NOTE: Psychedelics are extremely powerful compounds, and should only be used in professionally-supervised and legal settings.
This essay outlines information I wish I’d known earlier about psychedelics and the impact these compounds can have on humanity. It is written particularly for people who are skeptical about these compounds (psilocybin, MDMA, LSD).
One year ago, I thought psychedelics were only of use to hippies and Burning Man attendees. I’m a conservative person who owns many more Brooks Brothers button-downs than tie-dye shirts. But today, I am convinced that the encouragement of medically-guided psychedelic usage should be an important public policy priority for the United States.
Because of the stigmatization around psychedelics, studies coming out of research institutions such as MAPS, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Harvard, and UCSF (and private companies like Atai and Compass Pathways) haven’t received the attention they should.
Participants in these studies report remarkably consistent experiences: a sense of awe, a feeling of connectedness with the world, and an event that “produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior.” What could be more important in today’s world?
Reflecting the general optimism of these researchers, a leading Johns Hopkins neuroscientist recently said “This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial.”
I’m writing this because the research has profound implications for society, and I think there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about these compounds. It is important for more accurate and up-to-date information to get out and be discussed among lawmakers, investors, educators and business leaders.
Below is the information that opened my mind on psychedelics:
- Why Psychedelics Matter
- My Story
- Recent Research
- What Do Research Participants Experience on Psychedelics?
- Are Psychedelics Dangerous?
- How Are Psychedelics Different Than Other Drugs?
- Why Are Psychedelics So Stigmatized?
- What Has the FDA Said About Psychedelics?
- Is More Research on Psychedelics Needed Before Legalization?
- Time to Wake Up?
Why Psychedelics Matter
Many of the major issues America faces (domestic violence, social injustice, school shootings) originate in our brains and perspective. And our brains are in crisis:
- Antidepressants are the most prescribed drug in America.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children and teens.
- 88% of Americans think our country is on the wrong track (a record).
- Faith in nearly every societal institution is plummeting,
These trends will only be solved on the individual brain level, because reality is nothing more than what our brains perceive.
If there were a non-harmful treatment that caused a life-defining, self-actualizing experience for nearly everyone who takes it, shouldn’t leaders pay urgent attention?
And it’s not just for “sick” people. Consider:
- Are you and your friends doing the most fearless and valuable work possible?
- Do you see people around you who are engaged in actions or careers to please their parents or society instead of to fulfill their passions?
- Do you or your friends feel resentment, anxiety and unhappiness?
- Do you or your children struggle with questions of meaning or mental health issues that aren’t cured by the existing system?
- Do you feel ominous about the future?
- Do you fear division and resentment threatens to tear the fabric of society apart?
Many of these issues can be traced to perception and the brain. A lot can be gained if society can address the root causes of these questions. This happens by enabling individuals to examine their broader perspective and perception.
In early 2021, the market for the startup I’ve devoted my life to (which sells wedding dresses) froze, forcing tough decisions and layoffs. I run the startup with my wife who I met at business school, and our marriage was under similar stress.
In the midst of these challenges, my mother (my best friend and hero) visited the doctor after feeling a stomach ache on a hike. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 13 days later – the worst possible event I could imagine in life.
During this time, I was encouraged by a Harvard-trained scientist to try psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in the same way it is conducted in the Johns Hopkins studies: 3.5 grams, listening to music, sitting in bed, meditating.
I had never considered taking psychedelics. The drugs had a big stigma in my mind. But given the challenging circumstances in my life, I tried the substance in a legal, supervised setting.
It was the single most meaningful experience of my life – personally, professionally, and spiritually.
I saw the thousands of people my mom had impacted in her life, and how she changed them and their lives. This image is now inseparable from other memories of my mother, and as real to me as anything in my life.
The four hours on psilocybin reframed major moments in my life in a cohesive, beautiful way. It hard-wired ideas about marriage, family, management, and citizenship – and how these are all connected.
I thought how fragile the world was and how little I myself, and I expect others, know what they are doing. I thought about what the impact would be if every student at Harvard Business School took psilocybin and thought about their career choices. Would the school continue to funnel graduates to established companies in traditional industries that are seen as part of the problem – leading to significant rates of depression for graduates? Or would students be encouraged to take bolder steps and fulfill the school’s mission to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world?”
Since my experience, I’ve spoken to a range of people who have taken a high dose of psilocybin: billionaires, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, Republicans, Democrats, doctors, anti-poverty activists, and social justice adovcates.
They all agreed their experience was one of the most impactful and positive experiences of their lives, because it reframed their lives’ purpose in an enduring way. Self-actualizing, self-empowering experiences. Their experience with mushrooms directly led them to quit a job, start a billion-dollar company, end an abusive marriage, or reconcile with a parent.
I decided to study these compounds more, and the academic research and history of psychedelics shocked me.
What Do Recent Research Findings on Psychedelic Compounds (psilocybin, LSD, MDMA) Show?
Neuroscientists studying psychedelics have claimed their use led to some of the most positive findings of their careers, and have produced an increasing number of notable studies:
- A 2016 NYU study found that “cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months.” The study’s lead, Dr. Stephen Ross, said “The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
- A 2016 John Hopkins study showed that “67% of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life… similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.”
- A recent study from the Imperial College, London, showed psilocybin was “as effective” as antidepressants (again, the most widely prescribed drug in America), for the reduction in depression. And, it occurred “more quickly in the psilocybin group … and, greater in magnitude.”
