Spotlight in Focus: Opioid Crisis Demands Psychedelic Innovation, Yesterday
Spotlight in Focus: Opioid Crisis Demands Psychedelic Innovation, Yesterday

Psychedelic Spotlight is banging the drum for nothing short of a societal sea change in policy and perception for treatment options and access to care for our brothers and sisters suffering from opioid addiction and other substance use disorders. A conversation recently taped for the second episode of our flagship talk show Spotlight in Focus is a clarion call for help to anyone with the guts to listen.

I first met Brittany eight years ago, when she was waiting tables at a revered Kansas City diner chain. Her eloquence, her generosity of spirit, her work ethic and natural beauty all caught my attention. She wins people over effortlessly. It’s a gift. I had no way of knowing at that time that Brittany was already struggling with substance use disorder, to a degree that would continue to grow beyond her control.

At 26 years old, Brittany represents one human amidst a surging statistical reality. According to health policy research center SHADAC, the annual number of drug overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled from 17,500 in the year 2000 to 67,400 in 2018. The organization states, “Most of these deaths involved opioids, including heroin, prescription painkillers, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.”

Anyone on this list of opioid crisis casualties could be your sister, your daughter, your friend. 

Brittany was prescribed opioids by her doctor for ovarian cysts at 16. At the time, she was already living on her own. Both her father and mother were struggling addicts, and Brittany grew up within the omnipresently bleak reality of her family’s poverty. Opioids turned out to provide just the escape she had dreamed of, and treatment immediately mutated into vice.

Still from Spotlight in Focus, Episode 2

A number of companies working with psychedelic medicines are developing therapeutics to treat addiction and opioid withdrawal symptoms, with a focus on ibogaine. This naturally occurring psychoactive substance, and indole alkaloid, is found in a perennial rainforest shrub native to Central Africa called Tabernanthe iboga. Ibogaine hydrochloride can be extracted from the plant and has been shown to have a powerful effect on a variety of brain receptors, which can be altered to help with the elements of addiction.

Mindcure, a Canadian company has completed the first stage of manufacturing pharmaceutical grade ibogaine, which it is utilizing in further clinical trials. The idea is that these powerful psychedelics can, once more fully understood, be institutionally administered as a game-changing treatment for addiction, which can take root at an early age in at-risk individuals, and plague them through their perilous lives.

“I had had a troubled life. I was already vulnerable to things like substance use,” Brittany says. “I was marginalized, my parents were addicts. I was prescribed oxycodone for my ovarian cysts. I remember just being a kid and taking them, and thinking, this is what I’ve been looking for my whole life, this feeling. I think about the origin of [my opioid addiction] and it really just traces back to that moment. It’s something I’ve chased ever since.”

Treatment with psychedelic medicine like ibogaine or ketamine cannot continue to be accessible only to the wealthy. It’s clear that collectively we recognize the severity of the opioid crisis in North America. Shows like Hulu drama Dopesick and HBO’s Euphoria inform and entertain, while there are no shortage of books, news, and diatribes like this abound. It’s no longer a secret. Yet our national recognition and reaction in terms of taking the evasive action necessary to create policies to truly attempt to fix the situation are bafflingly inept.

At the time of our interview in December, Brittany was “living” for the most part, unhoused, on the streets, bouncing between heroin houses and rehab centers, if and when she could find a bed. Currently she resides in the Jackson County jail awaiting trial for a disturbingly long list of recent offenses that include theft, possession and evading arrest. She is now looking at significant prison time. This is a woman who has all of the tools necessary to make a lasting and positive impact in this world. A recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, coupled with substance use disorder and the relentless stranglehold cycle of poverty are conspiring against her in the most insipid fashion imaginable.

As her friend, I will do what I can by listening when she calls. And I’ll learn more about science and industry working for solutions, helping advocate responsibly as I’m able. But the helpless feeling experienced by those with loved ones in the throes of addiction, is withering. Testimonials of those who have found relief from substance use disorder and an array of other deep-seated illnesses through psychedelic medicine, evoke visions of the miraculous.  

Miracles cannot exist for the privileged alone.

Matthew Dunehoo is the producer, director, and co-host of our flagship series “Spotlight in Focus,” which offers in-depth analysis and candid interviews with luminaries throughout the field of medicinal psychedelics. Two episodes are now available to watch on ALTRD.TV.

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