Can psychedelics heal the world?
Some say mind-expanding drugs can change the world. Actually, they already have. Philanthropists, take notice.
reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits, animal welfare, global poverty, psychedelics and whatever else interests me
This is a remarkable moment for psychedelics. Elite universities, including Johns Hopkins and Imperial College in London, have opened centers to research the medical benefits of such drugs as psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in certain mushrooms. The nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) is recruiting people suffering from PTSD to participate in FDA-approved clinical trials using MDMA, better known as molly or ecstasy. CBS News’ 60 Minutes last fall reported on life-changing psychedelic journeys.
So far, the psychedelic renaissance has focused on the potential of these dugs to heal mental illness, and rightly so. A growing body of research suggests that they can alleviate suffering caused by a broad array of ailments: depression, addiction and anxiety, among others. Philanthropy is critical to sustain progress because there’s almost no government money for research and scant interest from private industry.
This story, though, is not about how psychedelics can heal the mind. It’s about how they can heal the world. There is sickness all around us. The threat of climate change. Unconscionable poverty amidst great wealth. Extreme political polarization. These are manifestations of deeper ills: People feel disconnected from one another and from nature.
Serious people — not just hippies, but neuroscientists with PhDs, and their philanthropic supporters — say psychedelics can help address these deeper problems. Drug trips, under controlled conditions, break down the barriers between people and bring users closer to nature.
“These medicines can help us wake up to new levels of caring and concern,” says David Bronner, a philanthropist and the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, the family-owned maker of natural soaps. “It’s crucial to wake up to the miraculous world we’re part of and understand how we can serve and make it better for all of us.”
I was interviewing some of the most sober scientists you can imagine who were working on psychedelics…,In addition to talking to me about the nuts and bolts of their research, they would share this dream that they had. They would tell me, sometimes very explicitly, sometimes less so, that these molecules have the potential to change the world. This was kind of stunning to me….To solve the environmental crisis. To end war. Bring peace. This is not what you expect to hear from scientists who are always very careful about their claims.
These claims are not new. Timothy Leary, a psilocybin researcher at Harvard who became a high priest of the 1960s counterculture, thought of himself as a revolutionary, famously exhorting young people to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Others, including, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, shared the belief that psychedelics could be not just a tool of personal transformation but a tool of social transformation as well. Said Leary: “Stop war. Wear flowers. Conservation. Turning on people to LSD is the precise and only way to keep war from blowing up the whole system.” Leary, at the time, was thought to be a threat to the status quo (although there’s no evidence that Richard Nixon called him the most dangerous man in America, as has been widely reported).
That said, it’s hard to know to what degree, if any, psychedelics contributed to the growth of the environmental, anti-war and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It seems safe to assume that people who dropped LSD or mescaline were more willing than their peers to challenge the institutions, practices and beliefs of what used to be called The Establishment. We can see that psychedelics influenced music, art and fashion; its influence on politics is less clear, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it was no less real.
A LSD trip, for example, helped bring about the release of first picture of the earth from space, at least according to the writer, and entrepreneur Stewart Brand. Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog (and so much more), says he took LSD and thought he saw the curve of the earth from a San Francisco rooftop. He was inspired to print buttons asking, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” which were widely copied and, it seems, led NASA to release an image of the earth that was the precursor to the iconic Blue Marble.
Users of classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin who responded to a large-scale online survey said they became more environmentally aware, according to a report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. “Experience with classic psychedelics uniquely predicted self-reported engagement in pro-environmental behaviors,” wrote Matthias Forstmann, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cologne. “This relationship was statistically explained by people’s degree of self-identification with nature.”
Not everyone agrees that psychedelics can help drive political change. By email, the historian Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties, the definitive book on the era, tells me:
Color me skeptical to the breaking point. The more experimental folks who have revived an interest in psychedelics are already inclined to be nature-lovers & egalitarians. The authoritarians who crush nature and love plutocracy are not the ones who are going to feel at one in the universe. They don’t want to feel at one with the universe. About the ’60s, surely psychedelics heightened alienation from corporate & authoritarian values. Conceivably they heightened the growth of early environmentalism. But arguably they also fueled the knuckle-headed zealotry of the worst wreckers on the left, viz. the Weathermen. The drugs helped many people (I know a few) provide a glide path out of political work altogether. On balance, I would hazard the guess that the negatives were no less influential than the positives.
The new science of psychedelics is no more definitive, if only because it is still so new. Here, though, the evidence seems to point in one direction: A growing number of studies that suggest that these drugs can have a deep, lasting and positive impact on users. A rigorous and influential 2006 study led by Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins found that people who took guided trips on psilocybin in a carefully controlled environment reported experiences of “substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” including a greater sense of altruism and closeness to others. “It is remarkable 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,” Griffin and his colleagues wrote.
