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Can LSD and Ecstasy Help Us Harness the Power to Heal?

“If you think LSD is a relic of the 60s, or good for nothing except getting high, you need to read this riveting and important book,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry of Tom Shroder’s new book, Acid Test.

“Tom Shroder is a fine journalist and a terrific writer; in ‘Acid Test,’ he’s written a book that should start a long-overdue national conversation, and someday may help to end a lot of unnecessary suffering.”

Indeed, LSD and Ecstasy have the power to heal, believes Shroder, the former Washington Post Magazine editor, who is intrigued by topics that push our boundaries. His other books include “Old Souls,” a study of the intersection between science and mysticism, and “Fire on the Horizon,” the untold stories of the Gulf oil disaster. His most recent editing project was the New York Times best-seller, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” by Brigid Shulte.

So it was a pleasure to interview Shroder about his provocative book and learn more about how these controversial drugs can change lives, clinical trial by clinical trial. — Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Be Inkandescent magazine

Be Inkandescent: You tell readers to empty their minds of preconceptions about psychedelic drugs and enjoy the fascinating trip through the politics, science, history, and promise of these controversial chemical compounds. Your research clearly shows that LSD and Ecstasy can be good for you. Can you tell us why and how?

Tom Shroder: For 15 or 20 years, psychedelic drugs such as LSD or mescaline or psilocybin were used in therapeutic situations very successfully. The transcendent sort of mystical experiences that these drugs induced in the people who took them gave them insights and seemed to enable them to see their problems in a light that they hadn’t been able to before. As people went through their therapy session, exactly the material that they needed to confront emerged, and with the help of the therapist, they could deal with it. People in therapy using psychedelic drugs were making progress that would have been expected to take 10 to 15 years in traditional therapy.

Be Inkandescent: And that’s what the book really centers on, the medicinal properties of psychedelic drugs and how they can help people. Tell us about the three people whose lives you feature in the book, and what their experience has been.

Tom Shroder: The book is really a history of how psychedelic research has recently been redeemed. It went from this period where people were frightened of synthesizing psychedelics into a new period now where medical research on the possible healing aspects of psychedelics is yielding very promising results. I realized that these particular three people and their individual stories really tell the history well.

Richard Doblin grew up wanting to save the world. At the age of 14, he took his family’s experience in the Holocaust to heart, deciding he would work to prevent anything like that from happening again. When he began using LSD in college, he wondered if there was something worthwhile in his experiences with it. With that in mind, he discovered the work of Dr. Stanislav Grof, a European LSD researcher who conducted LSD therapy sessions. Richard decided that his mission in life would be to restart LSD research in the United States. He taught himself how to do scientific research and went on to get a PhD in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government so that he could better communicate with authorities and deal with the complex issues involved in getting government research going.

Michael Mithoefer went from enjoying a leisurely lifestyle to wanting to give back. He went to medical school and became an emergency room doctor. In the ER, he dealt with victims of violence who had started out with psychiatric problems. He decided to become a psychiatrist so he could help patients stay out of the ER in the first place. Like Doblin, he learned about Stan Grof, and he became interested in how psychedelically altered states could facilitate healing. Finally, he and Doblin teamed up to try to get psychedelic psychiatric research going in the United States.

A US Marine, Nicholas Blackston came home from serving in combat with severe PTSD. He suffered from hallucinations, sleeplessness and nightmares, and extreme rages. The treatment he received was worse than ineffective, and he was suicidal. His story joined the other threads when he enrolled in a study that Doblin and Mithoefer were conducting on treating PTSD with Ecstasy.

Be Inkandescent: What brought you to this topic?

Tom Shroder: I had had some experience with psychedelic drugs in college, but I never thought of it as merely for entertainment; it seemed way too profound and serious for that. At one point, I used mushrooms when I was completely knotted up with all sorts of anxiety and concerns about the future, and concerns about myself. As the mushrooms started to take effect, I saw a vision that these negative feelings were like gigantic stones that I was holding against my chest. I had this sudden perception that if you are holding a heavy stone to your chest and you can’t bear the weight, all you have to do is open your arms and it will fall away.

I realized that all I had to do was let go of these negative feelings and let them fall away, and I did it! Suddenly all these anxieties and concerns just vanished, and I have continued to use the insight I gained from that one experience for the rest of my life.

Be Inkandescent: Do you think you developed the ability to do that from the drug?

Tom Shroder: I do. I never would have been able to see that on my own for the first time, to really believe that I could let go of those feelings, if I hadn’t experienced whatever that altered state was. As I went on in life, I stopped doing drugs, but the insight I gained has continued to be important in my life.

Be Inkandescent: It sounds like there was some serendipity in how you discovered one of the people whose research on psychedelic drugs you showcase in your book.

