Sunday, 22 April 2012

A major revelation when facing the inevitable

Although in recent months I have taken quite a bit of interest in research on psilocybin as a medicinal drug for the treatment of severe anxiety - a problem I have had virtually my entire life and which does not go away as I age - a recent article in the New York Times is extremely revealing about how psychedelics can be very effective at dealing with these difficulties and potentially avoiding major personal problems that are naturally likely when a person faces the ultimate finale of death.

Titled “How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death”, and featuring an amazing picture of a woman floating in a wet coniferous forest , it discusses how Pam Sakuda, a terminally ill cancer patient, was chosen by Charles Grob to see if psilocybin was capable of reducing fear of death in terminally ill cancer patients. During the therapy, both Sakuda and the therapists were blinded so that they did not know what was being administered, though a specially soothing atmosphere was used to help her. Sakuda was told to try to recall precious memories of the past  and clutched a number of pictures as she lied on the bed, along with almost shamanic music. this method was originally developed by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof in the 1960s. Although Grof had no interest in the recreational use of psychedelics, the atmosphere of the Nixon era did effect him very severely and he was forced to turn to alternative methods.

Pam Sakuda, who died over four years ago, described basically this experience on video shortly beforehand:
“I felt this lump of emotions welling up... almost like an entity”
“I started to cry... Everything was concentrated and came welling up and then... it started to dissipate, and I started to look at it differently... I began to realize that all of this negative fear and guilt was such a hindrance... to making the most of and enjoying the healthy time that I’m having.”
Former anesthesiologist Lauri Reamer describes a very similar experience whereby mystical states induced by psilocybin as a result of Roland Griffiths' study (already familiar to me) at John Hopkins University. Although, unlike my mother affected by serious breast cancer, Lauri had a remission period of fifteen years, she eventually stopped practising medicine and devoted her life to meditating - a story that for decades has titillated me but still has some attraction given the pain involved in the sort of medicine needed to treat cancer.

However, Charles Grob (not to be confused with Grof) says very clearly that patients must be primed in order to experience the beneficial effects of psychedelics, as their users were in Native American cultures. Psilocybin works by deactivating the anterior cingulate cortex, which can eliminate depressive problems. Making people less afraid to die is undoubtedly a positive goal since the huge medical costs associated with keeping terminally ill people alive can be avoided.

For this reason, legalisation of psychedelic drugs is a definite goal and I am even unsure what restrictions are really needed on their use. Government efforts to ban them because of their potentially dangerous effects are to say the least grossly overstated even if priming is necessary for their effect to be realised. Should we as a culture take a respectful attitude to them, there is no saying what will result, but potential benefits are better tested than potential harm.

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