An ecological imperative
While the exact mechanisms by which psychedelics work on the brain is not well understood, experienced users say that the drugs break down the power of the ego, which can separate people from one another and from nature. A 2017 study titled Psychedelics, Personality and Political Behavior, also drawn from an anonymous Internet survey, found that “ego dissolution experienced during a participant’s ‘most intense’ psychedelic experience positively predicted liberal political views, openness and nature relatedness, and negatively predicted authoritarian political views.”
Allan Badiner, a writer, environmentalist and longtime board member of the Rainforest Action Network, is among those who say drug trips, along with meditation, sparked his activism.“My experience of the natural world that gave me religion for the rest of my life.”
“Psychedelics need to become an ecological imperative,” declares Badiner, who leads conferences at Esalen about the drugs. “We have precious little time to forge a more realistic and powerful relationship with all forms of life.”
“You do feel that this is a medicine for our moment,” Pollan said at Esalen. “If only we could get Trump to trip.”
Others report that drug trips inspired altruistic behavior. In an essay in the MAPS journal, a Bitcoin millionaire known only as Pine described his experience with ketamine, a legal drug with psychedelic effects, as “a defining moment of my life.” He subsequently decided to give away $56 million, the vast majority of his Bitcoin earnings, to charities, including those serving the extreme poor.
A 2011 study, Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness, finds, as you’d expect from the title, that psilocybin trips brought about “significant increases in openness” among users. Later, in an interview, Matthew Johnson, an author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins, said:
I certainly wouldn’t say that psychedelics are a panacea that is single-handedly going to save the world. But perhaps, if cautiously used under the right circumstances, they could be part of and contribute to an overall greater level of awareness. Ultimately, we’re all completely dependent on each other, we’re on this planet together, trying to figure out how to ultimately survive and thrive, and I think these profound mystical experiences, however they might be occasioned, can perhaps help point us in the right direction.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that psychedelics can help lead us towards a greener, more peaceful world. That raises a new question: Can drugs be prescribed for a culture?
“You do feel that this is a medicine for our moment,” Pollan said at Esalen. “If only we could get Trump to trip.” Putting psilocybin, like flouride, in the water supply would appear to be a nonstarter.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, believe or not, people debated whether to take an elitist or populist approach to democratizing psychedelics, Pollan said. A drug pioneer named Al Hubbard wanted to focus on political and business leaders, according to the psychiatrist and biochemist Abram Hoffer. “Al had a grandiose idea that if he could give the psychedelic experience to the major executives of the Fortune 500 companies, he would change the whole of society," Hoffer said. Leary, by contrast, wanted to see millions of people get high.
A pathway to legalization
Today, by all accounts, interest in psychedelics is exploding. They remain illegal, of course, but law enforcement to date has shown little interest in infiltrating the underground psychedelic economy. Some advocates hope that psilocybin and MDMA will follow a path similar to marijuana —first finding acceptance as medicines, then making their way into the broader culture. Marijuana is now legal in 11 states.
Last May, Denver, which was an early adopter of legal marijuana, voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms; arrests and prosecutions, already rare, would all but end, advocates said. A month later, Oakland’s City Council voted to decriminalize the hallucinogenic fungi. Citizens in Oregon are considering several drug-related ballot initiatives, including one to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy, under regulated conditions — an idea that has caused a split with civil libertarians who want to decriminalize the drug for everyone.
Here, philanthropy has begun to play a constructive role. Dr. Bronner’s made a $150,000 grant to the campaign to permit psilocybin-assisted therapy. The Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group backed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, is considering a campaign to ask voters to decriminalize the possession of all illegal drugs in Oregon. On its website, the Drug Policy Alliance describes psychedelics as “life-changing tools that can help people lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.”
To be sure, virtually all the advocates recognize that these drugs have risks. Indeed, some psychedelic researchers worry that the Oregon measure “goes too far too fast, and threatens to create a cultural and regulatory backlash against all the progress they are making, much like occurred in the 60’s,” as David Bronner writes in this thoughtful blogpost. But he goes on to argue that the benefits of decriminalization outweigh the risks.
Rick Doblin, the founder and longtime executive director of MAPS, has spent nearly 35 years arguing for the benefits of psychedelics. He wants to “legitimize psychedelics not just for patients but for all of us who are struggling with a world on fire, to try to make it so we don’t destroy the place. The tactic, you could say, is medicalize it. But that’s not the end goal.”