence, forethought, and self-restraint [2].

Hallucinogenic compounds also seem to do something even more extraordinary. Those under their influence commonly report experiencing a reality of transcendent power, truth and self-understanding, and this uniquely personal immersion into a deeper level of universal consciousness can be intensely self-illuminating. Access to these non-ordinary states likely explains why the success rate was so high in treating alcoholism with LSD in western Canada in the 1950’s. LSD and all hallucinogens, in the hands of skilled clinicians have the power to expand the mind’s ability to re-conceive itself as normal and sober. 

What exactly is happening in the mind of a subject under the effects of these agents? People have described having layers of personal identity being peeled away from their core sense of who they are until all that remains is a subtle yet all-encompassing sense of sublime and absolute mystery, a mystery that invites one into itself. At that moment all they are and all they need to be is absolute awareness, complete acknowledgment and total acceptance of its overpowering presence.

In this state of mind, they have entered the ineffable realm of universal consciousness. “Universal consciousness” exists independent of human thought and experience, and is commonly referred to in theological terms as one of the three aspects or abiding qualities of a supreme being – omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. Hallucinogens allow our minds to enter more deeply into the third of these powerful realms which is omniscience. We can’t become all powerful (omnipotent) and we can’t be everywhere in the universe (omnipresence) but because we can think, we can enter to some degree the realm of “omniscience” which is a profoundly benevolent and healing experience. This is why these powerful agents have such psychologically ameliorative potential.

Hallucinogenic therapy presently holds the greatest promise in treating a wide variety of psychological disorders but because it requires the ingestion of a strong psychoactive compound that is presently banned by national law, this form of therapy is generally illegal. Until trained clinicians are permitted (and also funded through private and federal grant money) to empirically demonstrate the efficacy of these beneficial agents, this untapped resource of therapeutic potential will be unrealized.

A large part of the problem is the general public has virtually no idea of what these agents can offer in treatment strategies. It’s vital to introduce this promising form of therapy to a much larger national audience. The best way to do this is finding members of congress to advocate for this new approach on the floor of the House of Representatives. This could “jump start” the conversation and get more people talking about the enormous potential of this innovative new therapy, then hopefully federal grant money will become available to conduct studies to advance the knowledge and acceptance of clinical applications for psychedelics.

References

  1. Dyck, E. (2006). ‘Hitting highs at rock bottom’: LSD treatment for alcoholism, 1950–1970. Social History of Medicine19(2), 313-329.
  2. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Muthukumaraswamy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Droog, W., Murphy, K., … & Leech, R. (2016). Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(17), 4853-4858.