Sandy Lundahl lies on a couch, her eyes covered with a dark cloth mask. She's listening to classical music through enormous headphones: Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the "Kyrie" from Bach's Mass in B Minor, Barber's Adagio for Strings. An hour earlier, she had swallowed two blue capsules containing close to 30 milligrams of psilocybin, the primary active chemical in Psilocybe cubensis and other "magic" mushrooms, and she's already well on her way on a trip into the hidden spaces of her psyche.
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Lundahl, a 55-year-old self-described skeptic and health educator from Bowie, is looking for God.
Two experienced guides are with her in the room, monitoring her: Mary Cosimano, a clinical social worker, and William "Bill" Richards, a white-haired, 68-year-old psychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion. He's sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the couch, ready to help Lundahl--to talk her out of any negative trips, to help her remain focused on the scenes unfolding behind the mask, to offer a drink or some fruit or escort her to the bathroom. The space resembles a clean, warm, but decidedly offbeat living room. The lighting is spare and soft, emanating from two lamps. A bookshelf holds a variety of picture books and well-known spiritual and psychological classics like Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Above the books sits a wooden sculpture of Psilocybe mushrooms. Behind the couch are a Mesoamerican mushroom stone replica and a statue of a serene, seated Buddha. An eye-popping abstract expressionist painting hangs on the wall, an explosion of color and intersecting lines.
This isn't a metaphysical retreat center in San Francisco, or the Manhattan office of a New Age therapist-cum-shaman. Lundahl's first psychedelic experience is taking place in the heart of the Behavioral Biology Research Center building at the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus in Southeast Baltimore, in a room affectionately referred to by both the scientists and the volunteers as the "psilocybin room." She's taking part in the first study of its kind since the early '70s--a rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.
The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, made news around the globe and was greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion--that psychedelic drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals--may herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.
Nonetheless, Lundahl, for one, wasn't initially impressed by the vibrant imagery behind her closed eyelids.
"Nothing had ever been that vivid," she says four years later sitting in her suburban living room. "There was this grid on top of everything, all these colors. And I don't know how long, as I was mesmerized by it, and then I started thinking, Oh, no...am I going to be looking at this for six hours? Oh, no, no. It was interesting for about five minutes--maybe not even. I started thinking, Oh, what a waste of time. I said, `Bill [Richards]...Bill, this was a big mistake.'
"There was a silence, and then Bill said, `Don't second-guess your decision.' And I realized I had made the decision to participate in this experiment because it was a lark, because it made me look good, and it gave me a story to tell my friends. And I thought, Now look what happened. I'm stuck here for six hours looking at this stuff!
"And I made a vow," she says. "I'm never going to make an inauthentic decision again. Never again. And as soon as I said that to myself it was like--whooosh--the colors were gone. And I felt like I was being whisked...whoa, boy...and then I went to all these other places."
Bill Richards reclines in a chair in his home office in West Baltimore, bordering Leakin Park. He's warm and affable, with an exuberant, almost goofy laugh. It's easy to see why the study participants interviewed for this story speak so fondly of him. But he becomes quiet and serious when he discusses his work. He has conducted close to 500 psychedelic therapy sessions since the early '60s, and there's a distinct pattern to most of them, including Lundahl's.
"First, it's sensory and aesthetic," he says. "People experience colors, patterns, intriguing bodily sensations--what most people think of when they think of the effects of a psychedelic drug. It's not life-transforming, by any means. Beyond that stage, they start dealing with psychodynamic issues--the sense of self, obstacles, fears. It's very personal." In that stage, people often regress to their childhood and relive emotional episodes with parents, sibling, spouses, and children.
"And then...we enter the archetypal realm. Visions of Christ, or Buddha, or Greek gods...imagery from the Book of Revelation, that sort of thing. What's fascinating is that they often experience things far outside of their life histories, Christians seeing the Buddha, or someone seeing Egyptian or Hindu or other unfamiliar iconography. Certainly not the stuff they learned in Sunday school. It's fascinating--almost as if there's a universal cache of knowledge they're tapping into."
