Sacrament, Consciousness and Sexual Paradox
Neuroscientists find God in mushrooms
Wednesday July 12, 2006
By Jeremy Laurance
LONDON - A universal mystical experience with life-changing effects can be produced by the hallucinogen contained in magic mushrooms, scientists claimed yesterday.
Forty years after Timothy Leary, the apostle of drug-induced mysticism, urged his 1960s hippie followers to "tune in, turn on, and drop out", researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US have for the first time demonstrated that mystical experiences can be produced safely in the laboratory.
They say that there is no difference between drug-induced mystical experiences and the spontaneous religious ones that believers have reported for centuries. They are "descriptively identical".
And they argue that the potential of the hallucinogenic drugs, ignored for decades because of their links with illicit drug use in the 1960s, must be explored to develop new treatments for depression, drug addiction and the treatment of intolerable pain.
The idea that this hallucinogenic substance, which had been carrying a certain degree of notoriety for decades, is now even considered as a potential tool for drug addiction recovery is somewhat ironic.
Anticipating criticism from church leaders, they say they are not interested in the "Does God exist?" debate. "This work can't and won't go there."
Mystical experiences like those advocated by Timothy Leary can now be produced safely in the lab.
Interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs is growing around the world. In the UK, the Royal College of Psychiatrists debated their use at a conference in March for the first time for 30 years. A conference held in Basel, Switzerland, last January, reviewed the growing psychedelic psychiatry movement.
The drug psilocybin is the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, which grow wild in Wales and were openly sold in London markets until a change in the law last year.
For the Johns Hopkins study, 30 middle-aged volunteers who had religious or spiritual interests attended two eight-hour drug sessions, two months apart, receiving psilocybin in one session and a non-hallucinogenic stimulant - Ritalin - in the other. They were not told which drug was which.
One-third described the experience with psilocybin as the most spiritually significant of their lifetime and two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful experiences.
In more than 60 per cent of cases the experience qualified as a "full mystical experience" based on established psychological scales, the researchers say. Some likened it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.
The effects lasted for at least two months. Eight out of 10 of the volunteers reported moderately or greatly increased wellbeing or life satisfaction. Relatives, friends and colleagues confirmed the changes.
The study is one of the first in the new discipline of "neurotheology" -the neurology of religious experience. The researchers, who report their findings in the online journal Psychopharmacology, say that, though unorthodox, their aim is to explore the possible benefits of drugs like psilocybin.
Professor Roland Griffiths, of the department of neuroscience and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, said: "As a reaction to the excesses of the 1960s, human research with hallucinogens has been basically frozen in time. I had a healthy scepticism going into this. [But] under defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what's called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person.
"It is an early step in what we hope will be a large body of scientific work that will ultimately help people."
A third of the volunteers became frightened during the drug sessions with some reporting feelings of paranoia.
The researchers say psilocybin is not toxic or addictive, unlike alcohol and cocaine, but that volunteers must be accompanied throughout the experience by people who can help them through it.
The study is hailed as a landmark by former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Charles Schuster, in a commentary published alongside the research.
In a second commentary, Huston Smith, America's leading authority on comparative religion, writes that mystical experience "is as old as humankind" and attempts to induce it using psychoactive plants were made in some ancient cultures, such as classical Greece, and in some contemporary small-scale cultures.
"But this is the first scientific demonstration in 40 years, and the most rigorous ever, that profound mystical states can be produced safely in the laboratory. The potential is great."
Roland Griffiths (centre) with Alyson and Alex Grey
Magic mushrooms really cause 'spiritual' experiences
• 05:01 11 July 2006
• NewScientist.com news service
• Roxanne Khamsi
“Magic” mushrooms really do have a spiritual effect on people, according to the most rigorous look yet at this aspect of the fungus's active ingredient.
About one-third of volunteers in the carefully controlled new study had a “complete” mystical experience after taking psilocybin, with half of them describing their encounter as the single most spiritually significant experience in their lifetimes.
