New directions in our understanding of addiction: 2. Psychedelics (especially ayahuasca)

Since the discovery of LSD’s mind-blowing properties (in the 1940s-50s) there have been several waves of research, clinical trials, and of course “recreational” tripping with LSD and its close cousins, mescaline and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). The interest and excitement of the scientific community was pretty much squelched in the US by legislation making LSD strictly illegal, a policy that continues to this day. But more enlightened countries have resumed research on LSD and psilocybin. These substances are of great interest because of their (probable) clinical value in fighting depression, chronic pain, chronic anxiety, fear of death, and — you guessed it — addiction, especially alcoholism. Take a look at this intriguing documentary trailer. Meanwhile, recreational use has continued over the decades, trending and receding in different countries at different times.

We are also finally beginning to understand LSD’s impact on the brain. A recent, multi-layered study showed that “under [LSD], regions once segregated spoke to one another.” In other words, psychedelics open lines of communication between neural regions that normally stay hived in-scanneroff from each other, doing their own (quasi-independent) thing. We don’t really know how this affects cognition, but participants who showed the greatest increase in cross-brain brainscansynchrony also reported greater “ego dissolution.” That makes sense. According to the lead researcher, David Nutt, “The drug can be seen as reversing the more restricted thinking we develop from infancy to adulthood…” Nutt concluded that LSD “could pull the brain out of thought patterns seen in depression and addiction.” (quotes and paraphrasing from this article). Here’s a slightly more technical but excellent review of the study.

What’s most interesting here for addiction? Well, for one thing, David Nutt has long functioned as a lead adviser to the UK government on drug policy (the equivalent of a drug czar in the US?) And he was the lead author of the study! Nutt is no nut. He’s smart, influential, highly respected as a scientist, and progressive in his views and advice about drug use. So if David Nutt is cool about exploring how acid disintegrates neural barriers, then you know that psychedelics are no longer being sneered at or ignored by scientists, that they’re being recognized as potent tools for revamping thought and perception, essentially breaking neural habits — if only for a few hours.

So what’s the word on the street? Well you’ve probably heard of ayahuasca, and if you haven’t you should really google it. You can start here, or start with Wikipedia. Ayahuasca (or its underlying molecule, DMT) is the psychedelic of the brewingpresent age. Many young people know about it, some have taken it, and the reports of users are (as usual) controversial. Some have had a bad trip, some have been duped by fake shamans, but the majority have huge respect for this natural herbal brew. Many feel it has been transformative in their lives. Shamans in South America have used ayahuasca for centuries to help treat ailments of the mind or the spirit, and it is also regarded by today’s youth as “healing.” Yet for many ayahuasca drinkers, there is nothing overt that needs to be healed. For them, ayahuasca is an opportunity to learn deep lessons about who they are and how they connect to the world.

gaborMany with addictions have gone to ayahuasca for help. And the renowned addiction expert, Gabor Maté, has become one of its strongest advocates. Maté is convinced that ayahuasca is the most direct and effective way for addicts to uncover and come to accept the pain and confusion they’ve kept inside and which perpetuates the emptiness and anxiety that locks in their addiction. He also sees it as a gateway to an uncluttered, even blissful, sense of the universe — which sounds like the kind of universe you’d choose not to damp down with heroin. Maté emphasizes the importance of taking ayahuasca in a tradition-based ceremony with an experienced shaman. He has set up various supervised ayahuasca retreats, first in Canada (specifically targeted to the addict community in Vancouver) and now (that it’s been banned in Canada) in Central America.

I don’t consider myself an addict anymore, but I still have addictive tendencies, ruminative thoughts, sporadic depression, and an attraction to alcohol (within the bounds of social drinking) to help ease my discomfort with myself. So I didn’t take ayahuasca to treat an addiction. Rather, I took it because I wanted to experience its power and potential — with some hopes that it would help free me of lingering anxieties and depression (not without some hard work — as Maté also emphasizes). I had taken a lot of LSD and related drugs when I was young, ceremony-tamein the 60s and 70s. I think these experiences were useful to me in various ways, but they certainly didn’t smooth out all the rough edges. I suppose my last acid trip was some time in my thirties. Then I stopped. Been there, done that. But what’s all the fuss about ayahuasca? Is it really different in some fundamental way? I wanted to find out.

There are ayahuasca ceremonies in Europe every year, most if not all supervised by experienced shamans and their assistants. I’ve now taken ayahuasca five times (in five years) and I doubt I’ll ever take it again. It’s just too much for this old brain. Ayahuasca isn’t exactly fun. It can be disturbing, it can be hard work (just to endure), it can make you shit your guts out and puke violently (politely called purging). But it can also be wonderful, enlightening, and (I think) constructive in a big way — if done in the right circumstances with the right follow-up.

I’m out of space here, so I’ll tell you about my own experience in my next post. Coming soon.

Meanwhile, warning! If this little introduction makes you want to run out and try ayahuasca, do not even consider doing it without a knowledgeable, experienced shaman or other guide. You don’t do this in your high-rise apartment one night, or at parties. And you don’t do it alone. Oh and if you find a proper ceremony to attend and feel you’re ready, make sure to bring an extra pair of undies.








