Big Pharma's Long, Strange Trip: Ban on LSD, Ecstacy Research Keeps New Meds Out of Reach

Last Updated Apr 26, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

If you wanted proof that research bans are a bad thing, look no further than the latest experiments on "psychedelic" drugs -- LSD, ecstasy (MDMA) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Pharmaceutical companies are virtually uninvolved in several potential new treatments for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following decades-long legal bans on clinical research of substances that were popular in the 1960s and 1980s.

At least seven different academic institutions -- Johns Hopkins, UCLA, UC San Francisco, the University of Arizona, New York University, Miami, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in South Carolina, Boston's McLean Hospital (affiliated with Harvard) -- are currently researching psychedelics for post-traumatic stress disorder in rape victims and war veterans, depression, and anxiety caused by cancer.

The clinical trials they're conducting are small, often using only a few dozen patients, so the results are anecdotal rather than statistically significant. The anecdotes, however, are compelling enough to warrant more serious research: Patients are experiencing quick and long-term remissions from their mental problems after short periods of treatment.

In the LSD tests, patients emerge from the sessions -- in which they're typically given far lower doses than those used recreationally -- believing they've had one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. And this seems to put their mental problems into a perspective that they can control outside the lab.

Serious commercial research into the actual qualities of these drugs -- as opposed to casual use among hippies and nightclubbers -- has been virtually non-existent. LSD was declared a Schedule I drug in the 1960s and research on it has been largely banned ever since. Ecstasy was criminalized in 1985 and anyone wanting to research it must apply to the DEA. Not surprisingly, few scientists have wanted to tarnish their reputations by jumping through the legal hoops required to study magic mushrooms.

The psychiatric drugs that have been brought to market for depression and PTSD mostly have one thing in common: They don't work. And by "don't work" I mean they may reduce the symptoms of the condition if the patient takes them for an indefinite period, but they don't treat the underlying condition. We don't yet know whether psychedelics "work" or not: And that's the point. If they do, it's a potential goldmine for any company that could bring one to market in a safe, stable, standard dose. We should find out.

But research bans are keeping Big Pharma on the sidelines, making us all intellectually poorer for want of knowledge, physically poorer for want of new therapies, and financially poorer for want of new products to sell.