There are lots of medical studies underway at any given time in the medical research mecca that is Baltimore. But two Johns Hopkins psychologists are looking for volunteers for a study that's both unusual and that sounds, at first blush, barely legal: They're recruiting cancer patients who are willing to take the hallucinogen psilocybin in order to have a life-affirming mystical experience.
The researchers, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., and William Richards, Ph.D., have spent the past several years studying the drug's ability to induce, under carefully controlled circumstances, profound spiritual journeys—so profound, in fact, that even more than two years later, subjects describe the drug experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives (their research is on cancer-insight.org).
Medical experimentation with hallucinogens fell out of fashion in the 1960's after reports of serious adverse reactions to LSD. Recently, the U.S. government began to allow the limited manufacture of psilocybin—a Schedule 1 controlled dangerous substance derived from mushrooms—for clinical research purposes.
Because of the stigma that still surrounds experimentation with hallucinogens, Griffiths, 62, and Richards, 68, choose their subjects extremely carefully. Volunteers are thoroughly screened at the Bayview campus research lab to rule out a potential for serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which could be triggered by the drug.
Their results have been published in the prestigious Journal of Psychopharmacology. Still, the researchers say they are having difficulty finding subjects for their current study.
"There's a lot of ignorance and fear out there about psychedelics," says Richards, whose academic specialty is the psychology of religion. "I've come to feel that they really are sacred substances."
Even when some of what is experienced is unpleasant, he says, subjects find the insights extremely gratifying. "It can be like roller-skating through the Louvre," says Richards. "You can't describe each painting, but you know you were in a place of incredible beauty." In similar studies, cancer patients who took psilocybin-like drugs "tended afterwards to live the time they had left more fully," Richards says. "Those who have the mystical experience often say one thing they've learned is that consciousness is indestructible"—in effect, he says, removing their fear of death.