However, psilocybin use has been associated with side effects such as severe paranoia, nervousness and unwanted flashbacks and so experts warn against experimentation. “Once you’ve started down the path, you might not like where it ends,” comments Herbert Kleber, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York, US. “These are powerful agents that are just as likely to do harm as to do good.”
Psilocybin is found in mushrooms such as the liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata and about 186 other species. Hippies embraced the compound during the 1960s, after its mind-altering potential was touted by Timothy Leary, then a researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But as its use grew, US lawmakers took action. It is now generally illegal to sell or possess psilocybin drugs in the US.
But Roland Griffiths, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, US, and his colleagues believe there is a need to revisit the biological effects of psilocybin, which have been virtually ignored by the scientific community for about 40 years. “It so traumatised our society that we’ve demonised this compound,” he says.
Griffiths's team recruited 36 healthy volunteers who had not experimented with the drug before. They were informed that they would receive a hallucinogen but did not know in which of two or three sessions they would receive it. Each session was separated by two months.
They either received a substantial dose – about 30 milligrams – of psilocybin or a similar dose of an "active" placebo, Ritalin. The latter has a stimulating effect but is not known as a hallucinogen. An inactive placebo would be easy to identify by the volunteers when compared to psilocybin, which could bias the experiences they reported.
The researchers used psychological questionnaires and found that 22 of the 36 volunteers had a “complete” mystical experience after taking psilocybin – far more than the four who reported this type of experience after taking Ritalin.
More than one-third of the volunteers said that their encounter with psilocybin was the single most spiritually significant experience in their lifetimes – no person given Ritalin said the same. Experts say the study is the most rigorous study of psilocybin’s potential to elicit spiritual feelings because it is the first to use an active control.
However, more than 20% of the participants described their psilocybin sessions as dominated by negative feelings such as anxiety. And while psilocybin appears to mimic the brain signalling-chemical serotonin, its precise action on mind function remains elusive.
Griffiths says that in the future psilocybin might have a therapeutic use, perhaps helping people who have just learned they have cancer come to terms with the news. But he is quick to add that “the therapeutic application is very speculative”.
“My guess is that there will be people saying ‘You’re looking for a spiritual shortcut’” says Griffiths. He stresses that the drug is no replacement for the mental health benefits of continuous personal reflection: “There’s all the difference in the world between a spiritual experience and a spiritual life.”
Journal reference: Psychopharmacology (DOI: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5)
'Magic Mushroom' Drug Study Probes Science, Spirituality
TUESDAY, July 11 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Volunteers who tried the hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms during a controlled study funded by the U.S. government had "mystical" experiences, and many of them still felt unusually happy months later.
The aims of the Johns Hopkins researchers were simple: to explore the neurological mechanisms and effects of the compound, as well as its potential as a therapeutic agent.
Although psilocybin -- the hallucinogenic agent in the Psilocybe family of mushrooms -- first gained notoriety more than 40 years ago, it has rarely been studied because of the controversy surrounding its use.
This latest finding, which sprang from a rigorously designed trial, moves the hallucinogen's effect closer to the hazy border separating hard science and religious mysticism.
"More than 60 percent of the volunteers reported effects of their psilocybin session that met the criteria for a 'full mystical experience' as measured by well-established psychological scales," said lead researcher Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
What's more, most of the 36 adult participants -- none of whom had taken psilocybin before -- counted their experience while under the influence of the drug as "among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives," Griffiths said. Most said they became better, kinder, happier people in the weeks after the psilocybin session -- a fact corroborated by family and friends.
The researchers also noted no permanent brain damage or negative long-term effects stemming from use of psilocybin.
But the study, published in the July 11 online edition of Psychopharmacology, did not neglect the hallucinogen's "dark side."
