Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze: The Impact of Climate Change, Development, and Psychonauts on the Sonoran Desert Toad

B. Alvarius art

By Jeff Kronenfeld – Dec. 17, 2019

Sonoran Desert toads emerge from earthly tombs every year after the late summer monsoons roll in, which cause countless tiny ponds and lakes to form. Though most will evaporate in a few hours or days, toads lay eggs in the depths of these small water beds. Most of the tadpoles won’t last longer than the waters in which they are born, a few will become pollywogs then toads, ensuring survival for another generation. 

Life in the desert is stark as it is. But these unique desert toads are currently facing a host of new threats, including climate change, habitat loss and — perhaps most dangerous — commodification. Bufo alvarius, the Sonoran Desert toad’s scientific name, is the only known animal source of 5-MeO-DMT, a popular chemical among psychedelic users. Unfortunately, poachers overharvest toads to feed the ever-growing market for this powerful substance. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species placed these toads in the lowest category of risk for extinction in 2004, the same report acknowledged they were virtually extinct in California. Scientists, conservationists, and artists are banding together to ensure the rest of the species avoids a similar fate. 

Climate Change on Habitats

To understand how human-caused climate change could impact Sonoran Desert toads, we first need to look at potential effects on their home region. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted that the Southwest would continue to get hotter and drier. A 2018 National Climate Assessment bore out those predictions. This is bad news for toads, who already live near their physiological limits. More troubling was a 2017 report in Nature Climate Change, which predicted the probable decline of monsoons by 30 to 40 percent over the next century. 

Thomas R. Jones, Amphibians and Reptiles Program Manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, believes parsing the impact of climate change from other threats and historical fluctuations is difficult if not impossible. This past summer he observed a decrease in toad populations at a site where they are normally abundant. “I think it’s a reasonable assumption to say if the monsoon gets squirrely and we have drier years, it will be rougher on summer breeding anurans — toads and frogs — like the Sonoran Desert toad,” Jones said. 

Psychedelic Training for Therapists and Clinicians - Navigating Psychedelics

Overdevelopment and the Destruction of Habitats

While climate change looms like ominous clouds in the distance, habitat loss is the single greatest threat to Sonoran Desert toads. According to a 2013 report from the USDA, 90 percent of riparian areas in Arizona and New Mexico converted to other land uses over the last century, ultimately turning habitats into agriculture fields or residential developments. At the same time, surface water was diverted from the few year-round rivers into massive reservoirs as aquifers pumped out groundwater in order to supply the region’s growing population and agricultural production. 

These toads once thrived in farmland irrigation systems, too. But, due to the increasingly intense use of chemicals — both pesticides and fertilizers — and mechanization, they disappeared from some agriculture areas, such as the Southern California side of the Colorado River and the Imperial Valley. 

Paved roads are also particularly deadly to these creatures. Toads go to pools that form on impermeable surfaces where water can more easily absorb through their skin. The hot spots for Sonoran Desert toads are lined with roads, often putting them in harm’s way. In fact, a 2010 study in Human-Wildlife Interactions estimated 12,264 amphibians died annually on roads in and around Saguaro National Park just west of Tucson, Arizona. Roads also hinder the toad’s range, causing a loss in gene flow, or genetic evolution, which negatively effects populations, according to Jones. “The number of animals that die on roads are just huge.”

Pop Culture, Money, and Psychedelic Tourism

The least understood threat is the impact of poaching and overharvesting for the 5-MeO-DMT market. Though Sonoran Desert toads can be legally gathered with appropriate licenses in Arizona, collecting them for the extraction of 5-MeO-DMT — which became a Schedule 1 substance in 2011 — is a federal crime. 

In order to extract 5MeO-DMT, the toads must be agitated, which causes their glands to excrete poison. Then, it’s squeezed or scraped out. Robert Villa, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society (THS) and a research associate at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, is concerned about the harm this poses to toad survival. 

“I think what’s going to happen over time is that if intensive collection continues,” Villa explained, “it’s going to create a vacuum in these areas, what is also known as a mortality sink.”

