In 2009, when she was 56 years old, Judith Goedeke, a retired acupuncturist living in the middle of Maryland who was suffering from severe depression, took psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, for the first time.
Goedeke was a volunteer subject for a government-approved research study on the effects of psychedelic compounds. Judith followed the advice of the project’s leaders, and brought a keepsake to her sessions, which could last more than eight hours each. The idea was to use a familiar object with sentimental associations (a photograph, heirloom, etc.) to serve as a kind of psychic security blanket. The idea was to direct Goedeke’s focus as she explored the shifting geography of her own consciousness. She brought a statue of Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva, a souvenir that her husband had taken home from a trip to Taiwan. “That’s the goddess of mercy,” Goedeke recalled some 11 years later. “It means a great deal to me.”
Her Guanyin statuette was carved, with great delicacy, from a burl—a bulbous, knotty outgrowth of a tree that typically emerges out of some area of trauma, like an injury or an infection. From the outside, burl wood appears deformed, all grayish scabs of nasty bark. Inside, it reveals colorful lumps and concentric swirls, cresting and falling, burrowed inside one another in seemingly infinite regress. As you ponder a burl’s interior design, you get the distinct impression that nature went nutty with a spirograph. A burl evinces both illness and the response to that illness, the journey from harm to healing. It’s a suitable material, both as homage to a Buddhist goddess of compassion who heeds the anguished cries of the living—and as an allegory for the therapeutic power of psychedelics.
Goedeke’s trip would, not unlike the burl itself, traverse beneath the hard carapace of her isolated suffering and evoke something much bigger, even transformative. The psilocybin sessions would find her fearlessly confronting much of the deeper anguish roiling just beneath the surface of her conscious mind: the sources of her depression, the fallout from a destabilizing kidney cancer diagnosis, the trauma of her childhood abuse. As this trip wore on, she’d find herself bartering with a voice deep inside her, leaving her own body, and seeing herself as a golden thread woven together in a tapestry with a trillion others. Finally, deep in a hallucinatory revel, she saw herself scooping up the sins and miseries of all of human history and laying them, as she relates it, through fitful sobs, “at the feet of the divine.”
The Joseph V. Brady Behavioral Biology Research Building at Johns Hopkins University’s Bayview Campus in east Baltimore is an unlikely site for encounters with a cosmic Over-Soul. It looks like a generic office complex, framed by browning shrubs and signage about where and where not to park. When my taxi driver pulls up to it, just off a stretch of the interstate, we both take a look at a big construction site across the way—a glass-and-faux-stone outcropping so featureless, modern, and nondescript that when I ask him what he expects it will be, he wanly replies, “Could be either houses or restaurants.”
A far wider range of experience awaits within the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, which has administered psilocybin to some 375 volunteers (and counting) since 2000, Judith Goedeke among them. (The center was formally launched as such in the fall of 2019, but the research underlying its work dates back much further.) Here, doctors, scientists, and psychiatric professionals are studying the effects of psychedelics (psilocybin in particular) in treating everything from acute depression to addiction to end-of-life anxiety. It’s the first research center of its kind in the United States. Or rather it’s the first of its kind since the groundbreaking, controversial work of the Harvard Psilocybin Project of the early 1960s, overseen by white-coated psychologists-cum-counterculture icons Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.
In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers led by Dr. Roland Griffiths published a peer-reviewed investigation in the journal Psychopharmacology with the unwieldy title “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” The team’s findings appeared alongside studies that tracked tryptophan depletion and the effects of opiates on rodents, so its principal conclusion made for a striking contrast with the more narrow-gauged empirical inquiries in Psychopharmacology. The Hopkins team recruited 36 volunteers for review in the study. They reported, months after the trips’ acute effects had receded, that these sessions stirred “substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance” in the test subjects. In this context, the study explained, an event of “personal meaning and spiritual significance” ranked among the most profound rites of passage people experience, such as a wedding or the birth of a child.