Even though the candidates for the landmark study were carefully screened to reduce their vulnerability and closely monitored during the trial, "We still had 30 percent of them reporting periods of very significant fear or anxiety which could easily escalate into panic and dangerous behavior if this were given in any other kind of circumstances," Griffiths said.
"We simply don't know what causes a 'bad trip,' " he added, "and we can't forecast who'll have a difficult time and who won't."
Still, many experts hailed the research, which was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Council on Spiritual Practices, as long overdue.
No less than Dr. Herbert Kleber -- former deputy director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy under former President George H.W. Bush -- said these types of studies "could shed light on various kinds of brain activity and lead to therapeutic uses for these categories of drugs." He authored a commentary on the Hopkins study.
"Over time, with appropriate research, maybe we can figure out ways to decrease [illicit drugs'] bad effects," while retaining those effects beneficial to medical science, Kleber said.
Scientific research into the effects of illegal, Schedule 1 drugs such as psilocybin are allowed by federal law. But the stigma surrounding their use has kept this type of research to a minimum. The taboo surrounding drugs such as psilocybin "has some wisdom to it," Griffiths said, but "it's unfortunate that as a culture we so demonized these drugs that we stopped doing research on them."
Psilocybin appears to work primarily on the brain's serotonin receptors to alter states of consciousness. In their study, the Baltimore team sought to determine the exact nature of psilocybin's effects on humans, under strictly controlled conditions.
To do so, they sought volunteers with no prior history of drug abuse or mental illness who also had a strong interest in spirituality, since the drug was reputed to trigger mystical states.
The study included 36 college-educated participants averaging 46 years of age. It was also randomized and double-blinded, meaning that half of the participants received psilocybin, while the other half received a non-hallucinogenic stimulant, methylphenidate (Ritalin), but neither researchers nor the participants knew who got which drug in any given session. Each volunteer was brought in for two or three sessions in a "crossover" design that guaranteed that each participant used psilocybin at least once.
During each eight-hour encounter, participants were carefully watched over in the lab by two trained monitors. The volunteers were instructed by the researchers to "close their eyes and direct their attention inward."
According to the Baltimore team, nearly two-thirds of the volunteers said they achieved a "mystical experience" with "substantial personal meaning." One-third rated the psilocybin experience as "the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life," and another 38 percent placed the experience among their "top five" most spiritually significant moments.
Most also said they became better, gentler people in the following two months. "We don't think that's delusional, because we also interviewed family members and friends by telephone, and they confirmed these kinds of claims," Griffiths said.
So, is this "God in a pill"? Griffiths said answering questions of religion or spirituality far exceeds the scope of studies like these.
"We know that there were brain changes that corresponded to a primary mystical experience," he said. "But that finding -- as precise as it may get -- will in no way inform us about the metaphysical question of the existence of a higher power."
He likened scientific attempts to seek God in the human brain to experiments where scientists watch the neurological activity of people eating ice cream.
"You could define exactly what brain areas lit up and how they interplay, but that shouldn't be used as an argument that chocolate ice cream does or doesn't exist," Griffiths said.
Another expert said the study should give insights into human consciousness.
"We may gain a better understanding of how we biologically react to a spiritual state," said Dr. John Halpern, associate director for substance abuse research at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
Halpern, who's conducted his own research on the sacramental use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote by Native Americans, said he's encouraged that the Hopkins trial was organized in the first place. "This study, by some of the top-tier people in the country, shows that it's possible for us to re-look at these substances and evaluate them safely in a research setting," he said.
For his part, former deputy drug czar Kleber stressed that agents such as psilocybin "carry a high likelihood of misuse as well as good use."
Griffiths agreed the study should not been seen as encouragement for casual experimentation.
"I think it would be awful if this research prompted people to use the drug under recreational conditions," he said, "because we really don't know that there aren't personality types or conditions under which you could take things like that and develop persisting harm."
