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The Psychedelic Evangelist – The New York Occasions


Earlier than he died final yr, Roland Griffiths was arguably the world’s most well-known psychedelics researcher. Since 2006, his work has steered that psilocybin, present in magic mushrooms, can induce mystical experiences, and that these experiences, in flip, might help deal with anxiousness, despair, dependancy and the phobia of demise.

Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins College obtained widespread recognition amongst scientists and the favored press, serving to to drag the psychedelic subject from the deep backwater of the Nineteen Sixties hippie motion. This second wave of analysis on the hallucinogenic compounds bolstered political campaigns to decriminalize them and spurred biotech funding.

Dr. Griffiths was identified to mates and colleagues as an analytical thinker and a non secular agnostic, and he warned fellow researchers in opposition to hype. However he additionally noticed psychedelics as greater than mere medicines: Understanding them could possibly be “vital to the survival of the human species,” he stated in a single speak. Late in life, he admitted to taking psychedelics himself, and stated he needed science to assist unlock their transformative energy for humanity.

Maybe unsurprisingly, he held a vaunted, even prophetic function amongst psychonauts, the rising group of psychedelic believers who wish to convey the medication into mainstream society. For years, critics have denounced the outsize monetary and philosophical affect of those advocates on the insular analysis subject. And a few researchers have quietly questioned whether or not Dr. Griffiths, in his deal with the magical realm, made a few of the identical errors that doomed the earlier period of psychedelic science.

Now, certainly one of his longtime collaborators is airing a extra forceful critique. “Dr. Griffiths has run his psychedelic research extra like a ‘new-age’ retreat middle, for lack of a greater time period, than a scientific analysis laboratory,” reads an ethics criticism filed to Johns Hopkins final fall by Matthew Johnson, who labored with Dr. Griffiths for practically 20 years however resigned after a charged dispute with colleagues.

Roland Griffiths, director of the Heart for Psychedelic and Consciousness Analysis at Johns Hopkins, in 2021.Credit score…Matt Roth for The New York Occasions

Dr. Griffiths acted like a “religious chief,” the criticism stated, infusing the analysis with non secular symbolism and steering volunteers towards the result he needed. And he allowed a few of his longstanding donors — supporters of drug legalization — to help in research, elevating moral questions.

“These are critical allegations that should be investigated,” stated Joanna Kempner, a medical sociologist at Rutgers College who reviewed the criticism for The New York Occasions. The clashes at Hopkins, she added, mirror a broader debate within the subject over “blurring the traces between empirical analysis and religious observe.”

Many researchers see medical promise within the mind-opening energy of psilocybin. However thus far, it has not carried out higher than conventional medication for despair in the one head-to-head comparability performed to this point. Its potential for treating different situations, comparable to dependancy and anorexia, can also be unsure. And the jury remains to be out on whether or not mystical experiences are key to the drug’s effectiveness.

“The inferences drawn within the literature at massive actually don’t observe from the proof,” stated Eiko Fried, a psychologist at Leiden College within the Netherlands who just lately revealed a vital assessment of the sphere. The medication additionally include unpredictable dangers, comparable to psychotic episodes, elevated suicidality or prolonged emotional difficulties, that are most possible underreported.

In an electronic mail, Johns Hopkins instructed Dr. Johnson that it was investigating his allegations. A college spokeswoman didn’t reply to detailed questions for this text, however stated that the analysis “is predicted to satisfy the very best requirements for analysis integrity and participant security.”


Within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s, a spate of research reported near-miraculous outcomes utilizing hallucinogens to deal with alcoholism and despair. Then got here the backlash.

Harvard made headlines for firing professors who doled out LSD and psilocybin to college students. Through the 1971 homicide trial of the cult chief Charles Manson, a psychiatrist testified that LSD may have made Mr. Manson’s followers extra prone to commit homicide.

Psychiatric researchers, in the meantime, started adopting the randomized scientific trials that had revolutionized different fields. Seven managed scientific trials within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s examined LSD’s utility for alcohol dependancy. Six got here again unfavourable.

Dr. Griffiths, who grew up close to Berkeley, Calif., experimented with LSD throughout school, he later instructed interviewers, however was skeptical of the claims round it. He was ending up his doctoral analysis in psychopharmacology in 1970 when LSD and psilocybin turned unlawful, making them tougher to check.

He arrange a lab at Johns Hopkins that for many years revealed well-regarded research on caffeine, heroin and different medication. He didn’t suppose a lot about psychedelics till the Nineteen Nineties, when he started working towards meditation and studying about mystical traditions.

