Australia has become the first country in the world to officially legalize the use of psychedelics to treat specific mental health conditions. From July 1, authorized psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, for drug-resistant depression.
Following a decision made in February this year, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has moved MDMA and psilocybin from the strictest controlled category, Schedule 9 (Prohibited Substances), to Schedule 8 (Controlled Drugs), but only within a medical setting.
The psychedelics won’t be given out willy-nilly. Firstly, they will primarily be offered to people who have failed to respond to other treatments and doctors can only give the prescription if the benefits are expected to outweigh the risks in each case.
Secondly, people can’t freely take the drugs at home, whenever they fancy. The drugs will be used as a component of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy that will involve supervised sessions with trained professionals.
While the overall efficacy of these treatments has not yet been established, mounting evidence is suggesting that psychedelics have promising potential to treat certain mental health conditions. To build on this, clinical data gathered from Australia will contribute to the growing body of evidence and help to establish the best way to use the drugs.
"Once we've established efficacy - not yet, but once we have - I can see these two drugs being used across many other conditions, particularly anxiety orders,” Dr Mike Musker, an Enterprise Fellow in the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research and Education Group at the University of South Australia, said in a media briefing.
Similar steps have been taken elsewhere in the world. In Switzerland, since 2014, doctors have been able to request a special permit from the Federal Office of Public Health for the clinical use of MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin.
Given the potential for psychedelics to revolutionize the way we treat mental health conditions, the decision to authorize the psychedelic drugs for medical use was widely applauded by scientists in Australia when it was announced by the TGA in February 2023.
While largely optimistic, some were keen to stress that these are uncharted waters that should be entered with some caution.
"The recent approval for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD is a promising and exciting development, based on positive results in initial clinical trials. Developing novel treatments for PTSD is sorely needed, particularly for PTSD patients for whom our gold-standard treatments have failed,” Professor Kim Felmingham, Chair of Clinical Psychology, and Director of the Brain and Mental Health Research Hub at The University of Melbourne, commented in February 2023.
“However, further rigorous research is required to understand the mechanisms underpinning MDMA-assisted therapy, so we can address the critical question of what therapy works for each individual with PTSD. No one PTSD treatment is a panacea that will treat everyone with PTSD effectively, and MDMA is not an exception. Additional research on this topic would allow us to streamline our health resources, direct people to the most effective treatment for them and improve the accessibility of treatments for people living with PTSD," explained Professor Felmingham.