It's an unseasonably warm September morning in New York City. On the steps of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, some 250 people have gathered, a mix of casually dressed men and women, young and old – a retired software developer from Boston, a 17-year old student from Ohio, a New York investment manager and his wife, a documentary filmmaker and a few true hippies.
They're not here for prayer. Under the beatific gaze of Mary, Jesus and the saints, they've come to hear a sober parade of academics sing the virtues of psychedelic drugs.
For four decades, the possession of LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens has been illegal in most of the Western world, the topic itself socially and scientifically taboo. More than half the U.S. prison population of 2.3 million is incarcerated because of drug manufacture, distribution and related crimes. Churches routinely inveigh against this alternate route to transcendence.
Taking users outside conventional time and space, psychedelics – almost by definition – challenge the hallowed ground of Western materialism. Lying beyond rationalism, they've been banned and pathologized.
To suggest that these substances might actually be good for us is heresy of the first order. Yet that's exactly what these psychologists, pharmacologists and social workers maintain – that they are good for the treatment of rampant drug addictions, for post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorders and for end-of-life, cancer-related and other depressions.
Not to mention, dare I say, to restore our rapidly fading sense of the sacred.
Something is happening here, the stirrings of a psychedelic renaissance. On a scale that could scarcely have been imagined a decade ago, the pharmacopeia of hallucinogens is slowly reclaiming a legitimate place in the West's cultural discourse. And it's doing so in the name of our highest secular god – science.
Mushrooms, not the patch?
Psilocybin, for example, the psychoactive ingredient in "magic" mushrooms, is being used at New York University for cancer-related anxiety and at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins to help people quit smoking. A Harvard team is developing trial protocols for treating cluster-headache patients with LSD or psilocybin.
The non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is giving MDMA (ecstasy) to victims of PTSD in the U.S., Switzerland and Israel. Similar studies will begin next year in Jordan and in Vancouver.
In effect, drug regulators are now reviewing psychotropic substances as they would any drug seeking approval. They're testing safety, feasibility and efficacy through rigorous, double-blind, crossover clinical trials.
Last year, for example, New Zealand reclassified ibogaine – made from the root bark of a Central African shrub – as a prescription medicine, concluding that it reduced or eliminated opiate addictions and caused fewer deaths than methadone, the usual replacement therapy.
"Ibogaine basically saved my life," says Claire Wilkins, a 39-year-old former heroin addict who now runs an ibogaine clinic in Tijuana. In the past four years, she has treated 400 chemically dependent clients; 93 per cent, she says, were detoxed.
"It's a difficult tool," she says. "It makes you look at the hard stuff. But it interrupts the addiction. It gives you your choice back. It not only cuts the craving. There's actual neuron repair. We're creating a new paradigm of treatment."
"I've seen a big change in 10 years," says Mary Cosimano, a social worker involved with the Johns Hopkins psilocybin studies. "It's too early to draw definitive conclusions, but a year after the therapy ended, all three subjects are no longer smoking. Blood and urine samples are used for verification. If we can prove safety and efficacy, then psilocybin will have to be rescheduled."
Can ecstasy save veterans?
If the climate of acceptance is warming, says MAPS executive director Rick Doblin, it's partly because "society's need is so great. Current PTSD medicines and therapies don't work."
Last year, he notes, the U.S. Veteran's Administration issued $5.5-billion in disability payments to 275,000 vets. Even more startling, more U.S. soldiers are dying of suicide than in combat. Returning servicemen also show a higher propensity for homelessness, unemployment and drug abuse. Governments, in short, now have a vested interest.
After two months of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, 80 per cent of MAPS's subjects were free of PTSD symptoms, compared with 25 per cent in a placebo group. The Swiss numbers were less auspicious, but there, too, they were better than the statistics that coaxed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve Zoloft and Paxil for PTSD victims.
Still, getting there will be a struggle. FDA standards are demanding and expensive. Finding sponsorship money is difficult. Governments, heavily invested in the war on drugs, won't fund research. Nor will Big Pharma: There's no financial incentive because, if approved, psychedelics would be off-patent, generic drugs. And for most well-endowed non-profit foundations, the topic itself is still too fraught.
Given those obstacles, "I wouldn't call it a growth industry," says Park Avenue psychiatrist Jeffrey Guss, who oversees NYU's psilocybin study of depression in 32 late-stage cancer patients. "But there's a commitment to keeping psychedelics alive as a subject of serious scientific inquiry, removing them from the counter-culture and making them part of the culture."
Even the vocabulary is changing. Many of those involved in pilot studies eschew the term hallucinogen in favour of "plant medicine" or even "entheogen" ("god generator").
"The ground is shifting," insists Ingrid Paley, the Vancouver psychiatrist who will help supervise a $250,000, Health Canada-sanctioned, phase-2 MDMA trial on 12 PTSD volunteers. "Although in a way," she adds, "we're reinventing the wheel."
She's right: Between 1953 and 1973, the U.S. funded 116 studies of LSD, involving 1,700 subjects. MDMA's research literature is even more extensive. Those early results were often encouraging, if not conclusive. And what's often forgotten 40 years later is how common LSD was in psychotherapy – and how widespread its use was overall. By 1970, between one and two million Americans had taken an LSD trip.
Why Prozac but not LSD?
In many ways, the psychedelic revival should not be surprising. Nine countries and more than a dozen U.S. states have moved to decriminalize cannabis, citing positive impacts on everything from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease to glaucoma and asthma.
