Dr. Keith: Take This Trip and Call Me in the Morning

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Researchers at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and other academic medical centers scattered around the country are now testing psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, the active ingredient in "mushrooms," to send terminal cancer patients on acid-like "trips."

Some of the patients report the drugs open their minds to great insights that help them overcome the desperation and depression they had felt facing their own mortality.These insights, they say, are lasting ones that sustain an increased sense of well-being and self-possession for months or even years.

That sounds great.Why not break free from the reality of your unfortunate circumstances and see the vastness of the universe around you?Why not feel a connectedness with your fellow man so powerful and so far-reaching that it might reach even beyond death?Who would keep the doors of perception locked to those with so little time left on the planet?What harm could come from extending the medical use of marijuana in cancer victims to other illicit drugs?

The devil, however, is (as usual) in the details.The clinical trials of psilocybin and (in other medical centers) Ecstasy to treat psychological distress have at their core the theory that hallucinogens or other illicit substances have demonstrable and defensible benefits to users that outweigh the benefits to society of blanket criminalizing of such substances.

Certainly those battling cancer and facing death have unique needs and challenges.But what about those who are grieving the death of a child, or those experiencing severe stress from terrible accidents, or those with post traumatic stress disorder, or those with chronic depression?Don't they deserve the same chance to shake off the shackles of their psyches and see what a "trip" might do for them?Why can't they have some mushrooms or Ecstasy or LSD?

You can see the slippery slope ahead.It's hard to tell young people, for example, that these drugs are paths away from the truth, not toward it, when doctors are touting their mind-expanding and healing properties.It's hard to argue that they or anyone else should see their problems, including their anxiety and depression, as wake-up calls to understand and take charge and change their lives, when they could just take a pill-just once-and trip right out of their troubles.

Cancer is big trouble.Our mortality is something hard to "get our heads around."It brings up significant and even tortuous questions about whether we have lived our lives as we might have wished to, whether we have expressed our love for those who deserved it, whether we've ever gotten the love we deserved ourselves.

I, for one, believe that the search for answers to such questions, even when painful, even when undertaken from a hospital bed, is a worthy and human one.And I worry about short-circuiting that process by taking a trip anywhere other than deeper into one's heart, clear mind and relationship to the universe and God.