Study finds long benefit in illegal mushroom drug
By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer Tue Jul 1 2008
NEW YORK - In 2002, at a Johns Hopkins University laboratory, a business consultant named Dede Osborn took a psychedelic drug as part of a research project.
She felt like she was taking off. She saw colors. Then it felt like her heart was ripping open.
But she called the experience joyful as well as painful, and says that it has helped her to this day.
"I feel more centered in who I am and what I'm doing," said Osborn, now 66, of Providence, R.I. "I don't seem to have those self-doubts like I used to have. I feel much more grounded (and feel that) we are all connected."
Scientists reported Tuesday that when they surveyed volunteers 14 months after they took the drug, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience.
Two-thirds of them also said the drug had produced one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they'd ever had.
The drug, psilocybin, is found in so-called "magic mushrooms." It's illegal, but it has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries.
The study involved 36 men and women during an eight-hour lab visit. It's one of the few such studies of a hallucinogen in the past 40 years, since research was largely shut down after widespread recreational abuse of such drugs in the 1960s.
The project made headlines in 2006 when researchers published their report on how the volunteers felt just two months after taking the drug. The new study followed them up a year after that.
Experts emphasize that people should not try psilocybin on their own because it could be harmful. Even in the controlled setting of the laboratory, nearly a third of participants felt significant fear under the effects of the drug. Without proper supervision, someone could be harmed, researchers said.
Osborn, in a telephone interview, recalled a powerful feeling of being out of control during her lab experience. "It was ... like taking off, I'm being lifted up," she said. Then came "brilliant colors and beautiful patterns, just stunningly gorgeous, more intense than normal reality."
And then, the sensation that her heart was tearing open.
"It would come in waves," she recalled. "I found myself doing Lamaze-type breathing as the pain came on."
Yet "it was a joyful, ecstatic thing at the same time, like the joy of being alive," she said. She compared it to birthing pains. "There was this sense of relief and joy and ecstasy when my heart was opened."
With further research, psilocybin (pronounced SILL-oh-SY-bin) may prove useful in helping to treat alcoholism and drug dependence, and in aiding seriously ill patients as they deal with psychological distress, said study lead author Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins.
Griffiths also said that despite the spiritual characteristics reported for the drug experiences, the study says nothing about whether God exists.
"Is this God in a pill? Absolutely not," he said.
The experiment was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The results were published online Tuesday by the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Fourteen months after taking the drug, 64 percent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.
That second question didn't ask for details, but elsewhere the questionnaire answers indicated lasting gains in traits like being more sensitive, tolerant, loving and compassionate.
Researchers didn't try to corroborate what the participants said about their own behavior. But in the earlier analysis at two months after the drug was given, researchers said family and friends backed up what those in the study said about behavior changes. Griffiths said he has no reason to doubt the answers at 14 months.
Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, called the new work an important follow-up to the first study.
He said it is helping to reopen formal study of psychedelic drugs. Grob is on the board of the Heffter Research Institute, which promotes studies of psychedelic substances and helped pay for the new work.
Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.934
Benefits of ‘magic mushroom’ therapy long lasting
Patients given psilocybin report continued well-being a year later.
The psychedelic ingredient of magic mushrooms could help manage patients' anxiety.Martyn Vickery / Alamy
The benefits for people who have had positive or even mystical experiences induced by the psychedelic drug psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’ — linger for as much as a year, according to the latest follow-up study of such patients.
The study offers more support to those who argue that, when used responsibly, some drugs more commonly taken for leisure can safely be used to relieve the stress associated with severe chronic diseases such as cancer.
“This experience has a compelling meaningfulness and spiritual component to it that is strongly conserved over time,” argues the study's lead author, Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Although only a single dose was administered to the 36 patients in the original study, they reportedly still considered the experience to have valuable after-effects at the time of the follow-up study.
A clutch of new studies using psilocybin are now planned or under way in the United States, hoping to alleviate cancer-related anxieties with only one dose that has a lasting, positive outcome for patients.
