Timothy Leary must be rolling in his grave. Or maybe he’s just smiling to himself. We’d have to take a trip back in time to know for sure what the Harvard psychologist (and the granddaddy of the “psychedelic revolution”) would have to say about the “renaissance” in psychedelics we’re witnessing today, more than 50 years after he encouraged a whole generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, research projects funded by billionaire tycoons and Silicon Valley bros microdosing magic mushrooms to boost productivity, the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics—psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and DMT (ayahuasca), you name it—are shaking up science again.
The revolution Leary was talking about has seemingly returned full circle. These days you can’t go online without reading about another celebrity lending his name (it’s mostly men) to the promise of an exploding market in mind-altering drugs promising a cure for everything from depression to PTSD and addiction. Everyone seems to be looking for an angle on the next big thing.
But like cannabis, psychedelics has its own dirty chapter steeped in the war on drugs. It’s a little known part of the counterculture revolution that seems another world away today. Indeed, psychedelics have long been thought of as something to be feared.
Hopefully, we’re not headed for a refried version of legal weed where venture capitalists with listings on world stock exchanges are hell-bent on turning substances that could be the key to personal growth, into a commodity.
That would be a shame because psychedelics not only have a proven track record in a myriad of therapies. They also have the power to make us more empathetic and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world. To live, as Leary would say, on the astral plane.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our connection to one another.
“People are feeling an increasing disconnection from themselves and from the world. The COVID crisis has exacerbated the situation, bringing issues around the meaning of life to the fore. How can we recover what’s known from the religious and wisdom traditions and mesh those with the best practices in cognitive psychology to achieve self-transcendence is part of a big revolution that’s happening in psychology and science right now. It’s starting to give us new ideas about practices and processes that we can align with psychedelic experiences. Do mystical experiences increase people’s sense of meaning in life? It seems like a fairly obvious question. But nobody was asking it. ”
—John Vervaeke, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto
WAR ON PSYCHEDELICS
It’s worth remembering in the current euphoria around psychedelics, that Leary went to jail (and often) for his LSD advocacy, at one point, labelled “the most dangerous man in America” by U.S. president Richard Nixon.
Eventually, he would be sprung from a California prison by the Weather Underground—which was considered a domestic terrorism threat by the U.S. government—before ending up a fugitive from justice in Algeria and his eventual re-arrest in the United States some two decades later.
Canada has its own history with psychedelics. And while it’s not as colourful as the U.S., the drugs are just as tightly regulated—if not more.
There are efforts afoot to relax laws around psilocybin use. And a number of court challenges seeking the use of psychedelics for medical purposes. A grey market in psilocybin is also being allowed to thrive online. More Canadians are microdosing (see this article).
But as with the first steps towards legal weed, the federal government seems intent on looking the other way—or leaving it up to the courts to decide.
The federal health minister, for example, has the power to grant exemptions for the use of psychedelics in studies and has done so.
But the government continues to refuse to grant exemptions for the use of psychedelics on compassionate grounds for individuals facing end-of-life illness.
There’s still huge stigma around psychedelics. And while the opioid crisis rages—another area where psychedelics have shown success as a treatment—the feds seem reluctant to act.
This week, B.C. Premier John Horgan wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to formally ask that all drugs be decriminalized to “support people to access the services they need.” The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is also calling for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs without success. The group has also recommended the formation of a national task force to look into drug policy reform. This would seem like an opportune time.
“There were more than 1,000 experiments that were published back in the '50s on the use of psychedelics. They were thought of as the hot new drug in psychiatry. Then the research stopped, it wasn’t necessarily because it was determined that the use of psychedelics was an unfruitful approach. It was more the political constraints. We’re seeing a rebound in these therapies because there is funding and more laxness around laws prohibiting research. But some of that may also have to do with the fact that, even though there are useful pharmacological interventions, they have serious limitations. The field of psychiatry has been in a bit of a frozen place where improvements in treatment for mental health have been quite minor and slow.”
—Richard Zeifman, PhD student in clinical psychology, Ryerson University
FEAR OF FLYING
While weed was saddled with the shame of reefer madness, psychedelics were drugs to be feared, liable to make you think you can fly, maybe even jump out a window. They were right about the flying part.
The paradox is that psychedelics were being used successfully in psychology and psychiatry and to treat depression and alcoholism as far back as the 1950s. Their use was also leading to discoveries in the treatment of schizophrenia and suicidality. In fact, recent research shows that psychedelics suppress activity in the part of your brain responsible for fear.
The power of psychedelics to contribute to our personal growth, as Leary advocated, has been slower to take hold. That’s something for us hippies.
But cognitive scientists are again exploring how psychedelics can help “restore meaning and help us find wisdom in life,” says University of Toronto assistant psychology professor John Vervaeke.
“The revival in psychedelics,” Vervaeke says, “is part of a larger set of issues that are happening in response to a crisis of meaning in society at large.
“There are all kinds of symptoms of this [crisis of meaning]—from the crisis in addiction to depression to increases in loneliness, suicide and the retreat of people into virtual worlds.”
