When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act last month it was a celebration for many Californians who thought the “assisted dying taboo” would never be breached.
Looming on the horizon is another legal battle even more surprising that may help older adults navigate the aging and dying processes: the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs.
Famed food writer Michael Pollan turned his attention to psychedelics in a lengthy New Yorker article early this year, arguing for the use of psychedelics in the treatment of stress disorders and end-of-life concerns.
Here in California, Rick Doblin is one of the nation’s leading proponents of psychedelics to help in various therapeutic realms: not just trauma recovery and the aging process, but the much larger social problems of violence and war.
As head of the Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, Doblin is putting an academic face on the legacies of consciousness-raising that date back to the synthesis of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1938 and the writings of Aldous Huxley in his seminal 1954 work “The Doors of Perception.”
“Psychedelics don’t produce a psychedelic experience,” says Doblin. “They produce a human experience that is brought to the surface by psychedelics.”
And these psychedelics may be ideally suited to the aging process.
Used safely, they can mitigate anxiety, alleviate depression and reduce social isolation. For the elderly suffering a series of constant losses — and struggling to find meaning in their later years — psychedelics offer the possibility of profound psychological healing and universal connection.
“As you lose your physical capabilities, your spiritual and mental lives become more important,” says Doblin. “Psychedelics are fantastic for that.”
They may even help those who are actively dying prepare for their transition by blending commonly-used opioid painkillers with MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy.
“They get better pain control, they’re open hearted, they’re present, it’s miraculous,” says Doblin. “And people can have their final goodbyes.”
Besides MDMA, other psychedelic research supported by Doblin include psilocybin, LSD and – potentially – the Amazonian “teacher plant” ayahuasca (DMT).
There are several other psychonauts exploring this field.
In collaboration with MAPS, San Francisco-based California Institute for Integral Studies will soon launch its Center for Psychedelic Therapies & Research. The center will train both ordained clergy and licensed clinicians as research therapists in the use of MDMA and psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety, PTSD and addiction.
In Marin County, San Anselmo psychiatrist Dr. Philip Wolfson, is exploring the use of MDMA to treat anxiety and depression among 18 patients with life-threatening illnesses. Of the first six subjects enrolled, four are over 60.
“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a very potent and promising tool for working with a variety of problems,” says Wolfson, citing “rapid improvement in symptoms and outlook.”
In the 1980’s Wolfson and his wife both found MDMA helpful when their son Noah was first diagnosed with leukemia at age 12, and after his death.
Therapeutically, Wolfson actively used MDMA — which affects the emotional centers of the brain, typically softening harsh critical and judgmental attitudes — to treat patients until 1985, when MDMA was suddenly classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
A year later MAPS was founded. Since then the organization has distributed nearly $25 million to fund psychedelic research.
Thankfully, says Doblin, a new group of federal regulators took over around 1990.
“The regulators at the FDA have been our main allies for over 20 years because they’re pro-science over politics, and sympathetic of patient needs,” says Doblin.
In Brazil in the early 1990’s, Dr. Charles Grob, of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, studied frequent users of the medicinal plant ayahuasca, many of whom had formerly been addicted to alcohol, drugs and psychopathic behavior. The participants frequently experienced powerful psycho-spiritual experiences and, with it, greater meaning to their lives.
“The alcoholism entirely disappeared,” says Grob in a YouTube video. “They stopped drinking. They stopped using drugs. They stopped engaging in anti-social behavior, so it was quite dramatic.”
Calling psychedelics “existential medicines,” Grob in 2008 finished a four-year study exploring the use of psilocybin among terminal cancer patients (aged 35-58) suffering from extreme anxiety and saw these results: “A renewed sense of meaning and purpose to their lives.”
Recently, MAPS finished the first study of LSD in 45 years — in Switzerland, for patients facing end-of-life fears.
In California, UC Davis researcher Brian Hanley is also collecting biographical data from subjects that suggests — hypothetically — that safe, limited use of psilocybin may stimulate neural growth in the brain and improve cognitive health in later years.
“There are two people who did this and were in excellent physical and cognitive health in their late 90’s and beyond,” says Hanley.
The world of psychedelic research has come a long way since Timothy Leary shocked America with his Harvard LSD experiments, landing him atop President Nixon’s “enemies list.” In 1970 most psychedelics became Schedule 1 drugs and were prohibited for any use.
Doblin points to today’s more expansive understanding of health, aging and dying. Once largely unknown in America, today hospice and yoga are mainstream.
Death cafes, home funerals and conscious dying are increasingly being discussed publicly.
The late actor Larry Hagman credits LSD for overcoming his fear of death. And Doblin has met with a wide variety of notables interested in a wider understanding of consciousness, including conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
“We are primed,” says Doblin.
He describes his own breakthrough moment in his understanding of psychedelics 30 years ago. After taking ecstasy, he felt cradled in the arms of the universe, finding a sense of lasting peace.
“It had a permanent reduction in my loneliness because I felt this connection,” says Doblin, now 61. “The spiritual aspects can be really profound in reducing anxiety, loneliness and depression.”
Still, Doblin says all of this research is still in its nascent phase.
“We’re not really in the implementation phase yet, except for underground therapists.”
Doblin is today launching a program to train therapists in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in service of his eventual goal: psychedelic clinics.
He expects federal approval of MDMA for therapeutic use by 2021. Ironically, the model Doblin sees for these psychedelic clinics was once virtually unknown in the 1970’s.
“The idea of the psychedelic clinic is based on the hospice model.”
In a world filled with conflict, Doblin says higher consciousness through psychedelics may be our best hope.
“A lot of our work is the antidote to war and violence,” says Doblin. “There’s tremendous potential for psychedelics. And it’s barely being utilized at all.”