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Psychedelic Solutions? : It was a long, strange trip in the '60s and early '70s. But the study of mind-altering drugs came to a screeching halt. Now, researchers are again looking at the possibility that the substances may be a key to curing addictions and mental illness.

November 18, 1994|DENNIS ROMERO

A new generation of scientists calls them antactogens, empathogens and entheogens--"fantastic" drugs that could help us learn more about the mind's mysteries, cure psychological problems and stop drug abuse. To others, however, these are rightfully banned substances newly cloaked in clinical names.

Most people know them simply as psychedelic drugs--LSD, ecstasy and hallucinogenic mushrooms, to name a few.

Almost 25 years after the federal government all but shut down psychedelic drug research involving human subjects, these academics are testing the illicit, mind-bending drugs on people--with the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These researchers say the government shutdown left major questions unanswered--and that America may be overlooking the wonder drugs of the future.

"We're like early man who says fire's too dangerous," says Rick Doblin, 40, a Harvard-trained social scientist who has become the self-appointed spokesman for the new wave of research. "We're not even at the stage where we figured out fire keeps you warm in the winter."

Most of these academics were only teen-agers when Timothy Leary's '60s-era pro-drug proselytizing helped prompt the government to finally shut the door on such research in 1970. Now they sport ties and cropped hair, have new names for the drugs ("There's so much baggage psychedelics carries," says one), and say they play by the rules. "I am well-trained, and serious about these drugs," says Rick Strassman, who holds degrees from Stanford, UC San Diego and UC Davis and heads up two psychedelic drug projects at the University of New Mexico.

But while this group of researchers is diverse, serious and seems to have more degrees than a protractor, the politics of this kind of study is again at issue.

"It's the same old thing in disguise," says Wayne J. Roques, a Drug Enforcement Administration demand reduction coordinator based in Miami. "They believe they can open the door to legalization."

Dr. William Bennett of Oregon Health Sciences University agrees that legalization is the goal. "It's about a scientific agenda--a well-funded one," he says.

"Illicit drugs are illicit because they're painful, they're harmful," adds his wife, Sandra, vice president of a group called Drug Watch International. The couple lost their college-age son to cocaine in 1986.

Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit lobby tied to every new psychedelic research project involving humans, acknowledges that legalization is his ultimate end. His strategy is to support science that would prove psychedelic drugs have "therapeutic potential."

"I'm up front and direct that there is a larger agenda," Doblin says during an interview at his Charlotte, N.C., home office. "It's a piecemeal, slow, gradual strategy."

Not all the researchers like being affiliated with this kind of talk, though.

"I think hallucinogenic drugs are potentially quite dangerous and should remain tightly restricted," says Strassman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine. Charles S. Grob, director of child psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and lead researcher in a study of MDMA ("ecstasy"), says, "I want to be distanced as far as possible" from the politics.

By most accounts, six studies are either under way or awaiting final approval.

Most of the new studies involve university and private funding, some of which has been secured by MAPS. Two studies at the University of New Mexico, under Strassman, have received a total of $240,000 in taxpayer funds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In 1989, the FDA reopened the door to studies of the potential of psychedelic drugs. The result is that "aboveboard research with psychedelics is becoming viable, respected," Grob says.

The first wave of research started that way. LSD, for example, was happened upon in 1943 as Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann was trying to synthesize a substance that would help the blood circulate better. He ended up with a hallucinogenic drug he hoped could be used in psychotherapy. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals patented the drug, the CIA tested it and researchers loved it.

Oscar Janiger, a retired Santa Monica psychiatrist, researched the effects of LSD by giving it to more than 1,000 people between 1954 and 1962. His subjects included more than a few stars--Cary Grant and Rita Moreno to name two. Then the government shut down his lab. "Nobody gave us a good answer," says Janiger, 77.

That was the year the White House Conference on Narcotics found that psychedelics were popular with "long hair and beatnik cults," writes historian Jay Stevens in "Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987). "My colleagues," Janiger says, "were being shut down at the same time."

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