When you get an email from Michael Pollan, you open it.
Ok, well it’s not like I’m receiving personal emails from Pollan (although one can always dream), but when we recently sent out an email with a link to some of his latest work, I was intrigued.
Pollan was sending out a link to his latest article in The New Yorker, The Trip Treatment, in which he takes a look at the new research into psychedelics, specifically the use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
NYU has been performing research on cancer patients, in its Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study, and with very positive results, which Pollan uses to kick off his article. Pollan wrote in his email, “This might at first seem like a departure from writing about food. But those who have followed my work for some time know I’ve also had a longstanding interest in altered states of consciousness. I wrote about cannabis in “The Botany of Desire” and opium in Harper’s Magazine. For me, these remarkable molecules are part of the same co-evolutionary story, products of nature with the power to change us.”
But while nature may have the power to change us, in terms of being able to research it, in the past few decades, the doors remained closed. “Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects,” writes Pollan. “Through the mid-nineteen-sixties, psilocybin and LSD were legal and remarkably easy to obtain.” Later in 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, prohibiting the use of most psychedelics for any purpose.
Now, those doors are slowly starting to open again, and researchers are looking back into the use of psilocybin for mental health treatment, and there are clinical trials taking place across the country, from NYU to Johns Hopkins to UCLA. The hope is that researchers can use psilocybin to treat not only anxiety, but addiction and depression.
There is certainly a fear that advocating for such research is that the public will assume that psilocybin is a drug that’s safe for use. “The recreational use of psychedelics is famously associated with instances of psychosis, flashback, and suicide,” Pollan explains. “But these adverse effects have not surfaced in the trials of drugs at N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins. After nearly five hundred administrations of psilocybin, the researchers have reported no serious negative effects.”
But Pollan is quick to point out why this is: “This is perhaps less surprising than it sounds, since volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened and prepared for the experience, and are then guided through it by therapists well trained to manage the episodes of fear and anxiety that many volunteers do report. Apart from the molecules involved, a psychedelic therapy session and a recreational psychedelic experience have very little in common.”
Psilocybin isn’t the only hallucinogen that has been researched lately for its link to mental health benefits. In 2014 a study was published in the Journal of Pharmacology that looked at the benefits of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, in regards to anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases. The researchers concluded, “LSD administered in a medically supervised psychotherapeutic setting can be safe and generate lasting benefits in patients with a life-threatening disease. Explanatory models for the therapeutic effects of LSD warrant further study.”
While mostly associated counterculture, psychedelics have played a role in some of the more mainstream of our cultural role models. Apple CEO Steve Jobs once told a New York Times reporter that “doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life,” prompting LSD inventor Albert Hofmann to write a personal letter to Jobs in 2007 asking for funding for research into psychedelics and mental health treatment.
In a study at Johns Hopkins a few years ago, researchers looked at the effects of psilocybin and long-lasting psychological growth. According to Time, “Fourteen months after participating in the study, 94% of those who received the drug said the experiment was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 39% said it was the single most meaningful experience.” Friends and family of the participants also reported that participants were calmer, happier and kinder.
The goal for all of these researchers, whether their research is on addicts or terminally ill patients, is to try to remove the bad reputation that psychedelics have gotten over the past few decades and to build on the promising research that exists.
How will the rest of society respond? That’s a question that remains unanswered.
Related on EcoSalon
Image: János Csongor Kerekes