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This is part of our Taboo Series.

An abundance of ongoing research regarding psychedelics, including psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms,’ supports their strong potential to assist in altering maladaptive behaviors from cigarette smoking and substance disorders to depression and stress-related disorders such as PTSD.

Especially interesting is its potential regarding alcohol and substance abuse. Since mental health treatment for these taboo behaviors has at one time or another itself been considered taboo, and due to the stigmatizing nature of admitting to substance or alcohol use, it may seem particularly paradoxical that we would study and utilize a Schedule I drug to treat substance-use disorders. Whether or not we address the absurd scheduling rules and guidelines in the United States, it appears from the research that many if not most sufferers could benefit from a safely-guided therapeutic psilocybin session with a professional in the field—a unicorn currently hard to find, as psilocybin use has not even been decriminalized in most of the US.

Tobacco use disorder

Thanks to the seminal work of Dr. Matthew Johnson and his partners at Johns Hopkins, we have a substantive base of data from which to assess psilocybin’s efficacy across a broad range of disorders. Recently, Dr. Johnson published a paper in the journal Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences noting that “Classic psychedelics (5-HT2A receptor agonists) are effective in treating addictions including tobacco use disorder.” Dr. Johnson notes that there are high rates of success in the preliminary studies, showing positive results not only in freeing the individual from their maladaptive tobacco-smoking behavior but also in their general well-being—a truly remarkable result.

Alcohol use disorder

These results build on Dr. Johnson’s previous studies with Dr. Roland Griffiths, also at Johns Hopkins, including the 2019 paper, “Cessation and reduction in alcohol consumption and misuse after psychedelic use.” Of 343 people who underwent psychedelic experience, a stunning 83% no longer met the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

These pioneering researchers and their colleagues regularly discuss the need for “further investigation of psychedelic-assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder.” As of this writing in mid-2022, it seems criminal that this safe and effective therapy is not available in the US, even as the NIH reports 95,000 people dying annually of alcohol-related causes. How many of our fellow citizens must die before we realize that these societal taboos are killing a massive number of people who should be alive today?

Substance use disorder

Brought into even starker relief is the absurd idea that somehow psychedelics are too dangerous for people using heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, and other potentially lethal substances. In 2020 alone, the CDC reported 91,799 of our fellow Americans—our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers—died entirely unnecessarily of drug overdoses. More than half of those who die worldwide from drug overdoses are younger than 50 years old.

This is a preventable tragedy. It would simply require society to acknowledge that drug use is not a moral failing, and begin to care for our loved ones by assuring those who decide to use have a safe supply. When combined, alcohol and substance use accounts for over 187,000 premature deaths in the United States alone. Preventing these deaths with these increasingly research-verified therapies would require a radical departure from our puritanical society to a more data-driven and science-based approach to a very taboo subject. It would also require putting legal psychedelic therapy in the toolboxes of physicians as part of their recovery programs.

At present, psychedelics are often seen in the general public as another dangerous substance that people should avoid at all costs. Yet a ‘do-no-harm’ approach and the research suggests otherwise. As society begins to remove the blinders that label all drugs as bad, we can hope and work for a more rational future in which this research continues to expand, even as the ‘illegal’ underground industry flourishes.

David Weidman is the regional coordinator for SMART Recovery (Self-Management And Recovery Training) in Los Angeles with over 5,000 hours of in-person meetings for sufferers and their loved ones. SMART...