Some argue that indigenous communities have used the drug for centuries. But Villa points to flaws in this argument, saying that some advancing this position may have a vested financial interest in doing so. Some scholars have cited the discovery of toad bones at shamanic burial sites. If true, it could legitimize the toad extraction industry, helping businesses grow at the expense of the toad populations. For doctors or others selling 5-MeO-DMT, this would be a boon. 

But Villa noted the bones were from a different species of toad that doesn’t produce 5-MeO-DMT. He is not convinced by the evidence that indigenous people historically used the toad as a source of 5-MeO-DMT. “We couldn’t decipher it from residues. There’s research that discovered cacao residue in pots in New Mexico,” Villa explained. “What we see today is a blatant misuse of indigenous culture to do it.”

We may never know who first smoked 5-MeO-DMT for sure, but one of the earliest academic papers citing its psychedelic properties appeared in a 1967 issue of Biochemical Pharmacology. Then, knowledge about how to extract, prepare, and consume 5-MeO-DMT from toads was first widely propagated by a pamphlet written in 1983. The document contained detailed instructions, diagrams, and background information. Its author was listed as Albert Most, a pen name, though multiple people throughout history have claimed to be Most. 

In a 2017 episode of VICE’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, a man named Alfred Savinelli claimed he wrote the pamphlet and that he was the first person to ever consume the toad’s venom. Savinelli is the author of Plants of Power: Native American Ceremony and the Use of Sacred Plants, but aside from that his claims have not been verified. 

Though its authorship is disputed, the pamphlet’s role in raising awareness about the drug is not. Following its publication, groups like the Church of the Toad of Light started promoting 5-MeO-DMT consumption. Its proponents claim the drug can help with depression and anxiety, which was supported by a study in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse earlier this year. Advocates also claim it helps with recovery from substance abuse. 

Unfortunately, a number of bad actors are harming toads and humans by providing the toad excrement for consumption. An open letter published earlier this year accused two doctors who facilitate 5-MeO-DMT use, Octavio Rettig and Gerry Sandoval, of defrauding, harming, and even causing patients to die. Numerous self-proclaimed shamans administer the drug illegally throughout the US and other countries. One such person was identified as Shaman Dan. He is alleged to have led a series of 5-MeO-DMT parties at the residence of a woman in Southern California, who we’ll call Christina (not her real name) for the sake of anonymity.

Christina was connected to Shaman Dan by her mentors, who recruited her into Amway, a multi-level marketing company accused of being a pyramid scheme by consumer advocates, academics, and newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She described Shaman Dan as a white male under 25-years-old who formerly sold energy drinks through a multi-level marketing company. He told Christina that he was trained in Mexico by a woman named Shaman Sandra. After extracting the toad’s poison — which Christina incorrectly identified as venom — Shaman Dan described using an undisclosed chemical as a bonding agent into the 5 MeO-DMT blend. 

“It’s not something the individual taking it knows,” Christina said. “That’s why it’s very important that you trust whoever is administering this, because if they do not know what they’re doing, they will mess you up. It’s basically like taking crystal meth from a drug dealer off the street.”

Public awareness of the toad has grown rapidly in recent years, with increasing references not just in academic journals, but in popular media as well. Journalist and author Michael Pollan discussed his negative experience with 5-MeO-DMT in his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind, which reached number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. Pollan also discussed the subject on The Joe Rogan Experience, a popular podcast. Host Joe Rogan has covered 5-MeO-DMTs transformative power many times, perhaps most notably in an episode from earlier this year with Mike Tyson. All this buzz leaves the little toads facing evermore heavyweight dangers from all corners. 

B. Alvarius Poster

The Sonoran Desert toad does not face these challenges alone, however. The THS is funding a project to study how the ionic composition of cement water holes may be harmful or even lethal to amphibians. Villa partnered with Cream Design and Print to produce t-shirts, posters and other items that spread awareness about the danger extraction poses to toads, and to raise money for conservation efforts. He hopes that if potential 5-MeO-DMT users know the harm they’re doing to these hardy animals, that they will choose less-harmful methods for obtaining whatever it is they seek. 

