At Beyond Psychedelics conference I had an opportunity to speak to William Richards, author of the book „Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences” and a psychology professor pursuing careful research with Psilocybin at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for the last 18 years. In a study currently underway, Richards and his research team gave psilocybin, an active ingredient of magic mushrooms, to priests, rabbis and a Buddhist monk to test the effects of psychedelic drugs on religious experience. In a previous study his research team has already proven that psilocybin eases existential anxiety in people with life-threatening cancer. Here is what he had to say about his work.
Professor, what is the greatest danger confronting us in the 21st century?
I would not hesitate to say that one of the greatest dangers confronting us as a civilisation is losing out on the positive contribution that wise and responsible use of psychedelic substances, either natural or synthesised, can make to the quality of life to all of us. The years of repression have been very negative, both in the research world and in the society at large. There are many suffering people with addictions, depression, loss of quality of life at the end of life, who may well have been helped with psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. We’re hoping to remedy that in the near future.
How do you plan to do that?
In our initial studies at Johns Hopkins Medicine, NYU, University of California in Los Angeles, and also studies done in Switzerland, all with cancer patients approaching end of their life, we found that often single administration of a drug like psilocybin can decrease depression and anxiety. It can open up the quality of interpersonal relationships, decrease preoccupation with pain and enable people who are approaching the end of their lives to live much more fully. And this is not a drug that you have to take over and over. This is the memory of an experience, from a very meaningful state of consciousness, triggered by one drug administration. This is a rather new concept in medicine that a memory of an experience can be profoundly therapeutic and significantly impact depression, anxiety and even fear of death itself. People approach death with more openness and curiosity, rather then with tensed muscles, fear and isolation. That could transform the way our whole society deals with the end of life.
Is it likely that psychedelic drugs will be soon widely used to help people die with dignity?
One of the first legal applications of psychedelic substances, psilocybin especially, may well be in palliative and hospice care settings. But that’s only one of many applications in the medical world of the responsible use of psychedelics. They also show significant promise in the treatment of alcoholism, narcotic addiction or nicotine addiction for example. If you look very objectively at the number of people who die every year from nicotine, or from alcohol use that had gotten out of control (and alcohol is a drug that has physiological damage, causes brain damage and other organic damage), and you compare it with psychedelics which are non-addictive, essentially non-toxic, and don’t trigger receptive use in either human or animal studies, it is very irrational that our western cultures have been so afraid probing our own minds.
So what do psychedelic drugs really do with our minds?
What these psychedelics do above all, is give access to other states of consciousness that are dormant within our own minds. It’s the exploration of human consciousness. It isn’t really the drug effect as such. Why are we so afraid of our own unconscious deeper self is worth serious thought. The beneficial promise of the wise and responsible use of psychedelics far exceeds their potential for harm either individually as well as at a societal level.
Despite scientific evidence, psychedelics remain illegal in most European countries, Poland included. What is your message to policy-makers?
It is of critical importance that in this point in history law-makers, regulators really study the scientific data that is available. We need to think clearly about different types of drugs. All drugs are not the same and all classes of drugs are not the same. For example, we used LSD in one study in the treatment of narcotic addiction and when we asked people to compare the two drugs, they invariably reported that they were totally different. Whereas narcotics took them away from their problems, away from life, and allowed them to escape into a cave if you will, psychedelics took them into the very center of their personal problems, and beyond that into resources of a positive nature within their psyches. These experiences have enabled them to make significant progress towards overcoming their addictions and rebuilding their lives. So, there is a positive potential in the responsible use of these so-called psychedelic substances.
Isn’t the use of these substances dangerous then? That is what most of the people are being told most of the time.
Psychedelic really means mind opening, mind revealing. The experiences aren’t in the molecule of the drug, they’re in the human organism. And I would suggest there is nothing within us that we need to fear or censor. There are great opportunities for personal growth, medical healing and also for finding artistic value, religious meaning, and understanding perhaps even the origins of some religions. There is nothing to fear when the drugs are wisely used. And wise use of course is more then trowing a substance in your moth like a pill. It involves preparation, being grounded in a healthy, inter-personal relationship for most people, being able to trust your own mind, being willing to endure some struggle and suffering in the process of personal and spiritual growth. So, if there is a conflict that emerges in your mind, you approach it as an opportunity for growth, rather then running away from it and calling it a bad trip. They are very serious substances, but for most people they are not dangerous, when they are used with knowledge.
picture: Creative Commons, Natesh Ramasamy