The latest study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology1, is a follow-up to a 2006 experiment in which Griffiths and colleagues gave high doses of psilocybin to 36 'spiritually inclined' volunteers who had never previously taken hallucinogens2. The participants were encouraged to focus their attention inward during their experience, and two months later many reported sustained, positive changes in their lives.
“Realization of unity of existence and relativity of ordinary consciousness … I have had glimpses of this before — but this was profound and sustained,” read one participant’s comments on the experience. Another remarked that, “it was so awesome to be with God [that] words can’t describe the experience.”
psilocybin patientPatients in psilocybin trials report continued benefits a year later.R. Griffiths et al.
Previous studies have shown a similar effect, most famously the Good Friday Experiment of 1963 in which theology students were given psilocybin in a church. However, this experiment was not peer-reviewed, and many studies completed in the 1960s were often inadequately followed up. Griffiths was keen use measures adapted from modern studies to see if the life-enhancing qualities people described in 2006 still persisted.
Of the original 22 participants who had a ‘complete’ mystical experience as defined by the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, all but one still satisfied the same criteria 14 months later.
“Most volunteers who had the mystical experience continue to endorse the same extent of positive changes in attitude, altruistic behaviour and mood," says Griffiths.
After 14 months, 67% of the participants rated the treatment as one of the five most spiritually significant moments of their lives, and 17% rated it as their single most spiritually profound experience. In addition, 64% of subjects reported that their sense of well-being or life satisfaction increased.
Griffiths says it is uncommon in psychopharmacology for a positive effect to last so long after a single dose.
However, the study is based on a retrospective questionnaire and a sample of already spiritually inclined people. Griffiths admits there is bias in the data, but says he is looking forward to moving on to more powerful prospective studies. “This opens up a host of scientific questions and therapeutic applications.”
But not everyone agrees that psychedelics have a place in medicine. Griffith Edwards, emeritus Professor of addiction research and co-founder of National Addiction Centre, says that while he respects the studies authors and their conclusions it must be remembered that such drugs can have serious bad effects as well as good ones. "People can have self-destructive and suicidal thoughts as well as mystical experiences," he says. Edwards add that he is worried about this being taken as a trigger for a new campaign for the medical profession. "There are other ways of helping people," he says.
Nevertheless, Charles Grob, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, recently finished treating his final patient in a study using psilocybin to treat cancer anxiety. He says studies on terminal cancer patients in the 1950s and 1960s found that those subjects who had a transcendent or transpersonal experience during their psychedelic treatment session also had the most dramatic subsequent reduction in anxiety, improved mood and better overall quality of life.
“The study provides a feasible treatment model for clinical conditions that are considered very difficult to treat,” says Grob. “Psychedelics, when utilized by capable facilitators under optimally safe conditions, may very well achieve therapeutic breakthroughs with what is often considered to be an extremely resistant and unresponsive patient population.”
Griffiths and his team have also published some proposed guidelines3 for the safe clinical use of hallucinogens. “We believe this research now can proceed safely but it should be done cautiously,” says Griffiths. “We’re eager that it not be disrupted again like it was for the last 40 years because scientifically there is so much promise in having this research move forward.”
Griffiths is currently recruiting subjects for a study using psilocybin to treat cancer anxiety, which will be conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where he is based.
Griffiths on Psilocybin Questions and Answers
The following Q&A is with Roland Griffiths, the study’s lead researcher.
Q 1: Why did you undertake this research?
In the 1950s and 1960s, basic science and applied research studies were taking place with hallucinogens, offering hints that they might be of value in psychotherapy, addiction treatment, and creativity enhancement, and suggestions that the hallucinogens can occasion mystical-type experiences. Laws enacted in response to excesses of the "psychedelic 1960s" stopped almost all that work, leaving some promising threads dangling. Despite ongoing illicit and licit use, remarkably little is known, from the standpoint of modern psychopharmacology research, about the acute and long-term effects of the hallucinogens. Our study is among the first to re-open this field. Since the Hopkins psilocybin work began, researchers at other major universities, such as UCLA, the University of Arizona, and Harvard, have begun planning or are carrying out hallucinogen research.
