The future of psilocybin therapy, and how it might serve the living as well as those in the process of dying.
In the early years of the 1960s, before kaftans and colorful paisley shirts became fashionable, before the Beatles recorded their psychedelic masterpiece Sergeant Pepper, and before college students were being urged to ‘turn on’ and ‘tune in’ to the psychedelic experience, research with psychedelic drugs was carried out at no less an orthodox academic venue than Harvard University. The Harvard Psilocybin Project, as it was known, ran a number of scientific studies looking into the various effects of psilocybin — a classic psychedelic compound — upon hundreds of volunteers as well as theology students and even prisoners. Due to the burgeoning popular interest in psychedelics after they had escaped the confines of the science laboratory, Harvard were quick to batten down the hatches and shut up shop.
However, despite the hasty cessation of the Harvard Psilocybin Project and the subsequent global prohibition of psychedelic drug use, psilocybin never really left the scene. Psilocybin is derived from a naturally occurring fungus and this has ensured that it has always been freely available — at least if you know where to look. Unlike many other psychedelic drugs, psilocybin is produced not in clandestine underground laboratories but simply underground — within fungal mycelia and the mushrooms that develop from them. In fact, about 200 species of psilocybin mushroom have now been discovered across the globe. Moreover, slowly but surely, the scientific study of psilocybin has been making a long overdue comeback.
Of the several scientific organizations currently carrying out psilocybin research, one of the most notable is the privately funded Heffter Research Institute. They have been getting a good deal of positive press in the media — chiefly because they have obtained striking results with regard to psilocybin’s potential as a medicine. Even the most hardened anti-drug finger-wagger will find it hard to criticize and dismiss scientific findings that demonstrate psilocybin’s medical utility. This is especially the case with the Heffter as they have found that psilocybin can help alleviate anxiety and depression in terminally ill cancer patients, helping them to come to terms with their mortality.
Psilocybin has also been used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder and, ironically enough, to help treat drug addiction — including cocaine and tobacco addiction. This therapeutic power seems to arise from the way psychedelics shift consciousness, allowing hitherto unconscious material to enter conscious awareness. This means, essentially, that people can reflect deeply upon life issues and gain insights by seeing things from a new perspective.
As I found out when I recently caught up with some of the Heffter scientists, the medical and therapeutic use of psilocybin has much going for it but still faces opposition. Dennis McKenna of the Heffter explained: “Psychiatry, especially psychiatry based on the use of, and I would venture to say the abuse of, psychotropic drugs, is ineffective. And there’s plenty of evidence to show that these psychedelics properly used in the right circumstances can actually get at the root of some of these psychological problems and fix them rather than Band-Aid them over with something that just numbs the symptoms. So the therapeutic potential is tremendous. I also think the challenges are tremendous because what’s essentially going on here is that you are looking at overturning an entire paradigm of psychiatric care and therapeutic practice.”
Delineating the medical potential of psilocybin might help end its prohibition. As it stands, psilocybin is classed as a Schedule 1 substance in the United States (Class A in the UK). This implies that it is one of the most harmful and pernicious drugs we know of — able to devastate people’s lives and in the same category as crack cocaine. You can even be arrested and charged for picking naturally occurring psilocybin mushrooms. This distinctly oppressive state intervention is despite the fact that psilocybin is non-addictive, non-lethal, and is even considered sacred by native Mexicans who have safely used it in its fungal form for thousands of years. Indeed, if psilocybin were not safe to use, the Heffter would not have been able to undertake human studies with it. It is precisely this glaring discrepancy between objective fact and governmental scare-mongering that makes the work of the Heffter so marked.
“We had this cultural trauma back in the 1960s in which the psychedelics were really demonized,” explained Heffter scientist Roland Griffiths when I interviewed him. “They were thought to be so dangerous and toxic that it was inappropriate, if not unethical, to continue to study them. Much of that, as it has now come to be known, was a misreading of the literature in the case reports and the anecdotal reports. So I think that the psychedelics got an unfair shake in the 1960s.”
