Jul 3, 2024

Olivia has suffered with depression and struggled to form romantic attachments ever since she was sexually assaulted. Counselling and medication scarcely helped. So in September 2023 she flew to Mexico and joined a retreat that uses 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic compound, as a therapeutic agent. She was “terrified”, but says the drug was “an opening” and that it let her body “feel what it needed to feel to start processing” her assault. She plans to return to Mexico for more psychedelic therapy this year.

Indigenous people across Latin America have long used naturally occurring psychedelics. As a result, they tend to be legal and easy to obtain in the region, not banned as they are in the United States. After Life magazine published an article in 1957 by Gordon Wasson, an amateur botanist, about his experience taking magic mushrooms in Mexico, hippies and rockstars flocked there. Now growing numbers of people like Olivia (not her real name) are coming to use psychedelics therapeutically rather than recreationally. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is the best known, but the category includes 5-MeO-DMT (which can be synthesised but is also found in a toad and plants), psilocybin (found in mushrooms), mescaline (cactus) and DMT (found in ayahuasca, a drink brewed from a South American vine).

Joël Brierre says people come hoping to receive relief from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other emotional afflictions. His company, Tandava Retreats, offers psychedelic therapies in Tepoztlán, 100km south of Mexico City. Most customers are middle-aged and are not habitual drug users. They often come when other treatment has failed.

Psychoactive soldiers

Many of those turning to psychedelics are former soldiers. Martín Polanco, a doctor who runs The Mission Within near Tijuana, says he has treated 1,000 veterans with ibogaine since 2016 (researchers do not classify ibogaine as a psychedelic, but it provides some of the same effects). Michael Higgs, a former Navy Seal, went to Mission Within in 2020 after a suicide attempt; he realised that anti-depressants and therapy weren’t solving his depression and PTSD. He is a convert to the process, and now works with Mission Within.

The public’s growing interest in using psychedelics to treat mental-health conditions is starting to be matched by a resurgence in attention from academics. Research on LSD started in the 1950s. But it was shut down after the United States enacted the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Today there are several ongoing clinical trials for therapeutic psychedelics. Last year the US Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidelines for trials that use psychedelics. 

Studies completed to date show promise. “I think it’s unreasonable to believe that there’s no signal for potential benefits of psychedelics at this point,” says David Yaden of Johns Hopkins University. Researchers believe the drugs work by making the mind more flexible, helping people to see their lives and actions in a new light. 

But much more research is needed. While some people experience benefits from psychedelics, others report no impact at all, and for a few the effect is negative. In June an FDA advisory panel advised the agency to reject the use of MDMA, which has some psychedelic properties, in treating PTSD because the dangers outweighed the benefits. Some studies suggest that psychedelics may be not notably better than standard medicines. 

Psychedelics are “another thing in the toolbox rather than a miracle cure”, says Rosalind McAlpine of University College London. But the potential benefits arrive in a very different manner to those of conventional medications. Robin Carhart-Harris of the University of California, San Francisco points out that psychedelics often have an effect after only a single dose, unlike, say, anti-depressants.

Experiences in Mexico vary. Unlike ibogaine, which puts stress on the heart, psychedelics don’t tend to have adverse physical effects. But they can have mental ones. Mr Brierre screens users in advance for conditions such as psychosis and does “integration”—read therapy—sessions afterwards. Mr Polanco monitors his patients’ hearts. But head to the beach in Tulum in southern Mexico and you will find ice-cream sellers offering “bufo”, 5-MeO-DMT in its natural form, derived from a toad found in the Sonoran Desert. “A concert or party setting is different from a session in someone’s living room,” says Mr Yaden. 

State-sanctioned hallucination

Mexico may soon become the first country to regulate the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Alejandra Lagunes, a senator, believes that innovative therapies are needed to deal with mental-health issues, and is pushing for rules governing the use of magic mushrooms. (She also wants to recognise and protect psychedelics’ indigenous roots.) She says she has seen a “180-degree change” in lawmakers’ interest in the past two years. Cofepris, Mexico’s regulatory body for drugs, is also looking into psychedelics.

The United States is likely to be more resistant to adopting psychedelic therapy than Mexico. But the lobby is growing. One organisation, Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, now offers to pay for soldiers’ trips south. If ever there were a group of people who could change minds north of the border, it’s them.

Outbound Link: The Economist: Mexico has become a testing ground for psychedelic therapies