Australia prescribes psychedelics to depression or PTSD patients in world first

Artwork on display at the Psychedelic Science conference in the Colorado Convention Centre (AP)
Artwork on display at the Psychedelic Science conference in the Colorado Convention Centre (AP)

Australia has become the first country to allow psychiatrists to prescribe certain psychedelic substances to patients with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Beginning on Saturday, Australian physicians can prescribe doses of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, for PTSD.

Psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, can also be given to people who have hard-to-treat depression.

Authorities in the country have placed the two drugs on the list of approved medicines by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Some scientists in Australia were surprised by the move, which was announced in February but took effect on July 1.

One said it puts Australia “at the forefront of research in this field”.

Psychedelic display
A gathering place at the Psychedelic Science conference in the Colorado Convention Centre (AP)

Chris Langmead, deputy director of the Neuromedicines Discovery Centre at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said there have been very few advances in the treatment of persistent mental health issues in the last 50 years.

Growing cultural acceptance has led two US states to approve measures for the use of psychedelics: Oregon was the first to legalise the adult use of psilocybin, while Colorado’s voters decriminalised psilocybin in 2022.

Days ago, Joe Biden’s youngest brother said in a radio interview that the US President has been “very open-minded” in conversations the two have had about the benefits of psychedelics as a form of medical treatment.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018, a label that is designed to speed up the development and review of drugs to treat a serious condition.

Psychedelics researchers have benefited from federal grants, including at Johns Hopkins University, and the FDA released draft guidance late last month for researchers designing clinical trials testing psychedelic drugs as potential treatments for a variety of medical conditions.

However, the American Psychiatric Association has not endorsed the use of psychedelics in treatment, noting the FDA has yet to offer a final determination.

And medical experts in the US and elsewhere, Australia included, have cautioned that more research is needed on the drugs’ efficacy and the extent of the risks of psychedelics, which can cause hallucinations.

Dr Paul Liknaitzky, head of Monash University’s Clinical Psychedelic Lab, said: “There are concerns that evidence remains inadequate and moving to clinical service is premature; that incompetent or poorly-equipped clinicians could flood the space; that treatment will be unaffordable for most; that formal oversight of training, treatment, and patient outcomes will be minimal or ill-informed.”

Plus, the drugs will be expensive in Australia at about 10,000 Australian dollars (roughly £5,200) per patient for treatment.

However, Dr Liknaitzky said the opportunity for Australians to access the drugs for specific conditions is unique.

He said: “There’s excitement about drug policy progress – about the prospect of being able to offer patients more suitable and tailored treatment without the constraints imposed by clinical trials and rigid protocols.”