Psychedelic therapy has immense potential in mental health. New research is showing that this form of treatment has benefits in treating drug addiction.

Can Psychedelics Help to Stem the Tide of Substance Abuse?

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million U.S adults (over 12 years) battled a substance use disorder in 2017. Out of this, almost 8 in 10 struggled with an alcohol use disorder.

With such high numbers, the use of psychedelics to treat substance abuse disorder is of great interest to the medical community, albeit swamped in controversy. Research on the use of psychedelics to treat mental health conditions is still in its infancy. However, emerging research suggests the usefulness of psychedelics in relieving addiction symptoms, especially when traditional treatment methods have failed.

What is Drug Addiction?

Addiction has been defined as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”

Neurophysiological mechanisms of addiction

In 2015, Melissa Herman and Marisa Roberto published a review on drug addiction which they titled: The addicted brain: understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms of addictive disorders. In this article they outlined the neurophysiological mechanisms that lead to addiction. They outlined the cycle of addiction which oscillates between anticipation/ craving for the drug of abuse and recovering from the withdrawal effects.

Addictive substances trigger a surge of the dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia. This region is also referred to as the reward center; it is what makes us feel good/ rewarded after a pleasurable activity. Substance abuse causes the blunting of the neuronal circuits in the amygdala so that the person needs increasingly more of the substance to feel “rewarded.” This is called tolerance and it describes how the brain adjusts to a “new normal.” This is how substance addiction develops.

The process of addiction

The process of addiction involves functional changes that happen in the brain circuits that regulate reward, stress, and self-control. When these circuits are disrupted, the changes may persist even after the person has stopped abusing the drug/s.

Addiction is very similar to chronic diseases such as heart disease. The pathological process disrupts the healthy functioning of an organ in the body, causing harmful effects. If left untreated, both can last a lifetime or eventually lead to death.

How Do Psychedelics Help With Drug Addiction?

New research suggests that psychedelics may help to relieve some symptoms of addiction. Addiction is usually accompanied by other mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.

Psychedelics work through different pathways, and researchers are still investigating how they treat addiction. Some sources claim that psychedelics make it easier to quit abusing substances by reducing other mental health symptoms.

Some psychedelic compounds have been assessed as potential substance abuse treatments with promising results. Below are some of the psychedelics that have shown potential in the treatment of addiction:


MDMA may help treat substance abuse based on recent reports suggesting that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can reduce symptoms of PTSD.

A review that was published in Current drug abuse reviews in 2013 suggested that MDMA addresses neuropharmacological abnormalities that are linked to addiction. It may also indirectly assist with reducing underlying psychological symptoms, providing a greater opportunity for the substance abuse disorder to be addressed. This review demonstrated that some participants could eliminate substance use after receiving MDMA treatment in a therapeutic setting.

Studies directly investigating MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in active substance abuse disorder are needed to paint a clearer picture.


Psilocybin has shown potential in the treatment of substance addiction. In a 2015 study involving ten volunteers with alcohol addiction, participants were offered psilocybin therapy, and a type of psychotherapy called motivational enhancement therapy.

Participants only received psychotherapy during the first four weeks, and results showed that their alcohol use did not decrease. When psilocybin was introduced, participants drank significantly less. The researchers observed that the participants who had the most intense psychedelic experiences were more likely to quit drinking.

Read more about Psilocybin


A team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed six clinical trials of LSD from 1966 to 1970. The results were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Although the results were tepid, they all indicated that LSD helped the patients quit alcohol. The researchers observed that six months after stopping the treatment, those who took LSD were 15 percent more likely to be sober.


So far, medicinal cannabis has been legalized in 34 states for a number of indications. Researchers are now looking into the potential of cannabis in treating substance addiction. Cannabis is not considered to be a psychedelic drug, but still, it has some similarities that make it relevant to this topic.

Cannabis has many different bioactive compounds; cannabinoids are of particular interest to researchers because of their therapeutic potential. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are among the most studied cannabinoids. THC is psychoactive, CBD is not.

In one randomized clinical trial, the authors investigated whether CBD could be useful in treating opioid addiction. The 42 participants received one of two different CBD doses or a placebo once daily for three days. The participants were later exposed to drug-related or neutral cues to determine if opioid cravings and anxiety had reduced after CBD use. These factors are strongly associated with relapse to opioid use. Results from this study strongly suggested that CBD helps reduce craving for drugs of abuse. This makes CBD a potential candidate for research on the use of psychedelics to treat drug addiction.


This powerful hallucinogen, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, is being trialed for the treatment of severe depression. The aim of the study is to investigate the safety and efficacy of DMT in managing depression and major depressive disorders.

In this study, participants will be offered DMT and this will be followed by talking therapy. It will be the first time when DMT is offered to participants with moderate to severe depression in a clinical trial. The results will be used to direct future double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials.


Recently, ketamine has attracted attention as a rapid-acting antidepressant, but other studies have also reported its efficacy in reducing problematic alcohol and drug use. One review demonstrated Ketamine’s usefulness in treating various addictions. Ketamine may work through multiple mechanisms to elicit these effects. This includes enhancing the formation of new neural connections and disrupting existing ones. Ketamine may also provoke mystical experiences that enrich psychological therapy. The researchers recommended controlled trials to validate preliminary reports.

Read more about Ketamine.


Psychedelic therapy for drug addiction remains an experimental treatment. It means that for now, people can only access this treatment by participating in clinical trials. Psychedelic drugs may cause significant psychological effects that require monitoring. Hence, it is always advisable to consult with your doctor before you can embark on psychedelic therapy.