Researchers Re-Open Their Minds to Psychedelic Drugs
A raft of potentially therapeutic pharmaceuticals got left on the shelf in the backlash against the 1960s recreational drug explosion. Researchers are raising their own consciousness about which psychedelics might have real value.
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.
Mike is a 28-year-old engineer at a prominent software company in San Francisco. He 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 he is doing — sifting through wood chips in a damp, obscure corner of the 1,000-acre park that bisects the western portion of San Francisco — 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 tells me, he'll stuff them in the bags, put the bags in his backpack and backstreet home on his bike.
Not long ago, Mike agreed to take me on one of his mushroom hunts, and as he scoured the ground, he explained his affinity for psilocybin. We were in the lower section of Golden Gate Park near its terminus at Ocean Beach, and aside from an occasional jogger, the park seemed empty, a forest in the middle of one of the world's most famous cities.
Mike told me doesn't do mushrooms very often-maybe once or twice a year-but when he does, it's because he wants to explore a problem in his life that has been troubling him. "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 said. "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 about the power of mushrooms to refresh his worldview?
In the last 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 Mike described are similar to many of the case descriptions contained in these studies (though no doubt none of the researchers involved would endorse his actions).
In the fall Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, published a study in the leading journal 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.
"Many of the subjects told us that it helped them come to terms with the fact that they were going to die," Grob said. "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."
Grob distinguished between psilocybin and standard issue antidepressants, which he said 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 said. "Psilocybin is an entirely different mechanism. It 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 1960s and early '70s. Before that, their effect on consciousness was considered a legitimate field of scientific inquiry, including work on acknowledged public scourges like schizophrenia or alcoholism.
But when the government made them illegal in 1968, research in the U.S. ceased. As Sgt. 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 said, 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 1960s 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 60s, a bad trip. This may make it easier for scientists to secure research permits to study psychedelics, I was told by Rick Doblin, the executive director of the advocacy group MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. It also matters, Doblin pointed out, since, if a research subject reacted dramatically 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 legally study psychedelics, he said that obtaining funding for such research is still difficult. 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 only to be taken in small doses.
"No one's going to take one psilocybin pill before breakfast and another one after dinner for 30 years," Doblin said.
Nonetheless, the studies thus far conducted are leading to wider interest in psychedelics, even in unlikely places. MAPS 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 post-traumatic stress disorder.
Miller-McCune's Matt Palmquist examined this in a 2009 cover story) that focused on two Norwegian scientists' work.) Asked why the drug's potential benefits were apparently underappreciated, Pål-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Krebs replied, "MDMA and treatment research has been caught up with drug policy. However, it is common for new treatments to take a couple of decades to be fully tested and accepted. There is a great deal of interest among clinicians and scientists in the therapeutic potential of MDMA. It has been a silent story for 20 years."
But the volume is turning up: Not long ago, Doblin got an unsolicited call from a senior psychiatrist at the Defense Department expressing interest in the study.
Experiments' involving the administration of MDMA to relieve psychological stress or trauma are not necessarily hard to understand, especially considering that MDMA affects serotonin receptors in the brain much like common antidepressants do.
I asked Grob about the medical benefit of treating cancer patients with psychedelic substances. He explained that the purpose of administering psilocybin to terminally ill people is not to cure their disease but rather to help them come to terms with it. Psilocybin can unearth deeply buried psychological traumas in such a way that a user can accept what before they couldn't face, he said.
By way of illustration, Grob told me that not all of the effects his subjects experienced during their altered state were directly related to cancer. Many reported undergoing "profound healing" experiences connected to personal relationships.
"One woman went through a lot of crying. I thought her tears had to do with her imminent demise, but that wasn't it. She had been reliving some early experiences with her father, with whom she had a very challenging relationship. She was crying because she had never been able to tell her father that she loved him while he was still alive, and likewise he had not been able to tell her that he loved her. She told us that during the course of the altered state experience she was doing that, and she felt she had been able to heal a great deal of the conflict that she had carried around with her because of it."
Mike found no mushrooms on the day I accompanied him – the ground had already been picked over by others in on Golden Gate Park's psychedelic secret. He didn't seem to mind. "Mushrooms are not something I do very often, and I don't do them for 'fun,'" he said. "It's a myth that all 'shrooms do is produce hallucinations. It's more than that."