While the toad may be the only animal source for 5-MeO-DMT, the compound can be synthesized and found in many plants. The seeds of one species of Anadenanthera trees in South America contain 5-MeO-DMT and DMT. Virola trees also originate from South America, and some species of this plant contain both forms of DMT as well. They are both typically prepared as snuffs but can be consumed otherways as well. 

Synthetic 5-MeO-DMT is in many ways a superior delivery vehicle to the toad-sourced variety. The extract from toads contains many other chemicals and can be dangerous if it is not consumed correctly. Synthetic 5-MeO-DMT can be precisely dosed, whereas every toad’s extract is a little different. The study cited earlier showing 5-MeO-DMT’s effectiveness as a treatment for depression and anxiety used the syntheitc variety in its experimental trials. 

The benefits of synthetic versus toad-sourced 5-MeO-DMT were even discussed by Rogan on his podcast. Rogan reported a very positive experience when he consumed synthetic 5-MeO-DMT. Pollan had a very different reaction, describing his consumption of the toad-sourced variety as horrible. For the most toad-loving psychonauts, these alternatives can provide a safer and more eco-conscious way to experience this unique molecule. 

“It boils down to your individual ethics,” Villa said. “As psychonauts, I would hope that you are able to think about how your use of substances and your acquisition of those substances has an effect on the rest of the world.”

bufo alvarius poster

About Jeff

Jeff Kronenfeld is an independent journalist and fiction writer based out of Phoenix, Arizona. His articles have been published in Vice, Overture Global Magazine and other outlets. His fiction has been published by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Four Chambers Press and other presses.

For more info, go to www.jeff-k.com

Socials
Facebook: @JeffKron
Twitter: @jeffthereporter
Instagram: jeff.the.scrivener 

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Psychedelics in Your Neighborhood

Psychedelics in your neighborhood

Zoe Moynihan – December 10, 2019

The psychedelic revolution is upon us. After receiving an FDA “Breakthrough Therapy” designation for psilocybin (a hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms) and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy against treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hallucinogens are finally finding place amongst the most viable psychiatric protocols of the modern-day. With appropriate dosage, set and setting, psychedelics have demonstrated unparalleled clinical efficacy in alleviating symptoms of some of the most prevalent and pressing psychological disorders and afflictions—depression,1,2 PTSD,3 substance abuse and addiction,4,5,6,7 obsessive-compulsive disorder,8 anxiety in the terminally ill…9,10  The list goes on. And whether its the decriminalization of psilocybin by Denver and Oakland, new strides in clinical research with MDMA, or microdosing LSD to enhance corporate creativity in Silicon Valley, I open the paper to a new headline every day. The reach of these psychedelic agents is great, and only becoming greater.  

With the second advent and accruing legitimacy of these therapeutic tools, we are confronted with an entirely new era of psychiatry and consciousness studies. It is the marriage science and spirituality, or, in the words of UCLA psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher Charles Grob, a form of “applied mysticism.”11 Under the auspices of integrative medicine, individuals are benefitting tremendously from psychedelically-occasioned mystical-type experiences. They are afforded feelings of unity, euphoria, vastness, unbridled love, and profound peace and joy.12,13,14 Also referred to as “plant teachers” and “entheogens”—literally translated to that which “releases the divine within”—psychedelics seem to open us up, to expose us to ourselves and the entire palette and majesty of existence, and then return us graciously to our more familiar form of being, endowed with an enhanced capacity for the fundamental human tenets of empathy, love, and compassion. 

Undoubtedly, then, it is an exciting time — But a provocative and precarious time at that. There is still so much to know. So we must learn from the lessons of our psychedelic past, temper our excitement, and exercise faith and patience in the gradualism of empirical science. In order to fully realize the potential of psychedelics in psychological healthcare, we must all act together, slowly, steadily, and with altruistic intention.

As a recent undergraduate, I completed an independent Senior research project on the biochemistry of hallucinogenic mushrooms, in order to do my very small part. Word got around that I was studying psychedelics, even quicker than you would expect at a small liberal arts college in the middle of a rural farm state. To strangers, I became “the girl who studies shrooms,” and I did not mind. 

