Not So Far Out
Researchers reopen their minds to the healing potential of psychedelic drugs
Dongyun Lee / www.dongyunlee.com
Mike is hunched over a pile of soggy wood chips at the bottom of a glade in Golden Gate Park. It’s a clear winter afternoon and sunlight filters through the eucalyptus trees, landing on grass still damp from a recent storm. Mike sifts through the wood chips, slowly and deliberately examining the soil beneath. Two paper bags fill a pocket of his Patagonia fleece jacket.
A 28-year-old engineer at a prominent software company in San Francisco, Mike is soft-spoken and self-possessed; on weekends he drives his Subaru Forester to his time-share in Tahoe to ski. He donates to public radio, and he has made himself into an aficionado of the city’s Indian restaurants. He is, or seems like, a well-adjusted member of society.
But what Mike is doing is a felony. He is searching for psilocybin, the psychedelic mushrooms that grow wild in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County from fall to spring. If he finds any, he’ll stuff them in the bags, put the bags in his backpack, and backstreet home on his bike.
Mike doesn’t do mushrooms very often—maybe once or twice a year—but when he does, it’s for a reason. “When I take them, it may be because I have a decision to make, or maybe I suspect that my outlook toward something is not as healthy or as loving as I would like it to be,” he says. “Psilocybin allows me to see things with a fresh point of view. When I’m on them, [I’m] not as burdened by cynicism or other self-protective layers in my psychology.”
Is Mike delusional or is he onto something?
In the past decade, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs on consciousness has become a growing field of study in American academia. Psychologists at UCLA, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and NYU, among other places, have published research showing that psychedelics can promote happiness in ordinary people, as well as alleviate depression and anxiety among the terminally ill. The positive effects of taking psilocybin that Mike describes resemble many of the case descriptions contained in these studies (though no doubt none of the researchers involved would endorse his actions).
A year ago, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, published a study in Archives of General Psychiatry finding that people with terminal stage IV cancer reported feeling dramatically less anxiety after taking a small, measured dose of psilocybin during a carefully administered experiment. Grob and his team checked in with their subjects after three months, and then again after six months; in each case, the subjects reported more benefits as time went on.
Grob distinguished between psilocybin and standard-issue antidepressants, which he says tend to dampen or suppress psychological problems without necessarily curing them. “The response rates among people with terminal cancer to conventional medications that target symptoms of anxiety and depression are not that impressive,” he says. “Psilocybin has the potential to facilitate what’s been called a psycho-spiritual epiphany.
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