Standing outside the Harvard Crimson building a few Saturdays ago, a dozen people — white, professional types, some in their 20s, others with gray hair — listened to a story about a young Harvard undergraduate who was blackmailed into snitching on a professor who had given him psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” as part of a series of wildly unorthodox experiments.
When asked whether he’d taken the drugs, the student told his dean, “Yes sir, I did. And it was the most educational experience I’ve had at Harvard.”
The audience laughed knowingly. The story was more than five decades old, but as relevant as ever to those in attendance, members of a new movement that advocates psilocybin use as potentially transformative. They’d come to hear journalist Don Lattin, author of the 2010 book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” speak about legendary psychedelics researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) and their collaborators.
In recent years, Americans have dramatically changed their views on substances once bundled together under the word “drugs.” The public image of prescription opioids — legal pharmaceuticals widely prescribed to address chronic pain — has suffered as those drugs have been implicated in a massive public health crisis. In contrast, the historic taboo against marijuana has quickly melted away. After six decades of illegality and demonization, voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized pot in 2012; eight states, including Massachusetts, followed. Now 20 percent of the US population enjoys access to some form of legalized marijuana.
Was the shift in marijuana policy a one-off, or does it herald a larger trend? For a nascent movement of activists working to reframe psilocybin as both a medicine and as a tool for personal or spiritual growth, the fluidity of public attitudes creates an opportunity. They think researchers and policy makers should be able to discuss, in a dispassionate way, the medical or recreational use of hallucinogenic drugs — a subject that not long ago was unthinkable.
The Boston Entheogenic Network (BEN), which organized Lattin’s tour as part of a weekend of educational activities, formed last year as a way to bring interested New Englanders together. Instead of the more familiar, more polarizing adjective “psychedelic,” BEN uses the term “entheogenic” — meaning “generating the divine within” — to describe multiple methods of achieving altered states of consciousness. The group defines the category broadly, to include special breathing techniques and immersion in nature as well as drugs.
The organization, which has about 600 members in its Facebook group, emphasizes that it doesn’t facilitate illegal activity but does offer members a place to talk about experiences that in some cases involve drug use. “A lot of people have these experiences but have no way to process them or anybody else to process them with,” said Nathaniel Putnam, a social worker who is one of BEN’s cofounders. “There’s a lot of stigma around these types of experiences.”
One member, a 41-year-old entrepreneur with a wife and two kids, who asked not to be named for obvious reasons, said he joined BEN after an astonishing experience two years ago with MDMA — the psychedelic drug known colloquially as ecstasy or molly. He’d suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his childhood, and a friend urged him to give the drug a try.
“I said ‘You’re crazy. I don’t do drugs,’” he said.
Eventually, though, he agreed to take MDMA with the experienced friend, in a peaceful outdoor setting. He immediately sensed that the drug could be a tool for healing his psychological wounds. So he found an underground MDMA therapist. A couple of sessions later, he said, his hypervigilance is gone and he no longer meets the standards for complex PTSD.
Beyond the curative powers he attributes to the drug, the man said he believes psychedelics have potential for improving human relationships. He and his wife have begun taking MDMA together every few months. He said the experience allows them to talk with each other in a fully empathetic, nonjudgmental way.
“Our marriage was fine before MDMA,” he said. “Now it’s [expletive] phenomenal.”
He’s impressed enough, he says, that he’s considering becoming an MDMA therapist himself.
At first glance, psychedelics — which remain illegal under federal law — might not seem well positioned for mainstream acceptance. As of 2015, only 15 percent of Americans over age 12 had tried a hallucinogenic drug, compared with 44 percent for marijuana and 81 percent for alcohol, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
When the Justice Department chose not to intervene after Colorado and Washington voters legalized marijuana at the state level, there was clear public support for looking the other way. Not so for psychedelics. A 2016 Vox/Morning Consult poll found that while 59 percent of Americans support decriminalizing weed, only around 20 percent feel the same way about psilocybin or LSD.
And yet, proof of medical usefulness was the first step toward marijuana’s legalization. Could it be the same for hallucinogens?
In fact, medical applications for psilocybin abound. Recent studies have found that MDMA seems to be a remarkably useful tool in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, when combined with psychotherapy. In August, the FDA designated the drug as a “breakthrough therapy,” meaning that it may have substantial advantages over existing PTSD treatments; the FDA will facilitate further tests with the goal of certifying it for clinical use. Other studies suggest psilocybin has promise as a treatment for anxiety and depression in people with terminal illnesses. Some researchers are also looking at psychedelics as possible treatments for alcoholism and opioid addiction.
