Over the last several years, psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA have been brought into the mainstream by academics, investors, scientists, and CEOs after being ousted by society for decades. The latest psychedelic renaissance has focused not on the party high that has often been associated with drugs like ecstasy, LSD, or shrooms – but rather on the potential of these substances as therapeutics for mental illness.
Elite universities, including Johns Hopkins, NYU Langone, and Imperial College in London have opened clinical research centers to study the medicinal benefits of hallucinogens. The nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), founded by Rick Doblin, is offering FDA-approved clinical trials for people suffering PTSD by administering MDMA, better known as molly or ecstasy, in psychedelic-assisted therapy. Last fall, 60 Minutes reported on psychedelics as a form of treatment for anxiety, depression, and addiction. The New York Times has dozens of articles in the last few months alone touting the research being done on these taboo drugs.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These plants and compounds are illegal in many countries, and even possession can carry severe criminal penalties. None of this post constitutes medical advice or should be construed as a recommendation to use psychedelics. There are serious legal, psychological, and physical risks. Psychedelics are not for everyone—they can exacerbate certain emotional problems, and there have been, in very rare cases, fatalities.
Before we go any further, it’s important to clarify my stance on psychedelics, and as the disclaimer above clarifies, I do not recommend these to everyone. These drugs can elicit tremendous positive transformations for people in need of healing, but if handled carelessly, there can be serious consequences. I have read and researched psychedelics extensively before trying or testing anything myself and will share important resources to help you get started. If you are going to dip your toe, please do your homework. Understand the possible side effects and dangers of these mind-altering substances.
Some great people to read or listen to on the subject of psychedelics include Timothy Leary, Stanislav Grof, Tim Ferriss, Hamilton Morris, Gabor Maté, Rick Doblin, Sam Harris, Paul Stamets, Aubrey Marcus, Graham Hancock, or Terrence & Dennis McKenna. I would also highly recommend Michael Pollen’s fantastic 2018 book on his research and experience into psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind.
- The Tim Ferris Show Episode #347 – Stanislav Grof: Lessons from ~4,500 LSD Sessions and Beyond
- The Tim Ferris Show Episode #313 – Michael Pollan: Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics
- The Joe Rogan Experience #1136 – Hamilton Morris
- The Joe Rogan Experience #1035 – Paul Stamets
History of Psychedelics
The further I dive into the research the more I truly believe in the potential for these drugs to be used as medicine. Psychedelics got a bad rap, but it’s important to know why. I’ll share a very succinct background on how we got here and why you probably have a certain image of these drugs in your mind, but it’s important to know I’m skipping a lot of key points, actors, and events:
In the 1930s, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann was attempting to create a stimulant in his lab when he accidentally synthesized a substance called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. It wasn’t until five years later when he accidentally absorbed the substance through his fingertips and experienced a radical shift in his consciousness that the potential of LSD was realized.
After experimenting further in his lab, Hofmann concluded that LSD could be of great use as a psychotherapeutic medicine. He and his lab, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, began sending these newly discovered psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin (mushrooms) to clinics and universities across the world for further research.
Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, was probably the most important recipient of these substances. Leary is considered a pioneer in the psychedelic world; encouraging young Americans to use LSD and giving lectures throughout the world as an evangelist for the mind-expanding potential of hallucinogenic drugs. In 1960, Leary started the Harvard Psilocybin Project to study the effects of psilocybin, a psychedelic found in magic mushrooms. He was fired in 1962 after it was discovered he’d been giving psychedelics to his students.
Although it seems like only recently there has been a surge of scientific research on psychedelic drugs, most of this research was being done and recorded decades ago but was buried. Dr. Leary pioneered this research, but many who helped along the way blame Leary for ruining it. President Richard Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” His counterculture antics led to the criminalization of most psychedelics in 1966 and MDMA in 1985, making it virtually impossible to do serious research for nearly fifty years.
“We were learning so much, and then it all came to an end,” said Dr. William Richards, 80, and now a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Psychedelic Research Studies Today
Dr. Rick Doblin, director of MAPS (a nonprofit research group that sponsors and finances these clinical trials) has been conducting research to bring psychedelics into mainstream acceptance over the last 25 years. His quest looks even more optimistic after the most recent findings of a Nature Medicine article that published the results of Doblin’s study on MDMA. The study found that administration of MDMA, or ecstasy, paired with counseling brought “marked relief to patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.”
This also comes just weeks after a New England Journal of Medicine study found that psilocybin, a chemical compound obtained from certain types of dried mushrooms, benefited patients overcoming symptoms of depression. Additionally, in study after study researchers found that LSD proved effective for treating depression, addiction, emotional and physical trauma, and terminal illness in cases where other drugs and therapy alone were not.
What’s also important to note is that the drug itself will not heal you. “It’s not the drug — it’s the therapy enhanced by the drug,” said Rick Doblin.
