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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
The trip of a lifetime
By Katy Hickman
Producer, All in the Mind

Before 1960s' Flower Power, LSD was a medical wonder drug - a supposed treatment for mental illness. Then it became outlawed and discredited. But now a new generation is researching the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs.

"You realise that your feelings are beginning to change. You have to understand these drugs don't put things into your mind. You're very aware and in a subtle way this drug begins to change your perception - you're able to look at your same problem and feelings in a very different way."

Pam Sakuda, 58, is dying of cancer. Last year she took part in a controversial pilot project which uses psilocybin (pronounced sil-o-cybin), which comes from magic mushrooms, to help patients cope with the anxiety of being terminally ill.

"It became paralysing," she says of the stress caused by confronting her mortality. "It came to the point where you feel that you don't have anything left to do. And I was hoping in this study to be able to get some relief from that."

Pam spent several days talking to the psychiatric team at Harbor-UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles, before agreeing to the trial.

When using hallucinogenic drugs in a medical environment, volunteers are subjected to a regime known as "set and setting" - knowing what might happen, and feeling safe in one's environment.

Magic Mushrooms
Legal in their fresh, raw state, magic mushrooms (above) were outlawed in the UK in 2005

The hospital room in Pam's case was specially decorated with beautiful drapes and vases full of flowers. Pam lay down wearing eye shades and listening to her favourite music, waiting for the drug to take effect.

"Physically you begin to feel a tingling warmth and a flush to your head," she says. "It's physical but it's more than physical."

Psychiatrist Professor Charles Grob, who is leading the project, says individuals "appear to have much diminished anxiety, improved mood regulation and also more acceptance" of their condition.

Professor Grob believes the psilocybin, like LSD, gives an insight into one's sub-conscious.

"Individuals can have very deep, very personally rewarding experiences" he says. "[They] can have beautiful aesthetic experiences, powerful autobiographic experiences, where they review aspects of their lives. There's something about that experience that seems to have an intrinsic capacity to heal."

Professor Grob's study is a small pilot - just eight volunteers. It is, however, one of a number of new research projects into psychedelics sanctioned over the last few years: psilocybin is being studied for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy, is being used alongside psychotherapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

There's even a tentative step to get permission to use LSD for cluster headaches - a debilitating condition that involves months of severe migraines.

Ken Kesey
Hedonistic use of LSD in the 60s was exemplified by Ken Kesey's Magic Bus
If it sounds familiar, that's because hallucinogenics - in particular LSD - used to be the wonder drugs of psychiatry back in the 1950s and 60s - used to treat addiction, depression anxiety and other mental illnesses.

But LSD soon became the drug of choice for hippies and those involved in the 60s counter-culture, and was outlawed.

For Professor Grob, like many of this new generation of psychedelic researchers, LSD remains their ultimate goal. He chose to work with psilocybin because the mere mention of LSD still provokes extreme reactions.

"We could more easily glide under the radar and do our work without attracting the negative attention that I think would happen with an LSD study."

In Britain LSD was used widely in hospitals - Powick in Worcestershire even had an LSD block. But ignorance about its powerful effects resulted in some disturbing experiments.

Diane is one of many former patients who sued her health authority for the harm she says LSD caused her.

Dr Albert Hofmann
Discovered by Dr Albert Hofmann (above) in 1938
Became the wonder drug of psychiatry until it was outlawed
CIA funded trials, mostly without patient consent, into its effects as a 'truth drug'
New medical trials have begun in the US, Switzerland, Canada and Israel
Dr Hofmann celebrated his 100th birthday in January 06
A rape victim, she was treated with LSD because "they wanted me to discuss it, and I couldn't... in those days you just didn't."

She remembers being given something to drink and then left in a hospital room, not knowing what would happen. She suffers recurring flashbacks of being smothered and huge crawling black spiders.

"I always have, I don't know whether they're nightmares or trips at night which wake me up and I'm too frightened to go to sleep then," she says. "I'm just generally frightened of everything and everybody."

