The new Hulu series Dopesick is a dramatic reminder of the devastation that has been wrought by the opioid epidemic. Like the book on which it was based, and like other journalism about the Oxycontin crisis, the show makes it clear that members of the Sackler family, Purdue, unscrupulous doctors, and the FDA all played a part in causing the rampant overprescription of Oxycontin. Suddenly every kind of pain – not only physical but also psychological and social – seemed to have a single answer: Oxycontin. Opioids are one of the oldest drugs in the human pharmacopeia, but Oxycontin’s new patents made every person in pain a source of easy money for Purdue. This led to a wave of addiction and overdose. When regulators cracked down on legal pills, many people turned to the illicit drug market, putting them in even greater danger.
Yet even as America reckons with the aftermath of the Oxycontin disaster, it’s embracing a new class of supposed wonder drugs. Like opioids, these “new” drugs are long-time favorites: psychedelics. Ironically, one of their supposedly miraculous qualities is their power in treating substance use disorders. The FDA – whose lax oversight and close ties to corporate lobbyists played such a crucial role in the Oxycontin debacle – has placed MDMA and psilocybin on expedited approval tracks for the treatment of PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD is in advanced trials, and could receive FDA approval as soon as 2023.
Researchers and recently formed companies, many of them backed by venture capital, are tripping over each other to study and patent the use of psychedelics not only for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, but also for Alzheimer’s, headaches, fibromyalgia, cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, and more. This long list might be the result of laudable scientific curiosity – but it could also be an attempt to find the largest possible number of applications for a potentially profitable drug. Researchers are also exploring ways of administering psychedelics through patentable “tamper-resistant” patches like those that were used for fentanyl.
Opioids are vilified and increasingly hard to obtain legally – even for acute and end-of-life pain, when they are enormously valuable – while psychedelics are in vogue with venture capitalists, medical researchers, and psychonauts alike. No longer confined to the counterculture, psychedelics are celebrated as a panacea for the afflictions of modern life: depression, anxiety, distraction, apathy, loneliness, loss of purpose, insufficient productivity in the workplace. Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, is only the most famous of the many journalists and writers who have celebrated the beneficial effects of psychedelics.
These new alleged…