After the colors and patterns stopped, Lundahl found herself in that archetypal realm. In a crowd. Along a street.
"And I saw this jester. And he was coming down the street. I was in the crowd, I was right there. And one side of him was totally black, and the other side was totally colorful, and here he is, just laughing." She closes her eyes, remembering. "And I'm getting the image of the dark side of life, and the light side, and here is this jester...just laughing! Laughing at the human condition, that we humans think we have any clue as to what is really going on. And I started chuckling, and then I started laughing, and I'm thinking--we're so clueless! I was laughing with God, and with the jester, and with everything, and I said to myself, `We humans, we're just so silly! We think we know. We don't know. What is this experience on this earth? This is amazing.' When you really start to think about it--how could this be?"
She laughs. "And I think Bill said, `Are you going to let us in on the joke?'"
"And then, immediately, I was in a parade. But this time it was Jesus. Coming down the street. And just wiped...totally wiped...dragging the cross. Beaten up badly. And the crowd had gathered." She pauses. "Now I don't have a religious background. I don't know the Bible stories. I don't know any of this stuff. And yet...I was right in the crowd, right at the moment when he turns and says, `Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'"
She smiles, slowly shaking her head. "And it had gone from the jester...the cluelessness of us...to the forgiveness, and the ignorance of what we do to each other. And I felt it. And I got it on different levels. What I do to people, what people have done to me, what communities do, and what nations do. The cluelessness, the ignorance. We just know not what we do."
Richards describes the final, and as far as his work is concerned, most important, stage. "After the archetypal realm comes the mystical state," he says. "There's a dimension of awesomeness, of profound humility, of the self being stripped bare. In the psychology of religion, mystical experience is well-described--unity, transcendence of time and space, noetic knowledge, sacredness, ineffability....It's the sacred dimension of revelation, but it can be what Kierkegaard called `fear and trembling'--incredibly profound and powerful terrain to travel.
"People who have never studied the psychology of religion hear `mystical,' and it sounds like `misty'. . . something vague, not very precise or clear. We know what we're talking about, but the man on the street doesn't. So who would want a mystical experience? I'd rather get drunk!" He laughs.
Richards frowns upon so-called recreational use of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs: "There are a lot of people who have taken psilocybin who haven't had a mystical experience. Especially college students taking `shrooms' who experience minor perceptual changes and view it as recreational. With the higher doses [like those in the study], when you get to those transcendental experiences...that's not recreational at all. If you want a recreational drug, this is not a good drug for you. You want to be cool with your friends, and all of a sudden you start reliving your mother's death...it spoils the party!"
Richards has had his own mystical experience, and it has informed his work ever since.
"I volunteered for a research project at a clinic, when I was a graduate student in Germany, and I received psilocybin," he recalls. "I was left alone in this little basement room--those were the dark, ignorant days before the importance of set [psychological state] and setting [environment] had been recognized. Some of my friends had already completed similar research, with a short-acting form of psilocybin, and they'd had some interesting childhood memories. So I thought I'd get some insights into my childhood." He smiles at his own ignorance. "But what happened was a very profound transcendent type of experience. An experience I didn't even know was possible. I wrote a report, and I became known as `that American student who had a mystical experience.'"
He began assisting as psychiatrists, religious leaders, and academics came to the clinic to have their own experiences. Psilocybin, LSD, and other psychedelics were legal at the time (they became illegal to possess in the U.S. in 1968), and Richards' professional identity became linked to his role as an informed and competent guide. His academic interests shifted to the psychology of religion and mysticism. In 1967, he moved to Baltimore to take a position in the research department at Spring Grove State Hospital.
"I had the theological, philosophical, and clinical psychology background, and I had worked with the drugs in Germany," he says. "We did 10 years of psychedelic research in Baltimore, with grants from NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health]."
The team had been having marked success in treating alcoholism and neuroses with LSD and other psychedelics (in fact, the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, praised LSD's spiritual uses and wanted to distribute it as a supplement to AA meetings). But then an intriguing new avenue of research came about by sheer circumstance when a member of the research department came down with terminal cancer. "Since there were such promising results with alcoholics and neurotics, we wondered if it would be helpful for her," Richards says. "She was open to it."
