Monday, January 2, 2012

A Bad Trip. And Some New Hope on the Horizon for Psychedelics!

I don't smoke pot or take illicit street drugs.

Have I ever tried smoking pot? Yes. It's been a few years, and the end result of me trying pot is always the same: I get crazy paranoid and throw up a whole lot. Dabbled a bit with it in college, and it didn't do much for me except make me cough (this was before I was habitually smoking cigarettes). I can't honestly say I've ever been pleasantly high from smoking marijuana. But I know a lot of people who smoke pot and enjoy it and that's alright for them, I suppose. It's not for me but I support the right for other people to use it if that's their thing and think it's a shame that it's illegal. Do I think it should've been legalized decades ago? Hell yeah. Alcohol's a lot more damaging than pot, in this addict's opinion.

In Illinois, you can't smoke in public buildings. Cigarettes, cigars, or any other substances, except, I guess, unless you're in a hookah bar or something (or at my neighborhood car service station, where the hookah's hooked up as regularly as the air pump for your tires). Still in all, at the Aragon Ballroom, when my Tatus and I went to see The Flaming Lips in July, we could smell pot in the theater up in the VIP balcony. Strongly. Same thing the next night when I brought my family. Was there Chicago Police presence in the Aragon busting everyone for smoking, or anyone up in the balcony wrist-slapping the VIP's? Nope. (Knowing I'd have a nicotine fit by night's end, I proactively put a nicotine patch on before I left the house, that's how organized I am!)

Pot and Lips' concerts sort of go hand-in-hand. Wayne (the lead singer) is no bullshit about marijuana or psychedelic drug use at his concerts, and the fans, I'm sure are all jazzed up on something or another (the younger ones, in their early 20's, and so forth). Whether that's ecstasy, or mushrooms, or pot, or LSD, or whatever it is the youngins are taking these days, shit gets around and everybody's loaded and there's all the free beer you want in the VIP section, blah blah blah. (I don't drink and Tatus had 2 beers over the course of the night, and we weren't smoking weed, so we were sober, anyway.)

Illicit drug use is a tricky motherfucker. Marijuana is classified as an illicit street drug, though that's kind of stupid. Other, more powerful and addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, yeah, they should be and are illegal. But that's beside the point.

This morning, back spasms and the need to pee woke me up at 4:30am. I stumbled downstairs, put my hat, coat and Uggs on, and went out for a smoke in the dark, during this giant blizzardy snow squall that lasted for about 10 minutes and dumped 2" of powder on the ground. While I was smoking, my phone went off. Frantic texts from a young lady I know through the Flaming Lips, who's sort of a superfan and became my friend online through association with the band, though we've never met in person. She lives in Oklahoma City, where the band played last night and New Year's Eve.

She was arrested at last night's Flaming Lips show, charged with 3 felonies: possession of narcotics (she had 2 illegal Xanax on her), intent to distribute/sell (come on, she had 3 joints on her, all for personal use) and possession of drug paraphernalia. They searched her, questioned her and let her go on her own recognizance, with a warrant for her arrest in a week having to report to court for a hearing. Her young husband (who's presently struggling with substance abuse problems) was likewise charged. It was at the beginning of the show. Why she was singled out by the police, I'm not sure. She COULDN'T have been the only one smoking pot at the concert. Another friend of mine who was at the show tweeted me this morning, asking if this girl had been arrested, having seen the police take her away.

I quickly put the girl in contact with a criminal defense lawyer who's friends with the band and was also at the show, who I didn't think this girl could afford, but when I contacted him, was happy to help her in any way he can. She's so young and naive that she didn't realize she NEEDED a lawyer. Um, yeah, these are drug felonies, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the State of Oklahoma decided to use her to set an example of their stringent drug policies by throwing her in jail. So, for now, she's free and in good hands, though she voiced that the negative experience marked the end of her wanting to attend any more Flaming Lips shows, which is a shame, because they are her favorite band.

I take no issue with her having been in possession of 3 joints of marijuana. It's the Xanax that rubs me the wrong way. Illicit use and abuse by people without medical necessity makes it that much harder for patients like me, who need anti-anxiety medications for legitimate disorders, to obtain them by prescription. Xanax and other benzos aren't meant to be taken recreationally to mellow out and have a good time. They're designed to slow down body processes in patients who are experiencing acute anxiety symptoms, such as an increased heart rate, shakes, dizziness, sweats, overwhelming sense of fear or nervousness, you know, how I am in general unless I'm medicated.

What's ironic is that I, with some frequency, walk around with un-labeled pills in my purse that, if I got pulled over or stopped by the police, would look awfully suspicious. If I know I'm going to be out after 9pm, I bring along a baggie of my nighttime medications all doled out instead of lugging all like 10 bottles in my purse with my prescriptions in each one. (I suppose it'd look better if I had them in a standard pill organizer, but how dorky and elderly are THOSE? And how fucking BIG a one would I need?) Doubly ironic is that if I don't take my night meds at around the same time every night, I have an anxiety attack. (Fortunately, I don't usually drive at night, so it's largely a moot point and I take my meds on time.)

The first night of the Lips' concert in July, I didn't have my pill baggie with me and didn't take my nighttime meds until after Tatus dropped me off at home, which was like at 1am, and it was hard for me to decompress and fall asleep. The next night, however, I did have my pills with me, and we weren't searched by security at the Aragon, I don't know if that was because we were on the guest list or whatever. IF I got into trouble, all I'd have to do is produce my Rx bottles for everything I take and it'd be more of a pain in the ass than anything else, but still. To the untrained police officer, I look as guilty as my young friend (sans the joints, of course).

