Psychedelic Therapy -- A New Treatment for Quitting Smoking

Experimental Research has Encouraging Results

bag of magic mushrooms
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Despite its legal status, nicotine is one of the most difficult drugs to quit. Smokers can try numerous times, only to relapse again and again. While medications and nicotine replacement patches and gum can help a proportion of smokers to quit, a surprising new solution has been found to be much more effective in early tests -- a type of psychedelic drug found in  “magic mushrooms.”

The Study

A pilot study of just 15 participants found that psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in magic mushrooms, helped 12 of them to quit after just two doses of the drug, combined with a cognitive behavior therapy program.

The study was much too small to generalize to other people quitting smoking, and it was not clear from the study how much the drug was responsible, and how much the CBT program was the important factor. However, the study was based on decades old research into psychedelic therapy, showing profound improvement in stubborn addictions, which seem to provoke a kind of introspection in which people see themselves, their behavior, and their future from a different perspective.

Results

One of the most encouraging aspects of the pilot study was the long term effectiveness of the treatments. Six months after completing it, 12 of the 15 participants remained smoke-free. This is particularly impressive compared to other drug treatments: nicotine replacement treatments have about an 18% success rate, bupriopion has about a 19% success rate, Varenicline has about a 28% success rate, Nicotine Replacement Treatment patches plus inhaler has about a 32% success rate, and Chantix, and the next most effective treatment compared to psilocybin and CBT, is still only effective in about 35% of smokers.

 Matthew Johnson, a study researcher and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, has said that the results show unique promise in the first study ever of psilocybin for smoking, and may lead to new approaches to treat other types of addiction.

“The rates of quitting were so high, twice as high as what you typically see with the gold standard medication,” he said in a telephone interview reported in Bloomberg News.

 “It is a very small study, but it’s an indication that something very strong is going on here. It answers the question of whether this is worth pursuing.”

The participants received CBT in preparation of quitting for four weeks. A quit date was set, which was the date of their first psilocybin trip. Most  (12) of the participants chose to take three trips altogether, which gradually increased the dosage of the hallucinogen. Three of the participants chose not to receive the third dose but did take the first two, which were required of the study.

Although most of the participants reported very positive experiences on the drug, six of the participants experienced bad trip symptoms at some point during their psilocybin trips. These were extreme or strong ratings of fear, fear of insanity, or feeling trapped. Although these experiences were reported as readily managed by interpersonal support by the professional therapists running the study, the fact that these experiences occurred at all in such a controlled environment shows just how unpredictable hallucinogens can be.

Breath and urine tests were conducted when they started the study, and throughout the intervention, and at the six month follow up. These tests confirmed the effectiveness of the treatment.

Final Thoughts

Taking psychedelic drugs in an unsupervised, non-medical setting is strongly discouraged. If you have taken a hallucinogenic drug and are having a bad trip, seek medical treatment immediately.

Sources

Cahill, K., Stevens, S., & Lancaster, T. "Pharmacological treatments for smoking cessation." JAMA, 311:2, 193-194. 2014.

Johnson, M. W., Garcia-Romeu, A., Cosimano, M. P., & Griffiths, R. R. (2014). Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Cortz, M. F. ‘Magic mushrooms’ help long-time smokers kick habit: studyBloomberg News. 

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