On Monday Integral New York (disclosure: I am an organizer) hosted Alexander Belser for a presentation and discussion titled “Taking Mushrooms Before Dying: Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy”. Belser and his research team at New York University are part of a small group of scientists who, in recent years, have gotten government approval to conduct studies on the potential health effects of psilocybin, the active compound in “magic mushrooms”. Currently, psychedelic mushrooms are a schedule 1 drug. This makes them the most illegal of all drugs. Schedule 1 is defined as a category of drugs not considered legitimate for medical use with a high potential for abuse (addiction).
Belser was quick to point out that there is no scientific evidence for either of these claims about psilocybin. In years past, when research was allowed, and now in recent years, as it has begun again, scientists are actually gathering data to the contrary. Far from being damaging, psychedelic use is again and again shown to have a wide range of positive effects on those who partake. Belser’s study looks at anxiety levels in those with cancer or a history of cancer. Most of these people live in constant fear of a disease that could claim their lives in a very short period of time. Anything that could help alleviate their suffering is worth exploring. Lucky for us, psilocybin appears to be a potent treatment.
The NYU study is ongoing. Their 2010 paper was the first time a paper like this has come out in a prestigious psychiatric journal in 40 years. Behavioral Biologist Roland Griffiths from John Hopkins University was quoted saying that this “demonstrates that such research can be conducted safely and that doses have palliative effects.” It is worth noting that this population is not generally regarded as responding well to psychological therapies. In stark contrast to the minimal results from months of therapy, participants in psychedelic research regularly report not only large state shifts during the experience, but overall quality of life improvements that carry on for months or more. Besler reported that it is not uncommon for participants to cite this one psychedelic experience as one of the most important events in their lives.
Other evidence for the positive effects of psychedelics is piling up across the country. MDMA is an effective treatment for severe P.T.S.D. LSD has been shown to greatly reduce symptoms in people with cluster headaches. Psychedelics have been recently examined as treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. There is a growing history outside the US of using the african root iboga to treat both heroin and alcohol addiction. Researchers in London are using M.R.I. to scan peoples brains to see what regions are effected. It is documented that in people who suffer from severe depression regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex are overactive and psilocybin may work to shut it down. My own speculation is that rather than a specific effect within the brain researchers would be better served studying its potential adaptogenic (non-specific) potential within the entire human body/mind system.
Officially, the NYU study is a Phase II randomized double blind placebo-controlled crossover study investigating the effect of psilocybin on end-of-life anxiety in patients with advanced cancer. They give people mushrooms and see what impact this has on their life. At the meetup we got to watch a 10 minute clip of one of the participants describing her experiences with the study. She is an intelligent, well spoken retired medical health professional. Her experiences were profound and transformative. To say that taking psychedelics reduced the anxiety surrounding her cancer would be an understatement of the largest degree. Her entire life was impacted by this one dose of psilocybin and she had not one negative side effect to mention. You should see the way her eyes shine when she describes months later spontaneously dancing in the kitchen with her husband in the morning. Her experience re-ignited something in her that is ineffable, but easy to feel when you see her speak.
Those of us with personal experience using psychedelics likely find this science reassuring but largely unnecessary. Other than the occasional anecdote about “the guy who thinks he’s a glass of orange juice and is afraid you are going to tip him over because of a bad trip” we have witnessed ourselves and others accessing expanded states of consciousness leading to feelings of love, connection, empathy, joy and probably had a few good laughs along the way. Psychedelic experiences, such as my own that I wrote about on ayahuasca in Brazil can certainly be terrifying, sad and difficult to endure. But in my experience when the set and setting are correct, when the approach to these powerful substances is sacred and not casual, the benefits far outway the costs and the most harrowing experiences lead to the greatest and most long lasting positive insights and transformations.
Before we left I asked Belser if he personally was hopeful for a rescheduling of psilocybin to make it less illegal or even legal. He said that he is hopeful and offered marijuana as a model for how mushroom legality could evolve over the coming years. Legally there are no significant efforts underway to change the legality of mushrooms, but scientific evidence is hard to argue against in a court of law and currently all of the available evidence disagrees with the letter of the law. This I find hopeful indeed.