"Besides," adds U.S. social historian Erik Davis, "America is now absolutely awash with psychoactive drugs," from Prozac to amphetamine-like stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. There's still a huge difference in the public mind between Adderall and magic mushrooms, but … Americans are starting to accept a deeper link between drugs that change your mind and drugs that heal your self."
The culture also seems more receptive to the lessons psychedelics may teach. There's been a steadily rising trend of interest in Eastern mysticism and meditation. Specialty TV channels devote entire schedules to the nexus of mind, body and spirit.
Yoga studios and health-food stores proliferate, as do holistic birthing centres and hospices. There's a growing awareness of the earth's fragile ecologies – a sense that, just as the psychedelic pioneers reported, we are all connected. In retrospect, it's easy to see that 1960s society, just emerging from 1950s conformity, wasn't ready for the Dionysian message of psychedelics.
"The idea of deconstructing your personality before it's fully formed was not a good idea," quips environmental writer J.P. Harpignies. "I remember seeing entire hospital wards full of the victims of LSD."
But now, says Neal Goldsmith, the New York psychotherapist who curated the New York conference, "we're more relaxed. The people who took the drug back then are in positions of power. They see its potential.
"Psychedelics are corrosive, yes," he adds. "They deal with our calcifications. They don't call it 'acid' for nothing. But I have great faith in the scientific method. We'll do it one step at a time, in proper contexts."
Others aren't waiting for an FDA seal of approval. "I don't need 50 double blind, placebo-controlled studies to know that ayahuasca can help cure addictions," says Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté, who has been using it to treat addicts.
"It's what the experience shows. Addiction is about running away from pain without resolving it. The plant shows you what you're running from. It fills the void. It reconnects you."
Ayahuasca is the entheogen attracting the most interest in non-clinical settings. Used for centuries by tribal Amazonian societies, it's consumed as a bitter tea, made from the vine and the leaf of two separate plants. Peru has become a thriving centre of ayahuasca tourism. Brazil is home to three, state-sanctioned syncretic churches based on ayahuasca ceremonies.
Ayahuasca is legal for religious purposes in the United States as the result of a Supreme Court case (as is peyote-derived mescalin, among Native Americans). In Canada, it's in legal limbo – not on the banned-substances list, but without formal permits for import, though it is available for purchase in certain botanical enterprises. Ayahuasca groups have formed in major U.S. cities, as well as in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
"People are feeling deeply disconnected from their selves, from the natural world and the cosmos," says Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary on the subject, Vine of the Soul, airs on Vision TV in November. "Neither traditional religion nor traditional medicine are answering that call. So why not see what these psychoactive substances have to offer?"
Serious disciples never take ayahuasca recreationally.
"To hallucinate denotes seeing or hearing something not there," says Vancouver's Tim Molloy, a crack-cocaine addict for 15 years until he took ayahuasca 15 months ago. "What is presented to you [with ayahuasca]is real – seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling. It's like a mirror; you're getting a reflection back of what is really there.
"I can't say for sure how it all worked, but the obsession to use drugs left me. … I could give myself credit for all of the things I'd been through, all the things I'd accomplished. I understood why I engaged in addictive behaviours and self-destructive patterns. I felt so completely open and unconditional about everything. I was able to receive love, and to love myself."
Another new documentary, The Spirit Molecule, examines the pioneering work of American psychiatrist Rick Strassman. Between 1990 and 1995, Dr. Strassman injected 400 doses of DMT, a component in ayahuasca, into 53 subjects at the University of New Mexico – the first U.S. clinical trial with hallucinogens since 1970. The results were shocking.
"I expected certain effects, near-death and unitary, Zen-type enlightenment experiences," Dr. Strassman said. "These were rare. Instead, volunteers saw their bodies separate from their consciousness. They beheld an environment in which they interacted with overwhelmingly powerful beings – reptilian, insect-like, plant-like, machine-like, quite strange stuff. They held thought conversations with them.
"And all of them described the effects as more real than real, not products of their imagination."
'Respect, awe and fear'
This needs to be said: There are no Timothy Learys here. No one is advocating a return to the reckless hedonism that often marked LSD voyages of the 1960s, and that helped to invite the statutory crackdown.
Today's most ardent proselytizers of psychedelics as therapy acknowledge its risks.
"As with any powerful tool," cautions Matthew Johnson, a Johns Hopkins pharmacologist, "there are real dangers here. Lots of people should never take these kinds of drugs."
Psychedelics, notes Dr. Guss, the psilocybin-testing psychiatrist, "are just part of the broad menu of healing practices that includes meditation, fasting, prayer, rhythmic drumming, and ecstatic dance.
"For many people, the wiser, more acceptable path is the less intense path. There will always be a certain kind of respect, awe and fear around these substances, as there should be."
And no one is promising instant panaceas or nirvanas. "I'm not sure it's true that psychedelics usher in transformational change," says Dr. Goldsmith, the conference organizer. "Insights are easy. Change is hard."
Nevertheless, a renewed interest in the creative, healing, spirit-awakening potential of the psychedelic medicine cabinet doesn't appear ex nihilo.
Maybe it's a harbinger of the notion that, at some level, we're trying to repair the mind-body disconnect – the materialist, Cartesian worldview – that has governed Western life for centuries.
Maybe, in short, we are beginning to wake up. High time, indeed.
Michael Posner is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.