For many more casual users of psychedelics, this wasn’t exactly a revolutionary finding. These drugs have long been prized, both in clinical and recreational contexts, for their ability to stimulate a sense of openness, happiness, and universal fellow-feeling. But what was important about the 2006 study was that Griffiths and his team proved this benefit of psychedelic usage, scientifically: with double-blinding protocols, peer reviews, exhaustive observations, and the like. Psychedelics were emerging as a respectable treatment for various cognitive and physical disorders—and from this key point of departure, Johns Hopkins commissioned a welter of important follow-up research. Investigators began to explore how psilocybin might help treat various psychiatric ailments long held to be intractable: end-of-life anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, nicotine and opioid addiction. And a related fundraising drive, yielding $17 million, helped formally launch the center itself, not just as a loose assemblage of interested researchers but as a freestanding research facility.
Among the big-ticket donors for the center’s launch was Tim Ferriss, the angel investor, podcaster, bestselling author (of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Chef, among others). Ferriss is a booster of full-blown psychedelic trips and an optimist about the reputed mind-enhancement afforded by microdosing—the common Silicon Valley practice of employing controlled dosages of psychedelics to produce bursts of productivity and creative inspiration in the workplace. Ferriss estimates that he personally kicked in “2-point-something” (as in millions) for the center’s seed funding, while also working to widen the pool of investors, which would eventually come to include WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg and Blake Mycoskie, creator of TOMS shoes, the popular canvas slip-ons. “What the center does is really allows multiyear support,” Ferriss told me, “which then allows multiyear planning, which then allows the sharing of resources…. All of that is made much, much, much easier with a proper center—that designation and the financial support it implies.”
Ferriss, who has been called “the pied piper of psychedelics,” sees the Hopkins center’s research as the equivalent of what Valley investors would call a proof-of-concept demonstration. With more empirical study bolstering the case for the therapeutic use of the drugs, he argues, there will be a corresponding rush of research interest in this onetime countercultural pastime—including federal funding. “I would view it as a moral imperative, an obligation, to investigate these compounds,” he says. “People like Roland … laid the groundwork. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.”
Roland Griffiths generally fits the mental image of a self-possessed, no-nonsense research scientist. He picks his words with great deliberateness. He’s slight and cheerful, with a wide and generous smile that betrays, if only a bit, the bearing of an otherwise serious man. As he sits for an interview, he asks for assurance that I’ll run any direct quotes by him, lest he be misquoted. He had long researched the impact of caffeine on the brain before turning toward psychedelics. He had also begun to take up meditation, which prompted him in turn to become deeply interested in how the practice affected the regular functioning of consciousness—an effect that, he speculated, might be replicated with psychedelics.
“I came in as an interested skeptic,” Griffiths explains. “And frankly I was a bit suspicious that the psychedelic enthusiasts were promoting a potentially false narrative about what the effects of these compounds could be.” He was well aware of the reputational risks involved in taking up this line of inquiry. He knew that psychedelic research was a “third rail issue”: the sort of research that carries a high chance of professional marginalization. (That was certainly the case for Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who both were fired from Harvard for their extramural efforts to introduce LSD into the drug culture of the 1960s.)
Still, with the support of Johns Hopkins, federal approvals, and careful monitoring, the initial psilocybin trials began in 2000. That psychedelics can produce “mystical-type experiences” is fascinating enough. But even that testable hypothesis raises at least two questions: What are “mystical-type experiences,” and what practical value do they confer on people having them? Of course, the literature on mystical experience is vast, and accounts vary widely across history and context. But common traits recur: an initial anxiety followed by a giddiness, the feeling of leaving one’s body, of the ego “dissolving,” the recognition of a deep and meaningful interconnectedness to all things, the intuiting of a grander metaphysical structure to the universe, and a common revelation about the benign alignment of cosmic forces. During her trip, Judith Goedeke came to understand, in a flash, as a self-evident matter of fact, that “love is the defining principle in the world.”
It can all sound very woo-woo. Even typing it out feels vaguely embarrassing. Indeed, the simple act of describing the psychedelic experience has long bedeviled even its most fervent advocates. Author Aldous Huxley, a celebrated champion of psychedelia’s first wave, noted that descriptions of these experiences often dissolve into “twaddle.” William James sought, in his own empirically minded way, to attribute the ineffable character of mystical transport to what he called its “Noetic Quality”: the sense that, even if the subjects of such experiences awaken, as they usually do, to mundane life as they had wearily come to know it, the remembered moment of transport still lingers, and feels meaningfully real. They are, as James wrote, “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.” And that, he theorized, is why such revelations produce dramatic, enduring changes in behavior, emotion, and cognition.
