This one’s a little off-topic… technically it’s nothing to do with psychedelics.
You might have heard of kratom recently; it’s been in the news quite a bit, since the DEA announced in August that they wanted to make it illegal, before they fairly quickly withdrew their plans in the face of a loud public backlash. After all, thousands of Americans have been using kratom to combat prescription drug addiction or alcoholism – getting rid of kratom could cause huge damage to people’s lives.
Kratom is a plant that grows almost everywhere in SouthEast Asia. Its leaves are traditionally chewed for their sedative and painkilling properties. In the West, it’s often found in dried form, and brewed into a tea or swallowed in capsules. Kratom contains a bunch of alkaloids that have a relaxing and soothing effect. It’s like a plant-based alcohol – except, it hasn’t been directly linked to seven forms of cancer, like alcohol has.
Compassion is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of economics or the stock market. Modern economics is more often a negative force than a positive one. Debt, bribery, greed and corruption are always associated with money – values like love and empathy… not so much.
Does this make money automatically a bad thing? Maybe money is just a necessary evil, maybe economics is the crumbling foundation on which we must build our extravagant society.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could create a form of economics that didn’t create debt, but negated it? What if we lived in a world with a compassionate currency that rewarded good deeds rather than greed?
Psychedelics can treat depression. They can treat anxiety, they can help you quit smoking, they can help recovering alcoholics and they can treat cluster headaches.
But these classic psychedelics, LSD and psilocybin, can also have a nasty bite. ‘Bad trips’ have been publicised since the psychedelic culture of the 60s, including (often fabricated) tales of people jumping off buildings or staring at the sun until blind. But it’s a reality that powerful psychedelic drugs can cause traumatic experiences if not used correctly.
In the most recent edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Professor David Nutt introduces two new studies that add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psilocybin can be used to help people with anxiety or depression related to terminal illness. It’s all exciting stuff, is already being covered by major news outlets, and will no doubt help to further the cause of the psychedelic reform movement.
Psilocybin is helping people with terminal illnesses accept death
Included in the issue is a paper about ‘challenging experiences’ people encounter when using psilocybin outside of a clinical setting. It’s an interesting contrast to the unrestrained positive message we’ve been hearing about psilocybin in recent studies. Here, the authors point out that of nearly 2000 recorded ‘bad trips’, around 50 resulted in physical violence or hospitalisation. 152 of those surveyed felt they needed treatment for the long-term psychological effects of the experience, and three people attempted suicide.
The period in the 1920s and 30s where alcohol was banned nationwide in the US was a volatile time. It led to an explosion of organised crime, hundreds of thousands of moonshine-related injuries and deaths, and only a moderate reduction in the use of alcohol. The US missed out on untold millions of tax dollars in that 13-year period of prohibition – in a particularly tumultuous economic time that included the great depression of 1929.
Few people would argue that prohibition was a good idea. Although it may have reduced liver damage and moderately reduced alcohol consumption, it increased crime, led to thousands of deaths from poisoned alcohol, and unfairly targeted working class Americans. Any benefits from reducing the sale and production of a harmful drug were minor compared to the unintended consequences of criminalisation.
Ketamine is an anaesthetic drug, first used on American soldiers in the Vietnam war, and part of the World Health Organisations’ list of essential medicines. Its effects include sedation, euphoria, dissociation and psychedelic introspection, leading to its popularity as a recreational substance. Now, many psychiatrists are touting it as a miracle drug for the treatment of depression.
Over the past year, you may have seen some of the many articles suggesting that this psychedelic compound could provide relief for sufferers of depression. This surge in public interest derives from several studies over the past few years that show remarkable improvements in depression scores of patients who are given moderate doses of ketamine.
In our last blog post “Are we living in a conscious universe?” we looked at a new theory of consciousness called “integrated information theory”. IIT was developed in an attempt to understand the link between the physical world and our experience of consciousness.
In trying to understand what physical systems give rise to our experience of consciousness, IIT makes a basic assumption; that consciousness is part of the basic fabric of the universe. At first this may sound unscientific… but in fact we assume many fundamental laws in science. In physics we assume a fundamental link between matter and gravity without being able to see examine the link directly. James Maxwell had to assume some fundamental electromagnetic laws to develop a theory of electromagnetic fields. And in a similar way, IIT assumes that consciousness arises from physical systems due to some fundamental laws of the universe.