The woman's own written report in Richard's 1979 paper in the Journal of Altered States of Consciousness reads, in part:
I was alone in a timeless world without boundaries...Suddenly, I recognized that I was a moment in time, created by those before me and in turn the creator of others. This was my moment and my function has been completed....
I cannot remember the logic of the experience, but I became poignantly aware that the core of life is love...I felt that I was reaching out to the world--to all people--but especially those closest to me. I wept long for the wasted years, the search for identity in false places, the neglected opportunities, the emotional energy lost in basically meaningless pursuits. . . .
Later as members of my family came, there was a closeness that seemed new...All noticed a change in me. I was radiant, and I seemed at peace, they said...I am living now, and being. I can take it as it comes....I am still me, but more at peace. My family senses this and we are closer."
"She experienced a dramatic decrease in anxiety and depression and lived the time that she had left much more fully," Richards says. "That started our interest in applying psychedelic therapy to cancer patients." Encouraged by the dramatic results, Richards and his colleagues conducted sessions for 91 cancer patients, mostly at Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore, over the following 10 years.
"There are a lot of people with cancer lying in bed, depressed, just lying there, suffering, preoccupied with pain and estranged from their family members. Sort of half alive while they're waiting for the cancer to advance. We found that people who have mystical experiences tend to benefit most dramatically. They resolve conflicts of guilt, grief, estrangement from family members, breaking through the denial and pretense that often accompanies cancer. That's incredibly helpful. They are less anxious, less depressed, closer in their personal relationships, less preoccupied with pain.
"And, perhaps most significantly, those who have mystical experiences claim loss of a fear of death...that they somehow feel part of something eternal. Not necessarily personal immortality--there's a paradox there--it's not denying death, but that somehow in spite of the reality of death, it's a good universe. Life makes sense. And there's every reason to live the rest of this lifetime as fully as possible. It's pretty inspiring."
He has many stories. The woman lying in bed, depressed, waiting to die, who got up and danced at her daughter's wedding. A woman who sent her two kids away to summer camp, hoping to die before they returned, who then called each child home and personally prepared them for her death. And Richards hopes to have more such stories; the Hopkins team is currently recruiting people with cancer to take psilocybin in the hopes of replicating these dramatic results.
John Hayes is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with an office in Columbia. He's a bear-man with a gentle smile and a pronounced Brooklyn, N.Y., accent. He also volunteered for the psilocybin study.
"Before I went to graduate school in psychology, I was in the Franciscan order studying to be a priest," he says. "So I had an interest in mysticism, and meditation, and contemplative prayer." He was curious about psychedelics but never tried them, though he felt that there might be some value in doing so, despite what he calls the "crazy Timothy Leary stuff." And he saw the casualties of uninformed, indiscriminate use: "There's a young guy I saw in analysis who took massive amounts of LSD during his adolescence. And he talked about how alone he felt, about how destructive it was. He was using it in the worst possible way. . . to obliterate his mind because he was in such psychological pain."
Similarly to Sandy Lundahl, the first thing Hayes felt was incredible motion, moving out of his body and through the universe: "It was as if I was moving through outer space, as if I was moving through stars, through space and time. And then witnessing scenes from my life. I'm 60 years old, you know....I saw when I was a kid in Brooklyn, images of my brother, who died...my parents, who are long deceased. Very vivid, immediate images."
Hayes, too, entered the archetypal realm. "I had a sense that I was entering the dimension of the really real. The transcendent. Images of Jesus and Mary kept coming and going. They had a sense of presence and energy and reality to them."
As a psychologist, he attempts to explain it with the words of his profession. But it's not easy: "I had a profound, cosmic sense of everything being connected to everything--space, time--not just my lifetime, but time itself. And it's ineffable...like there's no way you can bring this experience back and talk about it in regular language.
