The Right to Regulate Psychedelics  March 2021

Maryland Leaf Magazine

Tucked away on the Johns Hopkins Medical School Bayview Campus, less than 45 minutes from the outskirts of Washington, DC, sits the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.  The Center is run by its Director, Professor Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Departments, as well as a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Neuroscience.  The Center is considered to be the first such research center in the United States studying psychedelic compounds and the largest research center of its kind in the world.

The Center focuses its research on how psychedelic compounds affect behavior, brain function, learning and memory, the brain’s biology, and mood.  In particular, much of the Center’s early work focused on psilocybin — the principal psychoactive component found in “magic mushrooms.”  Since the Center published its first studies in the early 2000’s, the Center has been collecting human clinical data about psilocybin’s efficacy as a wellness drug for opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia nervosa, and alcohol use in people with major depression.  Researchers hope to use these findings to create precision treatments tailored to individual patients’ needs.

Since early human existence and continuing through the 1960’s, psilocybin, LSD and other psychedelic compounds were used and prized for their wellness benefits and mystic effects.  By the 1960’s these compounds had been pushed from a controlled clinical setting to the general population by countercultural forces.  These psychedelic compounds became stigmatized amidst the mania of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as well as the “War on Drugs.”  A subsequent backlash led to a strict prohibition against legitimate research on these compounds for the next five decades.

In 2000, the psychedelic research group at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research obtained regulatory approval once again in the U.S. to conduct research with psychedelics in healthy volunteers who had never used a psychedelic. Their 2006 publication on the safety and enduring positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin sparked a renewal of psychedelic research worldwide.  Since then, the researchers have published studies in more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles.

The Center’s research illustrated the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin for people who suffer from conditions including nicotine addiction and depression and anxiety caused by life-threatening diseases such as cancer.  It has also paved the way for current studies on treatment of major depressive disorder by offering the first long-term relief for such patients.  Due, in part, to the knowledge they gained from the first human clinical trials in more than fifty years, the Center has helped other universities around the world gain approval for psychedelic studies by publishing safety guidelines.  It has also developed new ways of measuring mystical, emotional, and meditative experiences while under the influence of psychedelics.

In the meantime, research at the Center has spawned a whole new generation of curiosity-seekers who see the benefits that psychedelics have to offer.  On November 3, 2020, Oregon made history by becoming not just the first U.S. state to legalize psilocybin, but also the first jurisdiction in the world to lay out plans for regulating the drug’s therapeutic use.  Although Oregon is not the first place in the U.S. to loosen restrictions on psilocybin—the cities of Oakland, Denver, Ann Arbor, Somerville, and Washington, D.C., voted in the past two years to effectively decriminalize the drug—it is the first State to offer a framework for legal therapeutic use.

In addition, data from the human clinical trials of psychedelics around the Country continue to support the use of new therapies to treat the most intractable psychiatric illnesses — such as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which effects more than 17 million Americans.  For the second time in two years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated psilocybin therapy as a “breakthrough therapy,” an action that is meant to accelerate the typically sluggish process of drug development and review, and is usually only granted when preliminary evidence suggests the drug may be an enormous improvement over already available therapy.

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