These are also, of course, many of the traditional aims of psychotherapy. Frederick Barrett, a cognitive neuroscientist working at the Hopkins center, notes that, in contrast to traditional psychiatry and psychopharmacology, psychedelic therapy is relatively unobtrusive; it doesn’t rely on endless talking-cure sessions, or a daily regimen of prescription drugs. As we sit in a dark, Spartan office decorated with a framed painting of a mushroom, Barrett lays out the radical therapeutic appeal of psychedelics: “To have such a relatively limited intervention, of one capsule or maybe two capsules over one or two days and then—POOF!—it’s gone.... That’s fascinating.”
But there’s depth, as well as simple efficacy, at the heart of psychedelic interventions. “One of the core features of the so-called mystical experience is this sense of unity, interconnectedness,” Griffiths explains, “that we’re all in this together.” It’s a feeling of “oneness”; what Goedeke experienced as a tapestry of trillions of souls that graciously admitted her own being. The psychedelic experience is in many respects defined by this bond, sometimes referred to as the “gestalt consciousness.”
In the coming therapeutic boom for psychedelics, it’s far from clear how this deeper psychic dividend will survive alongside the mass appeal of a quick-fix microdose boost, or a no-muss, no-fuss tab of acid dropped in lieu of a grueling regime of psychotherapy. Clinical trials, bestselling books, and colossal pharmaceutical investments are revamping the image of psychedelics. Will drugs long stigmatized by a colorful-to-hysterical history of illegal abuse, with their ability to reorder the human personality along more transcendental lines, be a collateral casualty of their newfound respectability? In this respect, the prospects for formalized psychedelic usage continue to refract the broad tensions that greeted the popular emergence of these drugs around the midpoint of the twentieth century.
One of the first things it’s important to grasp when learning about psychedelics is that binaries aren’t especially useful. In the clinical context, psychedelics straddle psychology and neuroscience, materialism and mysticism. It’s a state of in-betweenness that Hopkins researcher Albert Garcia-Romeu calls “paradoxicality.” As he tells me, “The either/or becomes a false dichotomy.” But in parsing the history of psychedelia, there is one distinction that proves, if not hard-and-fast, then certainly very useful. It’s the split between elitism and egalitarianism. And historically, this tension has long compromised our ability to reckon with the broader import of the psychedelic gestalt.
Modern psychedelia has its origins in the laboratory. The Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, first synthesized LSD in 1938, and ingested it five years later. In the 1950s, English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond began experiments in Canada with mescaline, a psychedelic naturally occurring in a group of cactus plants. Shortly thereafter, Osmond was contacted by Aldous Huxley, who was eagerly seeking samples of mescaline. Duly floored by his own experimental use of the drug, Huxley produced two book-length essays, The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), that popularized the use of psychedelics as conduits to mystical experience.
Osmond, Huxley, and a small cadre of other influential figures—including an eccentric engineer, rumrunner, and ex-merchant mariner called “Captain” Al Hubbard, who believed himself to be blessed by not one, but two angels—advocated for psychedelic experimentation as a pursuit reserved for a cognitive elite. Deeper self-understanding should, by rights, be extended to society’s natural leaders: the businesspeople, artists, computer engineers, politicians, and others occupying the highest corridors of power. The elitists had a deep respect for the power of psychedelics, but also believed that such power should be concentrated at the top. Call it trickle-down transcendence.
The ’60s saw the emergence of the egalitarian champions of psychedelics. These popularizers believed that the modes of new perception and spiritual awareness achieved under their influence can and should belong to everyone. Psychedelics have a tendency to produce evangelists—people who come to believe in the drugs as critical engines of spiritual and/or social change. Think of Timothy Leary, pivoting from serious-minded scientific inquiry to psychedelic spokesperson; or clandestine acid chemists like Owsley Stanley mass-producing drugs for music festivals; or cabalistic distribution networks like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love attempting to spur a psychedelic revolution.
