Australia legalizes psychedelics for mental health

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  • by Tiffany Wertheimer
  • BBC news

image source, Getty Images

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Magic mushrooms have a hallucinogenic effect due to the drug psilocybin

Australia has become the first country to legalize the use of psychedelics to treat certain mental health conditions.

Licensed psychiatrists can prescribe MDMA for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and magic mushrooms for some types of depression.

The controversial move has been hailed as a game changer by many scientists and mental health professionals.

However, others say the move is too hasty and should not be overdone.

According to experts, there is still the risk of a “bad trip”, which is when the user experiences an unpleasant situation while under the influence of the drug.

And the therapy is expensive, with Australian media reporting that a single course can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

MDMA – also known as the party drug ecstasy – is a synthetic drug that acts like a hallucinogen. It increases the user’s energy levels, sensory experiences and distorts their sense of time.

Magic mushrooms, which grow naturally, also have hallucinogenic effects due to the active ingredient psilocybin.

Australia is the first country in the world to regulate the drugs as drugs, while clinical trials are also underway in the US, Canada and Israel.

Under new legislation in Australia that was announced on July 1, licensed psychiatrists can prescribe MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psilocybin for depression that resists other treatments.

Dr Mike Masker, a mental health researcher at the University of South Australia, said the use of psychedelics should be carefully monitored and not a matter of “taking a pill and going away”.

Describing the move as a “game changer”, he told the AFP news agency that, in the case of MDMA, for example, a patient could undergo three treatments over five to eight weeks. Each treatment lasts for eight hours, the therapist stays with the patient the whole time.

However, patients should not expect a miracle cure.

“I’ve read stories of people experiencing what you would call bad things or re-experiencing their trauma, and so we have to be very careful,” Dr. Mucker said.

Professor Susan Rosell, a cognitive neuropsychologist at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, said psychedelics certainly had potential for therapeutic use, but the move had come too quickly.

“When you look at an intervention… for any disease, whether it’s cardiovascular disease or cancer, you can’t get a drug to the market as quickly as it’s done,” she told AFP.

Professor Rossell, who is leading Australia’s largest trial into the effects of psilocybin on depression, added that more research was needed to determine the long-term effects of the treatment.

In February, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved MDMA and psilocybin for medical use, shocking many in the medical and scientific worlds.

It declared the drugs “relatively safe” when used in a “medically controlled environment” for patients with “severe mental health problems”. Otherwise, both MDMA and psilocybin are illegal in Australia.

The TGA admits there is unknown and inconclusive evidence, but says there are “promising signs” that regulating the therapeutic use of the drugs can improve mental health for some people and that “for some patients the benefits… outweigh the risks”.

The regulator says there are currently no approved products containing MDMA or psilocybin. But the reclassification means that psychiatrists can obtain and legally prescribe certain drugs even if they haven’t been evaluated for safety and effectiveness.

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