Today, the drug abuse epidemic is at unheard of peaks. In 2021, over 40.3 million Americans qualified as having a substance use disorder. That need for treatment and for new ways of treating and managing drug addiction and cravings has led to a resurgence in interest in using psychedelics like Ayahuasca, LSD, and psilocybin to treat that addiction.
In fact, many people are now taking steps like micro dosing, using large doses of LSD, or even going on trips to have a retreat for psychedelic drug use as part of an attempt to recovery from substance abuse. Unfortunately, with no real evidence-based studies behind them, these practices are dangerous, unpredictable, and don’t guarantee anything.
Psychedelics have a long history of use in addiction treatment. In fact, LSD was studied as far back as the 1950s for its potential usefulness in treating alcohol use disorder, then known as alcoholism. At the time, alcohol was just beginning to be recognized as a physical and mental disorder, in what was labeled a “biochemical disease.” Based on a study of just two people, one of which quit drinking following a dose of LSD and one of whom did not, Alcoholics Anonymous began recommending that people use it as part of recovery.
Proponents argued that LSD was effective, not because it was a chemical, but because it offered a mind-altering experience, effectively allowing the individual to change who they were. That argument largely mirrors those found in modern-day arguments, where studies conclude that the adult personality is not as stable or set as many would assume and that LSD can result in major personality changes.
That’s in-line with studies into using psychedelics to help patients quit smoking. For example, in one study of 15 people, participants were able to use psilocybin to help quit smoking. Here, participants reported that the effects of the drug overshadowed withdrawal symptoms. At a 30-month follow-up, participants reported a greater understanding of why they smoked, better aesthetic and spiritual understanding and appreciation, and increased awe at the world around them – with 12 quitting smoking for at least 12 months.
In fact, to-date, most of the studies showing promise in using psychedelics for addiction treatment are small, include less than 25 people, and often end by recommending further study.
Psychedelics have marked and often unpredictable effects on the brain. Often, they create changes in how the brain produces and processes serotonin, a substance that is heavily linked to substance abuse. When people take psychedelic reagents, they experience high levels of euphoria, empathy, connectedness, and suggestibility. This happens as the brain releases large amounts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s part of the reward circuit, and which is linked to feelings of pleasure, gratification, gratitude, and satisfaction.
These intense experiences can permanently shift mindset, belief systems, and behavior. For some people, it can be the first time they felt truly connected with everything – making a marked difference in their lives.
That has led many to seek out psychedelics as a means of changing their life and their personality and of finding meaning in their lives. While that can help, especially for individuals without family and support networks, there’s also very little real science backing up whether it has a net positive impact.
Yet, results are unpredictable. Some people experience flashbacks to highs that, at random, over the next 1-36 months. Others experience intense and long-term changes to serotonin production in the brain, which can increase symptoms of anxiety. In addition, with few long-term studies across large groups of people, we often don’t know how long-term those effects are, how much they vary between people, or how long negative effects last.
Most long-term studies don’t extend more than 12 months, where patients are asked to self-rate experiences and persistent effects. Those that we do have suggest that problems like prolonged psychoses, post-hallucinogen perceptual disorder, and increased occurrences of psychopathy can impact LSD and other psychedelic drug users for as long a 5 years following a single large dose.
While psychedelics are being seriously studied for their potential impacts on mental and behavioral health, many people with substance use disorders are attempting to self-medicate with them. That’s part of a larger trend of addicts to self-medicate, with reliance on alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids to feel better or to modulate and control stress or other emotions often contributing to addiction in the first place.
That extends to treating addiction, where many people jump from one potential “Cure” to another. A medication cure removes the necessity to seek out long and expensive drug addiction treatment and (potentially) removes much of the work involved. Yet even medication-assisted drug addiction treatment programs using buprenorphine and methadone extensively combine drug treatment with behavioral therapy – making the drug a crutch, not a cure.
Yet, most of us don’t seek out treatment, with less than 10% of people needing treatment getting it. Here, reasons vary, but for many people, the belief that drug abuse treatment doesn’t work and that they cannot be “fixed”. The promise of a mind-altering experience that can “cure” your personality flaws and fix your need for substances to feel better is a tempting one. At the same time, it doesn’t work.
While there are no real treatments for substance use disorder using psychedelics, that may change in the future. Currently, researchers are studying the impacts of psychedelics in clinics, with control groups, and with the equipment to monitor and check for long-term effects and long-term results.
But, while psychedelics may do more harm than good, other forms of treatment do work. Behavioral therapy like CBT and EMDR, in combination with group therapy and counseling, and paired with complementary treatments to help patients build life skills like stress management, self-care, and good nutrition can be extremely helpful. In addition, for individuals with opioid use disorders, long-term maintenance programs with methadone and buprenorphine are extremely effective, giving individuals time to learn coping and management skills before having to deal with cravings and withdrawal.
Eventually, there is no magic cure for drug addiction. Psychedelics may or may not play an eventual role in the future of drug addiction treatment. But, for now, there is real treatment you can seek out and it does work.
Asana Recovery offers detox, residential, and outpatient addiction treatment services at our center located in Orange County, California. Please contact us today to speak with one of our experienced addiction treatment team if you have any questions about our programs.