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Posted on February 6, 2007 at 1:58 PM

In my column in this month’s issue of The Scientist I argue that perhaps we are moving just a bit too fast in bringing back research on hallucinogens, and that learning the lessons of history about how that research led to pseudoscience and then to broader and dangerous abuse is very, very important – particularly given the effects should a media explosion lead to the impression that large and important medical institutions are engaged in drug pushing of psilocybin and other compounds (like LSD):

In the August issue of Psychopharmacology, Johns Hopkins researchers published a study in which some subjects were given psilocybin and then asked to relate their experiences. Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona published in the November issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry his patients’ reports that psilocybin helped them with migraine headaches. Harbor-UCLA Medical Center psychiatrist Charles Grob told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he is giving the compound to patients dying of cancer to see whether it eases pain by relieving anxiety.

The study of so-called magic mushrooms isn’t new; it could be argued that it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It began, as best anyone can tell, when Wall Street banker R. Gordon Wasson documented his trip to a healer in Oaxaca, Mexico, whose brew, he claimed, enabled him to see the reality of ideas and concepts. His 1957 essay in Life magazine excited the imaginations of scientists around the world. Sandoz patented the two active chemicals in the mushrooms, calling the compounds psilocin and psilocybin. Chaos ensued as researchers struggled to do excellent scientific work using a family of substances whose effects – to put it mildly – were not easily measurable using the tools of the time.

The scientists who used psilocybin in their research in the 1960s poked at the nature of consciousness, but this particular compound just refused to be caged by ordinary scientific conventions. Paper after paper stabbed at descriptions of the effects and utility of psilocybin, but scalar measures of transcendence just could not capture its effects, or side effects. A few of the leading scientists engaged in its study, most notoriously Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, simply abandoned the strictures of scientific research as insufficient to grasp the power of psilocybin.

By the time the FDA banned hallucinogenic drugs in 1970, the majority of those experimenting with mushrooms were not in universities…

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