Such proselytizers generated mass interest in psychedelics in a more bottom-up, grassroots manner, pursuing some heady brew of vanity, profit, and a genuine belief in the power of these substances to catalyze cultural change. History has not been especially kind to the efforts of egalitarians. The ’60s social panic around psychedelics—ranging from Go Ask Alice–style accounts of nasty and destructive trips to more headline-grabbing horrors like the acid-drenched rampage of the Manson Family—led not only to their illegality, but also to a more generalized leeriness of the harm that can be wrought under their influence. (It’s worth noting that plenty of psychedelic-fueled violence came not at the hands of counterculture cultists, but government institutions like the CIA, which enacted programs of psychedelically incited psychological torture on volunteers, both witting and not.)
Albert Hofmann observed LSD’s adoption by the ’60s counterculture like a parent who’s not so much angry as disappointed. He came to refer to LSD as his “problem child,” decrying its widespread use as a “profanation.” And he wasn’t the only one. Theodore Roszak, an American scholar who coined the word “counterculture,” damningly claimed that the era’s paisley olio of psychedelics, art, and politics was afflicted by a “vacuous yearning.” In line with such assessments, the U.S. government outlawed psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. They fell under Schedule I of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, grouped with hard-core narcotics like heroin, which allegedly posed a great risk of chronic abuse, and had “no currently accepted medical use.”
Now that’s all changing. Far beyond the Hopkins research operation, there’s a broad cultural psychedelics revival underway. Michael Pollan, of Omnivore’s Dilemma fame, has published a bestselling book enumerating their psychic benefits. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire has hailed the promise of magic mushrooms as a “healing modality.” TED Talks have helped spread the psychedelic gospel still further among Tim Ferriss’s Silicon Valley confederates. But the curious thing about the present psychedelic renaissance is that it largely marks a reversion to the social vision of the field’s elitist pioneers. As in Aldous Huxley’s day, the new psychedelic ethos of the twenty-first century is governed by careful observation, deliberated dissemination, and a cautious, even conservative stable of applications for the drug in workplaces and therapeutic settings. Like the knotty wood of Judith Goedeke’s guardian, Guanyin, contemporary psychedelia is as much about healing as covering a wound.
This current renaissance in psychedelics was unpacked at length in Pollan’s 2018 study, How to Change Your Mind. Pollan is well aware of the adverse cultural associations that have dogged the popular use of psychedelics ever since Leary and Alpert’s heyday. One of the aims of How to Change Your Mind, he explains from his home office in Berkeley, was to “rescue psychedelics from the ’60s.”
Pollan describes his own approach to the field as that of “a fearful newbie”—and his book conveys the guarded curiosity that launched his own psychedelic researches, blending history and reportage with colorful diaries of his own guided psychedelic experiences. Pollan says that there’s a “new culture” forming around the use of psychedelics in the twenty-first century. And Pollan—bald and bespectacled, attired not in tie-dye and denim but in bland sweater-and-sport-coat ensembles—is both an architect and an avatar of that new culture. “I’m sure the book has changed the image of psychedelics for quite a few people,” he says, in characteristic understatement.
Ayelet Waldman, the 55-year-old author and mother of four, is another unlikely face of psychedelia’s new culture. A few years back, she found herself totally despondent, locked in a state of what she calls “anhedonic” depressiveness—unable to take pleasure in her work, her children, or her marriage (to the novelist Michael Chabon, incidentally). She came upon a book called The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. Its author, Jim Fadiman, is one of the last living links to the ’60s psychedelic culture. He studied under Richard Alpert at Harvard, and lived down the street from the famed novelist and acid-test impresario Ken Kesey.
“The word renaissance is a little hyped,” says Fadiman. “While research stopped on psychedelics, because of totally political and never any scientific or medical reason, about 28 million people have taken LSD since it became illegal, in the United States alone.” (The actual figure is closer to 30 million.) Fadiman often repeats a simple bromide that refers to the near-constant role that psychedelics have played in blazing new psycho-spiritual frontiers throughout human history: “Mushrooms have never known they were illegal.” In his Guide, Fadiman laid out one of the first regimens of microdosing—taking small amounts of LSD (one-tenth to one-fifth of a normal “hit”) once every three days. The result is not a full-blown psychedelic trip, but a more subtle shift in perception, awareness, and well-being.
