You know things are getting interesting when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, gets involved.
This infamously mysterious subset of the U.S. Department of Defense has been linked to some truly insane stuff since its inception in 1958. At the time, DARPA’s creation was a response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. In the decades since, the agency — officially tasked with being responsible for the “development of emerging technologies for use by the military” — has dabbled in everything from submarines to remote-controlled insects.
Now, according to a press release issued by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, DARPA wants to experiment with drugs too.
As reported by Marijuana Moment last week, the mid-June announcement notes that an “international research team” led by UNC School of Medicine’s Bryan L. Roth, MD, PhD, will attempt to “create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.” The hope, as the release makes clear, is to remove the risk of bad trips from substances like ketamine and psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms).
“Rapidly acting drugs with antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-addictive potential devoid of disabling side effects do not exist, not even as experimental compounds for use in animals,” Roth said in the release. “Creating such compounds would change the way we treat millions of people around the world suffering from these serious and life-threatening conditions.”
Leaving aside the curious marriage of illicit substances and the military-industrial complex, there’s a serious discussion to be had with regards to whether entheogenic plants should be modified in a laboratory before public access to the unadulterated source has been restored.
If recent news and activist efforts to bring psychoactive substances like ketamine and psilocybin served as inspiration for this new DARPA endeavour, it wasn’t by design. Examples of such grassroots campaigns include the 2020 Oregon Psilocybin Services Act, which reportedly already has the necessary signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot. Featuring the prominent support of natural soapmaker Dr. Bronner’s, the success of the measure would make Oregon “the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to implement a therapeutic legalization model for psychedelic mushrooms.”
Similar efforts — several under the auspices of a campaign calling itself Decriminalize Nature — are also underway in dozens of localities across the country. Meanwhile, the concept of ketamine therapy continues to gain more widespread acceptance as well.
As science continues to explore the ways in which ketamine may be able to help those suffering from conditions like PTSD and severe depression, one may wonder why cannabis has ostensibly been left behind. One of the many reasons is a willingness on the part of the federal government to simply allow for the research to take place. Writing for Forbes, Rosie Mattio of Mattio Communications laid out just how different the two landscapes look at the moment.
“Unlike medical cannabis, which is still navigating a litany of federal research restrictions, psychedelic substances, including ketamine, psilocybin and ibogaine, have been granted FDA approval for clinical trials,” Mattio explained. “In fact, in 2018 and 2019, the FDA designated psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in mushrooms, as a ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ to treat clinical depression. This coveted classification allows the developers of the drug to conduct clinical trials with more regulatory support and fast-tracks the development and review of final treatments.”
Later in 2019, the FDA also approved a ketamine nasal spray for treating depression. When one considers both the ongoing grassroots efforts to decriminalize psychedelics and the federal government’s current willingness to permit researchers to study these plants and compounds, it appears obvious that a seismic shift in our societal approach to mind-altering drugs is about to take place.
However, in casting a spotlight on the numerous, sometimes borderline existential questions facing the legalized cannabis industry today, it’s worth asking just how closely we actually want to mirror what’s happening with weed when it comes to shrooms, etc.? The popularity of cannabis in contrast to something like ketamine or psilocybin means arrest records, discriminatory policies, and all other evidence of America’s supposed “war on drugs” are likewise lessened in scale. Of course, that doesn’t mean such factors should be outright ignored.
The well-established ties between influential politicians and the biggest names in our nation’s pharmaceutical industry mean DARPA research may one day lead to Pfizer gold. What no one wants is for companies like Gilead — who recently announced a price of $3,120 per American for its experimental COVID-19 treatment Remdesivir — to be given a chance to do the same thing to plants anyone can theoretically grow.