Is Medicalizing Psychedelics a Step in the Right Direction?

One of Hollywood director Adrian Lyne’s most popular movies (he was the guy who directed “Fatal Vision”), was “Jacob’s Ladder,” a trippy pseudo-horror movie that was based on an experiment with a strong hallucinogenic 100 times more powerful than LSD that the Army was allegedly testing on unsuspecting U.S. Army soldiers in Vietnam. 

Whether that actually happened or not was left for the viewer to think about as the end titles rolled. But other documented experiments using LSD by the Army during the late 1950’s and 60’s were designed to find out how psychedelics could perhaps be used as a chemical weapon.

Psychedelics, it seemed, were the toy of the evil government scientist. They were weapons of war.

Fear about psychedelics lingered even after scientists and psychologists started doing more experiments in the mid-60s. But they worked to slowly demystify psychedelics such as LSD as they uncovered the good in them. 

Then Harvard University psychology professor Timothy Leary, who supported the recreational use of LSD, created the “tune in, turn on, drop out” negative social media explosion that effectively freaked out the establishment. The U.S. government, under guidance from President Richard Nixon, quickly criminalized LSD (and cannabis) in 1970, and put a hold on any psychedelics research until now—the so-called psychedelics renaissance.

The discussion about medicalization has re-emerged because now, some would argue, psychedelics have become part of a process in which mental health conditions and behaviors are labeled and treated as medical issues.

Medicalization

Medicalization has been described as “defining a problem in medical terms, usually an illness  or disorder, or using a medical intervention to treat it.” It’s often about new diagnoses, “based on a widened understanding of the human situations that usually benefit from medical involvement.” That describes precisely what is happening with psychedelics today.

Psychedelic substances today are increasingly being identified as medicines by an assemblage of scientific research groups, media institutions, government drug authorities, and patient and consumer populations, according to a study.

But medicalization has its downsides.

Medicalization is often presented as the societal and individual burden of unnecessary medical expansion. And seeking medicalization of cannabis was often depicted as a ruse to get recreational cannabis legalized in the late 1990s.

Medicalization can also lead to problems where, when a new condition is identified as having a medicalized treatment for it, suddenly everyone seems to have it. And sensing an opportunity, Big Pharma begins promoting it.

One example is restless leg syndrome. People did not complain about restless leg syndrome, or it was misdiagnosed, for years. But now that medications are available to treat it, nearly 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with it and are taking drugs to treat it, according to New York University Langone Health, which, by the way, is one of the leading academic institutions researching psychedelics at their Center for Psychedelic Medicine.

Consider the case of alcohol dependence. Once seen as a deviant social behavior that some individuals chose to engage in, the American Psychological Association (APA) now defines it as alcohol use disorder (AUD)—a genetically inheritable, medical illness. Alcoholism has been effectively medicalized. 

Another recent medicalization example is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is now one of the most commonly diagnosed behavior disorders of childhood—but under the suspicion that it’s because Big Pharma companies have heavily marketed their ADHD drug treatment programs and have found a new disease to help them build profits. 

One investigative journalist suggests that perhaps two thirds of the children diagnosed with ADHD do not actually suffer from the disorder, and that it is a “manufactured epidemic.”

So now we come to psychedelics like psilocybin, MDMA and LSD, all being medicalized to be made into a new pharmaceuticals to treat mental health illnesses such as PTSD and treatment resistant depression. 

But it’s also being researched as a medicine for the treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction, even gambling addiction—all now medicalized because of the work of researchers finding that psychedelics can effectively treat these mental health conditions. 

So is the medical community in favor of medicalizing psychedelics because it can help mental health patients live a better life with one or two treatments of psychedelics-assisted therapy, and broaden the use and success of alternative therapies, instead of a lifetime of drug-taking which appears to be the Big Pharma model?

Greg Kearns, a healthcare strategist, in a newsletter for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), wrote that as psychedelic medicines are ushered into the health care system, “it will be especially interesting to see which other integrative wellness modalities (yoga, meditation, breath work, acupuncture, etc.) are embraced more fully. It is my personal hope that the introduction of psychedelic-assisted therapies, delivered in coordination with other primary and preventative health services, may be what it takes for us to finally transform the U.S. health care system from one that is more focused on the treatment of disease, to one that is focused on holistic wellness and the advancement of thriving individuals and communities.”

Amen to that.

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.


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