The U.S. “war on drugs,” besides failing to meet its goals, has demonstrated a stubborn ignorance of the effects that different drugs have in the human body. Granted, some drugs cause degeneration and are properly outlawed. Opiates such as heroin and stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine take a harsh physical toll and leave users addicted to the chemical. But classified along with these truly dangerous drugs are some of nature’s most mysterious medicines. New research shows how marijuana, psychedelics, MDMA and even ketamine have positive physiological and psychological effects that can persist even after the drug has worn off.
The marijuana flower, of course, is the nearest of these drugs to public and political acceptance, and the transformation of its image over the decades is very instructive. Stuck with a Spanish name in the 1930’s to excite American xenophobia, marijuana has long been demonized as causing “reefer madness.” In fact, new research shows that marijuana has potent neuroprotective and neuroplastic properties, in addition to its power as a non-addictive painkiller. Marijuana contains at least 85 cannabinoid chemicals, including the well-known THC, and the lesser known CBD. New research shows that CBD, administered thirty minutes after a devastating loss of oxygen in mice brains, totally circumvented brain damage. Cannabinoids are currently being studied for a wide range of therapeutic applications, including the fight against cancer. Their potency should come as no surprise since all mammals have cannabinoid receptors in their brains. According to Salon, these receptors evolved in animals 550 million years before the marijuana plant.
Psychedelic drugs are very different; the most popular ones are psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD. Psilocybin and mescaline occur naturally, in certain mushrooms and cacti, respectively. LSD must be made in a laboratory. These drugs have differing effects, but the psychedelic experience has many features in common. A new study in PLOS ONE showed no correlation between a lifetime of psychedelic use and negative mental health outcomes. In fact, “in several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems.” Ongoing research on psilocybin suggests that it can help terminally ill patients come to terms with their mortality in healthy and beneficial ways. Meanwhile mescaline, in the form of peyote, is exempt from DEA regulation when taken under certain religious circumstances. Mescaline and psilocybin have been used in tribal cultures for thousands of years as tools for understanding the self and the world. If you try them just once your life can change drastically. After marijuana, magic mushrooms and peyote cactus should be decriminalized as natural, non-addictive, safe substances. LSD on the other hand can cause psychedelic effects for up to 16 hours (about twice as long as psilocybin) and may present a bigger danger to public health.
Similar in effect to psychedelics, but also demonstrating stimulant properties, is MDMA or Ecstasy. While conflicting research suggests that long term or heavy use of MDMA may cause brain damage, a 2011 study at UCLA “found that persons with autism using the drug often report an increase in socialization and strong feelings of empathy that last even after the drug has worn off.” Perhaps one day this darling of dance culture will be available for therapeutic use by prescription.
Finally, there’s a drug you may not have heard of: Ketamine, best known as a horse tranquilizer and club drug. In sub-anaesthetic doses “Special K” causes very strange psychological effects unlike those of pot or psychedelics. It’s a type of drug known as a dissociative, along PCP and dextromethorphan. But while these latter drugs can cause psychosis and brain damage, Ketamine turns out to be pretty gentle, and may even have a future as an antidepressant. According to Scientific American, “the enthusiasm for ketamine is such that physicians, often working out of small clinics, have already started prescribing low doses of the generic anesthetic off-label […] and drug companies are contemplating whether to get into the act by creating new drugs based on ketamine’s biochemistry.”
A word of warning: these drugs are illegal for recreational use, they often have unpleasant effects, and it’s always possible to get too much of a good thing. Many drugs are truly dangerous and deserve to remain tightly regulated or illegal. One needs only to read about the emergence of krokodil, a street form of mesomorphine cooked up from codeine and toxic chemicals, to be reminded of the horrors of drug addiction.
But the prohibition of safe, non-addictive, psychologically inspiring, and medically promising substances is not the answer.