Q 2: Do you have any sign that the same brain "machinery" affected by psilocybin is identical to what people experience in spiritual epiphanies that occur without drugs?
That work hasn’t been done yet, though there is good reason to believe that similar mechanisms are at work during profound religious experiences, however they might be occasioned (for example, by fasting, meditation, controlled breathing, sleep deprivation, near death experiences, infectious disease states, or psychoactive substances such as psilocybin). The neurology of religious experience, newly termed neurotheology, is drawing interest as a new frontier of study.
Q 3: Is this God in a pill? Does it render God or "revelation" irrelevant?
The scientific method works with what can be observed in the physical realm, using tools such as atomic particle detectors, medical imaging devices, people’s responses to psychological tests, interviews, and behavioral observations. We are attempting neither to validate nor to invalidate the truth of claims that some people have made about metaphysical realities as a consequence of their psilocybin experiences (or as a consequence of their meditation, fasting, or prayer experiences) - that’s beyond our purview as scientists. It is within the purview of science to study the changes in mood, values, view of self, and behaviors that may follow such experiences.
Of course it would be a profound mistake to confuse the experience of something for the thing itself. We are not aware of study participants who felt their psilocybin experience devalued their own religious traditions; interviews suggested the opposite was more usually the case.
Q 4: Are you trying to find a short cut to the spiritual journey that some people pursue for years?
Our focus in this research was to study the effects of psilocybin using the methods of modern psychopharmacology. It’s true that "transformative" changes in values, self-perception, and behaviors have been reported across cultures and eras as a consequence of mystical-type experience. This bears investigation.
Q 5: Should religions feel threatened by this work?
I can’t see why.
The psychologist Walter Clark, in his 1958 book The Psychology of Religion, had this to say: "There is no more difficult word to define than ‘religion’…With full recognition that we are on ground where the experts disagree…we will venture our own definition. It is our feeling that religion can be most characteristically described as the inner experience of the individual when he senses a Beyond, especially as evidenced by the effect of this experience on his behavior when he actively attempts to harmonize his life with the Beyond."
Many of the volunteers in our study reported, in one way or another, a direct, personal experience of the "Beyond." Far from being threatened, the only thing we can imagine being of greater interest to religions is whether people live more wholesome, compassionate, and equanimous lives in consequence of such experiences.
Q 6: Why did you use volunteers who have active spiritual practices? Didn’t that help assure the results you got?
Psilocybin and similar compounds have been reported to sometimes bring about experiences called spiritual, religious, mystical, visionary, revelatory, etc. Such experiences may be difficult psychologically and emotionally. We felt that volunteers who had some engagement with prayer, meditation, churchgoing, or similar activities would be better equipped to understand and consolidate any mystical-type experiences they might have in the study.
Q 7: Aren’t hallucinogens dangerous? How can you give them to human volunteers?
No mind-affecting drug is absolutely safe. But the risks of the hallucinogens can be managed in appropriate research settings.
Unlike drugs of abuse such as alcohol and cocaine, the classic hallucinogens are not known to be physically toxic and they are virtually non-addictive, so those are not concerns.
The primary effect of psilocybin, in medium to large doses, is strong alteration of consciousness. It is possible that such experiences can trigger latent schizophrenia in susceptible individuals. Thus in our study we disqualified potential volunteers whose personal or family psychiatric histories indicate that they may be at increased risk of that disorder.
Our study confirms that some individuals, during some or all of the hours of the drug’s action, may experience paranoia, extreme anxiety, or other unpleasant psychological effects. It is not difficult to imagine such stresses leading to dangerous or inappropriate behaviors, which may constitute the substance’s most prominent risk. We managed that in our study through a short course of psychological preparation and through careful and interpersonally sensitive monitoring of each drug session. The monitors were trained to provide reassurance (e.g., supportive words or gentle touch to a hand) if needed.