Magic mushrooms? Spirituality? And Biochemistry? At an academic institution? How could that be? 

To those inquisitors, I was prepared and passionate to discuss my findings. But I never could have anticipated the explosion of interest and many thoughtful inquiries I did receive. 

My email inbox was deluged with “your research,” “looking to connect,” or “coffee?” subject headings, from people of all walks of life—those that fit the psychedelic archetype, and those remarkably unsuspecting or straight edge; those in tie-dye and those in polo shirts; students of every grade and social circle, athletes and artists, of red and blue states, all races, religious ideologies or lack thereof, and socioeconomic class; professors of music and mathematics, biology, economics, gender studies, and yes, of course, physics and poetry. Many were already knocking on Alfred Huxley’s Doors of Perception and finding that their particular variety of everyday existence just wasn’t cutting it anymore. 

I was startled by how many were curious to try psychedelics, or were already actively exploring the subtlest realms of their unconscious mind; how many aspired for a better understanding of themselves, or felt spiritually deprived and were seeking validation or comradery of the soul; how many sought antidote to their feelings of anger, alienation, or dissatisfaction in “recreational” psychedelic use, and spoke with me in crisis of the psyche, believing there is and wanting more. 

I wondered, is this a time of collective awakening and curiosity, but occurring behind closed doors? According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17% percent of people surveyed between ages 21 and 64 reported lifetime use of one or more psychedelics, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), mescaline, and/or peyote.15 That is an estimated 32 million Americans tripping. People are doing psychedelics — on a therapist’s couch, in National Parks, in your very own neighborhood streets. And, consistent with accounts from clinical therapeutic psilocybin and MDMA trials, people are having extraordinary revelations. They are experiencing undiluted joy or traversing phantasmagorical landscapes of kaleidoscopic complexity. Some are enduring adversity there, confronting buried traumas and subconscious discontent, while others come face-to-face with God. Some experience an extinction of self, sheer terror, or utter bliss. Psychedelics are reawakening individuals to life, and sometimes, to love as its essence. And upon return to baseline “consensus reality,” many don’t quite know what to do.

The majority of those with whom I spoke or exchanged emails with were concerned with reintegration. They were apprehensive of the applicability of their psychedelic insight into day-to-day life. Put simply, they worry, where to put all the love? How to incite this change? 

And I hope we can agree, it is sad that this dilemma exists. That inspired individuals struggle to find practical or quotidian applications for newfound senses of interconnectedness, peace and joy. Many feel estranged or paralyzed in the aftermath of a psychedelic experience, under the impression that their come-to-God realizations or mystical musings are not compatible with their preexisting way of life. Some worry that if they speak of their journey, eyes will roll, and their story will be met with skepticism. People do not feel adequately supported, socially or societally. 

One friend of mine, a highly successful financial analyst in his mid 50’s, wrote to me after a particularly potent psilocybin journey, “society is not a place for the loving. It is ill-compassionate in conception and now character. And I am afraid I will be called a hippie.” I, too, struggle with this. My goal is to become an integrative psychiatrist, but I have been counseled to refrain from mentioning psychedelic research in my medical school application. I am not supposed to speak openly about my belief that hallucinogens are tremendous tools for personal transformation, or of the love and gratitude I have been afforded by incredible psychedelic insights of my own. I am not Michael Pollan and lack his immediate credibility. How may we legitimize our curiosity and excitement?  

I believe the power to do so is in the hands of the people. By practicing acceptance, acting with kindness, cultivating community, and welcoming the return of psychedelic voyagers with open ears and arms, we, as an evolving society, may eliminate the stigma. We may realize the full potential of these medicines, in and outside of sanctioned medical settings. Because let’s face it, people are tripping anyway. Much like clinical psychedelic-assisted therapeutic models, in which debriefings are held, explorers of the mind may benefit from similar sympathetic settings to decompress, review and reflect, to derive meaning from their experience, assimilate and grow. In the absence of a mediating shaman or psychiatrist, by default, this responsibility may be assumed by friends and family. People should not be left to confide only in “the girl who studies shrooms.” Not to mention, risks associated with psychedelic use are most pronounced when used recklessly and/or in unsupervised settings. The likelihood of experiencing panic and paranoia of potentially lasting psychological detriment, or of injury or fatality due to impaired judgment, is reduced in safe and supportive physical session environments, which we may create and hold for one another. 