Waldman followed the “Fadiman Protocol” and, she says, noticed the effects “instantaneously.” Looking out the window, she saw that her dogwood tree was flowering. In the midst of the sort of depression that drains life of pleasures as modest as the sight of a tree in bloom, Waldman was overcome. “I just had this moment where I thought, ‘Oh look how pretty the dogwood tree is,’” she recalls. “That thought was a revolutionary thought. That thought blew my mind.”
The scientific literature doesn’t yet support the notion that first-time microdosers will encounter a state of near-instantaneous enlightenment the way Waldman did. Hopkins professor Matthew Johnson notes that many who preach the transformative benefits of a regular diet of low-dose psychedelics are “very primed for placebo effects.” He observes further that studies so far haven’t shown that microdosing produces measurable benefits above and beyond the effect of “expectation.” Instead, the typical payoff of microdosing is short-lived, and even somewhat mundane. “This is different than someone having a high-dose session, where someone has this really extraordinary experience,” says Johnson. “The experiences that people are talking about on microdoses are ones where, ‘Yeah I had a little zip in my step today!’”
Still, anecdotal reports of microdosing’s positive effects abound—particularly in somewhat credulous media outlets, which tout the powers of microdosing to make your humdrum daily routine suddenly burst vividly to life. This, indeed, is the central theme of Waldman’s own 2017 book, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. The New York Times reviewer indeed praised her for helping to “normalize” psychedelics. “I remember when I was in college and a friend of mine told me that her boyfriend was on Prozac,” Waldman says. “And my reaction was, ‘Oh my God, he must be seriously mentally ill. You don’t want to get involved. Someone like that could have a psychotic break, be schizophrenic.’ Right? It was this terrifying thing.” Now, by contrast, there’s culturewide acceptance of antidepressants: “Have you met anyone recently who’s not on an SSRI?” Waldman asks. She says that the promise of microdosing “is more akin to what physicians promised with Zoloft.”
Waldman’s comparison to anti-depressants is apt—and timely, to judge by the market forces lining up behind this targeted use of psychedelics. Pharmaceutical companies are already showing serious interest in developing a new line of low-dose psychedelics. Fadiman maintains that microdosing generates greater pharmaceutical interest because it is not “culturally disruptive.” So, unlike the more concentrated doses of psychedelics associated with the Timothy Leary revolution, a microdosing regime will not obstruct the daily functioning of life as it is. “It’s made it to the next step,” he says. “Venture capital is pouring into psychedelics.”
In a video posted to YouTube in January 2020, the Canadian venture capital executive and TV personality Kevin O’Leary, best known as the ornery “Mr. Wonderful” on ABC’s entrepreneurially themed reality show Shark Tank, is sporting a casual sweater, strumming a vintage ’69 Fender Telecaster, and fielding online questions from fans looking to tap into his market-tested business savvy. As he scrolls through his smartphone, one query catches his attention. “Microdosing! LSD! Psilocybin mushrooms!” O’Leary, who describes himself as a “disciplined investor,” exclaims. “I’m not endorsing it, because it’s illegal. But they’re doing it for a reason. They’re not hallucinating. They’re sharper at work.”
O’Leary has put his money where his mouth is: He’s a recent investor in MindMed Inc., a company dedicated to “advancing psychedelic-inspired medicines through clinical trials.” MindMed is one of a few companies attracting serious capital (so far, it’s raised about $24.2 million) to test “neuropharmaceuticals.” It is also, as of March 2020, the first publicly traded psychedelic pharmaceutical company. Unlike the doctors at Johns Hopkins, whose research suggests that guided therapy with high doses of psychedelics can facilitate meaningful changes in patients, neuropharmaceutical operations like MindMed are looking for high-margin returns on the microdosing model. “I don’t think one can say that you can solve everyone’s problems with a single dose of psilocybin,” says MindMed co-founder and co-CEO JR Rahn. “There’s the profound effect of these substances, and they have therapeutic benefit.... But on the other side of the spectrum, can we make medicines out of these substances and not have them necessarily be hallucinogenic?”