"I think what surprised me the most was that it was so clearly out of my control. The experience is taking me, I'm not driving the experience. I had to surrender to it and go with it. I'm hardly a control freak, but that surprised me."
Hayes takes a deep breath: "And I'm not anxious about dying. I think there's something about having a compelling immersion in transcendent reality that just gives you more of a sense that...I don't know what happens when I die, but it doesn't feel like that's it, and there's more to life than just an animal existence that ends when you die. And that might just be a comforting illusion." He laughs and throws up his hands. "Who knows?"
Anne Dorsey Emmons refers to the time before her psilocybin experience as her "previous lifetime." The 56-year-old former clinical nurse specialist and psychotherapist left behind Western medicine to pursue mind/body therapies and energy work. She was ordained by the Baltimore School of Spiritual Science and serves as a minister at weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Sitting in her workspace, an expansive loft in a rebuilt barn, decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, candles, and tapestries, she talks slowly, with the precision of someone who regularly speaks in public.
Emmons also was curious about psychedelics when she was younger, but as a psychiatrist, she only saw the dark side of drug abuse. Only much later, after years of yoga and meditation, did she feel the time was right. "When I heard about the study, I knew I was supposed to do it," she says. "It felt like it was all preordained. I was primed."
Her session started out almost identically as those of Lundahl and Hayes. "I felt my whole body opening up and I was going out into the universe. I remember wanting to communicate with [Richards and Cosimano], because I really wanted to contribute to science." She laughs. "But I was too deep. I was wandering the universe and going through wormholes and things like that. It was visual. It was kinesthetic."
But suddenly, things took a frightening turn for the worse. Emmons was dying.
"I was scared, I was crashing. I wasn't always breathing on my own. I'd have times when I wouldn't breathe much at all, and then I would breathe. It was kind of like...have you ever been with someone who's dying? I've worked in hospice care. And when someone's dying, their breathing pattern changes. And I knew my breathing pattern was changing." She laughs, nervously. "And then I realized, OK...I'm dying." She asked Richards and Cosimano to take her blood pressure. They assured her she was physically OK.
"Then I was able to go with the experience. I let myself crash. I let go." She's lost in the memory now, her face softening. "And then something was breathing for me. I was in this void, and then all of a sudden I was in the most incredible love and light, in this beautiful space. I was with God. It was very, very beautiful. And then I was able to come out of that long enough to tell [Richards and Cosimano], `Oh, my God! I just died! Oh, my God! And I saw God!'"
Emmons sighs. "It's so hard to put into words. It's like you truly understand oneness--that everything is one, everything is God. And you know that in your mind, and in your heart, but to feel it in your entire being, and to have no boundaries, to be part of everything that is beautiful and loving...there are no adequate words to explain it."
Then she died again. This time, she didn't fight it.
"I was in Egypt, and I was a young boy on a boat. I was standing on the back of a boat and rowing. And then I was in some kind of holy place and I was clearly involved with helping people with funeral rites and I was preparing the bodies. I knew I was doing something very holy in relation to death. And I had this huge understanding about everything that Egyptology teaches about death and dying and preparing for the afterlife. And I just knew it. I knew that absolutely there is life after death, that there is reincarnation, because I saw it--it was all played out right in front of me.
"I remembered some of my patients in hospice, and my father, who were afraid to die. And I realized what a need there is in society to get rid of the fear of death."
If Bill Richards is the metaphorical heart of the psilocybin research, Roland Griffiths is the brain. A 62-year-old professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Hopkins, he has published more than 300 papers on drugs and behavior. The Hopkins psilocybin study, largely of his design, was hailed nearly unanimously for its rigorousness and its clever construction--what colleague Richards jokingly describes as the "design diabolical--sneaky, but good science."
Griffiths, a slender, silver-haired man, sits in the psilocybin room discussing the complex controls built into the study.