The details of IIT are complex, and involve quite a bit of computational neuroscience. Overall, the basic idea is that any physical system that contains feedback systems has at least some level of consciousness. IIT predicts that our brains, with their highly connected and complex feedback systems, are highly conscious – which we can confirm from our own experience.
So what does IIT predict about the psychedelic state? What changes in the way that information is organised in our brains during the psychedelic experience, and how does that fit in with IIT’s model of consciousness?
Are you conscious right now?
That’s a pretty easy question to answer. You might say that’s the only thing in life you can ever be totally sure of. You are experiencing existence from moment to moment, and everything else beyond that is… well, just conjecture.
Is a dog conscious? What about a spider? Or a tree? Where do we draw the line of conscious experience, and how can we ever understand something so abstract?
We are always getting closer to understanding how our brains work – and we can link certain physical processes in the brain with behaviours and thoughts – but that still doesn’t answer the hard question: why conscious experience exists. As a philosopher might put it, why is there “something-that-it-is-like-to-be” me? Why does experience seemingly arise from physical systems?
One argument, supported by logical reasoning, is that conscious experience can’t be explained reductively; that is, we can’t explain how I experience colours by reducing the problem down to its most basic parts. Reductive explanation could show me how my brain processes colours, and how it produces all sorts of colour-related behaviours (i.e. stopping at a red light), but it could never explain my own perception of the colour red. Why is my perception of the colour red like this, and not like feeling rain on my skin, or hearing a musical note?
Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial showed us the first ever detailed images of the brain on LSD. The images showed that LSD massively increased connectivity in the brain, freeing it from its usual boundaries. Now researchers are starting to piece together how LSD breaks down these boundaries of normal consciousness, leading us to an understanding of the workings of the mind.
In a recent study from the same UCL group, funded by the psychedelic research charity the Beckley Foundation, researchers looked into how LSD affects our ability to recognise simple objects. The researchers recruited ten participants for their study, almost all of whom were experienced with psychedelic drugs. The subjects attended two experimental sessions: one where they were injected with LSD (40-80μg), and one where they were injected with a placebo. During both placebo and LSD sessions, participants took an object recognition test. They were shown images of simple objects like pieces of clothing or vehicles. As soon as an image appeared, the participants had to name the object as quickly and accurately as they could.
We’ve already seen the potential of psychedelics to help people with alcohol addiction; and next to alcohol, tobacco is the one of the most addictive and harmful drugs in the UK. Recent evidence suggests that psilocybin, a naturally occurring hallucinogen found in some species of mushrooms, could be used to help treat smoking addiction – and it could even be an improvement on current treatments.
In 2014, a group in Baltimore began a pilot study using psilocybin-assisted therapy to help people quit smoking, funded in part by the pioneering Beckley Foundation. They recruited 15 smokers, who on average had been smoking for thirty years and attempted to quit several times. The smokers went on a 15-week course of psychotherapy, during which they were given three doses of psilocybin. Six months after the study, 80% of the participants were abstinent from smoking – as indicated by physiological tests and questionnaires.
It’s been three months since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed into law in the UK. It effectively banned every substance that wasn’t food, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or prescription medication. Despite the immense, sweeping power this act has given police, so far they’ve only targeted head shops; stores selling ‘legal highs’. This was the main aim of the PSAct from the outset – shut down the high street vendors that were successfully bypassing UK drug policy. Since the end of May, 24 head shops have been shut down, and over 300 non-specialist stores have stopped selling legal highs. The Home Office estimates this will cost the economy £32 million annually… and that’s probably a fairly conservative estimate.
In addition, 186 people have been arrested for selling legal highs. One representative example is a man selling canisters of harmless laughing gas at a festival. He could face a lifetime in jail for carrying a gas used to whip cream.
Canisters of laughing gas could land you in jail
So the PSAct has achieved its main goal – but at the cost of our freedom. This is the first time in our history that instead of declaring what is illegal, an Act has listed what is legal. And it’s a very small list. It sets a scary precedent for future policies.