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MDMA: Australia begins world-first psychedelic therapy

Earlier this year, researchers raised eyebrows when Australia’s traditionally conservative medicines regulator approved the use of psychedelics to assist therapy sessions.

The decision will see psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, used for treatment-resistant depression. It will also allow MDMA, known as ecstasy in tablet form, for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The changes come into effect on Saturday, making Australia the first country to classify psychedelics as medicines at a national level.

While initial access to the drugs will be limited and costly, many experts and patients are hailing it as a landmark moment.

But major health organisations have also urged caution.

‘Shining again’

Marjane Beaugeois was diagnosed with severe depression in 2017. “Within two months, I lost my mother, grandmother, beloved pet dog and my romantic relationship,” she recalls.

She couldn’t eat, shower, or leave her house in Melbourne – but says prescription antidepressants left her “zombie-like, unable to cry, self-soothe or feel better”.

“I’d still go to bed praying not to wake up,” the 49-year-old says.

When her research for alternative therapies led her to a psilocybin clinic in Amsterdam, she was hesitant.

“I have no history of drug or alcohol use. As an addiction counsellor, I was always very against it,” she says.

Marjane Beaugeois stands in the middle of two friends
Image caption,Marjane Beaugeois (centre) says psilocybin helped her treat depression

But she was also desperate to escape her treatment-resistant depression, so in 2018, she booked herself in.

The psilocybin was taken in a tea. “Colours became more vivid. I felt powerfully reconnected to the world; warm and fuzzy. I’m getting emotional just talking about it… it was a massive, beautiful experience of unconditional love.”

Three sessions later, she felt healed. “I could smile, feel joy, go about my daily routine with clarity,” she says. “When I got home, friends said they saw my eyes shining again.”

When Glen Boyes suggested microdosing psychedelics to treat his crippling depression, his therapist was sceptical.

“He explained it wasn’t something he does, but he couldn’t stop me, and would do brain scans to track my progress,” he says.

The 33-year-old veteran says he began experiencing “lingering PTSD” from his time in the army, during Covid-19 lockdowns in Sydney.

But after 10 weeks of microdosing and therapy sessions, red areas on his initial brain scans showing blockages had cleared. “My brain fog evaporated. I could think clearly again.”

Due to no other country rescheduling these substances for clinical use on a national level, the cohort who’ve experienced psychedelic therapy is small.

Professor David Nutt, Head of Neuropsychopharmacology at the UK’s Imperial College, congratulated Australia on “leading the world in this vital treatment innovation”.

Psychedelic researcher and psychiatrist Dr Ben Sessa described the approval as pioneering. “This is where the global psychedelic spotlight now shines,” he told the BBC.

Dr Sessa has resigned from his job running the UK’s primary psychedelic clinical organisation and will spend the next 18 months travelling to Australia to deliver a bespoke psychedelic prescribing training programme.

Glen Boys smiling in pictures
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