"First...we ruled out volunteers with previous exposure to hallucinogens," he says. Having experienced users in the study would introduce subject selection bias--those who had unpleasant experiences would be unlikely to volunteer, and the study's other blinding mechanisms would fail because the drug's unique effects would be immediately recognizable. "And then we went to an extreme about keeping [Richards and Cosimano] blinded to the design of the study. Out of the two sessions for each volunteer, the volunteers and monitors were told the volunteer could get one or more doses of psilocybin of varying potency, and they could also receive 13 other drugs, such as nicotine, caffeine, or dextromethorphan. For these generally drug-naive people, they weren't sure...and with that came a kind of surrendering to the experience."
In fact, the subjects received either a high dose of psilocybin or an active control--methylphenidate, the prescription stimulant commonly known by its brand name, Ritalin. Interestingly, many of the subjects had significant, quasi-mystical experiences while under the influence of the Ritalin, though they were not as powerful nor did they have the long-lasting behavioral effects as the psilocybin-induced experiences. A common comment from the volunteers was that the very act of listening to well-chosen classical music for six or more hours with eyeshades on, while lying on a couch in a supportive environment and being encouraged to go inward, was, in itself, a very powerful thing.
Griffiths has studied drugs and behavior for over 30 years, but his interest in the neuroscience of spirituality began when he started a program of meditation in the early '90s.
"That [meditation], for me, opened up a spiritual window, for lack of a better term," he says. "It really prompted an interest in questions that had simply not been meaningful previously--questions about the nature of mystical experience, the nature of spiritual transformation." And then a serendipitous series of meetings changed his entire career.
A friend of Griffiths, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Charles R. Schuster, attended a professional conference, where he met Bob Jesse. Jesse had been a vice president at Oracle Corp., the software company, before leaving his position to found the nonprofit Council on Spiritual Practices in San Francisco, an organization "dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred available to more people." Schuster introduced Griffiths to Jesse, and the two talked at length about comparative religion, neuroscience, and spirituality. Jesse suggested that a scientific study of psychedelic drugs might answer some of Griffiths' questions about the biology of religious experience.
Griffiths was intrigued, but skeptical--and cautious. "Being someone who grew up in the '60s, I was well aware of those compounds, and curious about them. But by the time I got to graduate school in '68, it was pretty clear that if you wanted to succeed as a psychopharmacologist you weren't about to start proposing research with the classical hallucinogens."
He agreed that the type of research Jesse proposed was worth doing, but the task--actually trying to get it to happen--was daunting.
Griffiths had seen what Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other psychedelic promoters in the '60s had done to kill legitimate scientific research, along with urban legends about LSD causing chromosomal damage and people jumping off buildings convinced that they could fly. "There was a perfect storm around those compounds, where they became labeled and demonized as extraordinarily dangerous and highly abusable," he says. "And as a society, we made this decision--because there was no single person who was responsible for this, or no single set of entities--but as a culture we said, `These drugs are too dangerous to even study in humans.' It wasn't a single decision maker, it was a co-conspiracy between the federal funding agencies, law enforcement, the political process, and academics. Each of those groups ratcheted up the degree of difficulty involved in undertaking research like this. It became impossible."
But Griffiths decided to try. And a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant, along with a promise of funding from Jesse and the Council on Spiritual Practices, at least provided the financial resources. Then Jesse played matchmaker. "You need to meet Bill Richards," he told Griffiths. Griffiths wanted to do the research, and Richards, who also happened to live in Baltimore, had experience guiding close to 500 sessions.
He now believes the research would never have happened if he hadn't met Richards. "I don't know whether I would have even begin to consider the study without Bill," Griffiths says. "It would be hubris." And he still marvels at the serendipity. "It's not me that initiated this, and not Bill, and not Bob [Jesse]," Griffiths says. "It's all the pieces converging. The feeling that it was supposed to happen."
When he discussed the idea with his colleagues, however, they were skeptical. "Working with these drugs is like the third rail," Griffiths says. "You don't touch that without damaging your career. I pitched it to my colleagues to see if they'd object. They were very discouraging. And if I couldn't persuade them, I had the FDA, DEA, and the IRB [Institutional Review Board] ahead of me."
