Alcohol abuse is one of the biggest health problems in the EU. Alcohol is highly addictive, highly toxic, and does unrivalled damage to society. In men aged 16-54, alcohol is the number one killer in the UK 1. In 2012, the UK saw over a million hospital admissions due to alcohol. Alcohol abuse currently costs EU countries around €125 billion a year – over 1% of these countries’ GDPs. In 2010, Professor David Nutt and a panel of experts ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug in the country, in terms of both its harm to users and others 2. Alcohol addiction is powerful, dangerous and deadly.
Ironically, hope for treating alcoholism could lie in a drug that the UK Home Office regards as one of the most dangerous in existence; LSD. After its discovery as a psychedelic drug in the 1960s, LSD was used by therapists who thought its effects could help treat problems like depression and addiction 3. When LSD was classed as an illegal drug, its use in therapy dwindled, and research into its potentially healing properties was stifled.
Although LSD research is still possible today, it’s extremely expensive and highly restricted; costs increase tenfold compared to trials on unrestricted compounds, and jumping the necessary hurdles can take many years. Before LSD was made illegal, a considerable amount of research was published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when it was still easy to obtain and therapists were convinced of its medical value. Recently, two scientists decided to look back on six of these studies to see if there is really any merit in using LSD as a treatment for alcoholism 4.
Krebs & Johansen found six randomised controlled trials from the ‘60s and ‘70s that used LSD to treat alcoholism. They analysed the accuracy and design of the trials, to ensure that there was no experimenter bias or messy science. They then attempted to merge the results of the six trials, to see if LSD really did help patients recover from alcoholism.
The six trials were mostly similar; they had all recruited alcoholics who were looking for treatment, the participants had no underlying mental health conditions, and patients were randomised into control or treatment groups. The studies varied in how LSD was administered; dose varied from 200-800 micrograms. Participants also received variable support throughout the experiment, with some having access to psychotherapy during the experience, and others being given very little information about LSD’s effects and left without any guidance.
All the studies measured the participant’s alcoholism in similar ways, using tests of alcohol dependence and misuse. Pooling the results from these six studies, Krebs & Johansen found that LSD treatment significantly reduced participant’s alcohol misuse, and improved participant’s attempts at abstinence from alcohol, compared to control groups. Overall, 59% of participants who had undergone LSD treatment improved in alcohol misuse scores, compared to 38% of control participants, which was highly statistically significant. After six months, 40% of LSD treated participants had abstained from alcohol, compared to only 28% of control participants; again, a highly significant result. After 12 months, the effects had mostly worn off, with participants returning to control group levels of alcohol misuse; but this initial benefit of LSD treatment on alcoholism is considerably greater than any currently available treatment!
There’s something remarkable about this meta-analysis; despite these six trials having drastically different approaches to LSD administration (one trial just strapped participants to a bed without even explaining what LSD is), they all showed that LSD treatment has a positive effect on alcoholism. Although the effects only lasted a year, it’s possible that more frequent and more controlled LSD-assisted psychotherapy could produce a prolonged recovery from alcoholism.
It’s also possible that other psychedelics could help in the treatment of addiction; Salvia divinorum has anti-addictive effects in rats 5, psilocybin has been shown to help heavy smokers quit 6, and ayahuasca users are less likely to suffer from alcoholism 7. The field of psychedelic research is looking increasingly bountiful.
The UK’s most dangerous drug is alcohol. But the non-toxic, non-harmful drug that could cure our alcohol problems is among the most highly illegal. Can you imagine a future society where this is still the case? Regardless of your opinion of LSD, clearly it deserves further research. We can only hope our future society will look back on this time as a medical renaissance, not as a self-harming dark age.
- Nutt & Rehm (2014) Doing it by numbers: a simple approach to reducing the harms of alcohol. J Psychopharm, 28(1):3-7.
- Nutt et al (2010) Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet, 376:1558-1565.
- Liester MB (2014) A review of LSD in the treatment of addictions: historical perspectives and future prospects. Curr Drug Abuse Rev, 7.
- Krebs & Johansen (2012) LSD for alcoholism: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Psychopharm, 26(7):994-1002.
- Morani et al (2009) Effect of kappa-opioid receptor agonists U69593, U50488H, spiradoline and salvinorin A on cocaine-induced drug-seeking in rats. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior, 94:244-249.
- Johnson et al (2014) Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. J Psychopharm, 28(11):983-992.
- Fabregas et al (2010) Assessment of addiction severity among ritual users of ayahuasca. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 111:257-261.