Q 8: What kind of substance is psilocybin?
Psilocybin is one of a class of compounds whose primary activity is known to be on 5-HT-2a/c serotonin receptors. Their effects include changes in perception and cognition. In the pharmacology literature, this class of drugs is called "hallucinogens, " though they rarely cause "hallucinations" in the sense of seeing or hearing things that are not there. Within other academic fields, the term ‘entheogen,’ roughly meaning "spirit-facilitating," is coming into prominence for this class of substances.
Q 9: Studies at Hopkins have shown the potential for brain damage from MDMA ( "ecstasy"). How do you know psilocybin doesn’t have the same risk?
Some studies have shown that MDMA can damage certain nerve cells. There is no experimental or clinical evidence in animals or humans that psilocybin, even in very high doses, is similarly neurotoxic. Enough research has been done with psilocybin, starting in the 1950s, that we can be reasonably confident that it is not physically toxic in doses humans ordinarily use. This is consistent with the fact that psilocybin-containing mushrooms have not, in millennia of use, acquired a reputation of being physically harmful. Traditions that use psilocybin mushrooms do, however, caution about psychological and spiritual risks of using them haphazardly.
Q 10: Isn’t your work similar to what Timothy Leary did?
We are conducting rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions, a route which Dr. Leary abandoned in the early 1960s.
Q 11: Isn’t there a risk that a study like this could encourage abuse of psilocybin or similar substances?
Our report explains the substantial risks that could easily follow from use without the psychiatric screening, preparation, and monitoring we provided in this study.
Herbert D. Kleber, M.D., addressed this question in a commentary published concurrently with our paper. Dr. Kleber is Professor of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Director of Division on Substance Abuse of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He previously served as a deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Kleber wrote, "The positive findings of the study cannot help but raise concern in some that it will lead to increased experimenting with these substances by youth in the kind of uncontrolled and unmonitored fashion that produced casualties over the past three decades…
"Any study reporting a positive or useful effect of a drug of abuse raises these same concerns. In this Internet age, however, where youth are deluged with glowing personal reports in chat rooms and web sites as well as detailed information about the various agents and how to use them, it is less likely that a scientific study would move the needle much.
"Psychedelic drug use has remained in a relatively constant range over the past three decades as various fads have come and gone and enthusiastic personal accounts are balanced by negative reports about casualties.
Discovering how these mystical and altered consciousness states arise in the brain could have major therapeutic possibilities, e.g., treatment of intolerable pain, treatment of refractory depression, amelioration of the pain and suffering of the terminally ill, to name but a few, as well as the…needed improvement in treatment of substance abuse…so that it would be scientifically shortsighted not to pursue them."
Huston Smith comments
Huston Smith, holder of 12 honorary degrees, is one of the great authorities on comparative religion. His book The World’s Religions has for forty years been the most widely used textbook on its subject, and in 1996 he was the focus of a five part Bill Moyers PBS program, "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith." See hustonsmith.net for more.
Commenting on the Griffiths et al. study, Smith said:
"Mystical experience seems to be as old as humankind, forming the core of many if not all of the great religious traditions. Some ancient cultures, such as classical Greece, and some contemporary small-scale cultures, have made use of psychoactive plants and chemicals to occasion such experiences. But this is the first scientific demonstration in 40 years, and the most rigorous ever, that profound mystical states can be produced safely in the laboratory. The potential is great."
