The psychedelic experience is associated with persisting reductions in cannabis, opioid, and stimulant use, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. The findings provide more evidence that psychedelics may hold potential in the treatment of substance use disorders.
“When I was in college I became aware of the older medical literature on psychedelics from the 50s to 70s, and realized that this research was stopped more for political reasons than for scientific and medical reasons,” explained study author Matthew W. Johnson (@Drug_Researcher), a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“I also became aware of the larger history of sacramental use by indigenous societies and the countless anecdotes of beneficial effects in our culture since the 60s. For a scientist interested in the effects of drugs on behavior, either you are fascinated by psychedelics, or you don’t know much about psychedelics. For that reason I’ve now been conducting research with psilocybin and other psychedelics for over 15 years here at Johns Hopkins.”
The researchers used online advertisements to recruit 444 adults who had overcome alcohol or drug addiction after using psychedelics. The participants completed an anonymous survey that assessed problematic drug use and other factors.
Johnson and his colleagues found that most of the participants reported using LSD or psilocybin to induce the psychedelic experience in question. Approximately 79% of participants met the DSM-5 criteria for severe substance abuse disorder prior to their psychedelic experience. But only about 27% met the criteria for substance abuse disorder after the experience.
Those who reported taking a higher dose, and experiencing more insight and mystical-type effects, tended to report greater reduction in drug consumption. In line with previous research, most of the participants also rated their psychedelic experience among the top 10 most personally meaningful of their lives.
“There are many stories of people who claim to have overcome an addiction because of a psychedelic experiences. I’ve published clinical research along these lines suggesting high rates of tobacco addiction recovery when we actually administer psilocybin to people. Much similar work has also been done with psychedelics to treat alcoholism,” Johnson told PsyPost.
“I’ve previously published survey research with such stories regarding tobacco and alcohol, so these newer survey data about overcoming addictions or reducing use of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and cannabis add to the growing literature suggesting robust anti-addiction potential to psychedelics.”
But the researchers also found that 10% of the participants reported adverse effects, such as transient paranoia or anxiety. Five participants reported extremely severe adverse effects, including persistent night terrors and psychotic symptoms.
“This research should not encourage DIY use of psychedelics to treat an addiction. There are also some very real risks, and people are sometimes harmed through psychedelic use. Approved clinical use available in research studies, or after psychedelics are potentially approved as medicines, both increases the odds of effectiveness and minimizes risks to an acceptable level,” Johnson said.
The study — like all research — includes some limitations. The participants were asked to report on their past experiences and behavior, and their responses could be distorted by hindsight bias.
“You can never squarely determine causation from this kind of survey research, in other words, that it was the psychedelic that was responsible for stopping or reducing other drug use. But the existing clinical research suggests that a causal relationship may likely be involved,” Johnson explained.
“To date, the U.S. government has not funded any studies on the therapeutic use of psychedelics like psilocybin. I think the growing database of research suggests that the NIH should invest in very carefully conducted research with more rigor.”
The study, “Persisting Reductions in Cannabis, Opioid, and Stimulant Misuse After Naturalistic Psychedelic Use: An Online Survey“, was authored by Albert Garcia-Romeu, Alan K. Davis, Earth Erowid, Fire Erowid, Roland R. Griffiths, and Matthew W. Johnson.