But the Food and Drug Administration, after reviewing Griffiths' proposal carefully, approved the study. "The IRB at Hopkins reviewed it more thoroughly and carefully than any protocol I've been involved with," he says. "And it's a huge credit to Hopkins as an academic institution that they did not cave to political or public-relations concerns."
In 2000, the study was approved, and in early 2001, the team enrolled the first subject. Since then, Griffiths has given high doses of psilocybin to 55 volunteers in over 100 sessions.
High doses of psilocybin don't always engender experiences of bliss and union and oneness with God, however. Though they were well prepared, screened, and supported by a veteran like Bill Richards, nearly one third of the volunteers experienced strong or extreme fear at some point during their experience. Four of the 36 had classic bad trips--the entire experience was dominated by anxiety and fear. And two compared their time in the psilocybin room to being in a war.
David Shurtleff, director of the Division of Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, warns of the potential dangers. "The negative experiences of some of the individuals emphasizes how unpredictable the response to psilocybin can be even under highly controlled conditions, and the potentially serious dangers associated with taking this drug outside the controlled environment of the laboratory," he says. "The main concern we have at NIDA in relation to this work, which was also expressed by Dr. Griffiths, is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug to abuse. In fact, its adverse effects are well known, although not completely predictable....Psilocybin can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other adverse psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety--some of which were reported in this study."
Griffiths concedes that the unpleasant reactions bother him. "We optimized subject selection, preparation, and support," he says. "And yet 30 percent of our folks said that it was an extraordinarily fearful experience. We don't know how to eliminate that, or if it can be eliminated. It's a mystery."
But out of all 36 volunteers only three people said they'd never do it again. And 67 percent--even 14 months later--rated their experience as among the five most meaningful spiritual events in their lives. "Notably," Griffiths says, "No one indicated [he or she] had been harmed by the experience," in spite of the fear and paranoia. Even one of the subjects who compared his time on the couch with fighting a war claimed it had helped him. "I'm a different person," he told Griffiths. "I don't want to do it again, but it was valuable to me."
And Griffiths is impressed by the results of their 2008 follow-up study, which showed that the positive changes in outlook and behavior were lasting. "Unlike most behavioral change that occurs incrementally--like learning to ride a bike, in successive steps--mystical experiences appear to have the ability to reorganize human behavior and perception dramatically. . . all at once," he says. "And that's what conversion experiences are--experiences of great insight, or of religious meaning, that push people to reorganize their priorities, their perceptions of the world drastically. And they change in ways that are most often good--altruistic, pro-social, and open to new experiences."
It's a biologically normal phenomenon, Griffiths says: "We're all wired for this experience. The final question is how can these experiences...to what use can they be put?"
Huston Smith, author of the classic textbook The World's Religions and an esteemed scholar of comparative religion, wrote in a commentary on the Hopkins team's 2008 follow-up study: "In the end, it's altered traits, not altered states, that matter. `By their fruits shall ye know them.' It's good to learn that volunteers...had lasting benefits. But human history suggests that...even the most extraordinary experiences provide lasting benefits to those who undergo them and people around them only if they become the basis of ongoing work."
Anne Dorsey Emmons continues to do what she terms "the work." She beams when she talks about her life after the study: "I see beauty everywhere. It's incredible. I was living downtown...and even all the buildings--I saw their form and their structure as incredibly beautiful. Like the factories, things I used to find ugly, I could see their beauty now." She channeled her newfound perceptions of beauty into creative pursuits: journaling, writing poetry, and painting. She shows off her paintings. One is an abstraction of her transcendent experience, a group of bright purple, blue, and orange circles rising from a fiery explosion of color--impressively composed for someone with no formal artistic training using household acrylics. (Visit citypaper.com for examples of Emmons artwork and poetry.)
"It's been a little over four years [since the study], and I'm just now receiving the full benefit of the work, because I've been able to integrate it," she continues. "So much happens all at once, it takes years to understand and fully integrate it and use it....People need to understand that there's a disciplined part of the practice. You must be able to stay grounded and have the support to process it all."