An important distinction to make for people who have never experienced hallucinogenics and may only have alcohol to compare to is that this is not similar to being drunk. While you may experience some of the same wooziness or inhibitions, the experiences on hallucinogenics are called “trips” for a reason. These “trips” can feel like a dream, an artificial world, or an entirely different state and can last ten minutes or two hours (depending on dosage) and can help change your entire perception of things in a positive way. Many times, words feel fruitless to describe the experience. One can recall a drunken escapade to have been “fun” or “wild,” but those words don’t cut it for trips. How do you describe to someone the overwhelming sense of gratitude for our existence (without sounding like a looney?). Writer Michael Pollen described how he tried to take notes during his psychedelic trips to remember the experience better while in that non-sober state of mind – “some of the profundities I’d recorded in the immediate aftermath of the experience — such as the supreme importance of love, an epiphany I’d had on LSD — now seemed embarrassingly thin, platitudes best suited to a Hallmark card.” This is why people who have never tried such substances typically brush them off. I would too! It sounds silly when you hear it described that way, but it truly does change your entire perception and can transform otherwise dull observances of life into something spectacular. There is typically no hangover, but rather a gradual come-down. The high of energetic love, compassion, visuals, and rhythmic enhancement quickly fade back into normal life. But the experience leaves a lasting impact. One trip is powerful enough. The healing from one trip can last a lifetime, which is why doctors see the non-addictive potential for administering these substances possibly only a handful of times, or less.
Given the government’s recent legalization of cannabis throughout states within the United States, there is a clear shift in the public perception of these types of drugs. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin. According to the New York Times, Denver, Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized the drug, and several states are considering passing similar legislation. Though these drugs remain illegal under federal law, the Justice Department has eased its enforcement, similar to how it has handled recreational marijuana.
A 2019 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy claims that as far as scientific evidence is concerned, there really is no rhyme or reason to these other intoxicants being illegal. ‘Legalization’ is a bit of a grey area depending on the drug we’re talking about, but that will take time to develop a good answer.
I believe all drugs should be decriminalized. While this sounds crazy on its face, it is likely far better than the status quo. Think about it. Anyone can go to a liquor store right this second and buy enough alcohol to seriously harm or even kill themselves. I can buy a carton of cigarettes and smoke them all at once if I want to. Why should we treat other substances any differently? Alcohol is synthesized and brewed, but since there is a giant industry behind it, it has been accepted worldwide. Cannabis and psilocybin are plants grown naturally from the earth, yet they have been banned for public selling and distribution. w
Well, maybe it’s because obvious hard drugs like cocaine, meth, or LSD are clearly more dangerous than alcohol, right? Nope. In fact, alcohol has been deemed the most dangerous drug in terms of harm to others by a factor of four. In a 2010 study released by British scientists, alcohol was rated three times as harmful as cocaine or tobacco. In comparison, LSD (aka molly, ecstasy) was only one-eighth as harmful as alcohol. Perhaps we should shift our public health focus towards the harms of alcohol.
People are starting to understand that these drugs are less harmful than alcohol, and “DRUGS” are not as harmful as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan made them out to be. Alcohol is part of the culture, just as cigarettes have been for so long But don’t forget that these are technically drugs (caffeine is too). We’ve conveniently accepted these drugs as ‘normal’ for no particular reason, while outcasting psychedelics as the devil. “They are bad,” is the knee-jerk reaction. But have you actually tried cannabis or psilocybin? Have you weighed the pros and cons? They are wonderful! They make you nicer, they enhance your appreciation for the world and its beauty, and they help expand your source of understanding – all without a hangover! I’ve yet to see an ad for “SAY NO TO VODKA.”
I absolutely think cannabis should be completely legal for everyone. If you can come home from work and drown yourself in a bottle of wine, you should also be able to smoke a joint. I look at most other psychedelics or intoxicants as potential medicines or psychotherapeutic rather than recreational drugs. Coupled with a guide, or therapist, they have magic potential to improve people’s moods, perceptions, and negative pasts. I do not necessarily think that drugs like psilocybin, LSD, or MDMA should be legal for public sale. They are powerful beyond words and improper dosing could lead to potentially harmful consequences if used incorrectly. These drugs, however, should be decriminalized and administered by a medical professional, in my opinion. For the harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, I believe the criminalization of these drugs does more harm than good. It props up the black market, which cascades into more arrests, overcrowding of prisons, lack of rehabilitation, violence, gun sales, disrespect for police, and a vicious cycle. Clearly, we have lost the War on Drugs. Decriminalizing these drugs could slowly lift many of these issues naturally, as Portugal has seen since their decriminalization of all drugs in 2001.
Seventeen years on, the U.S. is suffering its worst addiction epidemic in American history. In 2016 alone, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses—more than the combined death tolls for Americans in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars. In Portugal, meanwhile, the drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the E.U. average and stands at one-fiftieth of the United States’. Its rate of HIV infection has dropped from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. Drug use has declined overall among the 15- to 24-year-old population, those most at risk of initiating drug use.
The jury is certainly still out on psychedelics. The research that could have been was instead locked in a vault decades ago. While we could have a much better understanding of the power of these drugs had they not been stigmatized, its foundations like MAPS, Johns Hopkins, and more will help lead the revolution on psychedelic drugs. While I don’t want to romanticize these as all-healing elixirs, I am excited for what change they can bring to the cultural zeitgeist of our country and our minds.