Diane now lives quietly with her full-time carer, but believes LSD is a dangerous drug that doesn't deserve a second chance.

"There were terrible mistakes, terrible lapses in judgement of individuals doing treatment," admits Professor Grob. "But I think we're seeing more serious, sober, scientific medical investigators getting interested in this area. There's a growing recognition that a psychedelic experience can have a therapeutic profile which might be extraordinary particularly in patient populations that do not respond well to conventional treatments."

It's far too early to say whether psychedelics do have a role in modern psychiatry. But Pam Sakuda is convinced her experience of psilocybin has helped her face death.

"It was a dramatic difference from the morning to the afternoon," she says. "I came to see that being so afraid and so negative about all the things I wouldn't be able to do was really limiting the time I do have left. I started to live fully and richly and intensely."

All in the Mind is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1630 BST on Wednesday 5 April, or you can hear it through the BBC Radio Player.

I have tried LSD / Magic Mushrooms several times and always found that the circumstances under which they was taken made all the difference. I think under controlled conditions it could be extremely benificial for terminal patients. It can certainly give you a more spiritual take on life and or situations, and surely that can't be a bad thing for someone with a terminal illness. Infact I think the whole world benifit if our leaders all tripped together. Peace out.
Jodez, Leeds

I think there is definately cause for further investigation and believe whole heartedly in the psychological capabilities of hallucinogens as positively mind altering substances. Unsurprisingly, the lady who had a bad experience (and sounds like she was given appaling treatment by her doctors) was not entirely aware of what she was going through so confusion and uncertainty at what she was experiencing will have undoubtedly had an effect. Hallucinogens should be respected, not feared.
dan, leeds (living in london)

I did 40g of mushrooms in one go once and became only too aware of my mortality. The effects they can have cannot be predicted and it's ridiculous to expect any meaningful research to come out of this. I would expect that the only conclusion they will come to is that sometimes people have a nice trip, sometimes a bad one.
Ian Steele, Kettering, UK

The social stigma against drugs of this type is huge, but their benefits can also be huge. More openness and less misinformation can only be a good thing.
Richard Wood, Swansea, UK

Under proper trial conditions, with as many safeguards taken as possible, psychaedelic drugs should be tested. If they help just one person, isn't this worth it?
Jane, Southend, UK

Having sampled a variety of 'trips' in my youth it is hard to conclude that i would be the same person i am now if i had not taken the drug. I would like to say that most of my experiences have had a positive effect on my life and even what could be classed as a 'negative' experience i have taken some positivity out of it. But if i was going to conclude anything about LSD is that it is not for everyone. However, the paradox is that you will never know who is suited for the usage of the 'wonder drug' until everyone samples it.
Alexander Laughton, Birmingham

Please tell me this is an April Fool's story. So many people have had their minds and lives destroyed by hallucinogenic drugs. Anyone prescribing these drugs should have to take them themselves first.
Mike, Brighton

Having experimented with various pscodelics over a number of years, during my mid to late teens. I wouldn¿t consider this something to prescribe as ¿medication¿. One would hope the effects of any ¿medication¿, could be predicted to a certain extent. But giving someone a mind altering drug such as psilocybin, you are simply casting them adrift. Hoping that on the off chance, they have a good trip and no sub-concious memory, trauma or hangup suddenly appears, sending them into the darkest 8 or so hours of there life. I can only hope the ¿patient¿, has some good sounds to listen to¿
S Plows, Midlands, UK

I think that the evidence above would sound familiar to anyone who's tried LSD as a recreational drug - while there are undoubtedly good times to be had, the fear of the dreaded 'bad trip' far outweighs them.
Ross Millar, edinburgh

I think the set/setting model means that psychedelics could have a place in modern psychiatry. However, given that people in final stages of terminal illness or those suffering from MS still aren't allowed to use cannabis, I think any such change in medicine would be a long way off.
John, London

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