Tom Shroder: I’ve noticed that there always seems to be an astonishing sort of coincidence going on around the use of psychedelic drugs. When I was a student journalist at the University of Florida in 1975, I somehow learned about a hippie who was building a fantastic house in the woods out of cedar, stone, and stained glass. His house was gorgeous, and full of stuff that was obviously psychedelically inspired, and I wrote a feature story about him for the college newspaper. Psychedelic drugs were never mentioned in the article, though that was the whole subtext of it.

Then, 12 years later, when I was the editor of The Washington Post Magazine, there he was again. I saw a news story about a perpetual college student who was proclaiming that MDMA, which is Ecstasy, was sort of a miracle drug for psychiatric therapy. When I looked at the photo that accompanied the article and I saw the name, I couldn’t believe it. This was the same guy, Rick Doblin, whom I had written about when he was a hippie in the woods building a house.

The story I happened upon in The New York Times was about a nonprofit organization that was sponsoring the first psychedelic research at Harvard University since Timothy Leary, and it was Rick Doblin, same guy again. This time I decided I was going to write a story myself for the Post Magazine.

The results of the study I wrote about were unbelievable. Women with PTSD—with life-threatening problems that they hadn’t been able to solve for 10 to 15 years, despite all sorts of failed therapies—were set on the road to healing in sometimes one session, after having blinding flashes of insight.

All of their problems didn’t just suddenly disappear, but one person in the study said that they had been feeling that their life was like thrashing through a jungle, lost. While on psychedelic drugs, they were looking at their life from great height, which enabled them to see that there was a path out of the jungle. Afterwards, they felt that they could follow that path until they were completely better.

Be Inkandescent: You write in the book that 80 percent of people in that study would not even be diagnosed with PTSD six months after treatment.

Tom Shroder: Right. They only did this treatment a couple of times, and three years later they were still symptom-free. The results were astonishing, and I decided to write a book on this. But I also knew that they were planning to study combat veterans, so I decided to wait until after the study so that I could talk to the people who went through the study, and when that happened that’s when I got the book contract.

Be Inkandescent: Bearing in mind that there are both pros and cons, who do you think is best served by using these drugs?

Tom Shroder: That’s a complicated question because so far there aren’t tons of clinical studies, if you don’t count the 15-year history of its actual clinical use back in the day. But the standards of research weren’t the same then as they are now, so you can always pick flaws with the 1950s research.

Now the research is done with more rigorous methods, and it’s showing tremendous promise in treating PTSD, which I have mentioned. It is also being used to help people with terminal cancer deal with end-of-life issues and the severe anxiety and depression issues that often come with that. Recently there have been studies suggesting that it might also help people quit smoking, and that it might help people with autism become more adept at relating to other people.

Be Inkandescent: Have there been any studies using LSD on people with good mental health?

Tom Shroder: Yes, in fact there have. And the vast majority of those healthy subjects said that it was the most important experience in their lives. It raises all sorts of challenging questions like: What could the role of LSD be? Could this be a long-term role? We want people to be able to enhance their potential and spiritual growth, which of course is what a lot of people were arguing for back in the 60s.

Be Inkandescent: But there’s another side to the story—of people using these drugs in uncontrolled situations where it ends up being dangerous.

Tom Shroder: Yes, and that’s what makes this such a tricky issue. While taking psychedelic drugs in controlled situations appears to be healing, it is not like taking penicillin. If you have an infection, you take the penicillin and without any conscious participation on your part, the infection gets healed.

With psychedelic drugs, it’s the conscious participation and the experience itself that create the opportunity for healing and for growth. It’s this range of experience that allows people to change their behavior into something that is actually more positive and productive than what they had been doing previously. I think that the value that people saw in the clinical use of psychedelics early on is beginning to be borne out now with the modern use.

Be Inkandescent: So if someone were interested in doing this clinically in a controlled situation, how would they go about doing that?

Tom Shroder: Well there are a handful of various studies that are looking for subjects, and each has certain requirements. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Phase 2 of the studies will begin, and it will include a much broader array of studies with hundreds of people around the country. Phase 3 is where the FDA approves it as a prescription drug if all goes successfully.

At this rate, it’s going to take at least a decade and possibly longer before the Phase 3 trials and before these treatments can be available by prescription. That’s what really frustrates me. It’s not happening faster because of 40-year-old stigmas that got attached to psychedelics in the 60s. It’s a real shame, and I hope that “Acid Test” will show how foolish that is.

Don’t stop yet! To listen to our entire podcast interview with Tom Shroder, click here.

And to learn more about Shroder, “Acid Test,” and his other books, visit tomshroder.com.

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