She's supposed to contact me after she talks with my lawyer friend in OK tonight sometime, and I sincerely hope it all works out for her. It sucks that she and her husband were singled out and arrested at the Lips show, for surely they were just two of hundreds that were using drugs at the concert. I trust that she'll have good representation, and she has no record of previous run-ins with the law (though I think her husband has a recent DUI on his record, yeowch). I can only do so much to help from Chicago but offer my support and advice, ideally not again at 4:30am, but I *did* tell her to contact me any time if she needs me. So she did. I'm grateful that God saw fit for me to be up at that hour to listen to her and use my connections to get her a lawyer. Her husband needs desperately to be put in an inpatient drug/alcohol treatment program, so I feel sort of helpless in Chicago, though I've given them phone numbers and names of people to call who CAN help him out.

In other drug-related news, I read a fascinating article today on CNN about psychedelic drugs being tested for patients who have PTSD (like me) and other significant depressive mental illness, as well as chemo patients in chronic suffering. Anne Harding of reports (and pardon my shitty copying/pasting):

In the past month alone, studies have been published on the benefits of MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and on the fast-acting antidepressive effects of the club drug ketamine (aka "Special K"). The study in which Sakuda (*the patient in the article--AM) took part is scheduled to appear in a major journal in early September. So far the studies have been small, but the results have been encouraging and bigger trials are on the horizon.

Drugs such as psilocybin and Ecstasy can be dangerous in the wrong hands. But when taken under professional supervision and combined with therapy, researchers say, just one or two doses can help patients unlock the sources of their troubles and experience therapeutic breakthroughs that otherwise might take months or years.

"It can be like psychotherapy sped up," says psychiatrist Stephen Ross, M.D., an addiction expert at New York University who is leading a study on psilocybin treatment in cancer patients with severe anxiety. "Their defenses are lowered, [and] they have enormous access to unconscious material."

The psilocybin study Ross is leading at NYU is typical of the new-generation research. On two separate occasions during the nine-month study, which is being funded by the Heffter Research Institute, patients are given a silver chalice containing either a psilocybin pill or a placebo.

The patient then lies down on a brown sofa surrounded by artwork, sculptures of Buddha, and, on a nearby bookshelf, a little glass mushroom with a red cap. For the next six hours, the patient listens, with eyes shaded, to a combination of classical, Eastern, and tribal music.

A pair of therapists -- who don't know whether the patient has taken an active drug or placebo -- stay in the room for support, though they encourage the patient to remain in a meditative state.

This may sound a bit trippy. But the science behind the research is sound, says Franz Vollenweider, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, and a member of the Heffter Research Institute's board of directors.

According to Vollenweider, who has conducted brain-imaging studies on the effects of psychedelics and MDMA, these drugs appear to affect levels of serotonin and other chemicals in the body and brain that help regulate mood.

When everything goes well, the drugs induce a "peaceful and blissful" state of unity with oneself and the cosmos, resulting in a new level of self-awareness and knowledge that can make an individual more responsive to cognitive therapy and other forms of psychotherapy, Vollenweider says. (Ironically, the drugs show promise in the treatment of alcohol addiction, he adds.)

In cancer patients such as Sakuda, "these spiritually oriented altered states...potentially allow patients to have an abrupt shift of consciousness from being scared about dying and feeling their life is over," says Grob. "It was quite remarkable to me to see changes in these people who were very anxious and in distress, and [to] see how they got better."

But it's not always a smooth trip. Depending on the dose, as well as an individual's personality, the drugs can elicit fear, anxiety, paranoia, and, in some cases, a state akin to psychosis.

"It's not so easy -- it can be excruciatingly painful," says Grob. "Those six hours that one is immersed in the experience can feel like the longest hours in a person's life."

For this reason, the drugs should only be given in exact doses in a carefully controlled setting, researchers say. Moreover, months of follow-up therapy are recommended to sort through the insights gleaned during the session and to ensure that they are applied productively to everyday life.

A prescription for psilocybin?

The early results of the new research are promising. In the MDMA study published in July, for instance, 10 of the 12 people who took the drug no longer met the criteria for post-traumatic stress two months later. And all five of the patients that have enrolled in Ross's study so far -- eventually it will include a few dozen -- have shown significant decreases in anxiety and depression.

"They've all improved," Ross says. "There appears to be something there."

Researchers hope that if the ongoing preliminary studies prove the safety and effectiveness of these drugs for certain treatments, the government will step in to fund larger trials.

Rick Doblin, Ph.D., the founder and president of MAPS, says that this could happen in the next three years. But don't expect to get a prescription for magic mushrooms from your psychiatrist any time soon.

It will likely be a decade before the FDA approves a psychedelic as medicine, if it does so at all, says Doblin. The most likely candidate is MDMA for post-traumatic stress, he adds.

"What we're trying to move towards is this legitimization of this field of psychedelic medicine, but we have to do it through the FDA, one drug at a time."

Petros Levounis, M.D., an addiction psychiatrist at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, in New York City, and a former chair of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on addiction treatment, emphasizes that psychedelics are far from being a mainstream treatment.

"This is a line of research that does have some data that show a potential for some positive outcomes," he says. "But we are very, very far from recommending hallucinogens for the treatment of terminally ill patients."

Still, the experiences of people like Sakuda hold out hope for people who have struggled to overcome depression and anxiety.

If they start trials for PTSD patients with 'shrooms, sign me up. Otherwise, I plan to continue to just say no and go with light fun versus heavy fun.

The worst drugs are as bad as anybody's told you.
It's just a dumb trip, which I can't condemn people if they get into it,
because one gets into it for one's own personal, social, emotional reasons.
It's something to be avoided if one can help it.
John Lennon

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