Griffiths is most known for the remarkable outcome of a non-medical psilocybin study: “Our initial studies were in healthy volunteers,” Griffiths told me. “What we showed is that a large percentage of those people had what we call a classic mystical type experience, that is, a transpersonal experience that includes a sense of unity and sacredness, and that the experience is felt to be more real than normal everyday reality. There was a sense of open heartedness, a sense of transcendence of time and space, and an ineffability. And that experience is deeply valued and it’s thought to be deeply meaningful — many people related it to be among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”
This kind of finding makes a welcome to change to the usual depressing stories we are bombarded with in the media — yet it seems society has yet to widely acknowledge and embrace psilocybin’s potential as a life-affirming spiritual catalyst. In any case, as Dennis McKenna pointed out: “Mystical experience was always thought as something of a gift. It happens to you if you’re lucky. Many people strive for it all their lives and they don’t get the benefit of a mystical experience. But now with thirty milligrams of psilocybin and under the right circumstances, we can reliably induce mystical experiences. And mystical experiences are among the most meaningful life experiences that people have. So we now have a tool that we can use scientifically use to study that state of mind.”
The utilization of psilocybin by ordinary healthy people in order to boost their well-being — and how this can be facilitated given the current prohibitionary regime — was actually the chief reason I sought out the Heffter. David Nichols, who co-founded the Heffter back 1993, was pretty blunt about the situation. He told me: “Unless there’s a fundamental shift in society’s perspective, with this notion of how dangerous drugs are, I don’t know that it will be the case any time soon that people can just go and get psilocybin. It may be the case that they will stop prosecuting people for possession of psychedelics and that’s going to be a parallel to what’s happening, say, with medical cannabis.”
This is a tenable notion because Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska have now legalized cannabis. The long overdue change in legislation was likely aided by the incessant media delineation of medical cannabis research and the subsequent change in the status of cannabis in the collective psyche. There has been a radical shift from the absurd ‘demon weed’ propaganda of the 1940s and 1950s to a position in which cannabis is widely lauded as an effective treatment for glaucoma, pain, poor appetite, and other conditions. It is not that an insidious stoner scam is afoot, it is rather that the true nature and relative safety of otherwise vilified drugs is finally being acknowledged. A case of ‘just say know’ as opposed to ‘just say no.’
“I think it’s an evolutionary process in terms of our culture and our society,” added Nichols. “Personally I don’t think it’s going to happen very fast but I didn’t think we’d be at this point in time with psilocybin in the research we are doing now, thinking about a Phase Three study. Maybe things will happen faster as a younger generation grows up.”
Roland Griffiths was similarly cautious: “I think that what the Heffter recognizes is that to change our cultural understanding and perception, and to document safety and benefits, we need first to work through that which our culture values — and that’s the scientific method. And then to look for targets that are medically acceptable and culturally acceptable. And from then on it unfolds.”
Pressing further, I coerced this from him: “Well, you know, I could imagine, if I just let myself go, that, yes, perhaps this could be an experience that was offered to anyone over some age as they start contemplating the end of life. And if that were culturally accepted and it turned out to have beneficial effects, then perhaps that transition could come earlier. But these would be transition points in life. There’s no question that these agents could potentially be very powerful. Exactly how that would play out culturally and how you would optimize that and manage the societal anxiety, the idea of legalization or making these compounds available wholesale to the population, that’s the tricky political question.”