May we remain leery and methodological regarding the process of legalization, then, to the extent that it does not inhibit personal growth, freedom of expression, cognitive liberty, and the propagation of love. While psychedelics are finding their rightful nook in modern medicine and perhaps, impacting the lives of some you hold dear, we should engage in communion, and indulge in the most effectively human thing about us, our ability to care and connect. To give and listen and learn. Hopefully, someday soon, there will be formal research and psychiatric training facilities, providing comfortable, secure environments for sensible psychedelic use. But in the meantime, may we embrace this important avenue of self-exploration, by being there for one another.  

Bio:  Zoe Moynihan graduated in May, 2019 from Middlebury College, with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, Summa Cum Laude. Zoe completed independent senior research on the biochemistry of psilocybin mushrooms, which culminated in her final paper entitled Magic Mushrooms: A Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality; Psilocybin Phenomenology, Pharmacodynamics, and Psychopharmaceutical Applications

References:

1) Carhart-Harris, R.L., Bolstridge, M., Rucker, J., Day, C.M, Erritzoe, D. and Kaelen, M. 2016. Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study. The Lancet Psychiatry 3(7): 616-627. 

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(16)30065-7/fulltext

2) Watts, R., Day, C., Krzanowski, J., Nutt, D. and Carhart-Harris, R. 2017. Patients’ accounts of increased “connectedness” and “acceptance” after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 57(5): 520-564. 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022167817709585

3) Oehen, P., Traber, R., Widmer, V., and Schnyder, U. 2012. A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Journal of Psychopharmacology 27(1): 40-52. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23118021

4) Bogenschutz, M.P., Forcehimes, A.A., Pommy, J.A., Wilcox, C.E., Barbosa, P. and Strassman, R.J. 2015. Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: a proof-of-concept study. Journal of Psychopharmacology 29: 289-299. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25586396

5) Bogenschutz, M.P., Podrebarac, S.K., Duana, J.H., Amegadzie, S.S., Malone, T.C., Owens, L.T., Ross, S. and Mennenga, S.E. 2018. Clinical interpretations of patient experience in a trial of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for alcohol use disorder. Fronteirs in Pharmacology 9(100).

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29515439

6) Garcia-Romeu, A., Griffiths, R.R. and Johnson, M.M. 2014. Psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences in the treatment of tobacco addiction. Current Drug Abuse Reviews 7(3): 157-164. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25563443

7) Johnson, M.W., Garcia-Romeu, A. and Griffiths, R.R. 2017. Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 43(1): 55-60. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27441452

8) Moreno, F.A., Wiegand, C.B., Taitano, E.K. and Delgado, P.L. 2006. Safety, tolerability, and efficacy of psilocybin in 9 patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 67(11): 1735-1740.

http://www.maps.org/research-archive/w3pb/2006/2006_Moreno_22868_1.pdf

9) Grob, C.S., Danforth, A.L., Chopra, G.S., Hagerty, M., McKay, C.R., Halberstadt, A.L. and Greer, G.R. 2011. Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Archives of General Psychiatry 68(1): 71-78. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20819978

10) Griffiths, R.R., Johnson, M.W., Carducci, M.A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W.A., Richards, B.D., Cosimano, M.P. and Klinedinst, M.A. 2016. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology 30(12): 1181-1197. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27909165

11) Grob, C.S. 1994. Psychiatric Research with Hallucinogens: What have we learned? Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 3.

https://www.heffter.org/docs/hrireview/01/chapter2.pdf

12) Pahnke, W.N. 1963. Drugs and Mysticism: an analysis of the relationship between psychedelic drugs and mystical consciousness. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, UK.

