Background: Psychiatric research in the 1950s and 1960s showed potential for psychedelic medications to markedly alleviate depression and suffering associated with terminal illness. More recent published studies have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine when administered in a medically supervised and monitored approach. A single or brief series of sessions often results in substantial and sustained improvement among people with treatment-resistant depression and anxiety, including those with serious medical conditions.
Need and Clinical Considerations: Palliative care clinicians occasionally encounter patients with emotional, existential, or spiritual suffering, which persists despite optimal existing treatments. Such suffering may rob people of a sense that life is worth living. Data from Oregon show that most terminally people who obtain prescriptions to intentionally end their lives are motivated by non-physical suffering. This paper overviews the history of this class of drugs and their therapeutic potential. Clinical cautions, adverse reactions, and important steps related to safe administration of psychedelics are presented, emphasizing careful patient screening, preparation, setting and supervision.
Conclusion: Even with an expanding evidence base confirming safety and benefits, political, regulatory, and industry issues impose challenges to the legitimate use of psychedelics. The federal expanded access program and right-to-try laws in multiple states provide precendents for giving terminally ill patients access to medications that have not yet earned FDA approval. Given the prevalence of persistent suffering and growing acceptance of physician-hastened death as a medical response, it is time to revisit the legitimate therapeutic use of psychedelics.