Tricky or not, the cold hard fact is that we are all mortal and destined to die. If psilocybin can help people with months to live, then it is surely an experience that every healthy adult is entitled to undergo at least once in their lives. If psilocybin can raise consciousness, improve personal relationships, and unlock some sort of otherwise latent spirituality within the human psyche, then the state is arguably obliged to create licensed social structures of some sort, ‘revitalization centers’ as it were, where ordinary people could, should they wish it, be supported through a psychedelic experience. Of course, psilocybin mushrooms of one sort or another are freely available in the wild every autumn but many people will be loathe to go out searching for them or might be worried about falling foul of the law or picking the wrong variety — so it makes sense to make psilocybin available in other civilized ways. Another obvious possibility is to license the sale of psilocybin mushroom grow kits for personal use — in the same way that people can already grow various other medicinal and edible mushroom species from home.
With these societal ideas in mind, I also approached Bill Linton, CEO of Promega (a large and successful life science company) and a relatively new board member of the Heffter. I first asked him why he got involved with such unorthodox science. He told me: “Well, I was interested five or six years ago in the outcomes of research involving psychedelics and specifically psilocybin. That was a result of a friend of mine who had terminal cancer. She was in distress and in depression. I was introduced to Roland Griffiths and found out about the research that he was doing at Johns Hopkins. I went out to visit with him and spoke with him and then I got her into the program. And she had one day of treatment. And for the remainder of her life, which was only four or five months, she was a changed person, she had really lifted from depression. It really had made a significant impact, so that prompted my curiosity about where else the research was happening and who else was involved in it. And all those people were associated with the Heffter.”
Then I asked him his opinion about psilocybin access for healthy people: “We really don’t have the structure within society to embrace this kind of an approach,” he said. “But I think the topic of death, and the fact of our mortality, is something that a lot of people struggle with all the time. Many people don’t like to think about the fact that as living beings at some point they’re going to pass away, that there’s this life to death transition. It can be very distressing for a lot of people — particularly to those with a with a medical diagnosis that shortens that perspective. But with the outcomes that we’re seeing with the research that we’re doing, psilocybin could clearly have an impact on normal people — but I think only on people that are ready to accept that, and with a society that is both capable and ready of accepting this type of therapy.”
Part of the societal problem here may be to do with the notion of ‘recreational’ drug use. The recreational use of psychedelics by ‘normal’ healthy people is often frowned upon, as if the only legitimate way to have a psychedelic experience is under the auspices of a trained physician, a shaman or a guru of some kind. Obviously a guide of sorts can be useful and can make practical sense because the psychedelic experience can be highly challenging — which is why the aforementioned revitalization centers are a tenable way forward. In any society that values cognitive freedom and the pursuit of happiness, the only real obligation of the state, or science for that matter, is to offer educational information so that people can make informed choices (and warn those who might not be suited to taking psychedelics — at least without a guide or trained physician — such as those with mental health problems).
Having said as much, a recent poll (March, 2016) by market research company Morning Consult showed that of almost 2000 Americans, 76 percent were totally opposed to legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for recreational use. Disturbingly, and rather embarrassingly for this writer, even the purely medical use of psilocybin was more opposed than it was supported! Cannabis, however, fared better, with the majority of those polled in favor of legalized recreational use (and medical use).
What this likely shows is that for hearts and minds to change, there has to be a continual dissemination of objective facts (as happened with cannabis). Also, if we liken the current situation to homosexuality and the manner in which gay people have been historically demonized and oppressed (more so in the past than now), change continues to occur, at least in part, by people openly ‘outing’ themselves. It might well be that similar progress against state and civil oppression of psychedelic drug use can be made once well known celebrities, musicians, artists, actors and other public figures openly admit to having used them. There’s more than likely a good few out there.
Regardless of public opinion, there is another aspect of psilocybin of contemporary significance. This is its potential ‘eco-psychological’ impact, its ability to ‘retune’ us to nature: “I firmly believe that the contemporary spiritual use of entheogenic drugs is one of humankind’s brightest hopes for overcoming the ecological crisis with which we threaten the biosphere and jeopardise our own survival,” writes psychedelic plant expert Jonathan Ott in his book Pharmacotheon. To be sure, given the various ecological crises afflicting the biosphere, this oft reported characteristic of psilocybin to provoke biophilia (the innate love of nature) is of more import now than it was back in the 1960s when we first viewed the Earth from space and the environmental movement first got going.
