After a 40-plus year hiatus, research into medicinal uses for psychedelic drugs from ayahuasca to MDMA could reveal treatment for depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it.
Ric Godfrey had the shakes. At night, his body temperature would drop and he’d start to tremble. During the day, he was jumpy. He was always looking around, always on edge. His vibe scared the people around him. He couldn’t hang on to a job.
He started drinking and drugging, anything to numb out.
Years passed before a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor told him he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The former Marine had spent the early 1990s interrogating prisoners in Kuwait. Years later, he was still playing out the Persian Gulf War.
Counseling helped a little, but the symptoms continued. He went to rehab for his substance abuse, then tried Alcoholics Anonymous. “That went on for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I hit rock bottom.”
Then one of his Seattle neighbors—a woman who also suffered from PTSD—told him about a group of veterans who were going down to Peru to try a psychedelic drug called ayahuasca, a jungle vine that is brewed into a tea. Indigenous Peruvians called it “sacred medicine.” A wealthy veteran had started a healing center in South America and would pay all his expenses.
The next thing Ric knew, he was crawling into a tent on a platform out in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The sun went down. The shaman gave him the tea, a blessing, and a pail in which to vomit.
“Your body will not keep it in you,” Ric recalled. “At first, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. Then all of a sudden you blink your eyes and you are not there anymore. You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it. It was the most amazing thing. I’ve taken lots of drugs before, but I never remembered. I think this is the key. You actually gain knowledge from this. I don’t even consider it a drug. It’s an eye-opener. It makes you think about stuff. Your deepest, darkest secrets, stuff you have been holding on to since you were eight years old—it washes out of you, and you feel like a totally different person. People look at you differently. Your whole world changes before your eyes.”
Three years later, Ric Godfrey says he hasn’t had a single symptom of the shakes or night terror since he came back from the jungle. He’s relaxed and holding down a great job.
“I’ve always been afraid that someone was out to get me, but I don’t have that fear anymore,” he says. “I still like to sit with my back to the wall. I still have certain military idiosyncrasies, but I’m not afraid anymore.”
Psychedelic drugs are back. Not that they ever really went away. You could always find them on the street, in the psychedelic underground, and along the more enlightened edges of the drug culture. What’s new is that these powerful mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once again giving the stamp of approval—and the money needed—for research into beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.”
“This field of research is finally coming of age,” said David Nichols, a veteran researcher and recently retired professor from the Purdue University College of Pharmacy and the Indiana University School of Medicine. “As Crosby, Stills, and Nash said, it’s been a long time coming.”
Leading the campaign in the new wave of government-sanctioned research is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an independent nonprofit that has raised millions of dollars to fund an ongoing study into the use of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, to treat returning war veterans and rape survivors suffering from PTSD.
In the first phase of that study, MAPS researcher Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist from South Carolina, treated 21 patients. Some participants were given MDMA with psychotherapy, while some got a placebo along with their therapy. Researchers hoped to show that MDMA’s ability to enhance trust, empathy, and openness would make it easier for patients to recount a traumatic event. It did. Over 80 percent of those who received MDMA had no PTSD symptoms two months later, compared with around 25 percent of those who got the placebo. Patients with MDMA-assisted therapy did better than those treated with traditional prescription drugs, such as Zoloft or Paxil.
In November 2012, Mithoefer and his colleagues released more results in a paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It showed that the benefits of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were sustained over an average of three and a half years from the time the drug had been last ingested, an exceptionally lengthy period for a follow-up study. Furthermore, there were no reports of lasting harmful effects from exposure to the drug.
Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS, envisions his organization as a self-supporting nonprofit that will train therapists, run its own clinics, and distribute Ecstasy to doctors and psychologists.
MAPS now controls 960 grams of Ecstasy that was legally manufactured in 1985 by Nichols, the Purdue University chemist. That’s enough for between 4,000 and 5,000 doses, and it has not lost its potency. “It’s still the world’s purest MDMA,” Doblin said.
The use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes is not without controversy, however. In the 1950s, writer Aldous Huxley warned that psychedelics can take users to “heaven or hell”—for some, a path to enlightenment; for others, the spark for psychosis.
Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions who was another early explorer, noted the drugs can mimic “authentic religious experience” but questioned whether altered states of consciousness actually change the way people live their lives.
Smith also issued early warnings that today’s “ayahuasca tourists” might consider. While “sacred medicine” may be helpful for someone who was raised in a Native American religious culture, it may prove disastrous for an outsider unprepared for a mind-blowing trip. “History shows that minority faiths are viable, but only when they are cradled in communities that are solid and structured enough to constitute what are in effect churches,” Huston writes in an essay titled “Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life.” More recently, the dangers of using psychedelics without medical supervision were illustrated when a man died after ingesting ayahuasca at the same Peruvian retreat center where Ric Godfrey had his life-changing experience.