Smith also issued a caution and suggested that further research on the topic include social as well as neurological variables: "In the end, it’s altered traits, not altered states, that matter. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’ It’s good to learn that volunteers having even this limited experience had lasting benefits. But human history suggests that without a social vessel to hold the wine of revelation, it tends to dribble away. In most cases, even the most extraordinary experiences provide lasting benefits to those who undergo them and people around them only if they become the basis of ongoing work. That’s the next research question, it seems to me: What conditions of community and practice best help people to hold on to what comes to them in those moments of revelation, converting it into abiding light in their own lives?"
Dutch Consider Magic Mushroom Ban
By Joost van Egmond/Amsterdam Wednesday, Aug. 08, 2007
Magic mushrooms are big business in the Netherlands
Parliament calling for a ban on magic mushrooms in the Netherlands after a series of incidents.
Peter Dejong / AP
When Amsterdam police found a disoriented French tourist in his van last month with his slain dog beside him, he told them he had wanted to free the animal's mind. He also said he had ingested magic mushrooms, which contain the hallucinogen psilocybin. The incident played into a running debate over whether the Netherlands' famously liberal drug laws are too lax with psychedelic mushrooms. Also in July, a Danish tourist raced his car through a campsite, and a 19-year old man from Iceland jumped out of a window; both had taken magic mushrooms, known in Dutch as "paddos," as had a French teenager who jumped off a bridge to her death in March.
Since then, most parties in the Dutch parliament have been calling for a clampdown on magic mushrooms. In dried form, the fungi are already prohibited, but fresh mushrooms can still be legally sold in the Netherlands. The country's public health minister, Ab Klink, has so far steered clear of banning psilocybin mushrooms altogether, in part because his ministry considers it legally problematic to ban a product that grows naturally. But in May he commissioned fresh research into the risks of "paddo" use, and has said he would consider the results, due next month, in deciding how to act.
This being the Netherlands, critics say even that measured reaction is too precipitous. They argue that while "paddo" use may have been involved in serious incidents, it's too easy to single out the drug as the cause of them. Municipal heath services determined that the man who killed his dog had a psychosis unrelated to the drug, and the Danish racer consumed alcohol and smoked marijuana before taking his "paddo." Amsterdam municipal heath services report that the number of mushroom-related incidents, while rising, is still dwarfed by problems caused by alcohol. Advocates of a ban counter that the easy availability of magic mushrooms amounts to an invitation to further tragedies.
There is general agreement, however, that foreigners seem to have more trouble with 'shrooms that the Dutch themselves do. In Amsterdam, some 90 percent of ambulance dispatches related to magic mushroom use this year were for foreign visitors, especially from Britain, trailed at a distance by Italy, the U.S. and France. "Most problems are caused by foreigners who come here on cheap flights to take as many drugs as they can find," says Guy Boels, chairman of VLOS, an association of Dutch magic mushrooms retailers. "They hardly sleep, they drink alcohol and smoke pot as much as they can and then take a paddo on top of that."
Boels says the risks of reckless behavior are quite small as long as paddos are not mixed with alcohol or drugs. Still, VLOS supports a proposed regulation to ban the sale of the mushrooms to minors and calls for a registration system to identify "weekend tourists." For now, that watchful but tolerant approach is getting the endorsement of Dutch public heath experts. Unless the new research commissioned by the minister arrives at new insights, the government appears more likely to play the regulation card than to support a total ban on magic mushrooms.
Dutch magic mushroom ban goes into effect
1 Dec 2008
A Dutch law banning the possession and sale of magic mushrooms (hallucinogenic drugs) has come into force.
The Dutch parliament called for the ban after a 17-year-old French girl who had allegedly taken magic mushrooms jumped off a building and died last year. Until now there had been no restriction on the sale of the drug, which, being a natural product, was only subject to the same regulations as fruit and vegetables.
Opponents say that the law was introduced without due care, and that it will fail to make any difference. Sellers of the hallucinogenic mushrooms claim it has never been proven that the fungi were to blame for the fatal incident with the French girl.
Figures from the Amsterdam health service show that over a two-year period, only 70 out of 200,000 mushroom-munching tourists needed medical help.