“Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”
With this snappy catchphrase, and an eponymous book, Dr. Timothy Leary boldly endorsed the use of hallucinogens to the American public five decades ago. Citing potential medical benefits, Leary believed that psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin could help patients overcome psychiatric illness and facilitate a higher stage of consciousness.
While his divisive stance and strident attitude made him a symbol of the counterculture movement in the 1960’s, his ideas have been largely regarded by the scientific community as radical and medically insignificant. But recently, some researchers have begun to rethink those conclusions.
In April, the New York Times reported on the case of Clark Martin, a former psychologist who participated in a psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Suffering from depression, Martin opted to participate in the program after finding no solace in traditional treatments. In the study, Martin was given psilocybin and spent the next five hours listening to classical music in private reflection.
A year later, he reported that the psilocybin treatment had helped him largely overcome his depression, and considers the experience one of the most meaningful of his life. He wasn’t alone. Most of the patients in the study said the treatment yielded positive, long-lasting benefits.
Encouraged by these results, scientists are also considering studying the effects of psychedelics in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
The Johns Hopkins study largely corroborates the data Leary had collected decades earlier in a 1960 study on psilocybin conducted at Harvard University, in which he saw significant positive results in his patients.
The use of psychoactive drugs in medicine is still relatively new. Not until the middle of the 20th century, with the introduction of the anti-psychotic drug Chlorpromazine, have physicians turned to pharmaceuticals to treat psychiatric illness. They largely displaced older, more invasive treatment options such as insulin shock therapy, psychosurgery, and electroconvulsive therapy.
Perhaps because of their initial success, pharmaceutical companies have recently embraced psychotropic medications, finding massive markets for the treatment of conditions like depression and anxiety.
But while drugs like Prozac and Valium have made fortunes, research for experimental treatments like psychedelics has garnered little attention. Without the profit making potential of less radical options, pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to allocate time and money to developing these equivocal treatments.
Still, a one-time session that produces lasting results could potentially provide a cheaper and less disruptive alternative to a daily pill. And the treatment, an interesting middle ground between therapy and medication, perhaps provides a more complete approach.
Now, 50 years removed from the counterculture movement that defined Leary’s research, his stigma is beginning fading, but maybe his science will remain.