Researchers reopen their minds to the healing potential of psychedelic drugs
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.
“And it’s important to emphasize that psilocybin may only need to be administered once within the context of ongoing psychotherapy, whereas conventional medications are generally used daily for weeks, months, even years.”
Grob’s research supports an earlier study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins that found that 60 percent of subjects who took psilocybin in a controlled experiment later called the experience one of the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives.
William Richards, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center who worked on the Hopkins study, explained that psychedelics were sensationalized in the public mind during the late sixties and early seventies. Before that, their effect on consciousness was considered a legitimate field of scientific inquiry, including work on public scourges like schizophrenia and alcoholism.
But when the government made them illegal in 1968, research in the United States ceased. As Sergeant Joe Friday said that year in the cop drama Dragnet, “Don’t you con me with your mind expansion slop.”
Only in the late 1990s did federal regulators begin easing restrictions on controlled experiments with psychedelics. “It’s experiencing a rebirth after being pretty much totally dormant for 30 years,” Richards says, attributing the thaw largely to the exacting methodological character of the initial research proposals. (Grob, for his part, wondered if the passage of time since the counterculture excesses of the sixties might also play a role.)
One of the key findings of Grob’s study is that in the right dosage, psilocybin can be safely ingested without fear of serious side effects, or, as it might have been termed in the sixties, a bad trip. This may make it easier for scientists to secure research permits to study psychedelics, says Rick Doblin, executive director of the advocacy group MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. It also matters, Doblin points out, since, if a research subject reacts badly to taking psilocybin or another psychedelic substance during a controlled experiment, it could derail future research into the drugs.
But while Doblin is pleased that scientists are once again able to study psychedelics legally, obtaining funding for such research is still difficult, he says. No federal agency will direct money toward experiments involving substances that the Food and Drug Administration classifies as illegal, and the obvious funding alternative—the pharmaceutical industry—isn’t interested: Psychedelics cannot be patented and are meant to be taken only in small doses.
“No one’s going to take one psilocybin pill before breakfast and another one after dinner for 30 years,” quips Doblin.
Nonetheless, the research already conducted is leading to wider interest in psychedelics. MAPS, for instance, is currently helping to fund a recently commenced Harvard study meant to determine whether MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, could have therapeutic value for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering posttraumatic stress disorder.
And when Grob is asked to describe how exactly psychedelics can help cancer patients, he explains that the purpose of administering psilocybin to terminally ill people is not to cure their disease but rather to help them reconcile themselves to it. Psilocybin can unearth deeply buried psychological traumas in such a way that users can accept what before they couldn’t face.
“Many of the subjects told us that it helped them come to terms with the fact that they were going to die,” Grob says. “It gave them the strength to confront directly what was going on. They told us that their experience helped them to live in the moment, to take each day as it came in the time they had remaining, as opposed to feeling immobilized because of their predicament.”
Excerpted from Miller-McCune magazine’s website (May 5, 2011), which is run by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy in Santa Barbara, California.www.miller-mccune.com