For all of the good congressional action on opioids can do, we cannot just legislate ourselves out of this national epidemic. While the round of bill introductions over the past few weeks may help lawmakers check a box ahead of a contentious election cycle, this disjointed approach may not be serving us well.
If we’re going to take a holistic view of the crisis, we must put all possible solutions and cures on the table, even the controversial ones.
Drugs like psilocybin, (a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in certain varieties of mushrooms) are now increasingly being used by patients to manage pain and to treat a variety of other issues from depression and anxiety to alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism spectrum disorders. In many cases, the drugs have worked with stunning success.
Unfortunately, drugs like psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy) are considered Schedule 1 substances by the federal government, described as having “high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.” This is not an accurate classification.
The Schedule 1 classification severely limits the availability of these drugs for research studies, which are necessary in controlled clinical settings to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval. Ironically, cocaine and methamphetamine — powerful drugs that carry an extraordinary high-risk factor for abuse and all too often lead to violent street crime — are not classified as Schedule 1 drugs.
Recreational use of drugs like these led to a “War on Drugs” in the 1960s that was largely ineffective and had far-reaching consequences. Among them: preventing researchers from discovering the untold potential of alternative therapies. Those outdated rules, crafted generations ago without the scientific knowledge we have today, prevent us from finding solutions to help ease our pain.
Make no mistake, in the wrong hands, many Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin are extremely dangerous. It is important we keep dangerous drugs off the street. But today in the right hands, drugs with confirmed medical therapeutic qualities could help millions of Americans living in pain — as marijuana does for patients.
A growing body of research shows that alternative therapies like psilocybin can offer dramatic improvement to a patient’s health and emotional well-being. A recent study found that terminally ill cancer patients with anxiety who took small doses of psilocybin reported feeling significantly less anxious and exhibited an overall improvement in mood even three months after taking a single dose. Six months later, their depression had declined 30 percent.
A research study is currently underway at Helsinki University in Finland to determine the possible long-term therapeutic effects of psilocybin on the symptoms of severe depression. These findings are crucial in supporting hallucinogens as key alternatives to the addictive psychiatric impact that opioids are having on patients. In many cases, the pain that opioids are prescribed to treat is accompanied by mental health issues, often debilitating anxiety and depression.
It’s time to move beyond the stigma of hallucinogens and other psychoactive drugs. Researchers need access to these drugs to thoroughly investigate their effectiveness. Patients need access to these drugs to alleviate their pain and suffering.
By objectively reclassifying Schedule 1 drugs with potentially therapeutic properties and making them more widely available for clinical studies, the federal government can give researchers a powerful tool in our war on pain.
Lawmakers’ opioid bills may make good content for campaign ads this fall, but they’re not the only salve for the pain communities across the country are feeling. Lifting existing barriers to research will allow us to develop new and innovative pain treatments and help to break our cycle of opioid addiction.
Dr. David Meyer is president and CEO of LA BioMed, an incubator of innovation with a global reach and a 66-year reputation of improving and saving lives.
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