It’s true Halpern is giving MDMA to dying cancer patients who are suffering from related anxiety, but he explains that these are not take-home medicines. The same would be true of LSD if his study of that drug is approved, which he hopes will happen sometime this year. First he must deliver protocols to McLean’s Institutional Review Board. If these are accepted, he can go to the FDA to get its approval to use LSD in a clinical trial.
The idea for the LSD study came from an unexpected place. Because of his reputation as one of the few above-ground researchers dealing with hallucinogens, Halpern was contacted by a young man who suffered from cluster headaches, who also found a great deal of long-term relief when he used psilocybin and LSD.
According to Halpern, cluster headaches are one of the most painful conditions known in medicine — a gruesome illness. Sufferers have described it as an ice pick slowly and insidiously boring through one’s eye and into one’s skull. The afflicted have been known to bang their heads against a wall and pull their hair out. “People anthropomorphize it,” says Halpern. “They call it the devil.”
Through Internet research, Halpern found a large community of cluster-headache sufferers who had learned, on their own, that hallucinogens could interrupt their attacks. The individuals, mostly members of cluster-headache support groups, had independently discovered that they all used LSD and psilocybin to self-medicate.
They had tried to get the attention and backing of neurologists, in an effort to lend credibility to their claims. But, because of what Halpern called the rigmarole of doing research with these drugs — given all the federal hoops through which one has to jump — their efforts and pleas were ignored. They eventually found Halpern, and he and a number of other researchers managed to interview 53 cluster-headache sufferers who had taken hallucinogens. In a paper published in 2006 in the journal Neurology, Halpern noted that no other medication was known to stop cluster headaches. And yet a little acid or some magic mushrooms seemed to do the trick.
Now their hope is to get approval from the FDA, and for McLean Hospital to actually administer LSD to cluster-headache sufferers. One of the principal researchers in the preliminary cluster-headache project, Dr. Andrew Sewell, thinks that this study is unlike any other. “You can find 50 people on the Internet who will claim anything,” says Sewell, “but to get a control group like this showed that a clinical trial is viable.”
I suggest to Halpern that, for a researcher looking to conduct LSD experiments, it is mighty serendipitous that the cluster-headache group would come along. There is a paisley-speckled chicken-and-egg question: is Halpern trying to do research with hallucinogens or is he trying to help people with cluster headaches? “It’s about legitimate science,” he says. “Patients that are enrolled in a research study deserve no less, and it’s the only way we can get to the bottom of some of the questions that still remain about these drugs.” But does he hope a study like this will change thinking about how LSD could have benefits beyond its controlled medicinal value? “I am interested in this research,” he says, “if it further legitimates them as medicines. If they are not, then [they are] out of my field.” From an outsider’s perspective, he admits, research with these drugs may sound controversial. But, he insists, these questions and his research are scientifically sound.