Psychedelic Medicine by Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (Eds)

Psychedelic Medicine Vol 1


Prior to the reactionary media hysteria and the subsequent government backlash at the end of the 1960s, a wealth of serious scientific research was conducted into the therapeutic and medical benefits of powerful psychoactive drugs. By the beginning of the 1970s, however, almost all therapeutic applications and scientific human research with such drugs had been curtailed and their use criminalized. In the following years, this potentially beneficial side to hallucinogens became largely forgotten. Only during the last decade, has this research gradually been resumed to the point where we might now even speak of a renaissance of research into psychedelic medicines. As a testament to this revival this extensive two-volume tome currently serves as the authoritative reference text on psychedelic medicines, particularly with regard to the advances made in the last ten years.

Maintaining a good academic standard the work is well organised with explanatory notes and complete reference sections for each essay, and a comprehensive index for each volume. A decent-sized paragraph is also provided for the credentials of each of the contributors, who range from Harvard to Hannover Medical School, and whose expertise covers the social, clinical, medical, legal, spiritual and historical status of these substances. The editors themselves are more than qualified in this field. Associate Prof. Michael Winkelman has long been contributing important and unique anthropological perspectives to the field on the traditional use of visionary substances, and Prof. Thomas Roberts initiated the first psychedelic studies undergraduate programme in the US, which has been accredited and running since 1982. No corners have been cut with the essays either, each of which have been written specifically for this book and, collectively, they offer a comprehensive range of insights to this anthology.

Although almost wholly positive, this treatise on the possible benefits of psychedelic agents in the treatment of psychological disease still offers a reasoned and balanced approach. For instance, much of the first volume is given over to addressing the safety as well as the efficacy of these medicines, alongside a fairly thorough grounding in the general social, clinical and epidemiological context of their use, both traditional and modern. This is followed by a series of essays investigating the tangible medical applications of these substances to disorders, often treatment-resistant, such as cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, AIDS wasting syndrome, and cancer-related death anxiety. A whole chapter is given over to each of these health problems, all of which currently have research projects underway investigating the medical utility of various psychedelic treatments.

The final section of volume one is given over to the judicial climate surrounding the research of psychedelic substances, which largely remain illegal. This section highlights the political framework in which psychedelics have been legislated against and discusses instances where these substances have been tolerated within narrowly defined strictures. In the US, permission has primarily been given on religious grounds, as is detailed in the chapters on the use of peyote by the Native American Church and the use of ayahuasca by the União de Vegatal (UDV) religious group from Brazil. The latter of whom have recently won a lengthy series of battles against the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US Supreme Court defending their right to the sacramental use of their chosen psychoactive. Nevertheless, the DEA have been militantly pursuing a conviction despite numerous defeats and they are expected to continue attacking the UDV.

Much of the second volume is dedicated to the treatment of addiction to other drugs, such as alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, through the use of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Psychedelics, having demonstrated themselves to be non-addictive, have also displayed their potential for actually treating drug addiction, fighting fire with fire. These chapters focus on the various treatment contexts rather than the addictions themselves and include the use of ketamine, ayahuasca, iboga and peyote, drawing attention to the spiritual experience induced by these substances that can, in supportive conditions, lead to the cessation of addictive drug use.

That these substances really can occasion significant and long-lasting spiritual breakthroughs no longer appears to be so widely contested since the recent publication of a positive replication study on psilocybin and spiritual experience, also featured in this book. This paper, by a team of researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine lead by Prof. Roland Griffiths, was based on research led by Harvard’s Walter Pahnke, called the Good Friday experiment, which had reached the same conclusions over 40 years ago. If the prominence given over in the book to the Griffiths paper indicates anything, it is that much of the claims from psychedelic research of today regarding the beneficial and therapeutic aspects of these substances were made in the 1960s. Essentially, little of what appears in this book is actually new, save perhaps the recent advances in applications for newly recognised disorders such as cluster headaches, AIDS, and PTSD. All that has really changed is a tightened methodology and a greater readiness of the scientific community to regard psychedelics as legitimate objects of research and as potential tools of medicine.

The remaining portion of volume two is given over to the more spiritual, shamanic and transpersonal aspects of psychedelics with chapters on the psychoanalytic, psychotherapeutic and psychospiritual issues, which should not be ignored in any consideration of psychedelics. Both volumes conclude with evaluations and recommendations from the editors.

At the present time this research remains rather nascent but the promise of psychedelic medicines offered over 50 years ago now seems, once again, to be becoming a reality. Nevertheless, it is clear from the authors of the chapters that more research is needed and, with new studies into the efficacy of these drugs as treatments appearing more and more, it may soon be necessary to draft the next edition of this book. This would probably be my only concern with this text, which while it is clearly the most authoritative work on the subject in at least the last decade, new research findings and ever broadening potential applications for psychedelics are likely to make this book out of date in a few years. In the meantime, however, Psychedelic Medicine has a great deal of timely information to offer physical and mental health professionals and students, as well as all those working in recreational drug research, policy, treatment and intervention, whether involved with psychedelics or not.

Originally written by, and reproduced here with the permission of, David Luke. This literary review first appeared as: Luke, D. P. (2008). Psychedelic Medicine, by Michael Winkleman and Thomas Roberts [book review]. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 8 (2), 41-42.

Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogenic Substances as Treatments.  By Michael J. Winkelman and Thomas B. Roberts (Eds). London: Praeger. (2007). Pp. 728 pages (2 Vols.), 18 tables, 9 figures. £115. ISBN 978-0-275-99023-7

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2 Responses

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