She sees a much-needed role for psychedelic therapy in modern society. "If psychiatrists and psychologists took this...it would shift their paradigm," Emmons says. "That's a good place to start. Then you get them opening up the system for more tools to be used." And her work in hospice care convinces her that psilocybin and other psychedelic agents could be immensely valuable: "To not be afraid of your own death is huge. So just to begin there would be a huge gift. And then the people who were around the dying would see that, and it would have a multiplying effect.
"I used to live in my head," she says. "And I don't anymore. And it's so much nicer to be in my heart. So much nicer."
Sandy Lundahl's life also changed dramatically after the study. Like Emmons, she says it took years to fully integrate the eight-hour journey. After having an unpleasant image of her body under the influence of the psilocybin, she committed herself to a diet and exercise program and lost 35 pounds--something she had been trying to do, without success, for years. She stopped going to her church because it felt too confining and restricted. She reconnected with and grew much closer to her husband. She now reads extensively on matters spiritual and metaphysical. In the classes she teaches in her home, Lundahl is much more empathetic and has noticed improved relations with her students. And she says her insights into death and despair, brought on by reliving her father's death and its aftereffects on the couch at Bayview, helped her in her work on suicide prevention.
She also had her own surge in creativity: "I journaled for two months afterward. I'm thinking of writing a book about the experience and all the changes in my life. And not just writing--I want to tell the story. To present it. I want the effects, putting it to music." Lundahl commissioned artists to re-create images she saw, and those visions from inside her mind now decorate the walls of her house.
In his more optimistic moments, Bill Richards imagines what the future could hold for psychedelic research, now that his and Griffiths' pioneering study has found wide acceptance. "I fantasize about an interdisciplinary research and retreat center, where people interested in having this experience could be medically screened and psychologically prepared for it," he says. He leans back in his chair, folding his hands. "I use the metaphor or driving a car. Some people should never drive--the blind, epileptic, or of poor intelligence. If your only familiarity with driving a motor vehicle was from working in an emergency room, you'd probably argue that automobiles should be banned. It's the same with these compounds--people need to be screened and prepared, just like getting a driver's license."
He pauses. "[Our research] is part of the education of a culture. These are radically different drugs. They are not for `getting high.' We have to move beyond the concept of getting high and seek to become more mature human beings. These compounds are just one tool to help facilitate enlightenment.
"We have a long way to go," Richards says. "But sometimes cultural change can happen rapidly."
Indeed, it appears that a sea change in attitudes toward psychedelic research is taking place across the globe. In the United States and Europe, studies are approved or under way using LSD, psilocybin, ibogaine, and MDMA (Ecstasy) for the treatment of anxiety and depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and addiction. Griffiths and Richards recently co-authored "Human Hallucinogen Research: Guidelines for Safety," published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which distills their decades of experience and puts forth a set of best practices for future studies.
Rick Doblin, the founder and president of Multidis-ciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit organization devoted to advancing the study of psychedelics, is excited by the renaissance in research: "With psychedelic psychotherapy research at Harvard Medical School and spirituality/mysticism research at Johns Hopkins and the University of Zurich, we've re-entered the scientific mainstream," he says. "Our primary consideration now needs to be to pace the growth of research and our public education efforts so that we can build public support without triggering a backlash. Considering the dire need for healing and for global spirituality, this is a challenge that we should and must be able to meet."
If the changed lives of the Hopkins psilocybin volunteers is any indication, and if similar research shows equally positive results, Lundahl, Hayes, Emmons, and the others who spent a day in the psilocybin room may one day be seen as pioneers who paved the way for bringing what was once a rare and misunderstood phenomenon to the larger population. Richards and Griffiths certainly hope so.
"It's an honor to be with someone having a transcendent experience," Richards says. "It feels like sitting beside Buddha when he's awakening. It's not a research subject in front of me--you feel that the person is infinitely wiser than you.
"The experiences aren't in the drug," Richards says. "They're in us."
The research team is currently recruiting people with a current or past diagnosis of cancer to take part in psilocybin research, details of which can be found at cancer-insight.org.
By Michael M. Hughes
October 8, 2008 - City Paper