From a venture capital standpoint, there’s much to be said for MindMed’s version of the future of psychotropic drug use. After all, a psilocybin pill that someone takes a handful of times to cure what ails them doesn’t possess nearly the profit potential of a daily, FDA-approved prescription medicine. MindMed is also investigating lesser-known psychedelics, like ibogaine, a psychoactive drug that the Bwiti-practicing peoples of Central Africa originally extracted from the roots of the iboga shrub. 18-MC, an ibogaine derivative synthesized in 1996, is believed to possess anti-addictive properties. “We proved in preclinical data that 18-MC is as effective as ibogaine as an anti-addictive molecule,” Rahn, a former Uber employee, boasts. “That’s a really Nobel Prize-worthy discovery.” Rahn also says that research suggests 18-MC may well be non-hallucinogenic.
Such next-generation psychedelic substances completely circumvent the transformative, transcendent experience at the core of the research conducted by the Hopkins center and other leading institutions. As Matthew Johnson puts it, “High-dose psychotherapy [is] about having this transformative experience that one learns from, whereas microdosing psychedelics would be more like taking a psychedelic and then forcing it into a traditional psychiatric medicine model, where you have to keep taking the substance to get a benefit.” In other words: The trip is no longer the treatment; the pill is.
In his classic dystopian novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conjured the futuristic drug Soma, an all-purpose opiate that offered, as he wrote, “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Soma was a kind of neutered psychedelic—a miracle drug that allowed users to escape the miserable conditions of their existence, while also blotting out any urge to question the nature of those conditions. As one character describes it: “A gramme is better than a damn.” For skeptics surveying the present pharmaceutical land rush in low-dose psychedelics, a distinct whiff of Soma hangs in the air.
Jamie Wheal, author and self-styled guru/expert in the field of neurophysiology, is one such skeptic. Wheal and other champions of the traditional psychedelic trip fear that the for-profit model is now poised to compromise, or co-opt, the broader cultural and spiritual promise of today’s psychedelic renaissance. And the evidence for that view of things appears to be mounting. Compass Pathways, a for-profit, high-dose psychedelics medicine firm funded in part by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, recently filed a patent application for a psilocybin compound—a protectionist move that flies in the face of notions of psychedelics serving any sort of egalitarian agenda, or otherwise being “for everyone.”
Compass co-founder Lars Christian Wilde sees this move toward proprietary safeguards and commercialization as necessary, for the sake of protecting research and generating the necessary capital to conduct more ambitious—and market-shaping—studies on the applications of psychedelics. “Our patent strategy is to prevent others from stealing innovation,” Wilde explains, over the phone from Germany. “If we were not protecting our drug product from generics, then the day we come to market, any other drug company could just start selling psilocybin. We don’t believe that would be in the interest of patients.” And Matthew Johnson at Hopkins, ever the pragmatic realist, reminds me: “No medication has ever come to market and remained on market through a nonprofit model.” Drug trials and testing regimes require big money.
Still, the notion of patent-secured plans to market a specific strain of magic mushroom or ibogaine derivative at the behest of a clutch of billionaires seems very far afield from the old psychedelic mantra “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” “Most of the people who are stewards of this experience aren’t prepared for the forces that they’re dealing with,” Wheal says. “I will lay a sad bet on the table that it’s already too late. What we’re going to get is Prozac Nation 2.0.”
Peter Sjöstedt-H, an Anglo-Scandinavian lecturer in philosophy at the University of Exeter, doubles down on Wheal’s wager. His work focuses on the manner in which the psychedelic experience can illuminate philosophical problems, like the relationship between mind and matter. Sjöstedt-H has been described as a “psychedelic Nietzsche”—by, yes, admiring critics—and he has a decidedly Nietzschean disdain for the puffery now swirling around the psychedelic renaissance. “It’s all part of this assimilation of what is potentially revolutionary phenomena into a sort of straitjacket, making it scientifically, medically, respectable,” he says. “I think the experience itself has an intrinsic value, not just instrumental value. It enriches your life. It opens up your mind to many more possibilities, it makes you question what you assumed before. Not just in terms of metaphysics, but ethics and politics and whatnot.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, I’m on a follow-up call with Matt Johnson at Hopkins. He’s describing a ceremonial psilocybin vessel that Hopkins clinicians use in their guided trip sessions, procured in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As he’s speaking, I idly pick up a yellowing hardcover collection of stories and flip, unthinkingly, to the first line of the first story, which reads: “‘Oaxaca’ is pronounced ‘Wahaka.’” This was probably just a freakish coincidence. But learning about psychedelics opened me—someone whose attitude toward stuff like religion, astrology, superstition, etc. ranges from the skeptical to disdainful—to some other possibility. I find myself entertaining the idea that there’s something more going on, some commingling of the known and unknown not immediately available to our senses or our conscious mind. Something other. Something else.