6 thoughts on “New directions in our understanding of addiction: 2. Psychedelics (especially ayahuasca)

  1. matt September 20, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    Thanks, Marc. And thanks for the caveat. The taking of psychedelics should be evaluated the same way you would some piece of complex and dangerous machinery.
    It’s a tool, there’s a risk, and one should be prepared for it.

  2. matt September 20, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    Recovery from addiction is about a huge perspectival shift. Authentic mindfulness approaches do this in a measured, gradual way. Psychedelics abruptly yank our perspective in a way that exposes the illusory nature of reality and experience. It may evoke what happens to people when they have a powerful insight. An epiphany? A moment of clarity?

    Daily maintenance of our psyche through mindfulness techniques like regular meditation, yoga, tai chi, exercise, etc. are important, as that epiphany will fade fast, and is not retrievable by doing more and more psychedelics, just like any other psychoactive substance. We have to practice what we learn.

  3. Mike Johnson September 20, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    Have you noted the approval of ‘medical heroin’ in Canada the past week? Available for resistant Heroin addiction

  4. Julia September 20, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    Marc, I’m glad to see you bring up this avenue of exploration. As you say, there are risks but it’s time for these tools to be brought back into legitimacy.

    I’m grateful to have lived long enough for the hysteria of the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s to have run their course and for science and medicine to once again be able to explore the positive uses of some of nature’s most ancient tools.

    I happen to live in the same city where Johns Hopkins Hospital is located where they have been among the first to get permission to use psychedelics in research. There is also a group which has been holding educational meetings and lectures. I’ve had the privilege to hear first-hand about some of this research and its potential for healing and growth.

    I’ve heard there are also folks going to South America and elsewhere to use Ayahuasca. I’ve had a few very productive experience with psychedelics years ago but I’m with you in being kind of past where I think I want to go through that sort of ordeal.

    Here’s a link to the educational group here in Baltimore where you can see some of the programs listed: and to another film, similar to the one you linked to:

  5. Gina September 21, 2016 at 9:43 am #

    Love that you brought this topic up. I’ve been fascinated for some time now with the potential of psychedelics to help with all manner of seemingly intractable psychiatric conditions like severe depression, PTSD, and even addiction. In the context of addiction, I’m surprised that you mentioned ayahausca without having mentioned ibogaine. Drs. Deborah Mash and Stanley Glick conducted some clinical trials on an ibogaine compound back in the 90’s (funded by the U.S. government!) with promising results. Though no further studies have been done in the U.S. since, I believe more research is currently being conducted outside the U.S. and it will be interesting to see the results and how credible those studies prove to be.

    In the meantime, I’ll share my daughter’s experience. She underwent an ayahausca and ibogaine experience in Costa Rica last summer after I’d done much research on the topic over the course of several years. We’d reached that point of last resort last year and decided it was time to take the risk. I do think the experience helped her in a number of intangible and hard to describe ways. Most notably, when she came home she said she no longer felt like she had a “hole” inside her, no longer felt like a part of her was missing. That was huge. Unfortunately, her cravings returned within a few short weeks and she slipped. That’s when we had a discussion about what she thought would help and she asked to go back on methadone (she’d had a successful 15-month stint a few years earlier in connection with her pregnancy) and she’s been doing fantastic ever since.

    Did the ibogaine/ayahausca “set the stage”, so to speak, for her success with maintenance therapy? Hard to say and there’s no way to know for sure, but as I said, I do think it helped in many ways, if not with that specifically. She just seems to have a different, healthier perspective in life (she’d dealt with a trauma a few years earlier and severe anxiety most of her life). She’s been handling her life quite well ever since, went back to school, working toward a master’s, has a job, and is well able to care for her daughter, who is also thriving.

    Based on my limited research, it seems that many people require several experiences with these substances before they see longer-term success, so I wonder if things would have been different had she been able to do it again a short time after the first. If she ever wants to try again, I’m more than supportive, but she’s doing so well that she has no desire. Still, we remain open to the possibility.

    I’m also encouraged to see the resurgence in interest in studying these substances. Michael Pollan (yes, of Food Inc. fame) covered some of it in his fascinating Feb 2015 article in the New Yorker, which I highly recommend to all with an interest in this topic:

    Also, the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) organization is doing great work in this area:

    Can’t wait to read about your experience!

  6. Margot Tesch September 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    Watching the movie trailer held an aha moment for me … that our governments want to inhibit legalisation of drug use primarily to protect its commercialised ‘legal’ drug use multi-million dollar trade. When you consider the taking of drugs, any drugs, through an ethical lens – seriously what is the difference? A multi-million dollar industry – that’s what is at the heart of it. Frightening, sobering and something we definitely need to be talking about.
    I admire your courage to open this debate. Many ethnic groups have used drugs as part of their cultural practises to enhance maturity, development and understanding. I think there is a lot we can learn from them if we can approach their practises with an open mind.
    Keep it coming.

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