“That’s a very interesting proposition,” replied Roland Griffiths when I suggested to him that psilocybin could act as an antidote against what is known as Nature Deficit Disorder. “You know, the environmental sensitivity to the interconnectedness of ourselves within the planet, the ecosphere, and within the cosmos, flows very naturally out of the classic mystical experience because, at its core, it’s this sense of Oneness, the interconnectedness of all things, and the sacredness and benevolence of that.”
Dennis McKenna agreed: “Judeo-Christianism, or what some might call the Abrahamic religions, have been pounding into our head for at least two thousand years that nature has no value, that corporeal existence has no value. Your reward is just in heaven. So that’s tended in the Western mind to devalue nature. And that’s just the wrong thing. Because then, in essence, nature is of no value, so you can despoil it and destroy it. There’s just one problem — if we do that we destroy ourselves. So I really think that psilocybin can help us to rediscover nature and wake up to our own nature in the process.”
This capacity of psilocybin to unleash a new appreciation of nature and provide new kinds of meaning to our existence is something David Nichols also commented on. He said: “I think it can produce that primary experience that religion was originally about, our connection with the One. We’ve lost it. And that’s just part of what’s led to this spiritual desolation. In Western society today there’s no connection with that anymore, the sacred has mainly disappeared and churches have become social clubs. In America the goal has been to get rich. And that’s a fundamentally dysfunctional view that we have. The goal of being rich relates to the fact that we’ve lost our spiritual bearing — in the United States especially.”
“If people start saying that they don’t really need all this money and don’t need all of these material things, it challenges the notion that capitalism is a system that makes everything go around. Expanding markets, people buying, consumer capitalism, advertising — if people start getting away from that, if they start saying that they’re simply happy with their family, well, there’s a challenge there and I don’t know to what extent ‘the powers that be’ recognize that. But I think that if they did recognize it, they’d say we can’t really have people taking a lot of these things.”
And therein lies the rub. The exact same resistance encountered in the ‘60s is still with us, the same fear that long held power structures and entrenched value systems can collapse in the face of altered states of consciousness. But, really, what is there to fear? All that psychedelics like psilocybin really do is awaken some sort of dormant aspect of the human spirit and allow us to glimpse new possibilities.
They can also facilitate creativity, as famously highlighted by the fact that computer wizard Steve Jobs made use of psychedelics to aid his creativity. In his biography, Jobs wrote that taking psychedelics “…was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life… It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.” Jobs’s psychedelic experiences did not necessarily make him an angel, as the recent documentary The Man In The Machine makes clear, but it certainly seems to have helped boost his creativity. (I wonder if the people questioned in the previous Poll would really have wanted Jobs punished for his ‘criminal’ use of psychedelics?)
In a world where, in the face of biospherical meltdown, it appears to be business as usual until the bitter stormy end, the general condition of human consciousness, the things that occupy us and absorb our attention, our aims, our values, and how we view human existence — all these things play a role in the overall health of planet Earth, all figure in the equation that governs our fate — because evolution is always and everywhere driven by life-enhancing behavioral and structural change. Thus, new ideas, new innovation, new values, and new ways of thinking/feeling need to be nourished. Any tool that can dissolve boundaries, raise consciousness and thereby galvanize emotions concerning our interconnectedness and collective destiny seems, at least to me, to be worthy of grasping and exploring.
The last word can go to Dennis McKenna. Assessing the opposition to psychedelics, he said: “There are huge, well funded and deeply rooted institutions — and that’s the resistance, that’s what you have to overcome. And they have a lot more resources than psychedelic research — but again, when we founded the Heffter Institute in 1993, we adopted as a model what Victor Hugo said, which was that there is no force that can resist the power of an idea whose time has come — and its time has come…”