Can Psychedelics Help Heal Our Broken Society?

Can Psychedelics Help Heal Our Broken Society?

“We are all terminal. We’re all dealing with death. This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”

By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry. “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it,” Ross said.

The clinical trials at N.Y.U.—a second one, using psilocybin to treat alcohol addiction, is now getting under way—are part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich. As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin. (Last month The Lancet, the United Kingdom’s most prominent medical journal, published a guest editorial in support of such research.) The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.


The idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dying was conceived by a novelist: Aldous Huxley. In 1953, Humphry Osmond, an English psychiatrist, introduced Huxley to mescaline, an experience he chronicled in “The Doors of Perception,” in 1954. (Osmond coined the word “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting,” in a 1957 letter to Huxley.) Huxley proposed a research project involving the “administration of LSD to terminal cancer cases, in the hope that it would make dying a more spiritual, less strictly physiological process.” Huxley had his wife inject him with the drug on his deathbed; he died at sixty-nine, of laryngeal cancer, on November 22, 1963.

Psilocybin mushrooms first came to the attention of Western medicine (and popular culture) in a fifteen-page 1957 Life article by an amateur mycologist—and a vice-president of J. P. Morgan in New York—named R. Gordon Wasson. In 1955, after years spent chasing down reports of the clandestine use of magic mushrooms among indigenous Mexicans, Wasson was introduced to them by María Sabina, a curandera—a healer, or shaman—in southern Mexico. Wasson’s awed first-person account of his psychedelic journey during a nocturnal mushroom ceremony inspired several scientists, including Timothy Leary, a well-regarded psychologist doing personality research at Harvard, to take up the study of psilocybin. After trying magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca, in 1960, Leary conceived the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to study the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens. His involvement with LSD came a few years later.

In the wake of Wasson’s research, Albert Hofmann experimented with magic mushrooms in 1957. “Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world began to undergo a strange transformation,” he wrote. “Everything assumed a Mexican character.” Hofmann proceeded to identify, isolate, and then synthesize the active ingredient, psilocybin, the compound being used in the current research.

Perhaps the most influential and rigorous of these early studies was the Good Friday experiment, conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke, a psychiatrist and minister working on a Ph.D. dissertation under Leary at Harvard. In a double-blind experiment, twenty divinity students received a capsule of white powder right before a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel, on the Boston University campus; ten contained psilocybin, ten an active placebo (nicotinic acid). Eight of the ten students receiving psilocybin reported a mystical experience, while only one in the control group experienced a feeling of “sacredness” and a “sense of peace.” (Telling the subjects apart was not difficult, rendering the double-blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like “God is everywhere” and “Oh, the glory!”) Pahnke concluded that the experiences of eight who received the psilocybin were “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the classic mystical experiences reported in the literature by William James, Walter Stace, and others.

In 1991, Rick Doblin, the director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (maps), published a follow-up study, in which he tracked down all but one of the divinity students who received psilocybin at Marsh Chapel and interviewed seven of them. They all reported that the experience had shaped their lives and work in profound and enduring ways. But Doblin found flaws in Pahnke’s published account: he had failed to mention that several subjects struggled with acute anxiety during their experience. One had to be restrained and given Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, after he ran from the chapel and headed down Commonwealth Avenue, convinced that he had been chosen to announce that the Messiah had arrived.

The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.

Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who used LSD extensively in his practice in the nineteen-sixties, believes that psychedelics “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so thoroughly, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.

“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures,” Griffiths told me when we met in his office last spring. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”

This article is an excerpt from Micheal Pollan’s piece in The New Yorker. You can read the full version here.