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Can Psychedelic Treatments Help People Quit Smoking?

October 27, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
(Photo by Andres Siimon on unsplash)

WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health recently awarded a $4 million grant to Johns Hopkins Medicine for a three-year clinical trial to examine if psilocybin-assisted psychotherapies can help people quit smoking.

“Psychedelic treatments … when properly applied can help people get to the roots of their problems rather than treating surface level symptoms. One of the reasons I like smoking cessation is that outcomes are biologically verifiable so we are confident in our evidence of efficacy. This treatment isn’t going to be for everyone as the experience can be quite challenging, even terrifying at times,” said Matthew Johnson,Ph.D., lead investigator on the project, in an email to The Well News. 

The trial will involve participants receiving psilocybin sessions in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy. One third of the participants will be assigned to each of the three sites involved in the trial which in addition to Johns Hopkins Medicine are the University of Alabama at Birmingham and New York University.

Modern smoking cessation treatments are only effective around 30% of the time, according to data from 2014. 

In that same year Johnson completed a study involving 15 participants and his findings showed that psilocybin could help 80% of those participating quit smoking. 

Research regarding the medical benefits of psychedelic therapies has only recently begun to surface as the field did not receive any federal grants from 2006 to 2020. 

Psilocybin remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for medical use and has a high potential for abuse. 

“Depending on phase III results psilocybin could be FDA approved in three to five years. Its use would be constrained to the clinic under careful safety guidelines. It will be an expensive treatment with lots of professional time, so research into how to safely cut costs, as with group sessions, may help to develop more scalable treatment models to help more people,” said Johnson. 

Johnson said there is a federal pathway researchers will follow for conducting the trial and that the NIH-grant will not depend on any special state-level changes in law. 

The medical benefits of psychedelic treatments are being recognized in states like Texas where a bill was recently passed to approve studies of alternative therapies of MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine.

Florida recently proposed two companion bills with language similar to the Texas bill and similar bills were already signed into law in Connecticut and Oregon allowing these therapies to be used in clinical settings starting in 2023.

The acceptance that is broadening for these therapies, Johnson said, will hopefully increase efforts and funding, including at the state-level, for research on psychedelic therapeutics.

“Enough time has passed since the ‘psychedelic 60s’ and the association of these drugs with the counterculture and the data over the last 20 years has been truly remarkable in showing large effects in a variety of hard-to-treat disorders,” said Johnson.

Alexa can be reached at [email protected] 

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