The common perception of psychedelic drugs has changed significantly as modern medicine has gradually understood more about them and their potential impact on treating various health conditions. In a recent groundbreaking decision, Australia has recognized the therapeutic value of psychedelics by legalizing psilocybin and MDMA as prescription medicines, making them one of the only countries in the world to legalize psychedelics for medical use.
On February 2, 2023, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced the approval of the two psychedelic substances for therapeutic use, effective at the beginning of July. Psilocybin, which comes from psychedelic mushrooms, would primarily be prescribed for those with treatment-resistant depression. Likewise, MDMA, a synthetic hallucinogen (otherwise known as “molly” or “ecstasy”), will be prescribed to treat individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The TGA announced the news on Twitter, reporting in a tweet,
“From 1 July this year, medicines containing the psychedelic substances psilocybin and MDMA can be prescribed by specifically authorised psychiatrists for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depression.”
This decision is based on compelling evidence from clinical trials that have demonstrated the potential of psychedelic medicines to treat various mental health conditions.
Though the Australian government will not completely legalize the two substances, their approval for therapeutic use marks a significant shift in the country’s approach to mental health treatment.
Australia’s Poison Standards will reclassify the substances as Schedule 8 controlled drugs from their original position as Schedule 9 prohibited substances. The new classifications will allow the substances to be used as prescribed treatment and studied more in-depth with fewer legal obstacles in the way.
Although the amendment will be implemented throughout Australia, the individual states and territories will still have a say on whether or not they choose to participate. This process is similar to how certain counties in the U.S. can opt out of cannabis laws despite the legal status in the state.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Petra Skeffington, a Murdock University associate professor in clinical psychology, expressed the need for high-quality therapist training. She stressed,
“With the potential for increased access to MDMA and psilocybin-assisted therapies, it is now critically important that high-quality therapist training be made available to promote safe therapeutic conditions when working with these medications.”
Skeffington highlights the importance of therapists receiving proper training to ensure patient safety and positive treatment outcomes. Since the drugs are still being studied and can have unintended effects if not administered properly, medical professionals must standardize their treatment methods to ensure proper care. By prioritizing the quality of therapist training now, Australia can set a precedent for other nations as they consider implementing similar policy changes in the future.
The psychedelic-assisted therapy would occur in a controlled medical setting, where patients would consume the substances under medical supervision and guidance. Licensed therapists would likely combine these treatments with forms of psychotherapy.
The combination of hallucinogenics and therapy allows patients to open up to any feelings that arise while working through any painful thoughts or memories. Studies have shown that this combination is significantly more effective and safe than taking the substances without the guidance of a trained therapist (1).
Australia’s new law only acknowledges the therapeutic impact MDMA and psilocybin can have on treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. However, these substances have also been shown to treat other mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, addiction, and anxiety (2).
According to a piece published by Psychedelic Alpha, Australia’s legalization of the two substances for therapeutic use is significant for many reasons. The article notes, “Australia’s decision is a regulatory first: with the possible exclusion of medicinal cannabis, this is the first time a country has moved a compound to a less restrictive schedule before its approval as a or part of a pharmaceutical product.”
This unprecedented step will likely be a catalyst for other countries to follow suit so that the novel treatments can be more accessible to those needing them the most.
Currently, there are only two states in the US where psilocybin-assisted therapy is legal – Oregon and Colorado. However, the 2023 legislative session has brought forth many state lawmakers to push for the decriminalization of psychedelics of the legalization for medical use. Last year, the Biden administration anticipated the FDA approval of MDMA and psilocybin by 2024.
Psilocybin is labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a breakthrough therapy because clinical studies have discovered the substance to be more effective for some individuals than other available treatment options on the market. Though psilocybin treatment may not be the best option for everyone, scientific evidence strongly supports that the psychedelic substance can significantly reduce symptoms of treatment-resistant depression, especially when combined with traditional talk therapy or psychotherapy.
The TGA’s decision was praised by Richard Doplin, who established the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). In their official statement regarding the news, Doplin emphasizes the importance of increased access to alternative medicines, stating:
“Australia’s policy change is one that every country should consider: suffering people, regardless of nationality, need more opportunities to access novel treatments. We hope that this announcement will encourage more international discussion and collaboration towards access to psychedelic therapies and comprehensive drug policy reform.”
Doplin underscores how Australia’s decision has the potential to inspire other nations to work towards a comprehensive drug policy reform for those in need of better treatment options. Perhaps the United States is next in line to follow in the footsteps of Australia, as Biden had predicted. As more countries show acceptance towards the substances, they will likely reach a more globalized embrace.
Although conventional treatments like therapy prescription medication have been the primary treatment option for depression and PTSD, they can come with undesirable side effects and are not always effective for everyone. Fortunately, psychedelic substances like psilocybin and MDMA have shown promising results in treating these conditions.
In one study, 79 participants were given a single 25mg dose of psilocybin significantly reduced depression scores (3). The reduction of symptoms lasted for up to twelve weeks when combined with traditional talk therapy. Many other studies have also concluded that psilocybin can be incredibly effective in treating those with depressive symptoms that are not easily fixed with any medications currently available. For instance, a recent John Hopkins Medicine study found that patients treated with psilocybin had a 75% response rate and a 58% remission twelve months past treatment. Compared to traditional antidepressant medication, the substance begins working faster, is more effective, and lasts longer. Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, argues, “Psilocybin not only produces significant and immediate effects, it also has a long duration, which suggests that it may be a uniquely useful new treatment for depression.” With further research, psilocybin has the potential to become a crucial tool in addressing this prevalent mental health issue that puts so many individuals at risk.
Similarly, MDMA has shown promising potential in treating PTSD symptoms, primarily with the assistance of psychotherapy. Several studies conducted by MAPS have demonstrated that MDMA can be incredibly effective in not only the treatment of PTSD but also anxiety and eating disorders. In one of their studies, they found that 88% of participants with chronic PTSD experienced a “clinically significant” reduction of symptoms in comparison to the 60% of participants who received the placebo. Two months after the session, 67% of the MDMA participants no longer met the PTSD criteria.
The recent scientific discoveries regarding the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics are significant developments in ways doctors can treat mental health conditions. However, we recognize that this knowledge is not new and has been around for millennia – long before the development of modern medicine. Many indigenous cultures worldwide have used natural psychedelic substances in their spiritual and healing practices for generations.
Despite this long history of use, psychedelics were criminalized in the early 1970s, largely due to political factors. As a result, there has been a lack of scientific research into their potential benefits and a widespread perception that these substances were hazardous drugs with no legitimate medical use.
While it is important to recognize the value of scientific research in validating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, it is equally important to acknowledge the longstanding cultural and spiritual traditions that have used these substances for centuries. The knowledge and wisdom passed down by indigenous cultures should not be dismissed or ignored in favor of modern scientific research. Instead, both forms of knowledge should be recognized and integrated to develop a more comprehensive understanding of these substances and their potential benefits.
Changes in drug policy and psychedelic research have popularized substances like psilocybin and MDMA as potential medicines rather than demonized drugs. Continued acceptance across more nations will lead to the growing knowledge of how these substances work as alternative medicines for those who need them the most.