Australian psychiatrists can now prescribe MDMA and psilocybin, known as magic mushrooms, for some mental illnesses. Photo / 123rf
Australia has become the first country to classify psychedelics as medicines at a national level in an attempt to address mental health illnesses – with one prominent New Zealand ED doctor saying they could potentially be used here.
The change comes as studies into how psychoactive drugs can impact mental illness are also underway in New Zealand.
Australian psychiatrists can now prescribe MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD and treatment-resistant depression to assist therapy sessions, starting July 1.
Psilocybin is found in magic mushrooms, it has been used for centuries in native South American religious rituals, alongside other organic hallucinogens and psychedelics.
MDMA, known as ecstasy or molly, is a synthetic drug that acts as a stimulant and psychedelic and works in a therapy setting by temporarily reducing activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear.
This enables many to address underlying emotions linked to life regrets and trauma, making it easier to talk, feel, connect and process.
The drugs can only be prescribed by psychiatrists with pre-approval from the authorised prescriber scheme. The patients will only be able to access the drugs in a supervised clinical setting, such as during therapy, not for home use.
It’s understood patients should expect to pay between A$10,000 for two psilocybin-assisted therapy sessions, and A$15,000 for three MDMA-assisted sessions.
There is currently a lack of data and evidence on the long-term outcomes of micro-dosing psychedelic drugs. Strong anti-drug policies worldwide following the US’s “War on Drugs” has prevented research into psychedelic drugs for several decades.
Whangārei emergency doctor Gary Payinda thinks there is a fantastic promise for psychoactive medicines to treat problems here with similar treatment, but they aren’t without risks.
“They should be introduced into clinical practice as part of a rigorously controlled clinical trial or at the very least a clinical registry.
“Instead, Australia is opening the door to clinical use with the most minimal of record-keeping requirements. And no real clinical oversight, uniform guidelines, or supervisory authority.”
Payinda said the risks could be compared to the introduction of vaping in New Zealand, which was supposed to help people stop smoking cigarettes but has now become its own harmful habit.
“We don’t want to repeat with MDMA and psilocybin, the regulatory failure that is the child vaping epidemic in New Zealand. Allowing private for-profit clinics to sell the drugs means profits over patients: and private clinics replacing drug dealers as the suppliers of choice.”
Payinda wants to see regulatory authority and oversight of prescribers, to ensure that prescribers don’t become pill mills like he saw when he worked in the US and that health comes before sales.
“It happened before with opioids in the US, with billions in profits and literally hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the profit that can be made from prescribing psychoactive medications.”
Health experts have long been calling for an overhaul of New Zealand’s “outdated and harmful drug laws” in favour of a health-based approach.
Currently, New Zealand has a criminalisation and prohibition-focused drug policy, with magic mushrooms being considered a Class A drug (very high risk) and MDMA Class B (high risk) under the New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.
Researchers from the University of Otago, the University of Auckland and independent provider Mana Health are currently investigating whether MDMA can help cancer patients.
The new psychedelic-assisted therapy trial announced in June aims at finding a way to help terminal cancer patients struggling with depressive thoughts and emotions.
Like Australia, the clinical trial mixes MDMA with psychotherapy (talk therapy) in treating depression and anxiety experienced by patients.
Otago chair in psychological medicine Professor Paul Glue said psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown promise in treatments in the USA for patients with PTSD and terminal illness.
”Depression and anxiety are very common in people with advanced-stage cancer and can really impact on the quality of life they have available.
”This could be a really useful way to help people who don’t have a lot of time, helping them work through difficult thoughts and emotions, including fear of death.”
Auckland University psychological medicine senior lecturer Dr Lisa Reynolds hopes the study will result in a new treatment being widely available for advanced-stage cancer patients in New Zealand within the next few years.
”This is really meaningful work because it has potential to support people in what can sometimes be a really difficult time of their life,” she says.
The New Zealand trial will involve around 50 participants receiving multiple sessions of psychotherapy combined with either carefully controlled doses of MDMA or a placebo, administered in a controlled and supportive therapeutic environment.
Eligible patients interested in being referred for the study can visit the EMMAC Study website.