https://maps.org/images/pdf/books/pahnke/walter_pahnke_drugs_and_mysticism.pdf

13) Pahnke, W.N. and Richards, W.A. 1966. Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism. Journal of Religion and Health 5: 175-208. 

http://www.psychedelic-library.org/pahnke4.htm

14) MacLean, K.A., Johnson, M.W. and Griffiths, R.R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology 25(11): 1453-1461. 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51679019_Mystical_Experiences_Occasioned_by_the_Hallucinogen_Psilocybin_Lead_to_Increases_in_the_Personality_Domain_of_Openness

15) Krebs, T.S. and Johansen, P. 2013. Over 30 million psychedelic users in the United States. F1000 Research 2: 98. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24627778

Taking a Deep Look at Psilocybin for Depression Research

psilocybin for depression

Michelle Janikian

Psilocybin for depression is becoming a major avenue of clinical research. The Usona Institute out of Madison, Wisconsin is about to begin the largest psilocybin-depression study in the US. Part of the FDA’s drug approval protocol, this phase 2 clinical trial will test the magic mushroom compound in 80 individuals for safety and efficacy in treating major depressive disorder (MDD).

When Usona co-founder, Malynn Utzinger, MD presented at this year’s Horizons Conference, she explained that she and co-founder Bill Linton originally wanted to look at psilocybin for depression and anxiety in those with terminal cancer. But when they brought the idea to the FDA, the government organization basically said: Why limit yourselves to depression in cancer patients? And so they changed gears to research psilocybin for depression more generally.

“It is our duty to make sure a potentially effective medicine gets to the widest… group of medical need,” Utzinger said on stage. She went on to explain that depression affects 300 million people worldwide and is predicted to be the second-largest cause of medical morbidity by next year, to further show the need for this research.

Psilocybin Depression Studies

So could psilocybin help those millions of people? Usona is hopeful, especially among the large portion of people with depression for whom traditional treatment, like anti-depressant medication, does not work. They’ve recently secured 7 clinical trial sites that will conduct this research and give qualified participants psilocybin along with therapeutic support. The sites are located around the US and include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of California San Francisco, Yale University in Connecticut, University of Wisconsin-Madison, private testing sites in Chicago and Miami, and NYU in Manhattan – which is also the first site to complete training of facilitators and begin recruiting participants.

People are very interested in trying this new depression treatment. In fact, Utzinger said in her talk that over 6,000 people have volunteered for the 80 available spots in their phase 2 trial. 

Although this is the biggest study in the US looking at psilocybin for depression, this isn’t exactly a new concept. Outside of clinical trials, folks have been reporting reduced depression symptoms from psychedelic experiences – and peak experiences in general – for a long time. In fact, a 2017 study that looked at lifetime psychedelic users in “naturalistic settings” (meaning outside of a trial, but whether it’s for fun or ceremony is unknown) found them to be less “psychologically distressed” and suicidal than users of other substances. 

Over at Imperial College London, their team of psychedelic scientists have been looking into this even further, trying to figure out how psilocybin works for depression, both on a psychological and neurological level. Clinical psychologist from the Imperial team, Rosalind Watts, PhD and her colleague Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner, spoke right after Utzinger at Horizons, and presented a paper Watts authored which gives practitioners a framework for facilitating psilocybin for depression therapy, called the “ACE (Accept, Connect, Embody) Model.” 

Watts developed this idea after facilitating participants’ psilocybin experiences during Imperial’s first psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression trial. During “psilodep 1” 20 people were given psilocybin-assisted therapy, and 19 had decreased depression symptoms at week 1 and nearly half at week 5. Plus, none of their participants began a new course of anti-depressants until after week 5

Now, she tells Psychedelics Today over the phone that Imperial is halfway through their second study on psilocybin for depression; they’ve seen 38 out of “65, possibly 70” participants in a trial that’s comparing psilocybin to an SSRI antidepressant for depression treatment efficacy.