- This month, a UCSF study showed a group with severe PTSD who “received MDMA during therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms compared with those who received therapy.” Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins said: “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”
For a more in-depth overview of psychedelic research, click here.
What Do Research Participants Experience On Psychedelics?
The takeaway from the existing psychedelic research is that among people dealing with life’s most existential challenges (imminent death, PTSD), the psychedelic experience put them face-to-face with their greatest fears and resulted in life-changing insights and takeaways:
- Scott Ostrom, a participant in the UCSF study who faced crippling PTSD from his time in Iraq said the experience “stimulated my own consciousness’s ability for self-healing… You understand why it’s OK to experience unconditional love for yourself.”
- Nathan McGee, who suffered childhood trauma and also participated in the UCSF study, said: “This allowed me to accept myself and recognize who I am. It’s made me really understand what the feeling of joy is.”
- Reviewing research from Johns Hopkins, New Yorker reporter Michael Pollan noted the patients “don’t regard these narratives as ‘just a dream’… [but had] the unmistakable sense that whatever has been learned or witnessed has the authority and the durability of objective truth.” In other words, this was not a “drug experience.”
Whereas antidepressants help numb and manage the symptoms of depression, psychedelics helped these patients confront and address the root cause of what was holding their lives back.
The next question is what would happen to society if more people engaged in medically-supervised psilocybin therapy.
Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, a Professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, concluded: “We are all terminal. We’re all dealing with death. This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”
Are Psychedelics Dangerous?
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of world leaders from the Americas and Europe, recently ranked the harm of the 20 most well known drugs based on factors such as health damage, loss of relationships, crime and injury, and community costs.
Alcohol, Heroin, and crack cocaine ranked as the most dangerous drugs.
MDMA, LSD, and mushrooms (the three main psychedelic compounds) ranked as the least harmful.
How are Psychedelics Different from Other Drugs?
In June 2021, the Police Officer’s Union in California came out against a state bill that would legalize psychedelics. The statement read as if psilocybin was crack cocaine, arguing legalization of magic mushrooms would lead to more drug dealing, addiction and crime.
This trend of looping all “drugs” together is common – and unfounded. It is also tragic given the context of how much these treatments can help people – particularly the people experiencing the most suffering around us. The research so far has been conducted on terminally ill patients (NYU), child abuse victims (UCSF), and those with treatment-resistant depression (Imperial College London).
It is not accurate to loop psychedelics with other “drugs.” For starters, psychedelic compounds aren’t addictive and do not impact dopamine receptors. Typical drugs from alcohol to heroin to sugar release a dopamine rush, which can lead to addictive behavior.
It also isn’t accurate to say psychedelics “distort” your perception. In fact, the compounds bind to serotonin receptors in the brain and take your brain to a different wavelength (that is no less real). In fact, imaging research from the Imperial College London indicated the brain on psychedelics “resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained.”
Why Are Psychedelics So Stigmatized?
If psychedelics are safe, how did they become so stigmatized?
One answer: Nixon.
When psychedelic compounds entered America in the 1950’s, leading psychologists at Harvard thought it was one of the most promising developments in the history of psychology. The U.S. Government subsidized hundreds of experiments.
As Michael Pollan notes in his book How to Change Your Mind, President Nixon and the Vietnam-era generals bemoaned the fact that psychedelic drugs were making too many Americans think for themselves – which would hurt the ability to draft willing soldiers for the Vietnam war in the late 1960’s. He labeled Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist studying psychedelics, “the most dangerous man in America.” In 1970, President Nixon introduced a ban on all use and research on psychedelics. President Nixon also directed a PR effort to associate psychedelics with hippies and bad behavior, stigmas that still exist to this day.
What Has the FDA Said About Psychedelics?
After a freeze on research following President Nixon’s ban, the FDA has recently note of the positive psychedelic research. In recent years, the agency has issued Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MAPS for the study of MDMA on PTSD and Compass Pathways for the study of psilocybin on depression.
According to the FDA:
A breakthrough therapy designation is for a drug that treats a serious or life-threatening condition and preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement on a clinically significant endpoint(s) over available therapies.
Is More Research on Psychedelics Needed Before Legalization?
Opponents of psychedelic legalization also claim we need more time “to research psychedelic substances in greater depth.”
Let’s not forget: psilocybin and LSD have been studied over a span of 70 years.
Since LSD’s discovery in 1951 and Nixon’s banning of psychedelic compounds in the 1970’s, “40,000 patients were prescribed LSD therapy… research into the potential therapeutic effects of LSD and other hallucinogens had produced over 1,000 scientific papers and six international conferences.” These studies showed the psychedelic could have positive outcomes on mental health and treating alcoholism. In fact, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) credited LSD with spurring his recovery – and argued for the compound to be a part of the AA program.
Time to Wake Up?
Before he died, Steve Jobs bravely spoke about his experience with psychedelics being “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” He wasn’t joking, and his experience wasn’t unique.
If psychedelics are safe, and research from Johns Hopkins is validating that they produce life-changing experiences routinely, we should be having a more urgent national conversation about fast-tracking legalization.
COVID-19 was a crisis that we marshalled resources for, and approved a vaccine for, within a year of the outbreak.
We have a similar crisis occurring in our brains. And it is time to take psychedelic research very seriously.
If you have questions or comments, you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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