The exploration of this possibility is the cultural and intellectual adventure that makes psychedelics and psychedelia so exciting. It’s also what might be lost as these endlessly exciting compounds become not just normalized but gradually gentrified—sanded of their rougher, weirder edges, and made to fit within the traditional, for-profit model of psychiatric medicine. Even a vacuous yearning, after all, feels preferable to a cure for yearning itself.
Sjöstedt-H doesn’t deny the potential for psychedelic medicine to remedy all manner of maladies. Like any sane moral agent, he doesn’t dismiss another human being’s right to health and wellness. What he laments, as he puts it, is the “assimilation of psychedelics into a standardized, post-Christian, Western-capitalist framework.” The earlier generation of psychedelic experimenters took them in no small part to briefly break out from that framework, and return with new insights that might help expand it. Now it appears all too likely that the microdosing users of next-generation psychedelics will be ingesting them in the service of shoring up and otherwise reinforcing that frame. Instead of opening their minds, they will merely channel their mental energies outward—to alleviate the nagging and intractable mental health disorders that impede their proper functioning in American market society. “The criticism about microdosing,” Jim Fadiman acknowledges, “is that it makes you a better robot.”
Even so, there’s nothing in a true brave new world of prescription, low-dose psychedelics to rule out the flourishing (or reemergence) of a lively psychedelic underground, with a new cohort of cultural revolutionaries cooking acid in abandoned bunkers or growing magic mushrooms in dingy attics. Mushrooms never knew they were illegal—and throughout human history, those who raised and sold them never much cared. Even Compass’s Wilde, who came to the neuropharmaceutical field following a recreational mushroom dose that eased his own seemingly intractable anxiety, notes: “You’ll always have the psychedelic experience. That cannot be manipulated by any Big Pharma entity.”
But something is no doubt changing. The underground egalitarians who propagated the ecstasies and excesses of ’60s psychedelia also lived in direct combat with the authoritarian forces attempting to weed them out—whether the Nixon administration, the local constabulary, or the more elitist psychedelic researchers who worked alongside such forces. Contemporary researchers, by contrast, are compelled by necessity to work with these same authorities, in the pursuit of government approvals and oversight. “They’re Ivory Tower folks,” Wheal says. “They absented themselves from the world as much as they could.”
Hopkins researcher Albert Garcia-Romeu directly invokes this idea of “the Ivory Tower.” But he does so as a mode of institutional self-defense, not to critique any reflex of cultural self-insulation within his community of researchers. He’s acutely aware of the many interlopers and potential bad actors now circling around his research efforts—billionaires, Big Pharma, and business sharks in the Kevin O’Leary mold. He tells me the story of how the U.S. Department of Defense has consulted research on mindfulness and meditation, practices that are historically rooted in philosophies of nonviolence. Psychedelics, with their own tradition of sanctity and subversiveness, face very similar prospects of co-optation at the behest of power. “When you’re in a particular type of cultural system,” he says, “it’s going to try to bend whatever comes up toward its own ends. I see that with the capitalist marketing of psychedelics.”
These researchers strike me as anything but naïve. They are cautious, circumspect, and beholden to a certain orthodoxy that proceeds from their own profound respect for the psychedelic experience. Even the terminally cautious Roland Griffiths opens up when I press him about the future of psychedelics. “These kinds of experiences are hugely consequential with respect to pro-social behavior and basic ethical and moral principles,” he says. “And frankly I can’t think of anything more interesting, and more important, than to understand the bases of that experience, and how to cultivate that experience, for the survival of our species. We’re talking about survival. Whether that occurs with psychedelics is unimportant to me.”