Learn about the research-supported resurgence of ancient medicines.
A Personal Letter From Thrive’s Director
What do you think of when someone says the term psychedelic? The 60s? Hippies? Stoner culture? You wouldn’t be alone if this were the case. Unfortunately, this would do a grave injustice to a field of healing with over a century of research support and at least six millennia of anecdotal support for healing the mind and body, for regulating mood and for processing trauma (though I can’t imagine the Mazatec indigenous of Mexico would have described it this way).
Unlike the other therapies promoted on this website, psychedelic medicine requires a backstory. Before even considering this approach, it is important to understand the history and context of these medicines (and to ask lots of questions!). For this reason, consider the below required reading as a rite of passage. If you get through this and still remain curious, only then should we talk further about pursuing psychedelic medicine.
Coined by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond while he corresponded with Aldous Huxley in the 1950s, psychedelic means mind-manifesting — a highly accurate term as you will learn (and as many of you already know). Psychedelics refer to mind-altering plants and chemicals that may reliably promote growth and healing across personal, relational and spiritual dimensions. To speak in western terms, psychedelics have a long track record of assisting in the recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, opioid addiction, fear surrounding cancer diagnosis and death, reducing returns to jail and criminal behaviour, as well as a number of other categories.
Isolating their effects to specific outcomes instead of thinking more holistically however misses the mark a bit. The healing properties of these ‘tools’ is thought to operate on a much grander scale, such as has been observed for the cultures using them for thousands of years. Trippers will often realize that it isn’t a matter of visiting nature, but that we are nature — a window into how the use of these medicines may play a role in our conscious awareness of how we choose to inhabit our suffering planet.
But Aren’t Drugs Bad?
First off, you’ll notice I reference the United States instead of Canada below. This is by design, as American policy has trickled down (or… up?) to Canada as a dominant influence and some of their statistics are more readily available.
With that being said, a big issue here is the word drugs itself. This blanket term technically puts coffee, the peyote cactus and crack cocaine in the same category. This is not helpful as crack is not a medicine and coffee is not life changing (though many might argue that last point). What is more useful is modern research that distinguishes various drugs and plants so that we know scientifically what is beneficial and what is dangerous (and in what contexts these outcomes might differ). For example, a recent large sample study (130,000 Americans) found no link between psychedelics and the likelihood of serious psychological distress in the past year, mental health treatment, suicidal thoughts, suicidal plans/attempt or with depression and anxiety. Since a highschool teacher taught me that LSD makes your brain bleed (after all, it’s called acid), you can understand why this research comes as quite the surprise.
So why the bad reputation? It’s beyond the scope of this page to explain in full, but the 1970s Nixon Administration played a major role with its long-suffering War on Drugs that evidently had more to do with the suppression of left-leaning anti-war ideologies and African Americans than it did with anything related to tangible health science (see this article for an excellent brief history, Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind for a long one, or Marcus Rummery’s Shamanic Graffiti for yet another historical angle that shares fascinating accounts of New Westminster’s own legendary psychedelic hospital that existed in the 50s and 60s). It doesn’t take my specialty of treating military trauma to realize that you can’t declare war on drugs when ‘drugs’ itself is a nebulous concept that we as a culture struggle to define. The murkiness is further evidenced by how many people say, “Alcohol? But that’s not a drug!” when it is in fact one of the most destructive drugs there is, as paired with the legal tobaccos and opiates that kill Americans like they were disposable.
Putting the scientific injustice of miseducating the public aside, the greater tragedy is illegalizing healing compounds so that involvement with them becomes criminal. Consider ibogaine, which in America is categorized as Schedule 1; the highest level of illegality (risk for addiction with no therapeutic value). Despite being in this harshest of categories, ibogaine is a plant extract that rapidly detoxes opiate addicts, often severely reducing or even ending cravings after just one or two sessions. Meanwhile highly addictive, life threatening opiates have been openly pushed to the public and mainstream treatment for the resulting addiction now consists of a life-time subscription to methadone… another opiate (let me acknowledge, however, that without harm-reduction approaches involving methadone and suboxone the overdose and death rate would raise significantly). If I’m to understand this correctly, a drug that ends addiction is labeled to have no therapeutic value, while heroin-like opiates such as fentanyl and oxycontin are widely prescribed as medicinally useful, and the solution to their addictive qualities is more opiates.
Just as the word drugs is somewhat meaningless and unhelpful, even the term psychedelics is murky. Fortunately, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and MAPS Canada are doing an outright fantastic job in taking us back to the productive realm of pre-Nixon psychedelic research of the 1950s when LSD was the most studied psychiatric drug on the planet (and today is strongly supported as a treatment for alcoholism; after all the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous himself, Bill Wilson reported great benefit in its use). In doing so, we can agree that ‘psychedelic’ refers to plants and chemicals that are non-addictive (and often counter-addictive), that will often give you challenging experiences that benefit your healing, and that have a longer track record of use than any existing pharmaceutical. This isn’t to inflame a battle between psychiatry and psychedelics, but rather to acknowledge the opportunity for collaboration in the best interest of public health.