Psychedelics, says Vervaeke, “help block out the noise. Our relevance filter is not always tracking the truth properly.”
“ I hadn’t had any experience with psychedelics. Actually, I was very afraid of psychedelics which is interesting considering I was using a lot of very harmful street drugs. I was struggling for about 10 years with addiction and depression and anxiety. Then I heard about a clinical trial to treat addiction using psilocybin here in Vancouver. It was pretty serendipitous. I was feeling pretty desperate. I was willing to try anything. I found a lot of self-compassion and self-love using psilocybin. But I was still physically addicted to opioids. So that’s when we turned to Ibogaine, which really helped me with my detox. There was also a psycho-spiritual component. It’s really ineffable the experience you have on psychedelics. It was a very profound experience that allowed me to look at myself and the world very differently. My mindset completely changed. It helped me get through a lot of the mental illness I was struggling with on top of the addiction. It’s something I continue to do periodically. I don’t have to, but it’s something I choose to do because I find it meaningful and helpful on my path to recovery and personal development. It’s not a cure-all. It’s a tool. ”
—Adrianne, recovering opioid addict, subject of the documentary Dosed
Ancient civilizations have known “the truth” about the healing power of plant-based intoxicants for millennia. Native tribes of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest have been using peyote and psilocybin magic mushrooms in spiritual ceremonies since before first contact. For them, psychedelics were used as part of cleansing rituals, an idea Western culture looked down on or ignored.
When U.S. banker R. Gordon Wasson, the vice-president of J.P. Morgan and Company, became acquainted with shaman Maria Sabina and travelled to Oaxaca in 1956 to take part in a “holy communion” where “mushrooms were first adored and then consumed,” he wrote about it for Life Magazine. What he didn’t write about is that he took along a CIA agent for the ride. U.S. intelligence was apparently interested in developing a truth serum. They may have been onto something.
But Wasson’s hosts believed the mystical experiences brought on by the use of psychedelics (sometimes in heavy doses) led to transformational change in our perception of the universe that stayed with us long after the high faded.
Clinical psychologists are discovering the same today. The effects of psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD can last for up to a year after just one therapy session, says Richard Zeifman, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Ryerson University, who has been tracking a number of research experiments in the area.
We haven’t quite figured out the chemistry, but it has to do with psychedelics messing with the part of our brain repsonsible for fear.
“From a theoretical perspective, we know that some of the classic symptoms of PTSD are a tendency to want to avoid negative emotions or thoughts or memories related to a traumatic experience,” says Zeifman. “What MDMA and psilocybin do is create feelings of warmth and connectedness and reduce the extent to which people feel fear. It makes it tolerable enough for people to sit with their emotions.”
“We have a medical focus with our dispensary. But the therapeutic aspects of psychedelics and the spiritual are intertwined. They are really part and parcel of the same thing—you don’t have to be sick to get a medical benefit. Experiments on psychedelics have been going on for decades. But its medicinal aspects are just starting to come above ground. We’re seeing a societal shift with psychedelics similar to cannabis. Where once cannabis users were looked upon as hedonists, we now understand that cannabis is useful medicine. We’re going to see the same thing with not only psilocybin, but LSD and MDMA as well. We’re already starting to see therapeutic safe spaces open up where people can take macro doses and have those experiences. There are incredible benefits to be gathered from this. They’re also easier to grow than cannabis. I suspect more Canadians are going to be growing their own mushrooms.”
—Dana Larsen, founder, The Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary
THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION
When English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the term psychedelics at a 1957 meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences (from the Greek psyche, which means “mind,” and delos “to reveal,”), he was already successfully using LSD in the treatment of alcoholism and schizophrenia, including in one very well known study in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
By the time Aldous Huxley published The Doors Of Perception in 1950 on his experiment with mescaline, scientists were unlocking the secrets behind the hallucinogenic effects of psychedelics—and they were mind blowing.
Turns out the human body’s natural adrenaline also has a similar chemical composition to mescaline and shares some of the biochemistry of LSD.
“In other words,” Huxley wrote, “each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause profound changes in consciousness.”
The discovery gave rise to the notion that the human brain actually works as a “reducing valve” blocking out all but information that is practically useful to us. Psychedelics, the theory goes, act as a “bypass,” giving us the ability to think more clearly about things other than the junk of self-deception and ego that typically get in the way of the realizations of our true selves. Huxley referred to this state as the “Mind at Large” in which “is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence.”
Psychedelics as a spiritual mission is an idea Huxley shared with Leary. The two would become founding members of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The program conducted a number of experiments, including on reducing rates of recidivism among prison inmates. But its focus was more so on exploring and achieving a “profound religious state.”
The project attracted widespread attention, including of the unwanted variety by government authorities. Soon LSD and psilocybin would be added to the Schedule 1 list of prohibited substances along with mescaline and peyote and the research into many promising fields would stop.
More than half a century later, psychedelics are experiencing a resurgence and being touted as part of a new “renaissance” in scientific research. Hopefully, we’re able to embrace the higher spiritual cause this time around.