Christopher Hitchens announced last month that throat cancer has claimed his voice. Writing to an atheist’s society whose conference he was scheduled to address, he described the development as part of “a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death.” For the noted conversationalist and debater, the loss of speech is an especially rueful development in the steady diminution of powers associated with stage-four cancer. “It is assuredly to die more than a little,” he writes in the June Vanity Fair.
But Hitchens still has his pen. Though unable to make reporting trips to the Middle East or trade barbs behind lecterns, he’s still cranking out combative columns and artful essays. With this mismatch in mind — shrinking physical range; intellect intact — Hitchens might consider a trip to the most exhilarating destination he remains capable of visiting, from which he may be better suited to send back dispatches than any writer living. His journey to this unmapped territory would rival the adrenaline rushes of his years reporting from the front lines of revolution and war. In this place, he could dive straight into the heart of a new sort of action, where the brilliantly colored ordnance doesn’t destroy bodies so much as render them irrelevant.
Stated plainly: Christopher Hitchens might consider adding psychedelic psychotherapy to his cancer treatments. Doing so would allow him to publicize and benefit from a promising therapy for relieving anxiety and depression associated with terminal illness. It would also constitute the mother of all immersion journalism assignments, one that doubles as an exceptionally bold rejoinder in his “long argument with the specter of death.”
In interviews since his diagnosis, Hitchens has discussed his desire to contribute to the development of experimental cancer treatments, such as an experimental drug regimen based on DNA mapping. The same logic would support his participation in psychedelic psychotherapy, officially still in trial phase but proven to provide emotional and even physical comfort to late-stage cancer patients. The clinical literature goes back five decades and was only recently started up again, ending a long state-imposed hibernation that lasted most of the '70s, '80s and '90s.
Today’s researchers are finding the same results as first-generation pioneers: psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, when administered by a trained therapist, increase the mental and emotional well-being of the terminally ill. According to Dr. Charles Grob of UCLA, who recently published the results of his psilocybin study in Archives of General Psychiatry, his patients measured “a significant reduction in anxiety.” There is also evidence to suggest that psychedelics can assuage pain and fatigue.
Despite their promise, Big Pharma and the big foundations have shown no interest in mainstreaming medicinal psychedelics. “Too much stigma, not enough profit potential,” says one researcher in the field. Although they cause no bodily damage and do not form habits, the drugs remain illegal and out of reach of all but a handful of FDA-approved researchers. As the world’s most famous cancer patient, Hitchens is in a unique position to do something about this backward and inhumane policy.
He would not have to look far for a pilot project. Dr. Roland Griffiths is currently recruiting cancer patients for an ongoing psilocybin program at Johns Hopkins Medical School, a morning’s drive from Hitchens’ Washington D.C. home. (Dr. Stephen Ross is currently recruiting for a similar program at NYU.) If Hitchens qualified and his doctors approved, the Vanity Fair columnist would probably find a hearty welcome at one of these studies.
But most people do not wield the power of a national megaphone. The average cancer patient seeking the therapeutic benefits of medicinal psychedelics is forced to find help through underground and sparsely populated networks.
“People all over the world should have access to psychedelic therapy and psychedelic hospice centers, but the options are stigmatized and criminalized,” says Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, which advocates for psychedelic research. “If Hitchens — a curious man with a lot of intellectual power and influence — were to participate in an underground program, he could consider it an act of civil disobedience on behalf of science in the face of stigma and bad law.”
There is also a journalistic angle that recommends Hitchens as an ideal investigator. Grob’s UCLA psilocybin study found that therapeutic benefits are closely linked to the subject’s sense of having had a “mystical experience.” Hitchens is, of course, among the world’s most outspoken rationalists, famous for his Edward Scissorhands treatment of those who tout the kind of “mystical experiences” described by Grob’s subjects (and by countless other psychedelic initiates over the millennia).
And so a fascinating scenario here presents itself. A few years ago, Hitchens underwent waterboarding to determine if the practice equaled torture. Why not subject himself to psychedelics to test claims that they lead to realms described as spiritual, cosmic, mystical? Hitchens is no novice in using consciousness-altering agents for recreation and even the occasional moment of transcendence. Psychedelics share the same substance spectrum with a tumbler of Scotch, they just exist further, much further, up the sophistication curve — a Space Shuttle to Johnny Walker’s tricycle.
To undertake this adventure with an open mind, Hitchens would have to overcome what appears to be a stock prejudice against the 1960s counterculture. Although he has defended the utility of medical marijuana—“It’s insane to be denying to sick people something that is of proven medical efficacy,” he said in the documentary In Pot We Trust—his writings suggest he still views psychedelics as the stuff of prehistoric jungle witches and teenage runaway idiocy.
His memoir Hitch-22 makes clear that his late-'60s adventures in Northern California deepened his contempt, common among the era’s hardcore politicos, for anything smacking of Hippiedom. The book’s only mention of psychedelics is a quick dismissal of the “drug-sodden nonsense” he found endemic to the Bay Area.
The psychedelic literature may be drenched in language Hitchens finds “drug-sodden nonsense,” but hallucinogens are no friend of the priest. These ancient medicines tend to lead their supplicants in the opposite direction from what he finds most disturbing about organized religion—the “pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance.”
If anything, psychedelics are powerful tools for self-deliverance—from illusion, pettiness and vanity. False authority and hypocrisy never look so monstrous as under their influence. The psychedelic experience does not encourage belief in any sort of judgmental Old Testament deity. Rather, it suffuses the user with an overwhelming sense of connection to and responsibility for one’s fellow man. Some choose to call this awareness “cosmic consciousness.” But this phrase, which causes the strict rationalist to snicker, is really just New Age-speak for ethical humanism.
It is always possible that Hitchens could walk away from the experience scoffing at the idea that anything mystical took place. The military futurist Herman Kahn famously spent his trips strategizing nuclear attacks on China. Steve Jobs thought about computers. Hitchens might simply meditate to benefit about his children, the Iraq war, Auden.
It is also possible Hitchens would experience something new and that he could not explain, but which brings him a level of comfort that is real enough. Even for some of its most scientific-minded boosters, the psychedelic experience is no less valuable for its fundamental ineffability. After taking his first psilocybin trip in late middle-age, Aldous Huxley tried to make sense of the experience in The Doors of Perception and found himself at something of a rare and elegant verbal loss, writing in circles about the “is-ness” of a sitting room chair. This did not stop Huxley from touting psychedelics as agents of the evolution first theorized by his grandfather, T.H. Huxley, a colleague of Darwin’s. “Become a cheerleader for evolution,” was Aldous’s avuncular advice to a young Timothy Leary.
Who knows if Hitchens would come to the same conclusion, or if he’d even find it useful in the context of treating terminal anxiety. Maybe he’d go on to write a classic of the psychedelic canon, and maybe he’d dismiss the experience as a waste of time. But whatever the outcome, there is good reason to think millions of cancer patients, Hitchens included, may benefit from his giving it a go.
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How Christopher Hitchens Could Help Cancer Patients by Promoting Psychedelic Therapy