Here are a few notable mentions you might consider in your introductory glance at psychedelics, recognizing that the list is nearly limitless with thousands of plants and chemicals across the planet harbouring different psychoactive properties:
- Psilocybin mushrooms — e.g., Psilocybe cubensis or Golden Teachers; relatively short-lasting and thus useful for more portable medicine sessions
- Ayahuasca — Prized beverage of tribes indigenous to the Amazon Basin, this brew combines two plants such as Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis
- Tabernanthe iboga — The religious fixture of Gabon’s Bwiti People, known in the west for its primary alkaloid, ibogaine
- Mescaline cacti — e.g., Echinopsis pachanoi or San Pedro; Lophophora williamsii or peyote (and around 14 others)
- Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) — A semi-synthetic compound with a rich history in Americana and psychotherapy
- MDMA* — First nicknamed ’empathy’ and used in psychotherapy, now showing breakthrough status in treatment of PTSD
- Ketamine* — This dissociative anesthetic surprised the world for its role in rapidly reducing treatment resistant depression
*The last two are ‘non-classical’ psychedelics (i.e.., amphetamine and dissociative psychedelics, respectively) that are gaining steam for their respective roles in the recovery from treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. This serves as a reclaiming of their therapeutic value after years of having been hijacked for the club and rave scene.
What this article does not do justice to is the scope and specific use of each of the above medicines (and that of the many others). This is to be determined through your own investigation, through asking many questions, through searching for research papers on Google Scholar, through events such as the Plant Spirit Medicine Conference, through MAPS fundraiser events, through the Canadian Psychedelic Association, through podcasts, or through consultation with the Thrive Centre.
…So Should I Take Psychedelics?
A big downside of the fifty years of research we lost due to illegality is that we don’t have clear clinical guidelines on when psychedelics are and aren’t helpful (and most importantly, when they are harmful). We do have some however. Family history of schizophrenic conditions most often excludes the use of psychedelics, as some data suggest that tripping can speed up the process by which the condition advances. Also, as a therapist with a decade in the bank of special experience with traumatized veterans, I use caution for those whose nervous systems spend a lot of time in the extremes of anxiety or the lows of dissociation.
Others may take a more clinically specified stance such as Johnson et al.’s exclusion criteria, this being direct, second or third degree family occurrence of prolonged psychosis or Bipolar I or II Disorder indicating exclusion of individuals in psychedelic psychotherapy.
As mentioned, MAPS is succeeding in giving us clearer guidelines on the use of medicinal compounds — especially those that carry greater risks, such as MDMA. Their final phase of research looks at treatment resistant PTSD with MDMA and has observed the closest thing our field could ever imagine to a cure for debilitating trauma. Cases where observed Diagnostic and Statistics Manual Criteria for a PTSD diagnosis drop below significance are very rare, yet in one study 83% of those undergoing the treatment could no longer be diagnosed with this life-halting disorder. That is a huge deal in our field!
Yeah, But Should I Take Psychedelics?
Does Joseph Campbell’s quote, “The cave you fear holds the treasure you seek” resonate with you (if you spend time with me you’re probably sick of hearing that quotation)? Are you a very open-minded person? Do you feel the pull to journey and adventure? Have you used some of these compounds recreationally but sensed they had a greater potential? Have you reached a stuck point? Do you ruminate and stay constantly stuck in your thinking mind? Do your problems seem unsolvable? Has your own traditional therapy stagnated or felt stuck and hopeless?
These are the times I have seen great value in psychedelic medicine.
What Is Thrive’s Role With Psychedelics?
If you find it confusing that Thrive would throw its hat in the ring, the reason is simple: As Thrive’s Clinical Director, I have simply seen (and experienced) far too much benefit from the cautious and well-planned use of psychedelics to keep silent anymore. The psychiatric system saves lives, but also has a lot wrong with it which I see in my office on a daily basis. There is a ‘coming out’ around working with these medicines. Dana Larsen, for instance, is openly selling psilocybin mushroom microdoses and is prepared to go to court to defend the value of his decision. It is ethically sound that individuals have guidance to minimize risk because the chance to gain from this (re)emergent field is greater than the costs of suppressing it. The least I can do is use my platform to support the call to legislative changes.
In addition to a pithy article, Thrive is also offering the following psychedelic-related services:
Are psychedelics right for you? Are there precautions to consider? We will discuss many important factors — including your nervous system and traumatic history — to determine when and if this path is a good fit for your growth related intentions.
As Dr. Timothy Leary famously contributed, a good and productive trip requires ensuring you are mentally prepared, that you have a safe and appropriate space, and that the compound and dose are appropriate.
Critically important is doing the deep work of integrating; translating your experience in the wilderness of your inner world into meaningful insight and behavioural change in the outer world. This session is to debrief a trip you’ve had.