Psilocybin for Depression: The ACE Model

The ACE Model (which should be published before the end of the year) highlights psilocybin’s ability to promote psychological flexibility as a key function in how this therapy works. Essentially folks move from a psychologically rigid place where they’re stuck ruminating on negative thoughts to a more flexible, open, and accepting place, post-psilocybin session. 

Watts describes it to me in terms of a ski slope. That our minds, or our “default mode network” is like a skier who follows the same path in the snow until they’ve become deeply ingrained grooves. Then a psilocybin-assisted therapy experience is like a snowplow that comes in and evens out the entire mountain. And so folks are suddenly freed from their ruminative ruts and now have the option to ski anywhere (or think about anything) they please. “They feel that they can think a different way. That they can have new thoughts and see themselves slightly differently,” Watts says. “They can have a sense of space and freedom, mental clarity, not stuck in those deep groves.”

It’s this same idea that her colleague at Imperial, Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, made famous, that psychedelic experiences can “reset the brain” or “shake up the snow globe” allowing for new thoughts and perspectives. “It’s a disruption,” says Watts. “It’s actually that disruption that allows for a reset.” Yet, she explains that doesn’t happen so easily for everyone, and she doesn’t think it’s healthy for folks to go into these experiences with that expectation, because if they aren’t magically “reset”, they can be extremely disappointed.

“They’re often in very, very desperate states. Sometimes they haven’t been outside of their homes for years and their relationships have suffered and they’re feeling very isolated,” Watts says of the depression participants. “The amount of expectation and pressure that is on them for those experiences is huge.”

Therefore, in the ACE Model, they frame the whole experience in terms of a journey – rather than a reset – for participants, to try and lower the pressure and encourage the acceptance of all experiences as they come. That includes accepting challenging material that may arise as well as not making participants feel like a failure for “resisting” the medicine; in the ACE Model, it’s all part of the experience. And that’s where preparation and integration become critical to the whole healing process. 

“It needs to be a therapeutic intervention where that person’s unique set of fears and hopes can be gently sat with, processed and held so that the person that’s sitting with them has some sense of the complexity of the whole scenario,” Watts explains. “Because so often the healing isn’t actually just in the trip, it’s in the environment, it’s in the relationships that you have in the room. And actually, often it’s as much about the narrative, the story you co-construct [as the psilocybin].”

When all the pieces come together, when people feel fully supported and understood, then psilocybin can help folks out of depression by helping them see themselves and their lives more clearly. The process can also include planning actionable steps during integration that participants can take to improve happiness, like being less hard on themselves and spending more time with community or in nature. 

Watts described the psilocybin healing process in a 2017 paper as people “moving from disconnection to connection” or “from avoidance [of emotions] to acceptance” and that’s very much part of what they try to instill during the therapy sessions. The ACE Model also includes guided meditation, and during a preparatory session they have participants visualize a journey, often a diving expedition where they’re encouraged to go deep into the dark parts of their mind in search of pearls of wisdom. The therapists remind divers that pearls are often found in scary, prickly oyster shells, so it may not always be easy, but the value will be great and worth the struggle. 

This process of psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression is personal, and experts like Watts and Utzinger both point out its high rate of success is likely as much about the deep connections participants feel with their therapists as it is about the effects of psilocybin. Unlike taking anti-depressant medications for depression – which tend to numb people’s feelings – psilocybin and the therapy surrounding it encourage people to dig deep into their emotional worlds to try and heal themselves from the inside out.

The Future of Mushrooms for Depression

Even though psilocybin-assisted therapy is working for people in initial studies, it’s often not a permanent fix. Watts says many people from her trial have found that their depression symptoms come back after a few months. However, when I ask her about this, and about the potential future of legal mushrooms for depression therapy, she’s hopeful folks will have more options, including opportunities to do psilocybin sessions once every few months or so. She also adds that she thinks there’s lots of room to develop integration practices for more long-term depression relief, which could include integration groups that go out and do meaningful activities together, like planting trees.

Obviously this is just the beginning of scientific research looking into this treatment. And hopefully, as law and science catch up with nature, there will be more options for folks to access this therapy for depression in the near future. 

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of, “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy”, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High TimesRolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.