Meanwhile, “microdosing” — the regular use of tiny amounts of LSD or other psychedelics not to hallucinate but to improve creativity and mood — has become a Silicon Valley trend, popularized by Ayelet Waldman’s recent book “A Really Good Day.” And now, some advocates through a 2020 ballot measure in Oregon are trying to make that state the first to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use.
Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has facilitated much of the promising research on the therapeutic use of MDMA, has been working with others in the psychedelics research world on clinical use of the drugs. He’s tried for decades to replicate and follow up on Leary and Alpert’s work and uncovered sloppy science. At a panel discussion that was part of BEN’s weekend of activities, Doblin said that Leary and his collaborators seem to have fudged their evidence to suggest that administering psilocybin to inmates at the state prison in Concord reduced their recidivism rates.
In 1991, when Doblin followed up with participants from the famous 1962 “Good Friday experiment,” in which one of Leary’s graduate students administered psilocybin to divinity students at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, he found that most of the men who received the drug still considered the experience to have been a profound event in their lives. But he also found that the researchers had greatly downplayed the negative side of participants’ experiences, including completely omitting the fact that one participant ran wildly out of the chapel and had to be tranquilized.
Most psychedelic advocates today acknowledge the potential dangers of the drugs, which generally cause less harm than alcohol, medical experts say, but are far from risk-free. To turn psychedelics into useful tools, Doblin said, advocates need to avoid Leary’s “one dose, you’re enlightened” rhetoric and instead focus on ways to make sure anyone using the drugs is given a chance to process the experience and work through any negative fallout.
“The key is integrating into society,” he said, “to avoid cultural backlash by becoming mainstream, not counterculture.”
TO SOME advocates, though, marijuana’s path to legalization isn’t an ideal model. Wendy Chapkis, a University of Southern Maine sociologist, studied a non-profit California patient-caregiver weed-growing collective. She said the collective’s value for its members, including many people who were dealing with terminal illness, lay partly in working together to grow and package the drug while relying on each other for mutual support. Commercialization of the marijuana industry, she suggested, is moving away from that kind of experience.
“I urge all of us in the psychedelic legalization movement to put community front and center,” she said.
Chapkis also noted that the most visible leaders of the movement today — just like back in the 1960s — are almost all privileged white men. That skews the movement’s methods, she said. For example, white psychedelic enthusiasts’ use of traditional medicines like peyote or ayahuasca can remove the drugs from their cultural and religious context, sometimes to the dismay of people who have passed these rituals down through their families for generations.
“We need to make sure we’re not replicating conditions of colonial dominance,” Chapkis said.
Similarly, when it comes to marijuana, black and Latino people, who have suffered disproportionately from criminalization, have largely been left out of the legal weed business.
Doblin’s main goal is to see MDMA, psilocybin, and similar drugs legalized for use in organized clinics, not for people to take home and play with on their own, as with marijuana. Jack Watson, president of the Northeastern University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which hosted the BEN panel discussion, said one of his organization’s goals is to legalize and regulate all drugs, even dangerous ones like heroin; the result, he argues, would be clearly labeled products, rather than street drugs which can contain lethal additives like fentanyl.
In some ways, Leary and Alpert’s early psychedelic experiments polarized the movement that followed. Both saw their first psilocybin trips as deeply religious experiences and swiftly began proselytizing for psychedelics as a way to expand human consciousness and transform the world. But within a few years Alpert abandoned drugs in favor of a spiritual path to a state of enlightenment that drugs had only hinted at. Meanwhile, Leary’s evangelism for widespread, indiscriminate use of the drugs ran afoul of media and parents who blamed him for episodes of mental illness, and even suicides, among young people using psychedelics.
Advocates for psychedelics have come a long way from Leary’s indiscriminate call for young people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” but many still believe these drugs could change the world. BEN cofounder Leia Friedman, a clinician and adjunct psychology professor at Lasell College in Newton, said she sees two different approaches to psychedelics emerging. One views the drugs as a tool for individuals who want to be healthier, happier, and more productive in the world as it is. The other sees drugs as a pathway to a better world, informed by diverse spiritual traditions and a respect for human life. And she said that, even if people take the drugs with the first mindset, she believes the “humbling” and “empathetic” nature of the psychedelic drug experience will shift them toward a more holistic way of thinking.
“When more people start expanding their consciousness, I think it will bring people to a place they wouldn’t otherwise be,” she said.
During the long national backlash to figures such as Timothy Leary, Americans may have been skeptical of efforts to cast psychedelic drugs in cosmic terms. But as the marijuana debate shows, attitude shifts that barely seemed possible can sometimes become inevitable.
Livia Gershon is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @liviagershon.