As a nerdy Psychology undergrad, I spent a significant amount of time sifting through research studies, learning all the I could about up-and-coming topics. The only studies I still vividly recall to this day are those surrounding psilocybin as a treatment for existential angst in terminal cancer patients.
Seven years after the treatment was found to have significantly significant results across the study (read: it works), psilocybin is still a Schedule I drug, with dispension limited to highly controlled studies. There have been dozens of more recent studies, all with promising results and yet–from the outside–it doesn’t appears that progress has been made in implementation.
The study hit me hard initially because I was a sheltered kid who naively believed that all drugs are bad: addictive, destructive, life-ruining. The results crept up on me again nearly five years ago when my cousin, my sister’s best friend, and a good friend’s nephew were all diagnoses with pediatric cancer within a month of each other; and subsequently all passed away within a year from diagnoses.
It felt unfair. I don’t understand why cancer affects the young and healthy. The disease, the treatment, and the prospects are devastating to both the patient and their loved ones. I’m older than Scott, Jordan, and Aiden were when they died, and I cannot imagine how I would feel upon hearing the words, “You have three months to live.” It breaks my heart that anyone, especially the young have to squarely face the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
And yet, the treatment which has been scientifically proven is being restricted. I understand fully that good science hinges on safety, soundness, and repeatability. I also understand that psilocybin elicits known benefits with no unfavorable side effects. It’s a product that should be accessible to patients who needs help facing a future that is vastly different from what they imagined.
A friend once suggested that the delay may be due, in part, to pharmaceutical companies lobbying against release, as they work to synthesize a profitable psilocybin equivalent. I’m not sure how I feel about that theory. Yet, I firmly and fervently believe that psilocybin is a safe and naturally occurring substance which should be made available to those experiencing severe existential anxiety sooner, rather than later.
In 2013, news broke that an eight-year-old girl with debilitating epilepsy was able to drastically reduce seizure occurrence by use of medicinal marijuana. Scientific studies followed up on the anecdote and found that cannabis may be an effective treatment for a third of epilepsy patients with treatment-resistant forms of the disease.
It’s been well-documented that plant-based cannabinoids are also effective for managing chronic pain due to their interaction with the endocannabinoid system. The use of non-psychoactive cannabis-infused salves, in particular, can offer localized pain relief without the negative side effects traditionally associated with cannabis. CBD have proved beneficial for physical pain, whereas a combination of THC and CBD is effective against multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and rheumatism.
The substance is slowly being accepted across the United States for its medicinal, pain-reduction qualities, yet it still has a way to go. Medicinal marijuana dispensaries are popping up all over the country, but I worry that–similar to psilocybin–there exists a stigma around cannabis, preventing those who might potentially benefit from discussing the option with their doctor. Though I’m not aware of any severe side effects associated with cannabis, a secondary concern is that individuals will take advantage of the system as it stands (e.g., falsifying claims of pain to obtain marijuana legally), ultimately leading to a revocation or restructuring that will hurt those benefiting from the substance.
There is a huge and pronounced opioid epidemic in the Unites States, and it’s not a good thing. In the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted; the prescription of opioids increased, and the drugs proved to, in fact, be highly addictive. In 2016, 116 died every day from an opioid-related drug overdose and 11.5 million misused prescription opioids.
When I was young, my father’s boss’ son was in a terrible car accident; the promising teenager was prescribed opioids for the pain and quickly became addicted. The opioid problem is often downplayed–only homeless people do that, and only those that lack discipline become addicted. I don’t think that’s accurate. But I do believe there is a solution.
A first-in-the-nation program offered addition recovery treatment to Rhode Island inmates. The program offers inmates methadone and buprenorphine (opioids that reduce cravings and ease withdraw symptoms), as well as naltrexone, which blocks people from getting high. The data set was small, but significant: during the first half of 2016 (prior to program implementation) 26 of the 179 people who died from overdose were recently incarcerated (14.5%), whereas during the first half of 2017 (post-implementation) 9 of the 157 people who fatally overdosed were recently incarcerated (5.7%).
I think offering inmates–and anyone interested–the opportunity to ween themselves off an addictive substance is clearly beneficial. I recall watching an inmate rehabilitation special when I was young; I vividly remember seeing a tough-looking inmate groom a large dog and say, with tear in his eyes, “When I get out of here, I’m going to veterinary school.” I believe that people deserve a chance, especially when something beyond their control (e.g., addiction) is dictating their choices.
The Future of Illegal Substances
I’m no expert in the area of pharmacology, medicine, policy, or substance use. I cannot say for sure whether the Schedule I title will be lifted from psilocybin or cannabis; I don’t know whether this substances will become more readily available in coming years, or more heavily restricted. Though I don’t personally see the potential for substance abuse with psilocybin and cannabis, I do understand the responsibility and initiative of those in power to tightly regulate access. If the government and pharmaceutical companies don’t lay down the red tape, they risk being held liable for other people’s mistakes.
Similarly, I believe that those in power have the obligation to do the most good for the most people; I believe wholeheartedly that government programs and non-profit organizations should explore rehabilitation opportunities, which could serve those that are seeking help, but can’t access affordable treatment programs. I would gladly share my tax dollars that offer people like that joyful convict-turn-veterinarian a second lease on life.