|psilocybin molecule. ooooh, pretty.
Sometime during the Summer of 2001, I was in one of the local Borders stores (the one at White Flint Mall). I pulled a book on ayahuasca (a hallucinogen used as a religious sacrament by indigenous peoples throughout much of Latin America) off the shelf, and when I opened it up a piece of paper fluttered down to the ground. I picked the paper up, and I was quite surprised by what I read on it. It was an advertisement seeking volunteers for a study at Johns Hopkins University.
I felt like I had stepped into some kind of Woody Allen movie, or something. You see, this was a study of the effects of psilocybin, known to the Nahua (Aztec) people as teonanacatl: the flesh of the Gods. And they were looking for volunteers.
Naturally, I called the number on the flyer. I spoke to the Project Coordinator (I think that was her title) — who had a very difficult job, which she did extremely well. I would hate to have the job of screening people who are volunteering for such a study! I imagine many calls must go something like: “Yeah, like, uh, you know, I’m callin’ about the, uh, you know, ‘shroom study? And, uh, I’d like to get in on that, you know?”
I can’t remember exactly, or even approximately, what I said or what she said. Except that the result of the conversation was that we scheduled a time for a formal phone interview to determine if I was suitable for the study. Which it turned out I wasn’t.
There were two primary criteria for the study. First of all they were looking for people who had a regular spiritual practice such as meditation. No problems there, since I’d been doing Zen meditation daily since the late 80’s. Second, they were looking for people who had no previous experience with hallucinogenic drugs. Oooops.
Although I was very disappointed that I wouldn’t be sampling any of their research-grade psyilocybin, I was nevertheless still very excited just to know that this was happening. Not only was it a hopeful sign that serious scientific study of hallucinogens was alive and well, but this study was specifically aimed at the relationship between spiritual practice and the use of hallucinogens, a cause very close to my heart.
I was especially pleased that even though I could not personally participate, I was encouraged to refer other people to the study, which I did (and at least few of these did end up being subjects).
Those events back in 2001 all came back to mind earlier this year, when a spate of news items appeared concerning a more recent study, in which psilocybin was administered to people with advanced and potentially life threatening cancer. The researchers wanted to test whether or not a one-time experience with psilocybin can bring about “dramatic shifts in consciousness and awareness that will lead to … improvement in anxiety, depression, and pain associated with advanced cancer.” (source)
And then I was reminded yet again today, when I learned about the fundraising effort to support the release of the new movie DMT: The Spirit Molecule on DVD. If you haven’t already, please seriously consider making a donation to help out that worthy cause!
Here is an excerpt from one of those articles that appeared last April:
Psychedelic trips aid anxiety treatments in studyby MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer – Fri Apr 23, 9:40 am ET
NEW YORK – The big white pill was brought to her in an earthenware chalice. She’d already held hands with her two therapists and expressed her wishes for what it would help her do.
She swallowed it, lay on the couch with her eyes covered, and waited. And then it came.
“The world was made up of jewels and I was in a dome,” she recalled. Surrounded by brilliant, kaleidoscopic colors, she saw the dome open up to admit “this most incredible luminescence that made everything even more beautiful.”
Tears trickled down her face as she saw “how beautiful the world could actually be.”
That’s how Nicky Edlich, 67, began her first-ever trip on a psychedelic drug last year.
She says it has greatly helped her psychotherapeutic treatment for anxiety from her advanced ovarian cancer.
And for researchers, it was another small step toward showing that hallucinogenic drugs, famous but condemned in the 1960s, can one day help doctors treat conditions like cancer anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The New York University study Edlich participated in is among a handful now going on in the United States and elsewhere with drugs like LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy) and psilocybin, the main ingredient of “magic mushrooms.” The work follows lines of research choked off four decades ago by the war on drugs. The research is still preliminary. But at least it’s there.
“There is now more psychedelic research taking place in the world than at any time in the last 40 years,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which funds some of the work. “We’re at the end of the beginning of the renaissance.”
He said that more than 1,200 people attended a conference in California last weekend on psychedelic science.
But doing the research is not easy, Doblin and others say, with government funders still leery and drug companies not interested in the compounds they can’t patent. That pretty much leaves private donors.
“There’s still a lot of resistance to it,” said David Nichols, a Purdue University professor of medicinal chemistry and president of the Heffter Institute, which is supporting the NYU study. “The whole hippie thing in the 60s” and media coverage at the time “has kind of left a bad taste in the mouth of the public at large.
“When you tell people you’re treating people with psychedelics, the first thing that comes to mind is Day-Glo art and tie-dyed shirts.”
Nothing like that was in evidence the other day when Edlich revisited the room at NYU where she’d taken psilocybin. Landscape photos and abstract art hung on the walls, flowers and a bowl of fruit adorned a table near the window. At the foot of the couch lay an Oriental rug.
“The whole idea was to create a living room-like setting” that would be relaxing, said study leader Dr. Stephen Ross.
Edlich, whose cancer forced her to retire from teaching French at a private school, had plenty of reason to seek help through the NYU project. Several recurrences of her ovarian cancer had provoked fears about suffering and dying and how her death would affect her family. She felt “profound sadness that my life was going to be cut short.” And she faced existential questions: Why live? What does it all mean? How can I go on?
“These things were in my head and I wanted them to take a back seat to living in the moment,” she said. So when she heard NYU researchers speak about the project at her cancer support group, she was interested.
Psilocybin has been shown to invoke powerful spiritual experiences during the four to six hours it affects the brain. A study published in 2008, in fact, found that even 14 months after healthy volunteers had taken a single dose, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience. They also said the drug had produced one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they’d ever had.
Here is a link to an article about those results that came out in 2008, referred to in the last paragraph excerpted above: Sacred Intentions: Inside The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies. And here is a link to a 2006 article on the Johns Hopkins study: Mushroom drug produces mystical experience (duh).