Tripping De-Light Fantastic
Are psychedelic drugs good for you?
A year ago, hoping to dispel the postpartum gloom that had gripped me after I finished writing a book, I hiked into a forest near my home and pitched a tent under some pine trees. I spent that day and evening listening to the forest, scribbling in my journal, and thinking—all while under the influence of a psychedelic drug. The next morning I returned to my wife and children feeling better than I had in months.
What I did that day should not be illegal. Adults seeking solace or insight ought to be allowed to consume psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. U.S. laws now classify them as Schedule 1 drugs, banned for all purposes because of their health risks. But recent studies have shown that psychedelics—which more than 20 million Americans have ingested—can be harmless and even beneficial when taken under appropriate circumstances.
Citing this research, some scholars and scientists are proposing that the prohibitions against psychedelics—or entheogens, "God engenderers," as believers in their spiritual benefits prefer to call them—should be reconsidered. This legal issue has recently been brought to a head by a religious sect in New Mexico that is suing the United States for the right to drink a hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca in its ceremonies. A federal court is expected to rule on the potentially momentous case any day now.
"There is no doubt that hallucinogens can be used unwisely," says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA-Harbor Medical Center, who testified in the ayahuasca case and is a leader of the effort to rehabilitate the reputation of these substances. "But these studies show that they can be used safely within certain parameters."
After LSD's astonishing effects were discovered by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann 60 years ago, many psychiatrists considered it and similar compounds potential treatments for psychological ailments. That is why the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond called the drugs "psychedelic," from the Greek root for "mind-revealing." By the mid-1960s, medical journals had published more than 1,000 papers describing the treatment with psychedelics of some 40,000 patients afflicted with disorders ranging from schizophrenia to alcoholism.
One remarkable study from this period, known as the Good Friday experiment, probed the capacity of psilocybin (the active ingredient of so-called magic mushrooms) to trigger spiritual experiences. On Good Friday, 1962, the Harvard psychiatrist Walter Pahnke dispensed psilocybin and placebos to a group of 30 divinity students and professors assembled in a Boston church. A majority of those who received psilocybin reported sensations of profound awe and self-transcendence that had lasting positive effects.
By the early 1970s, the surging popularity of psychedelics among the young—urged by Timothy Leary to "turn on, tune in, and drop out"—had triggered a backlash. Psychedelics were outlawed, and virtually all research on them was shut down amid rising concerns about their adverse social and medical effects. In 1971, the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that repeated consumption of psychedelics would usually result in permanent "personality deterioration."
Further research has shown these fears to be exaggerated, says John Halpern, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. To be sure, psychedelics can cause acute and sometimes persistent psychopathology, especially in those predisposed to mental illness. But Halpern maintains that these compounds are usually harmless when ingested by healthy individuals in appropriate settings.
As evidence, Halpern cites a five-year study he recently completed with a Harvard colleague of members of the Native American Church, who are permitted by U.S. law to consume the mescaline-containing cactus peyote as a sacrament. Church members who had taken peyote at least 100 times showed no adverse neurocognitive effects compared to a control group.
Similar results have emerged from a study of ayahuasca by UCLA psychiatrist Grob and other scientists, results that Grob describes in the essay collection Hallucinogens. Ayahuasca, a tea brewed from two Amazonian plants, contains the potent psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. Although the tea often triggers nausea and diarrhea, Indian shamans have prized it for its visionary properties for centuries, and since 1987 it has served as a legal sacrament for several churches in Brazil. The largest is the Uniao Do Vegetal, or UDV, which combines elements of Christianity with nature worship and claims 8,000 members.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.
llustration by Robert Neubecker.