Doblin and other advocates of psychedelic-assisted therapy acknowledge that these powerful substances—while not as addictive as drugs like alcohol, heroin, or cocaine—can be abused by recreational users. They propose a system in which they can be prescribed by doctors and administered by trained therapists.
Nevertheless, researchers and advocates contend that psychedelic drugs, used under close supervision, hold great promise for a deeper understanding of the connection between the brain and human consciousness.
“Where does our capacity for consciousness come from?” asked David Presti, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s still a huge mystery. It’s the biggest mystery of all in science, and psychedelics are the most powerful probe to study that connection.”
In an interview in his office in the Life Sciences Building on the Berkeley campus, Presti held up a large piece of dried ayahuasca vine. He said brain scientists are confirming what shamanic cultures around the world have known for millennia. “These substances have a profound capacity when used under appropriate conditions to be catalysts for real transformation in people, for real healing.”
A Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin and mystical experience is a good example. Follow-up surveys of 36 “hallucinogen-naive adults” who took psilocybin under the supervision of Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, found that two-thirds of them rated the sessions as being “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”
Griffiths’ work on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs has been largely supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Along with Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA, he has studied the effects of psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients—their research found that low doses of psilocybin improved the patients’ mood and reduced their need for narcotic pain relievers. Another Johns Hopkins researcher, Matthew Johnson, has begun a new pilot study to see if the active ingredient in psilocybin mushrooms, commonly called “magic mushrooms,” can help people overcome their addiction to tobacco.
Griffiths’ personal interest in meditation inspired his study of psilocybin-occasioned mystical experience in healthy volunteers. One research subject, Brian, who asked that his last name not be used, recalled, “I was unified with everything. I still had enough awareness to get up and walk to the bathroom, but everything was so incredibly beautiful that I laughed and cried at the same time. I was one with it. It was just incredible—one of the top five experiences I have ever had in my life.”
The experience was so spiritually profound that Brian recommitted himself to his study of meditation and Buddhism and in late 2012 was scheduled to be ordained as a monk in the Soto Zen tradition.
For Presti, outcomes like Brian’s are not surprising.
“One of the ways psychedelics work is by reducing our psychological defenses. They allow the person to become aware of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts so they can come to the surface and be therapeutically processed,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly how these things work, but there may be some kind of hard rewiring that goes on in the brain. They may increase neuroplasticity—make the neurons more susceptible to forming new connections.”
He believes the substances should also be studied as a possible treatment for depression.
“But there is a lot of resistance to this from the pharmaceutical industry. The last thing it wants to see is a substance people only use once or twice. They want us to use something every day for the rest of our life. That’s how they make money.”
Other researchers are troubled that the new wave of psychedelic research is blurring the lines between spiritual experience and the hard science of medicine.
“We are not purveyors of spirituality. Having an epiphany is not a part of medicine,” said John Mendelson, a senior scientist at the California Pacific Medical Research Center in San Francisco. “Most of medicine is not predicated on making you better than you are. It’s getting you back to where you were. There are lots of people and things out there can make us feel better, but our job is to diagnose and treat and fix diseases.”
That view is no longer going unchallenged.
A new generation of dedicated psychedelic drug researchers has emerged on university campuses across the nation. Many of them gathered last September at a “Psychedemia” conference at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They see their mission as “integrating psychedelics into academia.”
“Psychedelic studies are entering the mainstream,” said Neşe Devenot, a young graduate student at Penn and a lead organizer of the multidisciplinary conference. “You can talk about this now at the dinner table without coming across as some kind of fanatic.”
During a lunch break at the weekend conference, one of the wise elders in the field of psychedelic drug research, Johns Hopkins psychologist William A. Richards, sat in the cafeteria in the basement of Houston Hall, surveying the buzz of intergenerational excitement. Richards has been exploring these realms since the early 1960s with such luminaries as Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow, Walter Pahnke, and, yes, Timothy Leary.
Richards knows there could be another backlash against psychedelic drug research, not just by those who are still fighting the “war on drugs” but also by academics who resist the idea that scholars should seriously study something as slippery as spirituality.
“But if mysticism is to emerge from silent monastic cells into the bright light of scientific discourse, I see no alternative,” Richards says. “We have arrived at that frontier where the growing edge of true science meets the mystery of the unknown. Here faith takes over, either belief in something or belief in nothing. These experiences are not in any drug. They are in us.”
Don Lattin’s latest book is a memoir titled Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. Reprinted from Spirituality & Health, (January/February 2013), a bimonthly magazine that reports on the current spiritual renaissance.