Is it still too dangerous for researchers to admit drug use?

Clinical evidence showing psychedelics can treat mental health disorders has revived the thorny issue of whether researchers should ever admit using these substances

January 25, 2021
People dressed in syringe costumes
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The controversial academic-turned-psychedelic guru Timothy Leary once claimed he learned more about psychology in five hours on magic mushrooms than he did in 15 years of research.

But whatever mystical insights Professor Leary experienced, his use of then-legal hallucinogenic drugs alongside his research subjects at Harvard University, which fired him in 1963, also led to the near-total destruction of his research field: LSD and other psychedelic drugs were banned by the US in 1966, and globally by the 1970s, shutting down many promising research projects into their potential medicinal uses for mental health problems.

Now medical research into psychedelics is booming – with clinical trials on the use of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder under way in the US and psilocybin-based drugs for depression under development in the UK – but there are concerns that some researchers may make the same mistake as Professor Leary and his scholarly disciples did 60 years ago.

While most are guarded about their use of psychedelics, some privately admit to it, arguing that auto-experimentation is important to understanding what subjects in studies are feeling, thereby helping to guide research questions, explained Matthias Forstmann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Zurich.

Embracing psychedelics – or even just the associated hippy culture – was, however, detrimental to the trustworthiness of their studies, argued Dr Forstmann, who has been struck by the New Age vibe of many research conferences on psychotherapeutics he has attended.

“They are quite different – I’ve seen shamanic drumming circles, psychedelic art shows and talks by shamans from Mexico,” he recalled. “It was refreshing in some ways, but I wondered how people outside the community might perceive it.”

The answer, according to a study published by Dr Forstmann and Christina Sagioglou, from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, is that an association with these things could be damaging for researchers’ careers, even if people are more open towards the potential benefits of psychedelics.

The study presented almost 1,000 US-based subjects with a range of materials, including details of a fictitious conference called the Science of Psychedelics, in which “researchers who work on the clinical and non-clinical effects of psychedelic substances (including LSD, psilocybin and mescaline) present their findings”.

Those respondents who were told that the extracurricular events included shamanic drumming, meditation and dinner involving communal tables gave a lower evaluation of the likely quality of research presented at the conference compared to those who were told that participants would be invited to go for a 5km run, visit a local brewery and attend a dinner on longer tables – all standard conference entertainment, says the paper published in the journal Public Understanding of Science.

Separately, the study also presented a mock-up of a fictitious research paper on how psychedelic drug use could help people with anxiety. When a coda was added, stating that the lead author “once a year travels to the Peruvian Amazon for a five-day retreat [where he takes] psychedelics under the guidance of a local shaman”, it led to “less positive evaluations of his integrity as a researcher in terms of how professional, impartial, or biased he is”, concludes the study.

“Psychedelic scientists should be aware of the fact that the way in which they present their findings and themselves does affect the public’s perception of their scientific integrity and the quality of their research, regardless of whether one may think such inferences are justified or not,” the paper adds.

For Dr Forstmann, whose previous research at Yale University’s Mind and Development Lab highlighted the positive effects on well-being of recreational use of psychedelics, the results illustrate the bind faced by researchers working on psychedelics who may feel frustrated that they cannot speak from first-hand knowledge, having proved their potential value in the lab.

“It may seem hypocritical [for scientists] to say it is good for others to take psychedelics but then rule out ever taking them themselves, but they should be cautious in this area,” said Dr Forstmann, who pointed out that admitting to an illegal activity could endanger funding as well as public perceptions of research.

“In the US, there is a movement to decriminalise certain types of psychedelics, which would be a good step and make it easier to have a dialogue on these issues,” he said.

In the meantime, scientists should beware of the mistakes made by 1960s researchers. “Leary and others blurred the lines between science and politics [by admitting to LSD use] – we should avoid doing that. Our job is to find the truth and remain objective, pointing out they can have negative effects, but determining where they can be beneficial,” Dr Forstmann said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Psychedelics boom reopens lingering ethical dilemma

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