“The results were quite impressive, particularly in some of those categories that are very resistant to treatment, such as heroin addiction,” recalls Grof, who is now 76. “It could also frequently relieve pain, even pain that didn’t respond to narcotics. I found the studies with cancer patients to be the most moving, to see how their attitudes toward death changed.”
During the 1950s and early ’60s, research in Canada by psychiatrists Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond using mescaline and LSD on patients with severe alcohol addictions became the stuff of legend. “Alcoholics Anonymous believed many alcoholics don’t do well until they become deeply motivated by ‘hitting bottom,’” says Hoffer, who at 90 still sees patients. “We thought we could use a whip to frighten alcoholics and drive them away from a desire to drink by giving them a bad trip. After giving it to five patients, we realized that instead of hitting bottom, they were having a beneficial, pleasurable experience. It opened their minds, they developed some insights, and they began to see things they never had seen before,” which made them more receptive to psychotherapy.
This prompted Osmond to coin the term psychedelic (from the Greek, meaning “mind manifesting”) to describe the drugs’ capacity for mental enrichment. When combined with talk therapy, just one or two daylong LSD sessions blunted the desire to drink, even in alcoholics written off as hopeless. Psychedelics became part of treatment in Saskatchewan’s five treatment centers and were administered in 100- to 800-microgram doses—many times the strength of a street dose and potent enough to conjure up visions. In follow-ups two and three years later, researchers found that more than half the patients—and, in some instances, up to 90 percent—remained sober, according to Erika Dyck, a medical historian at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and author of an upcoming book on psychedelic psychiatry. Many patients said the sessions saved their lives.
But these potent potions soon became a symbol of the dark side of the ’60s counterculture. Unhinged people on bad acid trips who had taken bootleg or adulterated street drugs began showing up in emergency rooms in the throes of severe panic attacks or psychotic breakdowns. Psychedelics, and LSD in particular, were held responsible for suicides, permanent brain damage, and cult thrill killings. In response to the hysteria, Sandoz stopped supplying researchers with LSD in 1965; a year later the drug was outlawed in the United States, and by 1972 legitimate scientific research had ground to a halt.
Lack of scientific standards in many of the early studies compounded the problem. Often the reports were based on anecdotal evidence, or the studies failed to give any participants dummy pills as a basis for comparison. Nor were the tests blinded. In a blinded test, researchers don’t know whether they are giving patients the drug being tested or fake medicine. That is an important control; otherwise, personal biases and expectations can muddy test results.
At the time, though, Charles Grob thought the setbacks were only temporary. After hearing a lecture by Grof in the 1970s about his studies with the terminally ill, he decided that pursuing this line of research was what he wanted to do with his life. “His research was inspiring,” Grob recalls. “The hospice movement hadn’t occurred yet, and these patients were often pushed off into a corner of a sterile hospital. But when I told my father, he said no one would listen to me unless I had credentials.”
Grob headed back to college, earned his medical degree in 1979, and, after completing a child psychiatry fellowship, began teaching at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1984. “Almost overnight, the field had gone into deep hibernation,” he recalls. Still, he never gave up on the drugs’ tantalizing potential. When UCLA wooed him away from the University of California at Irvine in 1993, where he was teaching and practicing after leaving Johns Hopkins, he told his future boss about his secret passion. “I hope I’m not too crazy for you,” Grob told him.
The research climate was changing once again. In 1990 Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, got federal clearance to do the first psychedelic studies on humans in nearly two decades. Several factors helped pry open the regulatory doors, Strassman says. The countercultural excesses were a dim memory, a new regime at the FDA was more open, the little-known psychedelic he proposed to test—DMT—didn’t have the baggage of LSD, and he was persistent. “It took two years,” Strassman says. “They never said no, so I thought until they did, I would continue working on getting approval.”
Over the next five years, he injected 65 healthy adult volunteers with DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a powerful hallucinogen derived from plants that induces a trancelike state. Many of the subjects, all of whom had taken psychedelics before, reported having out-of-body and near-death experiences and felt the sessions were among the most intense episodes of their lives.
Not long after, Grob witnessed the salutary effects of psychedelics when he was invited by a colleague to do a privately funded investigation of the emotional health of people who regularly ingested these substances as part of their religion. In the summer of 1993, he traveled to Manaus, Brazil, a major port city in the Amazon rain forest, to study members of the Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV) church. Founded in Brazil in 1961, the 8,000-member religion mixes traditional Christianity with indigenous beliefs. Central to the UDV rituals is drinking ayahuasca, a tea brewed from two plants that grow in the Amazon basin. One contains DMT; the other contains an alkaloid that prevents DMT from being degraded in the stomach. Grob did a psychiatric and neuropsychological inventory comparing 15 long-term users of ayahuasca with 15 matched controls and found the church members were physiologically and psychologically healthier. They were more cheerful, confident, relaxed, even-tempered, and orderly and scored better on memory and concentration tests—and there was no evidence of deterioration of their personalities or their mental acuity.
So much emotion is tied up with this research that it often gets in the way of critically analyzing the risks.
When Grob quizzed them about their personal lives, many UDV members described themselves as angry, impulsive reprobates hell-bent on self-destruction before they entered the church. Some had unsavory histories of violence and spousal abuse and were severely alcoholic or addicted to drugs. “I was amazed because these were responsible, high-functioning pillars of the community,” Grob recalls. “They all unequivocally credited ayahuasca, when taken in the controlled setting of the church, as the catalyst for their evolution into upstanding citizens.”
Emboldened by Strassman’s success, Grob applied to the FDA for permission to test MDMA on dying cancer patients. The agency insisted that safety studies be completed first on 18 healthy volunteers to ensure that the drug didn’t trigger damaging side effects. In 1994 he administered the first dose of MDMA to a test subject. But after completing the pilot study, he abandoned the drug in favor of the less controversial psilocybin. After Grob made the switch, the FDA gave him the go-ahead, and he recruited his first terminal cancer patient in 2004.
But the real turning point was a 2006 Johns Hopkins study using psilocybin in 36 healthy adults who were spiritually inclined but had never done psychedelics. They all received both psilocybin and an amphetamine-like compound (Ritalin), which has some psychoactive effects, such as increasing heart rate and increasing concentration. Some received psilocybin first; others received Ritalin first. In follow-up interviews two months later, four out of five said that the psilocybin experience had improved their well-being and satisfaction with life, about 70 percent rated the experience as among the most spiritually significant events of their lives, and nearly 70 percent called it one of the most personally meaningful events, comparable to the birth of a first child or the death of a parent. These beneficial effects persisted more than a year, when the volunteers were interviewed again.