Round that point, a pal launched him to Bob Jesse, a former expertise government who based a nonprofit referred to as the Council on Non secular Practices. Via authorized briefs, scholarly analysis and a book-publishing enterprise, Mr. Jesse advocated the usage of hallucinogenic chemical compounds and crops for the higher good of humanity. Now he needed to present them the imprimatur of science, as he later stated in a speak.

In 1999, with funding from Mr. Jesse’s nonprofit, Dr. Griffiths started recruiting wholesome volunteers for an experiment. Thoughts-altering mushrooms had been utilized in non secular rituals of varied cultures for hundreds of years. May the identical sort of significant experiences be induced in a lab?

His crew distributed fliers round Baltimore: “Looking for Individuals Dedicated to Non secular Improvement for a Research of States of Consciousness.”


Dr. Griffiths’s laboratory seemed like a lounge, with a sofa, a collection of religious and artwork books and a shelf holding a Buddha statue. The thought was to make volunteers “appreciative of the religious states that may awaken,” based on Invoice Richards, a psychotherapist and former Methodist minister who labored on a number of trials.

Dr. Richards delivered the psilocybin tablet or a placebo to individuals in a chalice-shaped incense burner from Mexico that Mr. Jesse had given the crew. Neither the researchers nor the individuals knew which tablet was within the burner.

A dose of psilocybin resting in a chalice on the Heart for Psychedelic and Consciousness Analysis at Johns Hopkins.Credit score…Matt Roth for The New York Occasions

Donning a watch masks and headphones, volunteers had been inspired to lie down on the sofa for the height results of the drug, which final round 5 hours. On the finish of the session, Dr. Griffiths got here in to doc their experiences. “He was simply amazed,” Dr. Richards stated. “He needed to listen to their story again and again.”

Dr. Griffiths used a “Mystical Expertise Questionnaire,” which has roots in a philosophy espoused by the novelist and psychedelic fanatic Aldous Huxley. It asks volunteers to fee, for instance, their sense of getting “profound humility earlier than the majesty of what was felt to be sacred or holy.”

Greater than half of the 36 individuals within the first Hopkins examine had a “full” mystical expertise. Many ranked it among the many most significant of their lives. When the examine was revealed in 2006, 4 commentaries from drug researchers ran alongside it, praising its rigor.

In his research of different medication, Dr. Griffiths later stated, he had “by no means seen something so distinctive and highly effective and enduring.” The outcomes, he stated, steered that “we’re wired for these sorts of experiences.” The Council on Non secular Practices despatched out a fund-raising letter claiming that the examine “makes use of science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism.”

The volunteers weren’t a random cross-section of the inhabitants. In his 2018 e book, “How one can Change Your Thoughts,” the writer Michael Pollan noticed that there have been no “stone-cold atheists” among the many individuals, which included an power healer, a former Franciscan friar and an herbalist. Dr. Griffiths was open about this disadvantage of the examine. “We had been curious about a religious impact and had been biasing the situation initially,” he instructed Mr. Pollan.

Some researchers suspected that the drug elicited mystical experiences as a result of the weird laboratory and questionnaire had primed the volunteers for that consequence. Dr. Richards additionally carried out some prolonged preparatory classes with volunteers at his dwelling workplace, he stated, with a purpose to develop belief.

“Roland didn’t do the sort of examine I used to be each anticipating and hoping he would do,” stated Dr. Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist on the College of New Mexico. “He simply jumped with each toes into the magical expertise world.”

Years earlier, Dr. Strassman had given psilocybin and intravenous DMT, a compound in ayahuasca tea, to greater than 50 volunteers inside an austere room. Just one particular person, a non secular research main, had a mystical expertise. An architect with an curiosity in computer systems, in contrast, reported seeing “the uncooked bits of actuality.” Others thought they’d been kidnapped by aliens.

The medication “had no inherent religious properties,” Dr. Strassman stated.

Psychedelic researchers have lengthy acknowledged {that a} volunteer’s mind-set and the setting the place the session takes place — “set and setting,” they name it — are essential to a topic’s response.

Such expectancy results affect scientific trials of all types. Due to volunteers’ hopes round a trial, even those that obtain a placebo will usually present extra enchancment than those that obtain nothing. Some consultants have steered that psychedelics operate as “tremendous placebos” as a result of they improve suggestibility.

Natasha Mason, a psychopharmacologist at Maastricht College within the Netherlands, stated that whereas she understood the Hopkins researchers’ targets, the experimental design had put a thumb on the religious scale. “Their mystical experiences outcomes are very excessive in comparison with different teams,” she stated.

Dr. Richards rejected such criticism. Psychedelic medication, he stated, open a state of consciousness that permits for non secular experiences.

“The Buddha, if you’ll, is within the human thoughts,” he stated. “Whether or not there’s a statue within the room or not doesn’t matter.”

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